Burkha Day

March 22, 2008 at 9:49 am (Islam, media, voltairespriest)

PhotobucketI very rarely buy my local newspaper, the Birmingham Mail. Not because I’ve got any violent objection to it, but because it’s generally as dull as dishwater (“Unwell little boy’s joy as he is presented with Easter Egg” type of thing). However yesterday I could not resist making the purchase as the Mail seems now to be living up to its national namesake with renewed vigour.

Not only is the headline story for 20 March “Armed Robber Wore a Burkha“. Oh no, we also have on page 2, “Failed Tube Bomber Wore Dress” (accompanied by a picture of someone in a burkha, albeit not the pic above). Both obviously outrageous, assuming that they’re true.

You may wonder why I’m making a song and dance out of this. Both stories are (as far as I know) factually correct, and specifically both culprits presumably did indeed wear burkhas. Yet why is that the key significant fact? If it had been a more “normal” robbery, would the headline have been “Armed Robber Wore Tights on Head”, and would it have been on the front page? I doubt it. It would seem that the newspaper of Britain’s second city is sailing close to some pretty murky waters here.

Furthermore one’s drawn to wonder what the Mail proposes about this. Perhaps a ban on clothing that obscures the face within a 5-mile radius of Birmingham city centre? That’d put a stop to anyone who wanted to rob the Burlington Hotel safe wearing a chicken suit – as well as stopping religious conservative women from walking around the town centre.

I guess we’ll have to wait for today’s editorial to find out. No doubt the various armchair warriors who seems to populate their forums (scary Muslims being a favourite topic therein) will have something to say about it. But you’d expect that from dozy halfwits on a discussion forum. When the issue stems from the source story itself, there’s a problem.

If you feel like writing to the Mail, emails for publication go to paul.fulford@birminghammail.net

Happy Easter/Newroz!

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On with the motley!

March 21, 2008 at 10:26 pm (comedy, funny, Jim D)

A friend rang me last night (about something else), and asked, “Did you see the thing about Steptoe and Son ? It was brilliant!”

Well, I don’t have BBC4, so I didn’t see it. I’m also a little put off by the hackneyed theme of the tormented, sad-faced comic : you know, the Pagliacci / Pierrot “On with the motley!” stuff that’s long been done to death.

Certainly, Galton and Simpson, the script-writers for Hancock (the strongest contender for “sad-faced clown” status), Steptoe and Frankie Howerd, denied that any of them were particularly sad individuals:

“For instance Frankie Howerd, off stage, providing he was talking about himself, was the happiest man you could meet. Wonderful company and a genuinely funny man…”

Even Tony Hancock (who committed suicide):

“… was the greatest laugher you could imagine. If something tickled him in a read-through he would collapse in hysterics and roll around the floor clutching his sides helplessly…Tony was a joy to work with. His interpretation and timing of a joke were always nigh perfect. His only problem was learning the lines.”

Hancock, Howerd, Williams, Sellers, Milligan, Sid James… it seems like just about all the great 1950s and ’60s comics were depressives. Only Tommy Cooper seems to have had a reasonably contented and happy private life (and someone’s now going to tell me that he didn’t…)

Anyway: as I can’t watch this series (on BBC4, The Curse of Comedy,  Wednesdays), I’d appreciate any comments as to whether it’s any good – and especially, whether the series is just relaying the old Pagliacci “sad clown” cliche, or telling us something new and worthwhile about these people. For instance, I knew that Wilfred Bramble was a closet gay; but it had never occurred to me how much the catch-phrase “You dirty old man” must have hurt him in private life… I also didn’t realise that his “son”, Harry H Corbett, had been a student of Joan Littlewood’s left wing Theatre Workshop, and had been considered by some critics to be in the same league as Albert Finney or even Richard Burton. Steptoe was both the making and the breaking of him: it brought him fame and (relative) fortune; it also made him very nearly impossible to cast, even for ‘Carry On’ films.

Here’s the tragi-comic duo:

P.S: Any thoughts about contemporary comics (Michael Barrymore excluded), who might qualify for a future Pagliacci series?

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Iraq: five years on

March 20, 2008 at 11:54 pm (class, iraq, iraq war, Jim D, secularism, unions, war, workers)

Most sane people agree it was -and remains- a disaster.

