Archive for July, 2012

The iron laws of blogging

I am bound, by the iron laws of blogging, to link to my piece at the New Statesman about Tory education lies.


Please note that the Liberal Conspiracy edit-down of this is rubbish. So there, Sunny.

Categories: General Politics

Summer reading

July 23, 2012 4 comments

Not going to be blogging much for a bit, so here’s what I’m thinking of reading this summer instead.  No reason you should be interested, but any ‘absolute must’ recommendations, esp. on liberation theology (other than Freire), are welcome:

First time reading

Lenin, The State and Revolution

Edmund Burke, Reflection of the Revolution in France

Finishing off

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism

Paul Sanderson, Socialism with a Northern Accent

Ken Coates, The Crisis of British Socialism

Rawls, Justice as Fairness

Re-reading to remind myself of the good bits

Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda

Charles Taylor et al. Multiculturalism and the politics of recognition

Heinrich Kleist, The Marquise of O

Re-reading and trying to understand properly this time

Franz Kafka, the three big novels

Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Jean Baudrillard, The intelligence of evil or The Lucidity Pact

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition





Categories: General Politics

Finally, Labour edges towards a sensible position on Europe

Finally, finally, it looks as though the Labour leadership is edging towards a coherent position on the European Union. 

Denis MacShane, presmuably with the go-ahead from Miliband, has a piece up at Comment is Free, setting out how Miliband might use his visit to Hollande this week to set out a substantive Labour position quite distinct from Cameron’s silly rhetoric:

Labour should fashion its own R&R policy – reform of the EU institutions and rebalancing of European economics in favour of growth, jobs and a focus on salaries and wages, not rentier income. Right now all the focus is on the eurozone crisis and the need for less austerity and more growth. But the EU institutions – a 27-strong commission that is far too big, a European parliament disconnected from national parliaments, and three EU presidents (commission, council and parliament) and a high representative – need substantial slimming down and refocusing to make them fit for purpose.

 A centre-left R&R (reform and rebalancing) project for Europe should be developed to counter Cameron’s dangerous and isolationist repatriation and referendum politics. Winning Hollande’s engagement for a serious examination of reforming the EU, together with rebalancing Euronomics, would show Miliband setting the agenda on this important policy area.

I disagree with Denis’s view that Labour should entirely rule out a referendum, as to do so is (as with Cameron) to throw away an important bargaining chip.  It might well be counter-productive to leave the EU now, but if the plans now being drawn up by Herman van Rompuy  (the outlines passed without fuss at the recent Council summit) for the further entrenchment of neoliberalism in the EU go through as I fear they might, exit may become a much more valid socialist response.

I  also disagree with Denis on which bits of the EU instituitions need ‘slimming down'; I’d slim down the member states’ Council back to its pre-Lisbon size, in favour of a European Parliament with real powers and a real connection to national political parties (not parliaments), while Denis’s wording about the European Parliament’s’ disconnect’ suggests he wants the reverse.

Nevertheless, the general direction set out by Denis is good, especially if it’s followed through upon –  most notably with a well-developed 2014 European election manifesto, presaged by localised publicity around the Labour candidate selection process (which I understand will start in January 2013).

Of course, I’ve been talking up a joint Miliband-Hollande ‘project’ for months now, and I said much the same as Denis is now saying, but back in May:

Labour needs to be bold on Europe, and go much further, much sooner, than the first tentative steps it has taken in the right direction. It needs to see itself as a pro-active force on Europe, aggressively differentiating its own pro-activity from the reactionary little-Englander nonsenses of the Tories.

Labour (and the commentators who support it) need to stop worrying that an EU referendum will ‘define’ Labour’s first parliamentary term (assumed to be in some way for the worse), and instead be confident that it will be seen by voters as an integral part of strong Labour party project.

Labour needs to enunciate clearly that Europe is not currently working for working class people, because its institutions have been captured by the Right, and it needs to have a clear plan for their recapture by the Left. This is not an anti-Europe stance. This is an anti-rightwing Europe stance.

Labour needs to be clear on what it means by European democracy, and it needs to put in place the right people to make European democracy work.

