Mickey Rooney – as Puck – bows out

April 8, 2014 at 1:50 pm (Champagne Charlie, cinema, film, Guardian, Marxism, RIP)

Thanks to the Guardian (and how often do we say that here?) for reminding us of this remarkable Mickey Rooney performance from 1935:

The Graun even manages to find a Karl Marx connection;

In 1935 the late Mickey Rooney played Puck in Max Reinhardt’s movie of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Critical opinion was mixed – as it was for the audacious casting of James Cagney as Bottom. But, in his indomitable way, Rooney captured the manic mischief of a character who has one of the Bard’s great lines – “Lord, what fools these mortals be” – and who should be taken more seriously than he sometimes is. Shakespeare’s is only the most famous incarnation of one of English folklore’s great creations, “the oldest Old Thing in England” as Kipling’s Puck describes himself. As Puck, the Hobgoblin or Robin Goodfellow, the laughing sprite is a great subversive, as Karl Marx recognised when he wrote about “our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer – the Revolution”. It’s not often you get Mickey Rooney and Karl Marx in the same sentence, but Puck makes all things possible.

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The Guardian tells it like it is on Ukraine

March 23, 2014 at 11:00 pm (Guardian, imperialism, internationalism, Jim D, media, Russia, stalinism, thuggery, truth)

Here’s something you haven’t read here before: well done to the Guardian !

Anyone wanting honest, factual reporting of events in Ukraine over the past month, could not have done better than to have relied upon the Guardian  -  mainly because of the on-the-spot reports from  the excellent Luke Harding.

While the Morning Star has been spouting Putin’s propaganda about  a “fascist” “coup” in Kiev, Harding gave us the facts: yes there were (and are) some very unpleasant extreme nationalists involved in the Kiev revolution, but they do not define that movement and Putin’s constant reference to them is crude, but effective, propaganda, coming as it does, from a regime that is itself only too happy to utilise extreme right-wing forces at home.

The Graun‘s resident public school Stalinist and Assistant Editor, Seamas Milne, predictably sides with Putin and Russian imperialism (with a minimal amount of embarrassment), but for once he and his friends were not able to annexe the editorial line, and the usually-craven Rusbridger seems to have stood his ground. As a result the paper has firmly denounced Putin throughout, and on the day after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the  editorial was a memorable,  no-holds-barred denunciation of this “illegal, neo-imperialist act” – a denunciation so powerful and true (especially with regard to the supposed Kosova  analogy so beloved of Putin and his apologists) that it deserves to be reproduced in full:

Crimea: Mr Putin’s imperial act

The historic atrocities in Crimea were committed by Moscow, which slaughtered tens of thousands of Tatars.

So it has happened. Crimea has been annexed. A strutting Russian president sealed the fate of the once-autonomous Ukrainian republic with a speech to parliament yesterday in which he sought to wrap himself and the Black Sea peninsula together in the flag of his country. It was a bravura performance from Mr Putin, largely free of the  ad hoc ramblings he indulged in at his press conference on 4 March, but nevertheless filled with purple rhetoric.

Without apparent irony he invoked his namesake St Vladimir in Russia‘s cause. It was in Crimea, Mr Putin said, that Vladimir, the Grand Duke of Kieff and All Russia, acquired the Orthodox Christian roots that would spread throughout Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. It was in Crimea that the noble Russian soldiers lay in graves dating back to the 1700s. It was Crimea that had given birth to Russia’s Black Sea navy, a symbol of Moscow’s glory. In his people’s hearts and minds, he said, Crimea had always been a part of Russia.

Quite how, then, his dimwitted predecessor Nikita Khrushchev had managed to hand it to Ukraine in 1954 was unclear, but that act had been a “breach of any constitutional norm” and could thereby be ignored. And by the way, Mr Putin intimated, Moscow had only failed to raise the issue of Crimea’s sovereignty during previous negotiations with Ukraine because it hadn’t wanted to offend its friendly neighbour. Now the west had cheated on a range of issues – Nato‘s expansion into eastern Europe, the “coup” in Kiev, the unnecessary prolonging of discussions over visa waivers for Europe – Russia felt inclined to accept a willing Crimea back into the fold.

