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Honey I shrunk my mind…or the unusual joy of pseudo-science. August 31, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in H.P. Lovecraft, Pseudo-Science, Science, Science Fiction, Skepticism, Uncategorized.
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Put something about pseudo-science in front of me and I’ll read it avidly. UFO’s, ancient civilisations, paranormal phenomena, I love ‘em all and believe not a word. Partly it’s because it would be great if there were real evidence of contact with aliens, partly because there’s a sort of allure about ancient knowledge, partly because it’s always interesting to discover what people believe in and why. The psychology of belief and (seeming) experience is remarkable. Maybe it’s also because science is at its best when it’s tested . No methodological framework is beyond testing, but it has to be said science seems to hold up fairly well.

Anyhow I like to flatter myself that I’ve heard it all, evidence that the moon landings were a hoax, evidence of alien activities on the moon and Mars, alien landings, the Nephilim as progenitors of civilisation (actually that one is great because if you have even a nodding acquaintance to the Fields of the Nephilim you can use them as the soundtrack to your browsing – ignoring the Lovecraftian nonsense on the second and third albums, like you base your lyrics on an invented mythos by a writer of early 20th century horror, natch!).

But no. I was wrong, I really haven’t heard it all.

Ever heard of the Expanding Earth hypothesis? I hadn’t until about a week ago. That’s the one where people have looked at the shape of the continents and decided that while they interlock quite well, it requires an Earth some 40% smaller in order for them to interlock perfectly. And the added bonus is an even more intriguing theory. That gravity was once much lesser than it is now and that was what allowed the dinosaurs to grow to such great sizes because as any fule kno’s they couldn’t possibly have stood upright under the prevailing gravity.

Exciting stuff I think you’ll agree. There are unfortunately problems of course. Foremost amongst them is the slight inconvenience that there is no evidence that the Earth has expanded. For example such expansion would have seriously impacted on the orbit of the Moon and so we could hope to see some evidence there. The motive force behind such an expansion doesn’t appear to exist. Nor do we see any evidence that other planets expand in such a fashion.

The gravity problem is even greater. A better argument could be made that for the gravity to be lower in the past the Earth would need to be larger and therefore we live on a shrinking Earth! I won’t even go into the biology of just why most scientists in the field are reasonably content that dinosaurs could stand up on their own (usually) four feet.

Earlier this year I was at a talk about themes in science fiction and fantasy where a guy called James P Hogan who has had a career as a fairly successful writer of mainstream SF, was part of a panel talking about mythological creatures. He brought it around to his favourite issue which is that of ‘catastrophist’ theory, basically the idea that there have been cataclysmic events on Earth and in the Solar System within historical time. Some of these are attributed to Venus being a sort of comet expelled by Saturn or Jupiter in the last 3000 years or so (much of this was first suggested by Immanuel Velikovsky, a Russian emigre in the US) which blundered about the inner solar system causing amongst other events, the Biblical plagues, floods, earthquakes, and sundry other unpleasant events. For more see here.
He too believes in the lower gravity/bigger dinosaur hypothesis. But wait…that’s not all. He believes that science is trammelled by adherence to an orthodoxy perpetuated by scientists too blinkered to look outside their own narrow disciplines and afraid of fitting the facts to their theories.
My problem with all of this is that, as with the expanding earth concept, it’s very much a case of look at the facts then attempt to find the most extreme, albeit (and this is significant) entertaining and conceptually extravagant, possible cause to explain them.

Hogan is a pleasant character and clearly extremely intelligent, so it’s difficult to understand quite why he believes this stuff. However a visit to his website suggests that he’s shifting into darker territory since he now proclaims his belief in the ‘theories’ of those who cast doubt on the veracity of the Holocaust such as Arthur Butz and Mark Weber and he says that ‘…I find their case more scholarly, scientific, and convincing than what the history written by the victors says. So I suppose that expressing such skepticism makes me a guilty party too.’

Hogan, who is basically a libertarian and absolutely not an anti-semite, is presumably coming at this from the position of a free-thinking slayer of scientific shibboleths and perhaps a belief in freedom of speech. Well and good, or no, not so well and good. It’s hard not to feel that too great a detachment from the tedious old mainstream can lead intellectually to some very unusual places indeed.

Unfortunately there’s more than a trace of the old GK Chesterton saw ‘When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.’

Substitute a sensible scepticism for God…and – well – you get the idea.

Galloway – Sensible points shocker! August 31, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Marxism, Middle East, Uncategorized.
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Okay, I must admit to sitting up and taking note of Galloway on Sky a month or so back. Yes, he delivered the usual rhetorical jibes against the presenter (perhaps I’m overly sensitive to such things but he struck me as a tad misogynistic in his treatment of her). Yet, what he said once one wiped away the rhetoric and the bombast was in fact – er…very sensible two-state solution stuff.