It’s good to see Labour finally catching up, but it’d all be a lot easier if I was in charge of Labour policy on Europe in the first place…..


Categories: Labour Party News

Is Stephen Twigg’s favourite Military Academy being liberal with the truth?

At the weekend I wrote a long post setting out how military schools might not bring the benefits that the Labour hierarchy is claims they will bring.  

As part of the post, I fact-checked (somewhat sarcastically) Stephen Twigg/Jim Murphy’s claim that Duke of York Military Academy in Dover is a shining example of what military schools might provide in the way of academic achievement.

I noted:

that the most commonly used measure of GCSE national averages is the percentage of pupils gaining five [or more] A*-C grades (incl. English and Maths), that the current national average for this is 59%, and that 118% of Duke of York School students therefore achieve five A*-Cs.

Impressive certainly. Also mathematically impossible.

I had assumed it was an error from Twigg/Murphy themselves – hence the sarcasm – but  after a bit of digging I discovered that the claim about the School’s GCSE success comes directly from page 4 of the Duke of York Military Academy’s (DOYMA’s) own prospectus:

Our GCSE provision is comprehensive and our success rate is consistently twice that of the national average at GCSE (A*- C including Maths and English).

The terminology in the prospectus is very close to that used in the Department for Education tables, which provides the national average and the results for each school for the last four years.   The national average for 2011 is, as noted, 59% for “% achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs (or equivalent) including English and maths GCSEs”, and I can see no other national average with which DOYMA’s results might reasonably be compared. 

Hence, I just cannot see how the claim to have “consistently twice that of the national average” can be true, at least as of 2012.   Even in 2008, when the national average was 47.6%, doubling it would have required 95.2% of DOY students to attain more than 5 GCSE A*-C grades, when in fact their 2011 results indicate that 91% did so*. 

This is all very odd.  Perhaps oddest is the fact that the prospectus could simply have noted its 91% achievement figure in 2011 –  is impressive in its own terms** – and allow prospective parents and students to make their own comparisons.  In contrast, the “consistently twice that of the national average” wording appears deliberately designed to disparage the results of other schools, invalidly as far as I can see.

If it turned out that DOYMA’s prospectus does turn out to contain a liberal interpretation of its comparative academic achievements, that would not in itself invalidate Twigg’s and Murphy’s central claim that military schools are good for young people.  Nor should it be taken as a reason to denigrate the efforts of all the students at DOYMA, who no doubt deserve every success they get.

It would, however, reflect somewhat badly both on the Academy and upon two Shadow Ministers’ fact-checking processes.

 *There are no DOYMA figures for the three years before 2011 in the tables, probably because its Academy status is new, so it is impossible to be certain, but if it did turn out that the school had achieved 95.4+%, and then slipped to 91% in 2011, other questions might validly be asked about the school’s success in moving to Academy status)

** As I noted in my original  piece, DOYMA’s results were achieved with 0% students on Free School Meals (the common proxy for being from a poor family) and 0% with special educational needs (national averages 15.9% and 8.5% respectively).  DOYMA might possibly argue that FSMs does not apply to boarding schools, though as far as I am aware the FSM indicators is based on primary school eligibility and used for a range of purposes, not simply to inform the distribution of free meals.   Moreover, some 62% of students at DOYMA are already ‘high attainers’ (above level 4 at Key Stage 2), as against 27% in the school where I am a governor, for example.  Taken together, these factors suggest that DOYMA’s results cannot be validly compared with the national average anyway.

Categories: General Politics

Now, surely, is the time for Polly’s mea culpa

July 16, 2012 12 comments

Polly Toynbee has written a piece on outsourcing, in which she says:

No one can prove the value or cost of most outsourcing. What Thatcher began and Labour continued is an epidemic of evidence-free, faith-based policymaking. Politicians have been seized by a conviction that private is always better. With no public service for fair comparison, the weary old mantras of “monolithic”, “sluggish” public services go unchallenged.

I have replied, in a kindly manner:

Dear Polly

I honestly believe that, before telling us some more of what a lot of us already know, you would do well to offer a mea culpa for a piece of yours in Serco’s in-house magazine, Ethos, in 2009, in which you appear to be supportive of outsourcing public services, and in which you state quite categorically:

“There is no doubt that putting some services out to tender has vastly improved certain standards over the years, broken the power of vested interests and brought in competition that has sharpened up results.”