So the self-justifications went on. There have been few clearer-eyed critics of Soviet-era propaganda than Milan Kundera, who once wrote that “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Watching members of the Duma wildly applaud Mr Putin, the phrase felt newly appropriate. In the modern struggle of memory, we should recall that when Mr Putin was asked two weeks ago if he considered that Crimea might join Russia, he replied “No, we do not.” We should recall his assertion that the troops without insignia on Crimea’s streets could have bought their Russian uniforms in local shops. And we should remember Kosovo.

Mr Putin made much of the parallel between Kosovo’s secession from Serbia and Russian actions in Crimea. In fact the differences between the two cases are stark. In Kosovo in the 1990s, a majority ethnic Albanian population was being persecuted by the government of Slobodan Milosevic. The region’s autonomy had been revoked, ethnic Albanians had been ousted from government jobs, their language had been repressed, their newspapers shut, and they had been excluded from schools and universities. By late 1998, Mr Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing was reaching a climax: Serbian army and police units were terrorising and massacring groups of Albanians in an outright attempt to drive them out. The Kosovans’ plight was the subject of intense diplomacy, which was rebuffed by Mr Milosevic’s government.

In Crimea, by contrast, despite Mr Putin’s characterisation of the emergency government in Kiev as “anti-Semites, fascists and Russophobes” whose tools are “terror, killings and pogroms”, there have been no pogroms, little terror, no persecutions of Russian-speaking citizens bar a bid, now dropped, to rescind Russian’s status as an official language. The historic atrocities in Crimea were committed by Moscow, which starved and slaughtered tens of thousands Crimean Tatars in the 1920s, before deporting them en masse in 1944. Almost half the deportees died from malnutrition and disease.

As Moscow takes a historic bite of Ukraine, Mr Putin would rather the world misremember Kosovo, or discuss the legality of the US-led invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan. The world has debated those wars before and should do so again. Today, let us see Russia’s move for what it is: an illegal, neo-imperialist act.

NB: Martin Thomas of Workers Liberty dissects Milne’s “shoddy arguments for Putin”, here.

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Respect to Fahma Mohamed!

February 27, 2014 at 10:18 pm (child abuse, children, Education, Guardian, Human rights, misogyny, posted by JD, women)

For once, the Guardian is on the right side

Glyn Harries (via Facebook) writes:

Respect due to Fahma Mohamed  (above)

She started this petition and got nearly 250,000 supporters and forced Michael Gove to take action. Ok that will not stop the abuse of FGM but it is a start …

“You wouldn’t think school girls in the UK have to worry about female genital mutilation (FGM), but we do. Although it is illegal in the UK, it is still happening – 24,000 girls in the UK are currently at risk of FGM. People just don’t talk about it, doctors don’t check for it and teachers don’t teach (about) it

FGM is child abuse. It forces girls into a future of pain from the moment they are cut. They face the risk of infertility, pain during urination, menstruation, childbirth and sexual intercourse. The pain doesn’t go. It’s a traumatic experience they have to live with every single day, physically and emotionally.

That’s why I’ve started this campaign with The Guardian.

I know of people who have been cut – anyone who knows girls from FGM affected communities will know girls who have been cut. We were told Ofsted would be asking schools what they are doing to protect these girls from FGM, but it never happened.

Me and my classmates campaigned for our school to do more on FGM. Now all the girls at school know the risks of FGM and feel able to talk about it. But this is one school. We need this to happen at every school in the country – so that no girl is missed.