And what’s this, why an article in today’s Guardian which while using the usual language of ‘with the victory of Hizbullah, a terrible beauty is born’ and ‘If there is no settlement there can only be war, war and more war, until one day it is Tel Aviv which is on fire and the Israeli leaders’ intransigence brings the whole state down on their heads’, reiterates that, and with slightly less bombast.

Or as he says:

A comprehensive settlement now would of course look much like it has for decades: Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in 1967; respect for the legal rights of Palestinian refugees to return; the emergence of a real Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital – a contiguous state with an Arab border, with no Zionist settlements and military roads, and with internationally guaranteed Palestinian control over its land, air, sea and water. In exchange there would be Arab recognition, normalisation and, in time, acceptance of Israel into the Middle East as something other than a settler garrison of the imperial west.

I’d agree with almost every word – bar my own preference (do you hear me Tel Aviv and Ramallah?) for Jerusalem to become an international city with the rights of all upheld by the international community.

Could it be that underneath all the rhetoric George Galloway is actually almost sensible? That what he projects is bluster that obscures a more moderate heart. That the marxist George, buried for so long beneath the persona of George of Baghdad, is reasserting itself with a good strong dose of pragmatism?

The world wobbles on it’s axis. Yet one wonders how all this will play within certain factions of Respect. The comrades of the SWP are perhaps a little more trenchant in their anatagonism to Israel, to say nothing of the other factions within the party.

Now if only he could detach himself from his ludicrous identification with the so-called resistance in Iraq “If the fierce thicket of the Iraqi resistance stopped the Bush war spreading to Syria then the extraordinary Hizbullah victory has surely made the world think again about an attack on Iran” and then a lot of leftists would find him a vastly more congenial character. But that I fear is a step too far.

