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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We Don’t Want No Segregation

December 22, 2013 at 10:58 am (academe, Feminism, Islam, islamism, religion, Rosie B, women)

My partner and I were once travelling on the eastern side of Turkey. That is noticeably more conservative than the western side, and we followed the Lonely Planet’s advice. He changed his shorts for trousers and I put on a long skirt. On mini-buses if there was a spare seat next to me and a man got on he would not sit next to me, so my partner and I would swap seats If a woman came on, it was vice versa.  We were trying our best to be culturally sensitive, and though we found this particular custom absurd, there’s plenty to admire about the people in eastern Turkey.

Note, though, how inconvenient it was. The bloke who got on looked tired, and had probably been working all day in the fields. But a cultural practice prevented him from taking a little ease for half an hour.  Also, countries where women are segregated usually mean the women stay at home. These are not just Muslim countries. When a woman friend and I travelled around Greece in about 1979 it looked like a virus had wiped out the female population. The corollary of the local women being kept apart is that we visiting women were harassed constantly. It was a relief to get back to Britain and be treated as a normal human being.

This is working up to segregation at universities which has made big news recently.

Over at Loonwatch, an Islamophobia watch site, they are puzzled that people should get so upset about men and women being segregated at meetings at universities that they, the complainers, are very unlikely to attend.  They also think it’s hypocritical, given the amount of gender segregation there is in our society.

Of course our society has a fair amount of informal segregation. Hen parties (which are yukky from other points of view) and stag parties for instance. However, the woman who goes on a girls’ night out or to a women’s networking event would be appalled to be segregated at a public meeting.  It was the formal connivance of the UUK to segregation that made everyone so angry.

There are times when a woman is a female body. In a changing room, in a toilet, in a hospital ward, giving birth, flirting at a party wearing a low-cut dress and having sex.  But that at a meeting she should be regarded as a female body rather than another citizen, another listener, questioner, point-putter or heckler is insulting to every suffragette and every feminist who fought for women’s equal rights in the public sphere.

Here are some  of the arguments set out by Tehmina Kazi, the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy. The full piece is here.

Aspects of the gender segregation debate that have annoyed and perplexed me

Denial that gender segregation even exists in universities.

Downplaying of the discrimination and shoddy treatment faced by women who have experienced it, which goes back many years.

Those who are unable to see why it is problematic for a public body like Universities UK to prioritise the whims of external speakers over university public sector equality duties, and THE SPIRIT of equalities law.

No-one has given me a GOOD reason as to WHY gender segregation it is practiced in the first place, in either civic or theological terms. “Because we’ve done it for years…” does NOT count.

. . .
Women who turn around and say, “But I’ve never had a problem with being segregated.” Fair enough, but where is the empathy for people who HAVE suffered as a result?

[An old feminist recognises “I’ve always got on very well with men. as an argument for anti-feminism.]

The endless comparisons with toilets. Since when did the privacy issues of taking a dump compare to those of engaging one’s brain and listening to a speaker as part of an audience?

The endless comparisons with single-sex educational establishments, which people actively CHOOSE to attend. Even if the choice was made for them by their parents, you’d think they would be able to enjoy such freedom of choice themselves at the age of 18, SHOULD they decide to attend university. What people effectively have NO choice over is attending a public event at a MIXED university – either as a guest or student – where the arrangements inhibit them from sitting or entering alongside the opposite gender.

(As for the single-sex colleges at Cambridge University, they were originally set up to help redress the gender imbalance in higher education. As I understand it, at least one of the Cambridge colleges in question intends to become co-educational when the proportion of women at Cambridge reaches 50%).

Confusion over the distinction between discretionary segregation (where people randomly sit where they wish, perhaps in same-sex clusters) and organised segregation (which is either enforced by the event organisers, or requested by the student societies in question). [See above for my point on the informal and formal.]

Complaints that the issue is receiving disproportionate public attention NOW. Where were these complainants when women’s rights activists were raising these issues within the community for YEARS? Keeping schtum and not upsetting the apple cart, yes?

Complaints that those who raise this issue MUST have an Islamophobic agenda, when many of them are actually Muslims whose concerns have been brushed aside for years. (As an aside, many of these same Muslim activists have ALSO done a lot to challenge GENUINE anti-Muslim sentiment).

Assumptions that those who campaign against gender segregation in university events MUST also automatically oppose it in congregational prayers. This is not about acts of worship, as Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief Executive Mark Hammond made clear: “Universities can also provide facilities for religious meetings and associations based on faith, as in the rest of society. Equality law permits gender segregation in premises that are permanently or temporarily being used for the purposes of an organised religion where its doctrines require it. However, in an academic meeting or in a lecture open to the public it is not, in the Commission’s view, permissible to segregate by gender.”

This issue will come up again in another guise, and again will have to be slapped down. It is a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

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Outbreak of sanity in Uni shock!

December 21, 2013 at 2:11 am (academe, atheism, Civil liberties, Cross-post, Free Speech, Islam, islamism, posted by JD, relativism, religion)

Outbreak of sanity in Uni shock!