We need to act now. Many girls are sent away to be cut over the summer holidays. Some are cut at home. They call it the ‘cutting season’. If every headteacher was given the information they need to talk about FGM to students and parents we could reach every girl who is at risk before the holidays. We could convince families not to send their daughters to be cut and we can help girls who are at risk. We could break the cycle so the next generation is safe.

That’s why I’m calling for Michael Gove to get schools to teach about FGM before the summer holidays.

 Michael Gove — we’re serious, we’re not going to back down and we won’t go away.” 

http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/educationgovuk-tell-schools-to-teach-risks-of-female-genital-mutilation-before-the-summer-endfgm

Latest: “We did it! We met Education Secretary Michael Gove and he agreed to write to all primary and secondary headteachers in England about female genital mutilation” says Fahma.

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The Nymphomaniac man and the virtue of “anti-Zionism”

February 21, 2014 at 8:16 pm (anti-semitism, cinema, fascism, film, Guardian, Jim D)

The film Nymphomaniac has been getting some pretty good reviews – in the serious press, you understand, because this is most emphatically not a porn movie. As the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshore tells us, “It is about the most tender, platonic relationship imaginable: a depressed and exhausted woman and an elderly, vulnerable man, played superbly by Charlotte Gainsbourgh and Stellan Skarsgård .” Sounds promising, I thought – I might even go and see it when it hits the multiplex.

But the review goes on, and suddenly bells start ringing. Writing about the film’s director, Lars von Trier, Bradshaw notes that “He playfully alludes to his earlier films Breaking the Waves and Antichrist, and is still clearly prickly about the ‘Nazi’ controversy of two years ago at Cannes. Out of nowhere Seligman [the 'elderly, vulnerable man' - JD] pointedly explains the virtue of being ‘ant-Zionist, not antisemitic’”.

Ah! This Von Trier – he must be that director chappie who upset people at the Cannes film festival with ill-advised comments about Hitler. If, like me, you can’t really remember the details, or indeed, didn’t take very much notice in the first place, this Youtube clip is worth watching:

Well, it’s certainly good to have any misunderstandings cleared up: when he said “I understand Hitler” and “OK, I am a Nazi!” Von Trier was just being playful. And now he’s got a character in his new film making the distinction between “anti-Zionist” and “antisemitic”, it’s obvious that the director cannot possibly be an antisemite. I mean, just using the words “anti-Zionist” proves that doesn’t it? And, after all, even at Cannes he stated “Israel is a pain in the ass.” So it’s OK for the Guardian and its readers to like poor, misunderstood Mr Von Trier, and his latest (“heartfelt and even passionate” – P Bradshaw) film.

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The ‘New Statesman’ addresses anti-Semitism

January 26, 2014 at 7:22 pm (Anti-Racism, anti-semitism, conspiracy theories, Guardian, Jim D, Middle East, New Statesman, palestine, Pilger, populism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", zionism)

Here’s something you won’t often read at Shiraz or hear from me: I recommend you to buy this week’s New Statesman.

New Statesman
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Perhaps intended to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day, the current issue carries two articles on anti-Semitism: Anthony Clavane on anti-Semitism and the left, and Andrew Hussey on Dieudonné and the re-emergence of the “negationist” tradition in French politics. Both are very informative and well-argued pieces, but their real significance is that they appear in the New Statesman at all. In recent years the magazine’s anti-Zionism has often taken on a strident tone and in the case of regular contributor John Pilger, veered dangerously close to outright anti-Semitism. And, of course, back in 2002, under then-editor Peter Wilby, the magazine brought out its infamous “A kosher conspiracy” edition. An apology was eventually extracted from an initially defiant Wilby, but the wretched man continues to contribute a regular column.