We all make mistakes, and the internet is unforgiving. We can perhaps all move on when you have either apologised, or explained why you thought what you thought in 2009, and why it is apparently so different to what you think now.

Perhaps an apology might be accompanied by the donation to a good socialist cause of whatever fee you received from Serco for their propaganda enhancement.

Any views on a suitable recipient of said donation?

Categories: General Politics

The Teapot of Doom

I have for some time now been actively opposed to the Conservative-driven narrative of a Broken Britain, confident in my own theory that the malaise on our society is caused not by some collapse in national morals, but by structural and power inequalities which sometimes find expression in alienated behaviours.

It is time for a mea culpa.  I was wrong, and Phillip Blond is right.  Unless something is done quickly by those destined to lead us, we are lost.

I have had nagging doubts about my leftwing certainties for some time new, but I threw off the shackles of socialism when I read of this appallingness in a newspaper local to me, the St Helens Reporter:

A man got his hand stuck in a teapot while trying a fish out a teabag.

The details of the ambulance call and the small cut to the hand make for almost unbearable reading for anyone of British stock, but we must confront the truth. 

The sad reality is that a man in St Helens failed to use teabag tongs to take the teabags out of his teapot.  That bears repeating with big letters: HE FAILED TO USE TEABAG TONGS.

But it gets worse.  The collapse of social norms are such that the St Helens Reporter feels the need to carry a picture of a teapot (see above) as part of its story.  

This suggests strongly that younger people in St Helens – focused entirely on the pleasures of “pop” music and meeting at bus stops – DO NOT EVEN KNOW WHAT A TEAPOT IS.

And this is happening in St Helens,the very home of Mr Johnny Vegas, comic impressario and advertiser of tea and teapots.  Lord only know what it’s like in Dunstable. Or Barnsley.

It is the end for Britain.




Categories: General Politics

What’s Boris Johnson’s position on the EU?

December 2011, Boris Johnson put out his clearest message to the leader of his party that his position on the EU was doing damage to the country. He said the UK should oppose any change which created a “very dominant economic government” across Europe.

By March of this year, it had been noted by Matthew Barrett that Boris had become the “most senior person in the party to support an in/out referendum“.

In a statement about the general state of play in Europe, Boris has said this:

This idea that if we can find a big enough bazooka, we could blow away the problem by creating a Euro government in which there will be shared fiscal responsibility, I’m afraid that really will, in the long term, and probably even in the short and medium term, simply exacerbate the problem, because that administration, that economic government will have no democratic legitimacy.

But, even though plenty of UKIP supporters have said on the back of this that Boris should get their second vote during the mayoral elections, this hasn’t settled everyone’s opinion.

In the comments section of Barrett’s March article on Conservative Home, one commenter points out, regarding Boris calling for an in/out referendum:

What Boris doesn’t tell us which side he would support let alone vote for!

It will be a very useful in seeing who are the true supporters of the EU and who are the genuinely pro-British amongst them.

Oddly, James in the comments section has put:

Like Cameron, Boris is just another tax hungry socialist pretending to be a Conservative and that pledge isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Lastly David in the same comments wrote:

Boris a plastic eurosceptic. Wouldn’t depend on him for this (or much else).

So for all the doubt, it should come as some relief that John Hind, writing in a small comment in today’s Observer Food Monthly, gives us the concrete answer on where Boris stands on Europe:

Look, I’m actually rather pro-European, actually. I certainly want a European community where one can go and scoff croissants, drink delicious coffee, learn foreign languages and generally make love to foreign women.

This might be unhelpful in pursuit of his opinions on Europe as an economic community, but now we know what carrot we should dangle in front of him if we want him to support an ‘in’ campaign. Or did we always know that anyway?

Categories: General Politics Tags: ,

Service schools: a reply to Dan Hodges and David Lammy

July 15, 2012 2 comments

Sod’s law

It is sod’s law that, after roughly 1,500 blogposts, some of them not that bad and most of them on the long side, my notoriety as a peddlar of “offensive nonsense” should be settled by a 350 word post, written in about three minutes before I went off to so something more interesting and directly relevant instead.