KB Player, December 20th 2013, (cross-posted from That Place)

The London School of Economics (LSE) has today issued a long-awaited apology to students Chris Moos and Abhishek Phandis, representatives of the student Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (LSEASH), who wore t-shirts featuring the popular Jesus and Mo cartoon at the SU Freshers’ Fair on 3 October, and who were asked to cover their t-shirts or face removal from the Fair.

The incident . . . was described as an “effective blasphemy law”, and said to be indicative of a wider trend around various university campuses across the country, wherein minorities are singled out and targeted under the guise of “political correctness”.

The LSE has published a statement (linked to above), including an apology for the disproportionate action and confirming that the students in question did no wrong. The British Humanist Association (BHA) and National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Students Societies (AHS), of which the LSEASH is a member, have both welcomed the LSE’s statement.

The dudes.

What with this, and the UUK “urgently reviewing” their guidance on gender segregation, it’s been a good week.

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After UUK’s climb-down, keep up the fight against relativism!

December 14, 2013 at 7:43 pm (academe, apologists and collaborators, capitulation, civil rights, Education, Human rights, islamism, Jim D, misogyny, relativism, religion, secularism, women)

Exclusive: The Equality and Human Rights Commission steps into the row over controversial guidelines which said gender segregation on campus should be allowed
Above: Protesters at the small rally in Tavistock Square on Wednesday

At first it looked as though we were shouting into the wilderness: a few blogs (including us at Shiraz) drew attention to the outrage, and a small demonstration took place; just 8,000 people signed an online petition. It looked as though Universities UK (UUK) would get away with one of the most outrageous and craven capitulations to religious bigotry and misogyny  in recent years: their so-called “guidelines” sanctioning gender segregation in UK universities.

Then the issue seemed to take off. To his credit, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umanna declared that a Labour government would outlaw gender segregation at universities, and – belatedly – Cameron intervened, issuing a statement against segregation, and UUK backed down and withdrew its “guidance.”

A truly wretched and shameful performance by UUK’s Nicola Dandridge on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in which she stated that gender segregation was “not completely alien to our culture,” may well have been crucial. Listeners were outraged, especially when, in the same programme, one Saleem Chagtai of the so-called Islamic Education and Research Academy, claimed (under questioning from the excellent Mishal Husain) that “psychological studies” had shown that men and women were “more comfortable” when seated apart, and that “wanton depictions of women” were not allowed by his organisation.

In a ignominious climb-down, UUK has now withdrawn its guidance and says it will be seeking advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (which has already indicated that UUK’s “guidance” is almost certainly illegal). In our opinion, Nicola Dandridge should now be considering her position.

But we should also remember that the left-controlled National Union of Students supported the UUK “guidance” and that the SWP has helped organise and then defended, gender-segregated meetings. There was a time when the left would be at the forefront in defending secular, enlightenment values. But no longer: cultural relativism and “identity” politics infected sections of the “left” and the Guardianista “liberal”-“left” some years ago, and they are now, all too often, on the wrong side. But our defeat of UUK shows that cultural relativism can be beaten; our immediate and most dangerous enemies are not the clerical fascists themselves, but their “left”/”liberal” appeasers, of the Guardianista / SWP variety.

The fight-back begins here!

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Tariq Ramadan – reactionary bigot – to give Orwell Lecture

November 13, 2013 at 1:04 am (academe, Andrew Coates, AWL, celebrity, From the archives, homophobia, Human rights, humanism, intellectuals, islamism, Middle East, misogyny, murder, palestine, posted by JD, reactionay "anti-imperialism", relativism, religion, secularism, strange situations, women)

TR

Above: Prof Ramadan

Comrade Coatesy draws our attention to the unspeakably depressing fact that Tariq Ramadan (Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford and poster-boy for supposedly “moderate” Islamism) has been chosen deliver this year’s Orwell Lecture.

Now, Orwell was no saint, and certainly had his prejudices and blind-spots. He can reasonably be accused of a degree of sexism and homophobia. There are passages in his writings that have been considered anti-Semitic. He was a child of his time, and did not always rise above the prevalent backwardness of that time. But he was aware of his weaknesses and seems to have made genuine efforts to fight his inner demons. He was nothing if not scrupulously honest, self-critical (to a degree that sometimes played into the hands of his enemies), and humanist. He was also hostile to all forms of totalitarianism, religion and spirituality, despite a sentimental soft spot for the rituals of the C of E. All of which makes the choice of Professor Ramadan to deliver the lecture named after him, especially unfortunate.

The French revolutionary socialist and Marxist Yves Coleman wrote a trenchant critique of Ramadan back in 2007, published by Workers Liberty. We republish it below, preceded by Workers Liberty‘s introduction. Given Ramadan’s evident popularity not just on sections of the “left”, but also with Guardianista-liberals, and his selection as the Orwell lecturer, this is a timely reminder of just how unpleasant his underlying politics are:
**********************

“40 reasons why Tariq Ramadan is a reactionary bigot” was written by the French Marxist, Yves Coleman and has been reproduced by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). The text presents factual information about the politics of Tariq Ramadan.

There are many issues the Left must address.

First is the question of honest polemic.

Useful political debate requires clearly presented political positions and an attempt to honestly engage with opponents.