The present issue is not yet available online, so I’m reproducing an excerpt from Clavane’s piece, including a reference to the “A kosher conspiracy” row:

Criticising Israel, as many Jews do, and Zionism as an ideology, which a much smaller number but still a significant minority of the community does, are perfectly valid positions. Publishing an anti-Zionist cover story featuring a golden Star of David stabbing a pliant Union flag with the headline “A kosher conspiracy?”, as the New Statesman (then under different ownership and editorship) did in 2002, is not. It should not have to be spelled out, though this magazine’s then editor did so in a subsequent apology, that all principled critics of Israeli policies should avoid using anti-Semitic images and narratives. They should not, as the BBC’s Tim Llewellyn once did, accuse American politicians such as Dennis Ross of hiding behind “a lovely Anglo-Saxon name”. (Llewellyn went on to say that Ross is “not just a Jew, he is a Zionist … a Zionist propagandist”.) They should have no truck with vile anti-Jewish calumnies, including the blood-libel slur, routinely rehearsed in anti-Zionist Arab textbooks.

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File:NewStatesmancover.jpg
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“The Zionist lobby,” Dieudonné told the Iranian-funded Press TV, “have taken France as hostage and we are in the hands of ignorant people, who know how to structure themselves into a Mafia-like organisation and…have now taken over the country.”

As Dave Rich at the Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors anti-Jewish attacks in Britain, explains: “this is not the anti-Zionism of people who think that the Palestinians get a raw deal from Israel: it is the anti-Zionism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a conspiracy theory that believes Jews pull all the strings.”

“We need to keep things in perspective,” warns David Feldman, of the Pears institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. “we have experienced the worst financial crisis since the 1930s, with Jews prominent in many places [in finance]. Yet in contrast to the situation 80 years ago, few radicals have proposed anti-Semitic explanations.”

As Jonathan Freedland, who writes a weekly column in the Guardian and a monthly column in the Jewish Chronicle, points out, so far only “a few marginal political voices” on the British left have flirted with anti-Semitic tropes. However, after a property website owned by a Jewish businessman withdrew its sponsorship of West Brom on 20 January, and then the FA announced it was charging Anelka, the liberal-left commentariat was presented with a perfect opportunity to take a stand against such tropes. Yet more silence. In fact, it was left to the right-wing controversialist Rod Liddle to condemn the striker’s “repulsive” support for his Jew-baiting friend.

“On this issue,” Freedland told me, “all anti-racists of good conscience should have leapt in. Dieudonné is aligned with the far right. He’s had criminal convictions for anti-Semitism. My worry is that, as time passed before the FA’s announcement and the lack of outrage continued, it didn’t send out a strong message about anti-Semitism

“The quenelle was a previously obscure gesture in this country and now it’s known. So this is the moment to make the point that no self-respecting person on the left should accept a supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ position which in fact says it’s the Jews who are ‘the establishment’.”

Anthony Clavane’s latest book is “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?” (Quercus £6.99)

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The silence of (most of) Assad’s supporters

January 24, 2014 at 10:18 pm (apologists and collaborators, Guardian, hell, Jim D, Middle East, murder, reactionay "anti-imperialism", stalinism, Stop The War, Syria, truth, war)

Assad’s friends and supporters on the Stalinist and semi-Stalinist “left” have had little - in most cases nothing – to say about the report accusing his regime of the “systematic killing,” with photographic evidence of torture and starvation, of about 11,000 detainees.

When the Guardian and CNN broke the story on Wednesday, they made no secret of the fact that the report had been commissioned by the government of Qatar, which of course backs the rebels: I expected Assad’s western supporters and apologists to use this  to attack the report’s credibility, even though the three authors are all former war crimes prosecutors with impeccable records, and their main source, “Caesar” provided photographic evidence that experts have pronounced genuine beyond reasonable doubt.

In fact, Assad’s UK supporters – the Morning Star, and the so-called ‘Stop The War Coalition’ - have said simply nothing. One would like to think this was the result of embarrassment and shame. But these people know no shame. The truth is, they simply don’t care, and are betting on their man eventually winning. One doesn’t have to harbour illusions in the rebels (we at Shiraz certainly don’t) to be revolted by the degeneracy of a “left” that can give de facto support to this butcher, and turn a blind eye to killing and torture on an industrial scale.