It does not follow from that, however, that the “least worst option” is immediate withdrawal. Why Dave (in an otherwise sensible post) concludes in favour of that slogan is not explained. He’s not like the leadership of the Stop The War Coalition, who just want to see ‘the West’ defeated and don’t give a damn about the peoples of Iraq…or the British section of the so-called “Fourth International”, who appear to think that the class struggle must take second place to nationalism, and that “even Al-Quaeda” are progressive “against the Americans”…

Surely the first duty of socialists should be support for Iraqi leftists. trade unionists, secularists and democrats – all of whom would be decimated by the civil war and the Islamist / sectarian massacres that would follow a precipitate withdrawal as surely as night follows day? Few of the “troops out now” advocates deny that such would be the result of the practical implementation of their slogan: but still they stick by it, prefering an apolitical fetish (“troops out now” – a slogan of relatively recent and dubious provenance) to serious and practical consideration of the future of the Iraqi working class.

There is nothing inconsistant about being against sticking a knife in someone’s back, and counselling against simply pulling it out afterwards…as any medic will tell you.

Two additional points: getting rid of Saddam was surely a good thing, that even us anti-war people should acknowledge; and there can be no support whatsoever to the murderous, sectarian, fascistic so-called “resistance”: the evasion of the Stop The War Coalition on these elementary class issues is why a lot of us who went on their early demos no longer want to even march with them.

P.S: George Szirtes is worth reading on all this…I pretty much agree with him on all his points.

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Ama Sumani, RIP

March 20, 2008 at 7:29 pm (africa, Civil liberties, Human rights, immigration, Jim D)

Ama Sumani, the terminally ill cancer victim dragged from her hospital bed in Cardiff to be deported to Ghana earlier this year, has died.

Back in Ghana, she did not have access to the thalidomide drug that was her best bet for staying alive, nor did she have the funds to pay for ongoing dialysis treatment. The British immigration authorities and the Government surely knew that they were signing Ama’s death warrant when they deported her.

The Lancet quite correctly described the deportation as “an atrocious barbarism.”

Friends and campaigners in Britain had been paying for her treatment and had recently raised £70,000 in the hope of prolonging her life. But it was too late.

Today’s Times Online reported:

“Ms Sumani had left the Welsh hospital in a wheelchair accompanied by five immigration officials before being driven to Heathrow to board a plane to Accra. It was reported that her condition took a turn for the worse after arriving in Ghana.

“When she went to the capital’s hospital, they asked for $6,000 (£3,022) to cover three month’s treatment. British immigration officials who accompanied her to the hospital offered to pay for the first three months, but the offer was rejected (by the hospital -JD) because Ms Sumani had no source of funds to continue treatment after that period. In an interview given after her return, Ms Sumani spoke of how her misery was compounded by feelings of lonliness because she did not know anyone in Accra. She was from the north of the country, where her family remain. She was unable to travel there, but had she done so, the local hospital could not offer her the dialysis being paid for in Accra be wellwishers in Britian.

“Asked about those who had contributed to her treatment, Ms Sumani said: ‘They helped so much. All I can say is God bless them’.”

We can, now, do no more for Ama. But we can give our support to others facing the barbarism of Britian’s immigration and asylum laws, and campaign to get those laws changed.

Hat tip: Jules

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Lenin’s Booky Wook!

March 19, 2008 at 8:52 pm (blogging, blogosphere, trivia, voltairespriest)

PhotobucketYes, it’s true. The wee fella’s written a book, and Verso have decided to publish it. Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s not about pro wrestling! Called “The Liberal Defence of Murder”, it apparently draws out one of Mr Seymour’s favourite topics, namely what bastards the “decents” actually are, into a more at-length dissection than he usually writes in the various (long) posts that he devotes to the subject on his own website.

I’ve not read the book, and I have to admit I’m loath to part with £14.99 but heck, if it takes off and comes out in paperback, I might even buy myself a copy and write a review. Most of us who write here disagree with old Lenny about a fair amount when it comes to politics. However I for one can’t help but wish him every success with the venture. Even if the book turns out to be a load of old bollocks, he’s an early success for the cross-over from the leftie blogosphere to the publishing mainstream.

For that sir, congratulations.

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What’s “Respect Renewal” then?

March 16, 2008 at 8:56 pm (crap, Galloway, Respect, sectarianism, voltairespriest)

PhotobucketFirst, let’s dispel a few myths. There have been a lot of brickbats thrown at George Galloway’s “Respect Renewal” project since he split from the Socialist Workers’ Party founders of Respect, some months ago.

It has been suggested that RR is “full of reactionaries”. That is not entirely true. In point of fact a number of revolutionary groups (most significantly the Mandelites of the ISG) have members within Respect Renewal. Also a minority of independent socialists who have made a principled choice to remain outside of the Labour Party, have joined. In short, there are members of RR who honestly believe that they signed up with an organisation that had the same ideals which they (or you or I) hold in terms of wanting a politics which at least tries to make the world a better place.