And yet Yves Coleman believes that it almost impossible to either ‘catch’ or ‘corner’ Tariq Ramadan. He is difficult to pin down. The reason is simple: Tariq Ramadan often says one thing to one group, and something different, or contradictory, elsewhere.

This slipperiness connects with the second issue for the left.

No doubt, given the support Ramadan has on the “left”, there will be further “left” attempts to refute the damning contents of this document. However, it will not be good enough to answer Yves Coleman by producing further quotes from Ramadan.

It just won’t do to reply to the reactionary statements Ramadan has made on the issue of women’s rights, for example, by presenting other quotes suggesting he is a liberal on the question (and so implying Ramadan can’t have made the statements cited by Yves Coleman without having to address the quotes directly). Ramadan might well have made both the reactionary and the liberal statements. As Yves Coleman shows, on many issues Ramadan has done exactly that.

It will not do to protest that Ramadan is more liberal-minded, less rigidly reactionary than extreme Islamist groups like Hizb-ut Tahrir. He is. Mainstream Catholic ideologues are less rigidly reactionary than the Tridentines. They are still not allies for the left.

Nor will it do to try to change the question by saying that the left has also had Christian preachers sometimes share platforms with it to denounce apartheid or war. The left will work with campaigners who may be Muslims on the same basis. But Tariq Ramadan’s left-wing friends promote him not because he has campaigned on some progressive political issue (and despite his Islamic ideas), but because he is a (sometimes left-sounding) Islamic ideologue, regardless of him doing nothing for progressive politics other than making bland statements against poverty and so on.

The only possible “left” responses to this document are: to attempt to prove Coleman has mis-quoted Ramadan; or to attempt to explain away Ramadan’s statements (by claiming some sort of special privilege for Muslim bigots); or to accept Ramadan is a reactionary.

Third is the peculiar fact – one which Yves Coleman notes in his text – that the left finds no problem in condemning Catholic reactionaries, but often praises and promotes Islamic reactionaries such as Ramadan who have similar views. Criticisms of Tariq Ramadan are often called “Islamophobic”. But we do not say that Ramadan is worse than a Catholic reactionary because he is Muslim rather than Catholic. We only say that a Muslim reactionary is no more defensible than a Catholic reactionary.

The problem is that large sections of the left have degenerated and decayed to such an extent that they become unable to differentiate between critics of existing society who offer a positive alternative to capitalism (the working-class, class-struggle left), and those critics who are backward-looking reactionaries.

The kitsch-left has – seemingly – forgotten what it positively stands for, and can only remember what it is against (Blair, Israel and, most of all, America). Since Islamists are against Israel and the USA, and Catholic reactionaries generally are not, the kitsch-left thinks the Islamists are progressive. Or that Ramadan, a Swiss university professor, is the best person to invite to be a “Voice of the Global South” at the European Social Forum, precisely because he is an Islamic ideologue.

It is organisations such as the SWP – which found itself unable to condemn 9/11, and which supports the so-called resistance in Iraq – that promote Ramadan.

Forth is to understand Ramadan’s project.

Yves Coleman writes: “The basic thing is that Ramadan wants is to enlarge the power of control or religion on society. Ramadan always invokes French racism (which exists and can not be denied) and colonial history to explain the hostility he provokes in France. In this he is partly right, but what is at stake is the meaning of secularism. For him (as well as for the SWP and its French followers) secularism means that all religions are treated equally by the State and are respected. For the French Republican tradition, it means something different: it means (in theory) that people should not express religious views in the public sphere (in their job, in the schools, in Parliament, etc.) and should keep their religious views to the private sphere. That’s where the difference lies.

“Ramadan may not be a fundamentalist of the worst sort but he is clearly training a whole generation of religious cadres who are trying to change the content of secularism in France in a more pro-religious direction.”

Fifth is to understand the role Ramadan is playing in NUS.

Behind Ramadan – urbane, reasonable sounding – stand the Islamists of the MAB/Muslim Brothers.

Ramadan is the reasonable face of Islamic politics, and he is the thin end of the wedge.

Finally, we need to understand that attempts to shout down Marxist critics of Ramadan with demagogic accusations of “Islamophobia” and even “racism” are absurd.

Discrimination and even violence against Muslims are real. We oppose such bigotry.

However we also demand women’s liberation, gay liberation. The AWL is an atheist organisation, and fights for secular values. Therefore we will not ignore Ramadan’s bigotry or backwardness.

*******************
40 reasons why Tariq Ramadan is a reactionary bigot
By Yves Coleman

Tariq Ramadan often complains that the media accuse him of being two-faced. He considers that this critique is a plain racist slander in the line of the eternal cliché about so-called Arab “deceitfulness”. If we read Mr Ramadan’s writings we reach a much simpler conclusion: Tariq Ramadan is a sincere Muslim who defends reactionary positions on a number of issues, but that does not prevent him from holding critical views on many injustices, while being fundamentally a moderate in politics.

Just as Pope John Paul II condemned the “excesses of capitalism”, unemployment, greed, poverty, the war in Iraq and the way Israel treats the Palestinians.