One exception is the unabashed Assad supporter John Wight over at the miss-named Socialist Unity blog: this preposterous male model, jew-baiter and failed bit-part actor makes no secret of his panting, Gallowayesque admiration for tyrants and strong-men, and wallows in his world of conspiracy-theories. But at least (unlike his gaffer Nooman) he makes no secret of his love for the mass-murderer Assad, and – against all the evidence – simply refuses to accept the findings of the report.

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The pathetic bleating and barefaced cheek of Cristina Odone

January 15, 2014 at 6:37 pm (Beyond parody, Christianity, Civil liberties, conspiracy theories, Free Speech, Guardian, Jim D, New Statesman, religion, religious right)

HP1.jpg

Above: Odone

The present issue of the New Statesman carries a quite extraordinary example of special pleading and exaggerated claims of victimhood from the Catholic journalist and apologist Cristina Odone.

The starting-point for her long-winded whinge is the fact that a Christian organisation had difficulty finding a venue in London willing to accept a booking for a conference entitled “One Man. One Woman. Making the Case for Marriage for the Good of Society.” Both the Law Society and the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre cited their respective diversity policies as the reason for their refusals. Annoying for the organisers, undoubtedly. Excessive?  Perhaps. But evidence of persecution (Odone doesn’t use that word, by the way, but it’s quite clearly what she means)? Don’t make me laugh.

If you can’t be arsed to follow the link above, here’s a representative taste of Odone’s pathetic bleating:

“Only 50 years ago, liberals supported “alternative culture”; they manned the barricades in protest against the establishment position on war, race and feminism. Today, liberals abhor any alternative to their credo. No one should offer an opinion that runs against the grain on issues that liberals consider “set in stone”, such as sexuality or the sanctity of life.

“Intolerance is no longer the prerogative of overt racists and other bigots – it is state-sanctioned. It is no longer the case that the authorities are impartial on matters of belief, and will intervene to protect the interests and heritage of the weak. When it comes to crushing the rights of those who dissent from the new orthodoxy, politicians and bureaucrats alike are in the forefront of the attacks, not the defence.

“I believe that religious liberty is mean­ingless if religious subcultures do not have the right to practise and preach according to their beliefs. These views – for example, on abortion, adoption, divorce, marriage, promiscuity and euthanasia – may be unfashionable. They certainly will strike many liberal-minded outsiders as harsh, impractical, outmoded, and irrelevant.

“But that is not the point. Adherents of these beliefs should not face life-ruining disadvantages. They should not have to close their businesses, as happened to the Christian couple who said only married heterosexual couples could stay at their bed and breakfast. They should not lose their jobs, which was the case of the registrar who refused to marry gays. When Britain was fighting for its life in the Second World War, it never forced pacifists to bear arms. So why force the closure of a Catholic adoption agency that for almost 150 years has placed some of society’s most vulnerable children with loving parents?”

You’d never guess, would you, that religious belief is given special protection under UK law (Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010, and the Employment Equality [Religion and Belief] Regulations 2003) in a way that, for instance, atheism is not. In fact, Zoe Williams, writing in today’s Graun, makes the point that atheists in Britain (and elsewhere) tend to lack the status and advantages taken for granted by the religious. She suggests an explanation that might help explain Odone’s shrill and self-righteous exercise in self-pity: “This systematic civil exclusion, I think, has rather shallow roots – not in a prejudice against the faithless, but in the loam of human politeness, where groups are accorded attention, respect and sensitivity in proportion to how much they will complain if they don’t get it. Something to think about heathens: maybe we are simply not complaining enough.”