The sad reality of RR appears to be very different. The organisation is dominated by the most extraordinary clique of cynics (as evidenced by the statements of that clique’s members on the website of its online mouthpiece) who will say anything in order to curry favour with “the faith communities” in particular.

In fact they are willing to build coalitions with just about anyone other than the left itself, whose members that they happen to disagree with get assaulted online (take a look at SU blog for all manner of examples), apparently without a word of dissent from those higher placed within the organisation. This should surely have no place within a fluffy liberal project to build “broad coalitions of the left” or whatever the phrase is. All of this of course happens under cover of inviting tangential contributions from loose associates with nothing much to lose, tame Labour Party members and others about whom Lenin had a phrase which I will allow you all to recall (answers on a postcard to the usual email address).

Indeed, although the reasons for the split with the SWP are a little obscure, it certainly seems to me that such “principles” as were at stake were held by the SWP. I certainly have it from SWP members that there were “lines in the sand which we were not prepared to step over” in terms of the political compromises that they were prepared to make in the interest of building an electoral coalition, and that this was the reason for the eventual split.

I’ll leave you all to read the sort of politics that is broadcast by prominent Respect Renewal members and allow you to draw your own conclusion. However all I’d say in conclusion is that a few months ago we at Shiraz Socialist ran a (tongue in cheek) campaign to support the SWP in Respect. It seems that this may be the first instance of that old maxim about tragedy turning into farce, running in reverse.

If you want some further material to ruminate upon about the figures that run Respect Renewal, here’s George Galloway talking about the case of gay Iranian victim of persecution, Mehdi Kazemi. It’s already been commented on at some length, but I’m happy to repeat the footage here:

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Why won’t you AWL come out and say it?

March 16, 2008 at 8:38 am (AWL, Human rights, iraq, iraq war, Marxism, socialism, trotskyism, voltairespriest)

PhotobucketThis is a bit of a polemical post addressed primarily to those in the AWL who support the “majority” position on Iraq backed by the group’s National Committee. This might initially look to the general public like a topic about as interesting as fly-fishing, but I think it is a worthwhile debate as I hope you will see.

There is currently a debate within the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty about the group’s position on the occupation of Iraq. Both of the two main positions lay claim to the legacy of third camp politics, and both also claim therefore to be advancing the cause of independent working class political representation.

The majority position (as advanced by the group’s Executive Committee and passed by its National Committee) is to call for the end of the occupation but essentially to keep specific slogans around troop withdrawal loose and vague, and to concentrate instead upon work in other areas such as trade union solidarity work. There is much to commend in the solidarity work that the AWL does, particularly in tandem with the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq and associated groups. Furthermore, this stance is tempting for those simply nauseated by watching other left-wing groups mouthing slogans of solidarity with reactionaries and refusing to brook any criticisim of dictatorial regimes which happen to oppose the USA.

The minority position, pushed for in particular by David Broder and Daniel Randall (David has an article outlining this in the latest edition of the AWL’s paper, Solidarity) is similar with regards to trade union solidarity work, but calls for a sharpening up of the slogans with regard to the troop presence. It is the case that the WCPI and the majority of progressive Iraqi groups that I have seen (by which I mean those who oppose both the sectarian militias within the current Iraqi government and those outside of it) call simultaneously for opposition to the Islamist groups operating in the Arab regions of Iraq, and also for troop withdrawal. This, along with the call for strengthening the labour movement in Iraq upon which both sides agree, is the essence of the minority position. They want “Troops Out Now” to be used as a specific focal slogan by the AWL.

The debate itself is surprisingly heated, given that superficially one would think it is essentially about the tagging on (or not) of three words to the AWL’s current position. However the reality is that the debate runs deeper than that. The majority seems particularly concerned to defeat a troops-out position, as much if not more so than it is concerned to flesh out its own stance. Two particularly important reasons are offered for this, the first being that if there was an immediate withdrawal of troops there would be a complete take-over by sectarian militias and probably a bloodbath which would crush the labour movement entirely. The second is a more esoteric concern stemming from the AWL’s re-think of its politics as a tendency in the 1980s/1990s. These two points I think go to the core of the issue.