Only somebody who has never thought about about the function of religions (of all religions) can be surprised by this coexistence of different interpretations of the world: a faith in myths (as in the Bible, Torah, Quran, Upanishads, etc.) and absurd superstitions; a use of reason in many daily (manual and intellectual) activities ; a sincere revolt against all injustices; a misogynist and homophobic moralism; a need for dreams and utopias, etc.

Revolutionaries do not question Tariq Ramadan’s right to defend his religious beliefs, or to proselytise. After all, as he rightly notes, nobody in France is scandalized by the constant propaganda waged by missionaries like Mother Teresa or Sister Emmanuelle in Asia. Nobody protests against the repeated presence of Sister Emmanuelle, Cardinal Lustinger (former cardinal in charge of Paris) and other priests, nuns and monks in all sorts of French TV shows and programs.

Nor is this a matter of a theological dispute with somebody who is always going to know Islam better than any “Western” atheist.

What we insist on is that there are other interpretations of Islam, from Muslims who are much more democratic and secular than Ramadan.

And we reject the dishonest gambit used by this Swiss philosophy lecturer to deflect criticism: each time a Muslim intellectual defends an opinion which is different from his, it is because she or he is “westernized”, has adopted a “West-centred vision”, or worse, has sold out to imperialist, colonialist and racist Western powers.

Revolutionaries do not claim that Tariq Ramadan holds reactionary positions on all issue. We simply ask his “left-wing” friends not to knowingly dissimulate his obscurantist positions and not to dismiss in advance the positions of other Muslims who are much less conservative than him as regards morals, secularism and all the issues of daily life.

This dissimulation comes sometimes from a unworthy paternalism (“he will shift as he comes into contact with us”), sometimes from a manipulative approach (“we are not interested in him, but in the immigrants he influences”), and sometimes from a political vision which blurs all class divisions (“the confluence of all anti-capitalist movements”, the “revolt of the multitudes”, and other such rubbish), sometimes from the cynical relativism of disillusioned former adherents of dialectical materialism (“after all, no-one knows whether scientific truths exist”), and sometimes from a “Third Worldism” which has still not given up on the Stalinist illusion of “socialism in one country”.

In all these cases, such hypocritical attitudes to Ramadan’s bigotry do a disservice to workers who still believe in Islam but who also want to fight against capitalism. And after all, as revolutionaries, it is those “Muslims” who interest us.

Tariq Ramadan does not approve of flirting, sex before (or outside) marriage, homosexuality, women’s contraception or divorce. He thinks that Muslim women should submit to their husbands if they are “good” Muslims. He believes that men must be financially responsible for the well-being of their family, and not women. In other words, Tariq Ramadan is opposed to or equivocal about feminism, women’s rights, gay rights and sexual liberation. One should also have strong doubts about his respect of the freedom of speech and thought: in Switzerland he contributed to a campaign against a Voltaire play, and he wants Muslim parents to control the content of State school programs according to “Islamic values”, to give only two examples. But that does not prevent him from constantly using the key words of today’s public relations industry: “respect”, “tolerance”, “communication” and “dialogue” in the manner of a cynical politician.

What a strange friend for the Left! Read the rest of this entry »

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Religious bigotry and censorship at LSE

October 6, 2013 at 10:39 am (academe, atheism, capitulation, Christianity, Civil liberties, Free Speech, grovelling, humanism, Islam, Jim D, relativism, religion, secularism, strange situations, students)

How has it come to this? And how is that some who regard themselves as on the “left” not only tolerate religious bigotry and censorship of this sort, but actively promote it?

anti

Statement from the British Humanist Association

LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society incident at freshers’ fair

October 4th, 2013

 
Representatives of LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society have been threatened with removal from their University’s freshers’ fair by their Students’ Union after refusing to remove t-shirts depicting the online comic ‘Jesus and Mo’. The society’s members were threatened on the basis that the t-shirts were could be considered  ‘harassment’,  as  they  could  ‘offend  others’  by  creating  an  ‘offensive environment’.

In a statement, the students have explained:

‘When the LSE security arrived, we were asked to cover our t-shirts or leave LSE premises. When we asked for the rules and regulations we were in breach of, we were told that the LSE was being consulted about how to proceed. After a period of consultation, Kevin Haynes (LSE Legal and Compliance Team) and Paul Thornbury (LSE Head of Security) explained to us that we were not behaving in an “orderly and responsible manner”, and that the wearing of the t-shirt could be considered “harassment”, as it could “offend others” by creating an “offensive environment”. We asked what exactly was “offensive” about the t-shirts, and how the display of a non-violent and non-racist comic strip could be considered “harassment” of other students.

‘At the end of this conversation, five security guards started to position themselves around our stall. We felt this was a tactic to intimidate us. We were giving an ultimatum that should we not comply immediately, we would be physically removed from LSE property. We made it clear that we disagreed strongly with this interpretation of the rules, but that we would comply by covering the t-shirts… After that, the head of LSE security told us that as he believed that we might open the jackets again when was going to leave, two security guards were going to stay in the room to monitor our behaviour. These two security guards were following us closely when we went in and out of the room.’