Of course, there are many places in the world where religious people do suffer persecution - often by adherents of other religions. But nothing remotely like that happens in the UK, and anyone who suggests it does is either living in a paranoid fantasy world, or conducting a cynical exercise in bare-faced cheek. I’m not sure which category applies to Odone, but I’m damn sure one or the other does. Or maybe both.

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The word of 2013: “intersectionality”

December 31, 2013 at 5:08 pm (academe, Feminism, Guardian, Harry's Place, intellectuals, language, middle class, multiculturalism, post modernism, posted by JD, reblogged, relativism, statement of the bleedin' obvious)

As a keen follower of structuralism, post-structuralism and other post-modern banality and pretentiousness, I’ve noted the increasing use of the word “intersectionality” (often accompanied by the exhortation “check your privilege”) throughout 2013. ‘Sarka’, a BTL commenter at That Place, wrote the following (which I found very useful, and reproduce below without permission). As usual, when we reblog a piece, it should go without saying that we don’t necessarily agree with all of it:

“Intersectionism” is one of those tiresome constructs that are either just cumbersome names for the obvious (even if we confine ourselves to viewing the social order just in terms of positive/negative relative privilege, it is clear that in any complex society more than one criteria is at work, and these “ïntersect” or at least interact…see my old hands of cards dealt to individuals simile) or else if explicitly or implicitly assigned more explanatory content, they are very dubious….

E.g. in the Graun article on “intersectionalism” much was made of the “huge explanatory power”of the thing….WTF? Surely only to people so mentally challenged that it has never struck them before that being e.g. female and gay, or disabled and black and poor, may multiply relative disadvantage Duh – as you Americans so irritatingly say, Go figure! No shit Sherlock! And wouldn’t that be characterisation rather than…er…explanatory power?

But obviously when apparently reasonably intelligent people make totems out of truisms something more is going on than the belated growth of two brain cells to rub together.

Here – to be very crude – the elevation of the truism is cover for a) the activity (well described by you, elsewhere) of establishing and adjusting competition in victimhood hierarchies, or indeed the apparently zero-sum victimhood market, and b) despite the apparently differentiating dynamic of intersectionality (it seems to admit the existence of different forms of oppression), it enables some supposed – usually very very thin – unity of all the variously oppressed against their oppressing oppressors, conceived (by their aggregate privilege!) to be responsible for the whole bang caboodle of oppression..Or alternatively – blacks used to blame whites, feminists used to blame men, the poor used to blame the rich, gays the straights etc etc… but rather than pulling these strands of oppression apart, “ïntersectionality” tangles them all together again….Suggesting that the fault is in the aggregate: it is white, western, straight, male, rich people who are ultimately responsible for every form of oppression, and every form of oppression is – though separate – ultimately traceable to the same source.
Hence it is a faux pas, e.g. to criticise brown people, especially poor ones, for oppressive behaviour to women or gays, for they are not the real source of the trouble…which can only lie with any with a greater aggregate of trump cards in their hands.

This is what [Laurie] Penny laughably thinks of as “structural explanation” – which in another guise presents itself as the (essentially wilfiully paralysed) position that no kind of injustice or oppression can be addressed unless ALL injustice or oppression is addressed…

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EP Thompson on Methodist ‘psychic masturbation’

December 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm (Christianity, class, good people, Guardian, history, intellectuals, Jim D, literature, Marxism, religion, workers)

EP Thompson

Above: EP Thompson 

Today’s Graun quite rightly praises EP Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class, on what may or may not be the exact fiftieth anniversary of its publication. But whether the book was first published in November or December 1963 is of little importance: as the Graun states, “No historian of British society has since produced a book to match [it]…Through 900-odd pages the book crackles with energy, as it uses scraps of evidence such as popular songs and workshop rituals to paint a picture of workers’ lived ‘experience.’”