I speak of my short from-the-hip post earlier this week, later cross-posted to Liberal Conspiracy by its idisoyncratic editor, Sunny Hundal, in which I expressed in no uncertain terms my dismay at the ‘service schools’ piece in the Telegraph from Stephen Twigg and Jim Murphy.  In my piece, I cast doubt on the suitability of the armed services as providers of secondary education, in light of some of the more negative aspects of armed services culture.

Dan Hodges: silly person

The reaction was swift.  First up, there was Dan Hodges, making very clear to his readership what Sunny and I are up to:

“Has Twigg not noticed that ex-servicemen are more likely to be serving sentences for violent and sexual offences than the general prison population”, asked the leading Left-wing website Liberal Conspiracy. [Hodges leaves out the hyperlink to the Howard League article, from which this is directly quoted.] “I’d love to meet Stephen Twigg, punch him in the face and tell him that’s what military schools teach you”, said one Twitter hero.

There is a veneer of faux morality painted over these attacks, but in reality they are political. “It would be much better for the party if Stephen Twigg were reshuffled as quickly as possible, a long way away from any position of policy influence”, Liberal Conspiracy added, revealing its true colours. It’s no coincidence that Stephen Twigg is also honorary president of Progress, the Blairite think-tank recently threatened with expulsion from the party by the unions.

Yeah, right. So I am Liberal Conspiracy now, am I?  The fact that Sunny’s never included me on his list of contributors is probably all part of the anti-Blairite plot in Dan Hodges-world in which, presumably Sunny and I sit in an RMT-funded bunker somewhere under Westminster, mwahahahing and stroking white cats as we discuss in hushed tones our latest attempts at regime destabilisation. 

That’s Dan Hodges-world, as opposed to the real world, in which an angry bloke in Lancashire fires off a quick post about education before going out to try and improve education (see below) and another bloke in London copies and pastes a post for his site because he’s got nothing better for the 2pm slot.  The Lancashire bloke didn’t even know Stephen Twigg was Hon President of Progress, by the way, as Progress is an organisation to which he is largely indifferent, although he did write an article for them a while back on how to win elections, based on a record of actually winning elections.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of Hodges’ rant, though, is by attacking me for my supposed anti-Blairite plotting, he’s effectively denouncing probably the most important and successful Blairite project of the lot: education, education, education.  New Labour’s education policy, though marred late on by the needless emergency of the Academuy programme, is one of the success stories. 

 More resources were put into education, teachers were, on the whole, allowed to do what they do best despite the widespread negative publicity from the rightwing press, and millions of young people benefited as a result.  GCSE results may reflect an element of grade inflation, but they also reflect real improvements.

In terms of international comparison, and contrary to the outright lies being peddled by the Gove, the Department for Education, and rightwing commentators alike, English students have done well, though inequalities in attainment do remain a concern.   In particular, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment’s finding that English 15 year olds’ ability to “reflect and evaluate” on information they are given is relatively well enhanced by current educational methods and policies.  This, of course, is the kind of educational success that socialists should be championing, on the basis that young people thinking for themselves is a good thing.

But let’s leave Dan Hodges to his fantasy-world, in which the  term ‘anti-Blairite’ refers only to people, not policy.  He writes nicely but he’s fundamentally just silly, well suited to earning money for rubbish at the Telegraph but of no political worth.

David Lammy: not silly, but wrong

David Lammy is a different matter.  He has the makings of a serious politician, and while I don’t buy everything in his Out of the Ashes book on the riots (which I read with interest because I was a researcher for the Guardian/LSE Reading the Riots project), it is clear that he is trying to make sense of what’s going on with young people in his home area in London, and to formulate coherent ideas about how the deep-rooted problems might be addressed.

So, when David writes in the New Statesman that I’m talking “offensive nonsense” (strangely, without referring or linking directly to my piece, though the borstal reference makes it clear what he’s alluding to), before going on to defend the “idea” of Service Schools as worth studying, I site up and take notice.