You can see their statement of events on the second day.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association (BHA), commented, ‘The LSESU is acting in a totally disproportionate manner in their dealings with our affiliate society. That a satirical webcomic can be deemed to be so offensive as to constitute harassment is a sad indictment of the state of free speech at Britain’s Universities today. This hysteria on the part of the SU and University is totally unwarranted; intelligent young adults of whatever beliefs are not so sensitive that they need to be protected from this sort of material in an academic institution. Our lawyers are advising our affiliated society at LSE and we will be working with them, the students, and the AHS  to resolve this issue.’

The National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies strongly condemns the actions of the LSESU. President Rory Fenton said, ‘Our member societies deserve and rightly demand the same freedom of speech and expression afforded to their religious counterparts on campus. Universities should be open to and tolerant of different beliefs, without exception. That a students’ union would use security guards to follow and intimidate their own members is deeply concerning and displays an inconsistent approach to free speech; if it is for some, it must be for all. The AHS will work with our partners at the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society to assist our affiliated society and seek engagement with both the LSESU and LSE itself. It is the duty of universities countrywide to respect their students’ rights, not their sensitivities.’

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Andrew Copson on 07855 380 633 or Rory Fenton on 07403141133.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

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Women in men’s airspace?

August 13, 2013 at 11:04 am (academe, adventure, AWL, Feminism, history, literature, Marxism, modernism, reblogged, women)

From Workers Liberty

Camila Bassi reviews Liz Millward’s Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937 (2008, McGill-Queen’s University Press).


The period of 1922 to 1937 represented significant inter-war development of gendered airspace within the British Empire.

From 1922, when the International Commission on Air Navigation debated the place of women in commercial airspace, to 1937, the year in which the female pilot Jean Batten completed her last long-distance record-breaking flight, the British Empire was at its peak, ruling about one-quarter of the world’s territory. Millward notes:

“The interwar period was a window of possibility for many young white women in the British Empire. The First World War had undermined powerful old certainties. Women who were determined to learn the lessons of the past turned to internationalism, pacifism, nationalism, and fascism as they looked for ways to control the future.”

Millward’s concern is with the contestations of female pilots in producing, defining, and accessing civilian airspace during this time. What’s more, she is interested in how such struggles were bound up with different kinds of airspace: the private, the commercial, the imperial, the national, and the body; that in turn had their own relations of gender, class, race, sexuality, nationalism, and imperialism.

Like many geographers seeking a radical understanding of space, Millward draws on the work of Henri Lefebvre, who wrote that “a revolution which does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses”.

Millward concludes that post-war airspace had the potential to be what Lefebvre coined, capitalist “abstract space” par excellence, specifically, in its commodification, bureaucratisation, and decorporealisation.

In one sense it is a curious application of Lefebvre, given Lefebvre’s focus on the city. Lefebvre denounces capitalist urbanity for its drive to repress play and prioritise productivity and rationality. He also recognises potential within the centrality of the urban, meaning that a whole range of social interactions converge.

For Lefebvre, all people have the right to space, i.e. to access and participate fully in urban life, thus the constraints placed on this possibility by capitalism must be critiqued (Lefebvre, 1991; Shields, 1988). Lefebvre’s interest lies in working out the spatial strategies for social change and, as such, his ideas resonate with the French Situationists (with their slogan of May 1968 “beneath the pavement, the beach”) and Britain’s “Reclaim the Streets” movement of the 1990s.

Millward concludes that notable female pilots modelled achievement and “beat the men”, so, in effect, supported wider feminist struggles and proved that women were part of airspace.

Nonetheless, civilian airspace was naturalised as masculine and had the potential to become abstract space. She ends: “‘To change life,’ writes Lefebvre, ‘we must first change space’. Women pilots tried to do just that.”

Reflecting on the book as a whole, I wonder: what does Millward gain from a poststructuralist feminist approach? Such an approach emphasises the discursive and contingent nature of all identities with particular focus on the construction of gendered subjectivities. This intersectional analysis combines the cultural and economic features of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, and class.

“Capitalism”, “imperialism’”and “class” are given wider definitional scope: capitalism and imperialism as social, cultural, political, and economic relations, and class as a cultural construct (to include the economic but differing from simply wage-labour). So, rather than asking what is gained, perhaps the real question is — what is lost? Actually, rather a lot I think.

In the context of all that is solid melting into air, I cannot help but sense that the book would have been a richer account had the dialectics of the struggles been fully explored. Three aspects of dialectical materialist thinking would have strengthened the study: firstly, looking for the interrelationship between phenomena to other phenomena (past and present, and including apparent opposites); secondly, seeing conditions (and relations) of existence in continual movement; and lastly, comprehending societal processes moving through contradictory tensions.

Moreover, the book missed (or rather, seemed to bypass) the centrality of class and imperialism and its intersection with gender, race, sexuality, and nationalism. I’ll end, before any retort accuses me of crude economic determinism and class reductionism, with the words of Engels (1890):

“If somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase.

“We make history ourselves, but first of all, under very definite assumptions and conditions…history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a variety of particular conditions of life.

“Thus, there are innumerable crisscrossing forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event.”

References:

Engels, F (1890) “Engels to J. Bloch”, Marxists Internet Archive

Lefebvre, H (1991) The Production of Space (Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith), Oxford: Blackwell.