It is, however, depressingly significant that the Graun‘s one criticism is of Thompson’s negative and entirely disrespectful attitude towards religion, and Methodism in particular: “[Thompson's political commitment] led to some poor judgements (Methodism as ‘psychic masturbation’).” Such a robust attitude to religion is, of course, in stark contrast to the grovelling stance adopted by much of today’s liberal-’left’, typified by the Graun and the New Statesman.

Such pro-religion criticisms were made during Thompson’s lifetime and it’s interesting to note that in the preface to the 1980 edition, he makes a point of stating “I remain unrepentant as to my treatment of Methodism.” For those readers who do not have a copy of the book to hand, here’s a flavour of what Thompson wrote about Methodism. It’s worth noting that he attacks it not just because of its baleful effect on industrial militancy, but also because of its repression of human personality, spirit and sexuality (noting also that the two go very well together):

“Nothing was more often remarked by contemporaries of the workaday Methodist character, or of Methodist home-life, than, than its methodical, disciplined and repressed disposition. It is the paradox of a ‘religion of the heart’ that it should be notorious for the inhibition of all spontaneity. Methodism sanctioned ‘workings of the heart’ only upon the occasions of the Church; Methodists wrote hymns but no secular poetry of note; the idea of a passionate Methodist lover in these years [the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries - JD] is ludicrous. (‘Avoid all manner of passions’, advised Wesley.) The word is unpleasant; but it is difficult not to see in Methodism in these years a ritualised form of psychic masturbation. Energies and emotions which were dangerous to social order, or which were merely unproductive (in Dr Ure’s sense) were released in the harmless in the harmless form of sporadic love-feasts, watch-nights, band-meetings or revivalist campaigns” – excerpted from Chapter 11, ‘The Transforming Power of the Cross.’

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Polly Toynbee on “limp liberals”, women’s rights and cultural relativism

December 23, 2013 at 3:50 pm (Afghanistan, Guardian, history, Human rights, imperialism, islamism, misogyny, modernism, posted by JD, Racism, reactionay "anti-imperialism", relativism, religion, secularism, women)

In view of some appalling tripe that’s appeared recently on the subject of gender segregation, cultural sensitivity and (alleged) racism, this 2001 Graun article by Polly Toynbee is worth revisiting. Come to think of it, it’s probably the best thing she’s ever written, and quite surprising that the Graun agreed to publish it:

Above: the traditional custom of Suttee

Limp liberals fail to protect their most profound values

Those who enjoy western freedoms excuse the inexcusable elsewhere

A 19th-century general in India confronted an angry delegation complaining that the suppression of suttee was an attack on their national culture and customs. He replied: “It is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and hang them. Build your funeral pyre and beside it my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your national custom – then we shall follow ours.” No moral or cultural relativism there: a burning widow feels the same pain whatever her culture.

Swirling about in the sea of debate on this war there is a fuzzy idea on the soft left of an Islamic cultural otherness that supersedes basic human rights. There is a plea that in respecting certain customs, beliefs and punishments in some Muslim countries, we should somehow overlook the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Some on these pages protest about “intolerant liberalism”, calling for greater understanding of other cultures and accusing secular liberals of neo-colonial, cultural supremacist attitudes towards some Muslim countries. But that risks something worse – a patronising anthropological view of interesting natives who are not people like us, quaint in their time-honoured habits that must remain undisturbed by outside influence. This soft tolerance permits faraway peoples to persecute women, gays, free-thinkers or unbelievers as part of a way of life to be respected and preserved. Apologetic about the brute force of the west, those who themselves enjoy freedoms of every kind excuse the inexcusable in other cultures, romanticising them as more spiritual, less materialist. It is a kind of limp liberalism that will not defend its own most profound values. 