Now, I understand the golden rule Labour politicians feel they must follow.  The armed forces must not be criticised.  They must at all times be held up as symbols of British virtue and indefatigable spirit.  That the necessary counterbalance to having sent them off to fight, from the Falklands onwards, in wars that would otherwise be harder to justify to the public.  Yes, of course it’s illogical, but it’s worked a treat, to the extent that no politician ever feels able to critique any aspect of the armed services.  David’s just following the rules.

But I’m not an elected politician any more, so I can and will kick back against the kind of fetishisation that David, unwittingly certainly, would impose on people like me.  I stand by my main concern, expressed in brief in my “offensive” piece, that there are aspects of the culture within the armed forces which might just possibly be conducive to them undertaking their primary role (or might be an unfortunate but necessary side effect of the need for that primary role), but which may not be conducive to the provision of education.  

It may be convenient for Labour politicians to ignore that, alongside all that disciplined efficiency the forces display when they go about their work, there have been worrying accounts of bullying in barracks, and of poor behaviour outside barracks, but as someone interested in good education it’s my job to do the reminding (however shocking), and at least ask the questions, especially when there may still be a strong view within the forces that this is an unpleasant but necessary downside to what they do best. 

Perhaps the key thing to remember here is that, while the armed forces imposes discipline within its own ranks in order that those ranks function well within the army, schools are about equipping young people to function outside and beyond school.  Prima facie, therefore, it seems odd to suggest that the army, which has problems equipping its people with the skills and attitudes necessary for life beyond the army, should be seen as the institution best placed to equip young people to cope with life beyond school. 

There’s even an acknowledgment of this from Twigg and Murphy, when they write in their piece:

These plans would also provide new career opportunities and skills for those leaving the Forces at a time when many are entering a strained jobs market. All of these measures would aim to better integrate military and civilian communities and families, ensuring there is mutual support before and after military service, and that our troops can continue to make an enormous contribution to our country away from the frontline.

The re-integration of ex-servicepeople into civilian life is a laudable aim, but doing so by creating militarised environments for young civilians, which may in turn make post-schoo life more dificult to cope with, is not laudable.

This bring us to the key defence of service schools set out by David Lammy in his follow-up piece:

If those same sceptics cared about improving the life chances of the children of the urban poor, they’d know the importance of building resilience. Considering the pressures of urban life, the slow creep of a culture of instant gratification, where respect can be won by the glint of a knife and where self esteem can purchased (or looted) at your local Foot Locker, why should we deprive teenagers of an institution that might make them value something different?

Any sensible analysis of the riots and current thinking about behavioural economics points to the importance of human capital and character, so why shouldn’t armed forces personnel be involved in their cultivation? Our armed forces are, after all, resilience personified.

It’s a nice rhetorical turn, but the bold assertions are backed by no evidence, other than a threadbare paper from Tory “thinkers” at Res Publica (the paper itself torn apart here).  

What does he actually mean by “resilence”?  The ability to walk through the night with a heavy load?  The capacity to cope with a military-style institution for years is not an end in itself? Building resilience to the effects of an institution to which you are exposed in order to enhance your resilience to it seems a bit circular to me.

Real resilience

As it happens, I wrote my own piece very quickly the other day because I was just about to go out to a meeting about what I understand by the term “resilience”. 

I was on my way to a comprehensive school serving an urban area, some of which figures in national statistics as amongst ‘top 1% for deprivation in England’.  I am the link governor for English at this school, and I was meeting the Head of English to review with her the developments around our ‘tracking’ systems, whereby we measure the progress of each child in the school, in order then to formulate and deliver plans to get/keep children on track, or to create additional challenges to those already on track and capable of exceeding their current targets.

A key focus for our discussion was how we might best categorise the various learning challenges that some of our students face, many of which emanate from outside school, such as pressure on a 15 year old from a parent not to attend school because something else considered more important needs doing instead.  The process we were looking at was how best teachers and other school staff can help each and every student cope with what life throws at her/him, or what baggage she/he brings into school, and then go on and meet their potential. 

Looking at tracking database design is  not very glamorous, and it’s a small part of the overall job, but that’s what I call building resilience.