Millward, L (2008) Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Shields, R (1988) “An English Précis of Henri Lefebvre’s La Production De L’Espace”, Working Paper, Department of Urban and Regional Studies, University of Sussex

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Chomsky -v- Žižek (and Lacan)

July 20, 2013 at 2:18 pm (academe, Beyond parody, Chomsky, cults, intellectuals, jerk, Jim D, language, philosophy, stalinism, strange situations, wankers)

Regulars will know that us Shirazers are not big fans of Noam Chomsky. But back in December 2012 he gave an interview that warmed the cockles of our collective heart, slamming, amongst others, those two verbose charlatans Žižek and Lacan:

Mike Springer (at Open Culture) writes:

Noam Chomsky’s well-known political views have tended to overshadow his groundbreaking work as a linguist and analytic philosopher. As a result, people sometimes assume that because Chomsky is a leftist, he would find common intellectual ground with the postmodernist philosophers of the European Left.

Big mistake.

In this brief excerpt from a December, 2012 interview with Veterans Unplugged, Chomsky is asked about the ideas of Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. The M.I.T. scholar, who elsewhere has described some of those figures and their followers as “cults,” doesn’t mince words:

What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.

via Leiter Reports

Related content:

John Searle on Foucault and the Obscurantism in French Philosophy

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault Debate Human Nature and Power on Dutch TV, 1971

Jacques Lacan Talks About Psychoanalysis with Panache (1973)

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek Interprets Hitchcock’s Vertigo in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006)

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Oh, goody goody! Žižek has replied…(and makes some fair points about Chomsky’s record), here

Further comment on the spat, at Open Culture

H/t: Norm … who also draws our attention to the John Searl link on Foucault and Obscurantism, above.

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Class Conference 2013

July 16, 2013 at 7:53 am (academe, capitalist crisis, class, Jim D, labour party, left, socialism, unions)

Looks like a worthwhile (if somewhat bureaucratic and reformist) event: certainly healthier than  the travesty that was ‘Marxism 20013’…

The Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class) is pleased to announce its first national conference will be held this autumn

Class Conference 2013: Leading the Debate
9am-4pm
Saturday 2 November 2013
TUC, Congress House
23-28 Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3LS

Class is holding its first major conference featuring a range of world class speakers for delegates from across the labour movement.

This large-scale conference aims to provide a unique opportunity to debate the policies we want to see implemented in 2015.

The day will consist of two main sessions with a selection of plenaries in the morning and afternoon. In these sessions we will address the most important concerns of the day including economic alternatives, the welfare state, work and pay, the role of trade unions in society, young people, housing, equality, inequality, public services, the NHS, amongst many more.

Speakers include

Allyson Pollock, Ann Pettifor, Angela Eagle MP, Billy Hayes, Christine Blower, Claude Moraes MEP, Professor Costas Lapavitsas, Professor Doreen Massey, Duncan Weldon, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Emily Thornberry MP, Fiona Millar, Frances O’Grady, Ian Lavery MP, Jack Dromey MP, Cllr James Murray, John Hendy QC, Jon Trickett MP, Joy Johnson, Kate Bell, Professor Keith Ewing, Ken Livingstone, Kevin Maguire, Laura Pidcock, Len McCluskey, Lisa Nandy MP, Manuel Cortes, Professor Marjorie Mayo, Mark Serworka, Mehdi Hasan, Melissa Benn, Mick Whelan, Owen Jones, Prem Sikka, Shelly Asquith, Stefan Stern, Stewart Lansley, Lord Stewart Wood, Wilf Sullivan, Zoe Williams… and many more still to be announced.

Come along to have your say.

To book a ticket please visit our Eventbrite page http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/event/6122960941

To find out more about the event please visit our website http://classonline.org.uk/events/item/class-conference-2013-leading-the-debate or the Facebook event https://www.facebook.com/events/500706923317709/?ref=22.

Best wishes,

Roisin McDermott
Projects and Events Officer
Class

Our mailing address is:

Class: Centre for Labour and Social Studies

128 Theobalds Road

London, England WC1X 8TN

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The limits of satire, by Jonathan Coe

July 15, 2013 at 5:01 pm (academe, comedy, history, intellectuals, Roger M, satire, TV)

Roger McCarthy recommends this and comments:

“(A) superb takedown of anti-establishment satire from novelist Jonathan Coe

“Particularly love the quotes from Peter Cook in Beyond the Fringe ‘Oh my goodness four minutes warning doesn’t seem a very long time but ‘I’d remind those doubters that some people in this great country of ours can run a mile in four minutes’

“And ‘when opening his club, The Establishment, in Soho in 1961, Cook remarked that he was modelling it on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did  so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the  Second World War”.’

Above: the civil defence sketch from Beyond The Fringe

*****
 By Jonathan Coe (London Review of Books)

In 1956, James Sutherland, a professor of 18th-century literature, delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge on the subject of ‘English satire’. ‘In recent years,’ he announced, ‘there have been signs of an increased interest in satirical writing,’ but even he couldn’t have seen what was about to start unfolding in a year or two, on his very doorstep. Beyond the Fringe is routinely credited with starting the ‘satire boom’, but that accolade should really go to The Last Laugh, the 1959 Cambridge Footlights revue, directed and largely devised by John Bird. CND was just beginning to gather momentum and the show opened with a huge nuclear explosion, following which, in the words of the producer William Donaldson, the audience was treated to a whole evening’s worth of ‘terrible gloomy stuff – the punchline of every sketch was people dying.’ Nonetheless, it was undoubtedly a strong influence on Peter Cook (one of the original cast members) and the other three-quarters of the Beyond the Fringe team (Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller and Dudley Moore), who would go on to present their own take on the nuclear threat, in a sketch called ‘Civil War’.