I do not propose here to answer the points levelled against the minority position; its advocates are more than capable of doing that themselves. But a question has struck me which I have to ask of the AWL majority. Given the refusal to take a specific position – of any sort – on troop withdrawal, the clear underlying belief that troop withdrawal would worsen the situation in Iraq, and the clear concerns about what a “troops out” position would mean in relation to the AWL’s core politics, why do you not follow the logic of your position and say that you believe the troops should remain? You plainly believe that they are at least not worsening the situation, and that they provide at least some protection for the Iraqi workers’ organisations that are struggling to get off the ground. You also plainly do oppose withdrawing them.

It seems to me that a “no confidence in US/UK forces, troops to remain until the labour movement can survive” position is more or less what most AWL majority members actually think should happen in Iraq, whether they join up the dots or not. It’s not a position that I would agree with, but it’s certainly one of which they could mount a defence if they so chose. It would also be more honest than the current fudge which is held together only by increasingly shrill arguments as to why the AWL should not say something else, ie “Troops out”.

So come on comrades, come out and say it: you did not support the invasion of Iraq, but you now believe that the troops should remain until the country is stabilised. I’ll debate you furiously and so will others, but at least you’ll be acting in a manner that’s true to yourselves by being candid about what you really believe.

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History Lessons

March 15, 2008 at 9:12 pm (KB72, Rosie B, truth)

A big drum roll for our newest contributor, Rosie Bell. She already writes a marvellous blog that you should take a look at, and she is certainly most welcome to the Shiraz crew. Here she tells us a few things that get missed out in UK histories of her native New Zealand. VP

[Michael] Burleigh grew up on the south coast near Pevensey Bay, and the close proximity of Roman forts, Norman castles, Napoleonic Martello towers and second world war pillboxes first made him aware of the passing of time.

There were no such signs of the passing of time where I grew up though I was reading about Pevensey in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, which tells the story of one part of England during the ages. That is a common colonial experience, of your head being in one distant place while your body is in another. I was born in the Waikato, a farming area south of Auckland, New Zealand.

The main story of New Zealand is of colonisation, of how one people (the British – the “Pakeha”) displaced another (the Maori). It was not taught at my high school in the 1970s. We had no good text books on New Zealand history. We had sketchy pamphlets on the building of railways, the development of export markets, the establishing of a liberal democracy (women got the vote in 1893) and the setting up of a welfare state. All worthwhile stuff but leaving out the facts of colonisation was a huge omission, similar to a history of twentieth century Russia that did not mention the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

I have been reading the Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King to fill in the shameful gaps of my knowledge. I received a slight shock in discovering that run-down towns we had driven through on the way to see our relations in Auckland had been battle sites. Our prosperous pastoral Waikato had seen a high level of action in what is now called the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, the wars that put down Maori resistance to the taking over of their land. I received another shock in coming across the following paragraph:- “As Minister of Defence, [Thomas] Russell eagerly prosecuted the Waikato War in order to put Maori in what he regarded as their place, and to open up the Waikato itself to property investment and settlement.. . [T]he post-war confiscation policy was being applied to the most desirable land without any consideration as to which tribes had fought or not fought against the Crown . . Russell profited spectacularly from the war’s aftermath when he was out of politics, particularly by persuading the Government in 1873 to sell the enormous Piako swamp to a syndicate of which he was the leading member.”

We farmed on that swamp, criss-crossed with drains and prone to flooding. I had no idea of its provenance.

The Maori activism of the 70s, 80s and 90s has changed the way Pakeha New Zealanders view the history of their nation and the central fact of displacement is now generally acknowledged. The national curriculum includes those New Zealand Wars. The primary school included in its newsletter to former pupils an assurance to readers that our particular corner of the swamp had been got by honest purchase, not by dodgy confiscation. Time alters everything including our view of our place in time.

These are two common experiences with history: (1) when you begin to see and hear things that make you realise that past forces have pushed you to your own here and now; and (2) that important, in fact central, events have been missed out in your official education.

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When the craic was good…and political

March 15, 2008 at 5:46 pm (beer, Jim D, left, music, politics, religion, socialism, stalinism, whiskey, workers)

Have you noticed the silly hats, some shaped like shamrocks, others like pints of Guinness? Is it a promotion? Or something to do with the Cheltenham races? That was my reaction until the penny dropped… this is the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day – or Paddy’s Day as it’s always been called without anyone complaining of racism.

What now comes across as one big sales pitch for Guinness, Caffrey’s and Jameson’s, used to be a highly political weekend. Of course drink, song and the so-called “craic” always predominated: nothing wrong with that! But discussion, debate and argument about politics was part of it as well. And given that the Irish in Britain have traditionally been associated with manual engineering and construction jobs, and have long had a strong presence in the trade unions, the Labour Party and left groups (noteably the Communist Party), the celebrations inevitably took on the flavour of a labour movement event.