At the moment, our school is still around the national average for achievement for GCSE English.  If we keep our support resources together, and keep improving how we target them, alongside the constant drive to refine our core teaching methods, we will – based on the tracking data for young students, be soaring above the current national average (though of course we accept, and welcome, the fact that other schools are also doing ever better by their students, and the national average will therefore rise).

The Duke of York

It’s worth noting, in this context, the other key rationale set out by Twigg and Murphy in their paper, that of academic achievement:

The Duke of York’s Royal Military School in Dover specialises in science, sport, physical and outdoor education, and is trialling a BTEC qualification in Military Music. Results are impressive: pupils do twice as well as the national average at GCSE, including in English and Maths.

Let us leave aside the fact that the most commonly used measure of GCSE national averages is the percentage of pupils gaining five or A*-C grades (incl. English and Maths),  that the current national average for this is 59%, and that 118% of Duke of York School students therefore achieve tfive A*-Cs.  Impressive ceraintly.  Also mathematically impossible.  Perhaps there’s another measure being used.

Let us instead note that the Duke of York School’s results were achieved with 0% students on Free School Meals (the common proxy for being from a poor family) and 0% with special educational needs (national averages 15.9% and 8.5% respectively) .  Moreover, some 62% of students coming into the Duke of York school are already ‘high attainers’ (above level 4 at Key Stage 2), as against 27% in my school, for example.

In short, Twigg and Murphy’s single example of how military schools might “tackle disadvantage and even promote social mobility” appears to be a school doing the opposite.

Irrelevancies and straw men

Much of of the rest of David Lammy’s respone to my “offensive nonsense” we can tick off quite quickly as guff.  His opening salvo, in which he attacks lefties like me for ignoring the fact that the armed forces are in the public sector is simply an irrelevance.  

He then creates a straw man with his suggestion that my and other objections are about an attempt to restrict the “adventure training, flying, sailing, white water rafting, and navigating Britain’s finest landscapes from Cornwall to the Cairngorm”.  This is nonsense. My own piece is solely focused on the ‘service schools’ elements of the new proposals; additional extra-curricular activity of the type David describes is of course to be welcomed. 

Nor, incidentally, do I have any objections at all to the Department for Education creating a specific recruitment route for ex-servicepeople wishing to enter teaching.  Many ex-servicepeople do have considerable technical skills and knowledge and if these can be brought to bear within an educational environment and culture, it is to be welcomed.  What I object to is not the the people in the services who are willing and able to embrace educational culture, but to the disrespectful notion that services culture is in some way superior to the one that currently pervades our schools. 

Finally, there’s David’s insistence that:

Of course no one wants the modern equivalent of the borstal. But that is not what is being proposed.

But of course I didn’t say that new borstals were being proposed.  What I said was that, while new service schools might be set up with the intention that they simply offer an alternative to mainstream schools, there is a very good chance that, over time, the admissions policy will be dictated by the opportunity that then arises, within the ‘managed transfer’ process,  for under-resourced mainstream schools, simply to shunt their disruptive pupils off to these new ‘academies’.  

David’s own casual linkage between the 2011 riots and the virtues of these new schools does nothing to persuade me otherwise.  The other possibility, of course, is that regional Duke of York equivalents are set up, geared to ‘cherrypicking’ students and the creation of junior Sandhursts for the pointy-elbowed middle classes.  I fail to see how, in the process of implementation, service schools could do anything other than veer towards one extreme or the other.

On being offensive

Let’s be clear on the process the Labour hierarchy is involved in here.  Twigg and Murphy’s piece is not, as David Lammy claims “just that: an idea” (oddly, he calls it a “promise” just eight lines higher).  That’s not how the process works.

They have deliberately chosen to flag up their new ‘idea’ in the Daily Telegraph, to see whether it might be a vote winner.  If the reception is good, then it’s added into the “possibles for manifesto” spreasheet.   It gets extra marks if, from lefties like me, it gets a lukewarm “well, I have concerns, but let’s see the detail” response which David Lammy now seeks to extract from us, and the inevitability of its imposition grows ever greater the more we stay silent, awaiting the detail that never actually arrives.