In that sketch, a worried Moore listens trustingly as a succession of posh-voiced government spokesmen seek to reassure him that all the appropriate measures are in place in the event of a nuclear attack. When he voices disbelief that a four-minute warning would be enough, and Cook drawlingly retorts, ‘I’d remind those doubters that some people in this great country of ours can run a mile in four minutes,’ the satire actually bites. It was certainly one of the most scathing and well-targeted sketches in Beyond the Fringe. Otherwise, if this truly represented the first high point of the ‘satire boom’, the tensions and contradictions inherent in the movement were already visible. Miller’s long-winded monologue about trousers, ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’, is a flight of whimsical fantasy which reminds us that it was fashionable, at that time, to admire N.F. Simpson and his theatre of the suburban absurd. Cook’s ‘Sitting on a Bench’, in which a delusional tramp informs the audience, in a glazed monotone, that he ‘could have been a judge if he’d had the Latin’, is Beckettian in its bleakness and oddity. Altogether, the subjects of each sketch are so various, and the collective point of view is so moveable, that one can pin it down no more closely than by calling it ‘anti-establishment’. Michael Frayn may have excoriated that phrase – in his brief, brilliant introduction to the published text, Beyond the Fringe, in 1963 – as denoting ‘a spacious vacancy of thought’, but really, I don’t see how we can do any better. Any real ‘establishment’ is impossible to define (this being a principal source of its power and durability), but as far as the Fringers were concerned the British version circa 1960 seems to have included at least the Church of England, the army, the government, the judiciary, the public schools and the class system, all of which were held up as worthy of incredulous laughter. And so, in discussing the movement that Beyond the Fringe helped to kick off, perhaps it would be better not to talk of satire (satire being only one of its ingredients) but ‘anti-establishment comedy’. Another thing worth remembering is that practically every one of its leading figures had been to Oxford or Cambridge and could, therefore, be seen to have at least a foothold in the establishment they were criticising: in the words of Cook’s biographer, Harry Thompson, these were not rebellious outsiders but ‘young men questioning a system they had been trained to lead’ and laughing at ‘the society that had reared them’.

The four cast members of Beyond the Fringe soon decamped to New York, where the revue achieved even longer-running success on Broadway than it had in the West End, and were out of the country by the time the BBC discovered anti-establishment comedy and gave it a national platform in the shape of That Was the Week That Was, which first aired on 24 November 1962, presented by David Frost. With the cancelling of that show little more than a year later, ostensibly on the grounds that it interfered with the BBC’s duty of impartiality in the run-up to the 1964 election, the heyday of anti-establishment comedy was already over. Yet its influence on British radio and television has never died out completely. There was never much social comment in Monty Python (until they made Life of Brian), but the (Oxbridge-educated) Not the Nine O’Clock News team at the beginning of the 1980s sometimes aimed for satire, and Armando Iannucci (University College, Oxford) has blazed such a trail through broadcast comedy in recent years that no one would begrudge him the OBE he recently accepted from the establishment he has worked so hard to undermine. Meanwhile, on Have I Got News for You and The News Quiz respectively, Ian Hislop (Ardingly, Magdalen) and old Harrovian Francis Wheen tirelessly carry on the work that the Beyond the Fringe team started more than half a century ago.

When Have I Got News for You moved to BBC One more than a decade ago it began to lose some of its teeth: so much so, after a while, that one regular panellist, Will Self, announced he would no longer be taking part. At its erratic best, however, it remains a worthwhile show. In fact the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle went so far a couple of years ago as to call Ian Hislop, on the basis of his weekly appearances there, ‘the single most influential voice in modern British politics’. He was not paying a straightforward compliment. ‘Week in and week out’, his message ‘is that pretty much all politicians are corrupt, deluded, incompetent, second-rate and hypocritical’. This message, Kettle said, is delivered with ‘enviable deftness and wit’, but it is also ‘extremely repetitive’. Steve Fielding, an academic, went further and argued in 2011 that in accepting this view of politicians as uniformly corrupt and useless, the public are embracing a dangerous new stereotype, since it ‘can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit’. ‘Comedy,’ he continued, ‘has always relied on stereotypes. There was a time when the Irish were thick; the Scots were careful with money; mothers-in-law fierce and ugly; and the Welsh stole and shagged sheep. The corrupt politician is one such stereotype, one that is neither racist nor sexist and seemingly acceptable to all.’ The idea that politicians are morally inferior to the rest of us is ‘a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not to blame because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong.’