Hard-headed liberals have no problem in opposing the Taliban, Bin Laden and equivocators who start with a cursory side-of-the-cigarette-pack homily that says September 11 was atrocious before piling on the “buts” that imply the US had it coming. Hard liberals have always been very tough on the moral failings of the USA at home and abroad – without blurring distinctions between the Taliban and America. Hard liberals hold basic human rights to be non-negotiable and worth fighting for. They do not turn the other cheek, understand the other guy’s point of view or respect his culture when it comes to universal rights. Promoting liberal values everywhere from Burma to Saudi Arabia, Iraq to Chechnya is not neo-colonialism, but respect for a universal right to freedom from oppression. That was what Tony Blair’s conference speech implied. 

On Afghanistan, limp liberals only distinguish themselves from the old left by adding rather more hand-wringing. Limp liberals are always on the side of peace because it is more morally comfortable. They claim a monopoly of pity, castigating the other side as heartless armchair warriors. They hesitate because the outcome is uncertain: no one can guarantee things will end well. But they will never be to blame for anything, because they never stood up for anything, always seeking third way escapes from hard choices. “If only people would just sit down and talk…”, though conversation with Bin Laden is not on offer. All sane people worry that this war may not be proportionate, may not stop terror attacks or make life in Afghanistan better. But the pacifist position this time is exceptionally odd. What would they do? When G2 asked a string of people recently, the alternatives were hopeless to non-existent. On these pages, there has been much flailing about, lack of alternatives hiding in anti-US bluster. A Gandhian response is a possibility – until you listen to Bin Laden. Understanding racial and cultural diversity is essential, but this time understand what? 

What is now alarming is the united opposition to the war from almost all British Muslims. The shocking fact is that barely a single leading Muslim is to be found who supports it. Thought for the Day speakers (always the moderate of every faith) are against it. One of them, Dr Zaki Badawi, president of the Muslim College, calls Bush a warmonger, says Bin Laden is a random target picked off a shelf and no good will come of it: he fears greatly for relations between Muslims and others when this is over. The head of the moderate Islamic Council brought into Downing Street with the archbishop and the Chief Rabbi came out declaring the war unjustified. The Muslim News, which features pictures of Tony Blair giving away their annual awards, is full of nothing but angry opposition to the war, (plus the suggestion that Israel attacked the World Trade Centre). So however often the prime minister declares this is not a war on Islam, to them it feels so. However much they detest the Taliban, they cannot support an attack even on these hated Muslims. 

Despite sects and schisms, Islam is united in feeling threatened and it is not just extremists on the streets of Pakistan and Palestine, it is almost everyone. For Britain this has a lethal potential. It underlines how alienated most still feel from the mainstream, how threatened, how culturally uncertain. Unfortunately it unites the peaceful with the violent. On my screen emails full of casuistry attempt to explain away warlike parts of the Koran as allegory: “In classical Arabic idiom the ‘cutting of hands and feet’ is often synonymous with destroying one’s power.” That is not how the Taliban read it, hacking away at limbs. So while the peaceful fail to separate their faith utterly from this violence, Bin Laden gets perilously close to creating his Armageddon war of the cultures. 

What went wrong? Why was the Downing Street/ White House tea and sympathy with Muslim leaders of no avail? The crucial missing ingredient was turning on Sharon and Israeli extremists at the same time as the onslaught on the Taliban. What is needed at once is this world coalition to press Israel back inside internationally agreed borders, to shut down the settlements and to establish a permanent UN force along the border with a free Palestine. Then it is for Palestinians to create a non-corrupt government that will not waste the generous aid they need. No doubt horrific suicide bombings of Israelis would try to destroy any peace, but reprisal by Israeli tanks would be forbidden and prevented. The world would again guarantee in blood and money the rights of both the state of Israel and the state of Palestine. Like Northern Ireland, it wouldn’t work any magic: fighting would continue, but little by little, despite recurring outbreaks, it would gradually subside over the decades. 

What matters is that the Islamic world should for the first time see the west act even-handedly. It matters that the west admits its past errors and draws a line under much shameful history. This shaky global coalition offers a chance to do better in many places, through international joint action. It means demonstrating that human rights values are indeed universal and not western.

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