In such circumstances, where fundamentally important policy becomes hostage to the need to win over the Telegraph readership, then the kind of instant reaction I provided a few days ago – scornful, angry, “offensive” even if it means getting the point across – is entirely justified. 

If that ends up making me a hate figure amongst “respectable” Labour, desperate to be seen to kowtow to the fetishisation of the armed forces, even at the expense of coherent education policy which builds on New Labour’s achievements rather than seek to out-Gove Gove, so be it.

Categories: General Politics

The man whose machine killed fascists: Woody Guthrie is 100

Roger Ballenger is a State Senator whose district includes Okemah, from where Woody Guthrie hailed. He told the Ventura County Star of Guthrie that his:

popularity rose, as many do, after he passed away … He would be seen as an extreme left political thinker, I’m sure

The Republican Steve Kouplin went as far as to say:

A lot of people thought he was Communist-influenced. Time has changed all that

I’m not sure time has changed how influenced by Communism Guthrie was (he is after all dead) but perhaps what he means is that people have looked past that now, and that we concentrate on his being a good folk musician.

When I see these descriptions of Guthrie, I can’t help be reminded of how Guthrie saw Jesus. For Guthrie Jesus was both misunderstood in his own day (it goes without saying that he gained his popularity after his death) and that today, if he was to preach what he preached in his day, would have been seen as politically dangerous.

In the song, aptly called Jesus, Guthrie sings:

This song was written in New York City,

Of rich man, preachers, and slaves;

Yes, if Jesus was to preach like He preached in Galilee,

They would lay Jesus Christ in His grave.

What was Jesus’ message? “Give your goods to the poor”, says Guthrie. But this was not an empty threat, because as Guthrie focuses, Jesus “I come not to bring you peace, but a sword”.

The threat that Guthrie himself delivered was the following:

When the love of the poor shall one day turn to hate,
When the patience of the workers gives away;
“Would be better for you rich if you never had been born”

Jesus’ crime was that he was a political rebel, that he was targeting those who did wrong towards the poor. As Terry Eagleton has once pointed out “driving out the money changers and overturning their tables, was probably enough to get him executed.”

To carry on the work of Jesus today, in the way in which Guthrie highlights, would not be love turning to hate, but the highest form of what we know as agape – the love of God and the vision to ensure the very best for all mankind.

This is where we must part ways of GK Chesterton’s reading of the sword in Christianity. In his classic text Orthodoxy he notes:

…the Son of God came not with peace but with a sundering sword. The saying rings entirely true even considered as what it obviously is; the statement that any man who preaches real love is bound to beget hate. It is as true of democratic fraternity as a divine love…

It’s not necessary to be religious to echo this (indeed I’m not religious at all), but the political Jesus and his political project was inherently violent – but it had nothing to do with hate. It was solely predicated on love, indeed this was the entire point.

The Christian sword is a weapon, but it is not means to lop the heads from individuals, but a literary device, the separation from which proves the difference between the Christian project (agape) and hate itself.

Guthrie  made an error here. But in the way he has described Jesus is very intriguing.

It is intriguing too because much of it can be then reapplied to himself. The reason US politicians can talk about him fondly without worry is because Guthrie’s gained the status of the folk singer. But he was more than that, he was a socialist whose songs meant something to people then, as they do now.

Happy birthday Woody Guthrie – Republicans are still trying to deny who you really are. Which must mean you did something right.

Intervention in Libya: a response to Carl (part I)

July 13, 2012 19 comments

Here’s Carl, defending military invention in Libya, and thereby promoting it in Syria:

Russia, it was said in a recent New York Times editorial, oppose change in Syria, and tried to block change in Libya, on the grounds that “revolutions have completely destabilized the region and cleared the road to power for the Islamists.”

In other words Putin was, and is, willing to see innocent people die for a series of ill-judged guesses about the political trajectory of countries after the Arab Spring. And this is even before we look at Russia’s weaponry client base.

But in Libya it did not happen this way.

I disagree.