Fielding’s remarks were eloquent and timely; but it is remarkable how fully they were anticipated by Frayn in 1963. Even then – in the very year of That Was the Week That Was – Frayn was using the same analogy, and could see, just as clearly, how anti-establishment comedy was letting its audience off the hook: ‘To go on mocking the Establishment,’ he wrote, ‘has more and more meant making the audience laugh not at themselves at all, but at a standard target which is rapidly becoming as well-established as mothers-in-law. To do this is not to undermine but to confirm the audience’s prejudices, and has less in common with satire than with community hymn-singing – agreeable and heartwarming as that may be.’ And Frayn, indeed, was echoing what James Sutherland had pointed out seven years earlier when he said that ‘certain kinds of satirical writing (political satire is a good example) are not normally intended to convert one’s opponents, but to gratify and fortify one’s friends.’ Or perhaps we should give the final, gloomiest word on this subject to William Cowper, writing in 1785:

Yet what can satire, whether grave or gay? … What vice has it subdued? whose heart reclaimed By rigour, or whom laughed into reform? Alas! Leviathan is not so tamed.

Despite all this, it always seems that successive generations of entertainers, bent on laughing people out of their follies and vices, remain optimistic about the power of anti-establishment comedy at the outset of their careers: it’s only later that reality kicks in. When Humphrey Carpenter interviewed the leading lights of the 1960s satire boom for his book That Was Satire, That Was in the late 1990s, he found that what was once youthful enthusiasm had by now curdled into disillusionment. One by one, they expressed dismay at the culture of facetious cynicism their work had spawned, their complaints coalescing into a dismal litany of regret. John Bird: ‘Everything is a branch of comedy now. Everybody is a comedian. Everything is subversive. And I find that very tiresome.’ Barry Humphries: ‘Everyone is being satirical, everything is a send-up. There’s an infuriating frivolity, cynicism and finally a vacuousness.’ Christopher Booker: ‘Peter Cook once said, back in the 1960s, “Britain is in danger of sinking giggling into the sea,” and I think we really are doing that now.’

The key word here is ‘giggling’ (or in some versions of the quotation, ‘sniggering’). Of the four Beyond the Fringe members, it’s always Peter Cook who is described as the comic genius, and like any genius he fully (if not always consciously) understood the limitations of his own medium. He understood laughter, in other words – and certainly understood that it is anything but a force for change. Famously, when opening his club, The Establishment, in Soho in 1961, Cook remarked that he was modelling it on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War’. And his comment about giggling (or sniggering) as we sink beneath the sea was developed in a Beyond the Fringe sketch called ‘The Sadder and Wiser Beaver’, about a bunch of young, would-be radical journalists who won’t admit they have sold their soul to a rapacious newspaper proprietor:

COOK: Whenever the old man has a cocktail party, there’s about ten of us – young, progressive people – we all gather up the far end of the room and … quite openly, behind our hands, we snigger at him.

BENNETT: Well, I don’t know, that doesn’t seem very much to me.

COOK: A snigger here, a snigger there – it all adds up.

The sketch makes it clear that laughter is not just ineffectual as a form of protest, but that it actually replaces protest – a point also developed by Frayn in his introduction. Ruminating on where the sudden public appetite for satire might have come from, he wrote:

Conceivably the demand arose because after ten years of stable Conservative government, with no prospect in 1961 of its ever ending, the middle classes felt some vague guilt accumulating for the discrepancy between their prosperous security and the continuing misery of those who persisted in failing to conform, by being black, or queer, or mad, or old. Conceivably they felt the need to disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges.

If anti-establishment comedy allows the public to ‘disclaim with laughter’ any responsibility for injustice, the sticking point is not really satire itself (for satire can take the gravest of forms) but laughter (or ‘sniggering’, to use Peter Cook’s term) in the face of political problems. Have I Got News for You presents thousands of practical demonstrations of this, so let’s look at just one of them, from the edition of 24 April 1998. It was Boris Johnson’s first appearance as a guest on the programme,[5]​5 and Ian Hislop was tormenting him on the subject of his notorious phone call with Darius Guppy, when they are alleged to have discussed the possibility of beating up an unfriendly journalist. Hislop was doing what he does best, remaining genial but suddenly toning down the humour and confronting the guest with chapter and verse for a past misdemeanour. As the exchange develops, Johnson looks distinctly uncomfortable, describing Hislop’s intervention as ‘richly comic’ and protesting: ‘I don’t want to be totally stitched up here.’ He calls Guppy a ‘great chap’, to which Hislop answers: ‘And a convicted fraudster.’ Johnson concedes this, and admits that Guppy made a ‘major goof’, and then begins to ramble and bumble in his characteristic way, groping for a way out of the corner; sensing, visibly, that Hislop has got him on the ropes, he mentions some of the other things that he and Guppy discussed during that conversation, including their military heroes. And suddenly, Paul Merton interjects with the line: ‘Hence Major Goof that you mentioned just now.’

It’s a lovely joke, which gets a terrific laugh and a round of applause. But its effect on the exchange is noticeable. An uncomfortable situation is suddenly defused: Johnson relaxes, the audience laughter gives him room to breathe and gather his thoughts. When he next speaks he is back on track, and says winningly: ‘Since you choose to bring up this unhappy episode I won’t deny a word of it. I’m not ashamed of it’ – and off he goes, into one of those endearing, self-deprecatory apologies of which he is now, 15 years later, a consummate master. Read the rest of this entry »

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