I’m basing all this on my experiences in Birmingham in the 1970’s, but I’m sure the same was true of all major conurbations with a significant Irish presence at that time. My recollection is that the labour movement atmosphere was much more obvious than Irish republican sentiment (though that was undoubtably there in the background). Part of the reason for this was probably (after 1974, anyway) the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings which had caused a serious anti-Irish backlash and put Irish republicans of whatever hue, on the defensive in Birmingham and throughout England. But it was also because the major Paddy’s Day celebrations were organised by the Connolly Association, which was to all intents and purposes the Communist Party’s front organisation for the Irish in England. Very closely associated, as well, were a group of rather impressive, tough-looking characters introduced to me as the “stickies”, whom I soon discovered to be the Official IRA: they were the CP-influenced more ‘political’ and ‘left-wing’ section of the old IRA that had split in 1970/71, when the ‘Provos’ (including the youngsters Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness) had broken away to form a ‘physical force’ alternative, denounced (not altogether wrongly, IMHO) by the Officials as “fascists”.

It goes without saying that a lot of the politics in all of this were none too healthy – and even at their best, strongly laced with romanticism and crude workersim. Stalinist concepts predominated (the CP’s “Irish expert” Desmond Greaves had had some success in promulgating a preposterous theory that the nationalism of the Southern Irish bourgeoisie represented a progressive anti-colonial force, viz-a-viz the UK) and the thoroughly reactionary role of the Catholic Church was studiously ignored. Also, the Protestant working class of the Six Counties were largely written out of the equation  –  dismissed as colonialist stooges or regarded (at best) as potential comrades who could be won over on the basis of economic struggle. I don’t recall a serious discussion about workers’ unity (North and South, Catholic and Protestant) ever taking place at that time…

…But despite all the political weaknesses, the Paddy’s Day celebrations of the 1970’s were wonderful, educative experiences. They taught (or drove home to) me, the centrality of the working class in any endevour that dares to call itself socialist. They tought me not to be too judgemental about fundamentally decent people (nor to be too ready to overlook weaknesses)…above all, they encouraged me to read up on, and find out more about Irish republicanism and its contribution to the socialist tradition. I learned about the heroes (Woolf Tone, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, James Connolly and Jim Larkin), and the villains (Eamonn De Valera, Eoin O’Duffy and the right-wing – sometimes semi-fascist – republicans of the Southern bourgeoisie).

I started out writing this intending it to be an elegy on the decline of Paddy’s Day into an apolitical Guinness-and-silly hats festival. But as I’ve been writing, I’ve realised that such a conclusion would be profoundly unfair: the decline of Paddy’s Day is merely one aspect of the decline of working class culture in Britain, Europe and the ‘West’ in general. The Irish in Britain are no better and no worse than any of the rest of us in that respect. The task before all of us is to rebuild that culture  – hopefully on a much better political foundation.

Meanwhile, before anyone points it out: I know full well that the term “craic” is a phony construction (like “ploughman’s lunch” and “balti”), but  the battle on that point was lost years ago. To close, here’s Dominic Behan’s anthem to Irish construction workers in England , “McAlpine’s Fusiliers”:


The above is dedicated (in the words of Sean Matgamna, who had no hand in writing any of it), “to all the victims of the crime the British Empire and the divided Irish bourgeoisie – Orange, Green, and Green-White-and-Orange alike – did by partitioning Ireland in 1922. It is dedicated too to the Irish labour movement on both sides of the border (and the Irish sea – JD), which must fight its way out of the blood-soaked mess capitalism has made in Ireland and build the only republic that is not a grim and cynical mockery of the long struggles of the Irish people for freedom – the workers’ republic.”

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A bit of a think…

March 15, 2008 at 9:17 am (blogosphere, iraq, voltairespriest)

Scoop at the Drink-Soaked Trots considers positive outcomes from the Iraq war.

Personally I’m not convinced. He states that the removal of Saddam and the “undermining of Al-Qaeda” are positive outcomes, but perhaps doesn’t consider what replaced Saddam, or when precisely Iraqi Al-Qaeda was set up, in doing so. I think the description of the sectarian client government in Baghdad as emblematic of a “fragile democracy” fails to acknowledge the reality of that regime and what keeps it in power. And quite how he thinks the decision by Tripoli to abandon its WMD programmes is a result of the Iraq war, is rather hard to fathom – unless he actually thinks that there is a serious prospect of apocalyptic US military interventions in every single unpleasant state in the world that may or may not have a chemical bomb factory.

But for all that the article did make me think. Have a read and reflect.

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