Western intervention in Libya is has contributed significantly to regional instability.  Life may well be better for a lot of people in Libya (pop. 6m) but in the north of Mali (pop. 16m) life is suddenly a great deal worse.  As I set out here and here, the arms-and-mercenaries overspill from the messy end to the Ghadaffi regime was an important factor in the rapid formation of the loose Ansar-Al-Din/Touareg separatist (MLNA) alliance, which swept across the North of the country to take advantage of events in Bamako.  The result is that Timbuktu, Gao and other northern towns are now fairly firmly under Islamist Ansar-Al-Din control, with UNESCO heritage sites destroyed as part of that process.

Mauritania to the West of Mali has been dragged in, with thousands of Malians fleeing over the border to seek refuge and the Mauritanian airforce conducting fresh airstrikes against a newly emboldened Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but with the inevitable civilian deaths resulting.

Now, with seeming inevitability, the informed talk turns towards anti-Jihadist “Western intervention”, as the Touareg seccessionists (MLNA), presumably deeply regretting their tactical alliance with the Islamist now that they have been driven from their strongholds, reach out for the other obvious source of assistance.

Indeed, the prospect starts to arise – though probably it is still a little way way off – of Touareg mercenary groupings that were once in the pay of Ghadaffi starting to receive covert military assistance to help them fight back against the Islamists, whose hand was strengthened by Western intervention in Libya in the first place and the consequent armed chaos to the South.

It also looks like there is now at least some level of cooperation between Ansar Al-Din/AQIM and Boko Haram, the apparently well resourced Nigerian Islamist group, and if this develops further the potential for wider conflict right across West Africa develops too.

Meanwhile, back in Niger (pop 16m), already terrible food insecurity – drought and locusts both playing their part – is being worsened by the sudden cutting off of remittances from 150,000 or so Nigeriens (again, many armed) who had been in Libya to earn for their families back home, and their forced exit back to a region which already has too many mouths to feed.

All of that looks an awful lot like regional instability to me.

Now, I recognise that some may dispute the precise cause-effect chain I set out briefly here.  In particular, there is the claim that Ghadaffi had spent years supporting the Touarg secessionist movement, and that it is therefore invalid to suggest that a movement he supported might have been unleashed, with the knock-ons I suggest, by his downfall.

Nevertheless, I think there’s a strong case to argue that it is Western intervention in Libya which has triggered the collapse of a fragile sort-of–stability in the Sahel region and made it an easier base for Al Qaeida and linked/supportive forces to operate in (especially as AQIM seeks new safe havens after setbacks in southern Algeria).  You don’t have to like what Ghadaffi did to acknowledge that he had an interest in using his influence to restrain some of these forces as he tried, until 2011, to cosy up to the West.

So why is Carl apparently happy to overlook this set of unintended consequences in pursuit if his argument that Western intervention in Libya was justified, because of what Libya itself looks like now?

It may simply be that he’s not aware of them, because they’re not headline news in the UK, but I suspect the greater reason is that his humanitarian ‘something-must-be-done’ instincts (which I share, deep down) drive him towards the uncomfortable position of having to set to one side inconvenient facts about what really happens when the West involves itself in wars without a plan to clean up after itself.

In part II of this I’ll be looking further at these humanitarian, act-utilitarian instincts – expressed by Carl but shared by many others, and in particular at whether there’s any potential for rapprochement between this position and the more dominant leftwing position (as expressed by Boffy), namely that intervention by imperial powers is always unjustified because those powers, focussed only on the interests of capitalism, can never take a “moral position”.   This won’t be entirely hatchet job on Carl, as I’m also uncomfortable with aspects of Boffy’s logical but uncompromising approach*, and think the answer for the Left lies ultimately in something a bit more nuanced than the one which seems content to ignore the human cost of ideologically pure sidelines-standing.

I’ll probably quote Arendt.

Further reading: an excellent summary and analysis of the current position in Northern Mali and the surrounds by Andrew at Al-Wasat

*A genuine question to Boffy if he’s reading: What does he make of the UN’s military intervention in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo to stop the advance on Goma of an ICC-indicted warlord?  Is that justified/welcome, in spite of the argument that  such intervention may only/mostly be being taking place to defend the routes out from the mineral mines which supply the people who end up making our mobile phones?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 121 other followers