Irish involvement in the Lebanon – Left and further Left. August 28, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Marxism, Middle East, The Left, Uncategorized.
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An article in today’s IT by Deagláde Bréadún (subscription required) points up some of the current fault lines on the left and further left over the outcome of the Israeli/Hizbullah conflict and the response of the Irish government to the request to send troops to the participate in the upcoming UN mission.
Both the Labour Party and Sinn Féin (no liberal hand wringing down at the IT as to where on the political spectrum SF lies) are broadly in favour of some level of participation. Joe Costello is quoted as saying that he does not believe ‘we should turn our back on a request for support from either the Lebanese government or the United Nations’. Aengus Ó Snodaigh is in favour of such a mission although would want the UN forces to patrol both sides of the border. John Gormley takes a more cautious position arguing that ‘the rule of engagement for any UN force need to be studied carefully and debated fully in the Dáil…the situation…is still extremely volatile and serious doubts have been expressed about the durability of the ceasefire’. Reading between the lines it appears to me, at least, that that indicates the Greens would probably sign up to a certain level of intervention.
However on the further left there is less agreement. The Irish Anti-War Movement through it’s chairman Richard Boyd Barrett is entirely against any western involvement because of ‘fundamental flaws in the resolution 1701′ which he sees as ‘ambiguous and biased in favour of Israel…it also repeats what I think is a lie, that Hizbullah started the conflict. There is very substantial evidence now that the Israeli assault on Lebanon had nothing to do with hostages, but was planned months in advance with the connivance of the US and was part of the preparations for a future US assault on Iran and maybe Syria’.
This position is shared by the Anti-War Network and by Roger Cole of the Peace and Neutrality Alliance. He said, that the ‘key purpose of the troops being sent to Lebanon is to go to war with the resistance in Lebanon; in effect to take up where the Israeli army left off’. He continues that ‘Ireland is now not only not neutral, it is an integral part of the Bush Blair war machine’.
By contrast the NGO Peace Alliance was initially in favour of troops participating as long as they were peace keepers, not peace-enforcers, but that statement was withdrawn prior to a ‘full meeting of [their] executive’.
There are aspects which must naturally be clarified. The safety of the UN mission is a priority. But in some respects it’s not the absolute priority. That has to be the safety and integrity of the Lebanese civilian population and the Lebanese state. The presence of a significant UN mission, with sufficient mandate and personnel is largely it’s own guarantee of safety from the depradations of the IDF or Hizbullah.
So what to make of this? Well a number of points strike me immediately. First is the overt identification by Roger Cole with what he describe as the ‘resistance’ in South Lebanon. There are obvious reasons why such a movement developed in Southern Lebanon. The legitimacy of that movement is a different issue. But such a clear alignment with a ‘side’ seems to me to be the antithesis of neutrality or peace, particularly in the context of the Lebanon, a sectarian state with a delicate balance of power between competing minorities where there is a legitimate government supported by a reasonably (and in the context of the region an admirably) democratic mandate. A government, incidentally, which does indeed have Hizbullah elements within it. It is surprising that IAWM and Roger Cole are not more supportive of a government which has largely (along with the Lebanese people) borne the brunt of the hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah rather than to one or other of the combatants.
Secondly is the stark division between the two strands of the ‘left’. One is willing to accept the bona fides of the United Nations in this process, the other dismisses the resolutions as ‘flawed’. Perhaps the resolution is flawed. It’s hard to conceive of it not being in the current situation once one factors in the environment, those supporting the various sides and so on. But if it is the best there is, if it actually an instrument to achieve a cessation of conflict – which has happened albeit imperfectly – it appears to me to be in part a way forward. But wait a second, if the resolution, which is masterful in it’s ambiguity can be said to achieve one huge success it is in the even-handedness of it’s proscriptions. There is no mention of disarming Hizbullah – although the internal logic of the resolution is that that will happen. Israel is not allowed to carry out offensive actions, but although it can theoretically carry out ‘defensive’ actions the deployment of UN peacekeepers in addition to the 15,000 Lebanese troops will soften it’s cough in that regard. There are no clear winners. Peace is maintained and in the absence of a regional agreement, which – let’s be honest – at this point appears a Utopian hope, perhaps a breathing space can develop.
Third is the way in which both strands appear to have different interpretations of what is happening on the ground. Labour and Sinn Féin appear to be focussed on the specific issue. The further left appears wedded to the notion that everything slots into a single seamless tapestry of US intervention in the region. Perhaps, or perhaps not. Even if one were to accept the arguable contention that the conflict was no more than a proxy between the US and Iran (a view which underplays the very real antagonisms between the two major participants in that recent conflict – Hizbullah and Israel) the outcome has surely been one not to the liking of the US. Hizbullah has emerged broken but unbowed, the Israeli military and political apparatus is considerably shaken, to the point where the Olmert government is under threat from a resurgent Likud. And however bad Olmert has been the thought of a Likud administration should give even the most intransigent armchair non-warriors pause for thought. But more centrally if one has suspicions of just how this conflict played out in terms of the relationship between the US and Israel, then surely the relationship between Hizbullah and Syria and Lebanon is equally open to question. To cede support to Hizbullah appears to my mind to be highly suspect. Even more importantly, to throw up the charge that this is a proxy war is to entirely miss the point. Geo-political conspiracy theories, whether accurate or not, are beside the point when it comes to safeguarding the people of the Lebanon. Possible future conflicts in Iran are largely irrelevant in the context of an actual humanitarian crisis in the Lebanon. To argue otherwise is to replicate in part the errors that neo-conservatism made in Iraq.
Fourthly there appears to be an aversion to putting Irish feet on the ground on the part of the further left, perhaps as a point of principle, again perhaps not. In a way this is the most inexplicable aspect to me. As a left internationalist it seems to me that countries such as this one have a duty (one that we haven’t been shy of fulfilling in the past) to participate in international projects such as these. What is it all about otherwise? Rhetoric, hot air? The illusion of solidarity while Israeli aircraft bomb South Lebanon into ruins while Hizbullah rockets fall across the north of Israel? I genuinely find it difficult to understand why Boyd Barrett and Cole appear so antagonistic to such actions. They cloak their aversion in the language of the ‘Bush/Blair war machine’ but that is hyperbole. The Bush administration has been humbled by the events in Lebanon over the past two months. They have seen a pressure of world opinion bear upon them to force a resolution to the conflict. Those of us who are sharply critical of the duplicity of their previous support for the Lebanese government and then abandonment of it in order to give Israel time to prosecute their own strategic aims can at least take some heart in the damping down of the conflict and the internationalisation of security in that area through the auspices of the UN and the stark demonstration of the limits of ‘hard’ power in the contemporary world.
Whether any of this has any purchase on the public and political imagination beyond the coteries involved is debatable. There is fairly broad public support for the UN as an institution, whatever the continuing hatchet jobs from left and right (Magill magazine has had an interesting if flawed series of articles on the UN which are bleakly dismissive of it as an institution). There is also, I would suspect, strong sympathy in this country for the Lebanese and I hope that the UN mission will be widely supported. It’s difficult to see the government allowing troops onto the ground without the situation being largely pacified. That in itself is neither dishonest nor dishonourable. But it largely predicates against this becoming an election issue over the next eight or nine months. In the context of ‘triple locks’ the nature of UN support is effectively a mandate in itself. We have heard, and continue to hear, of the ‘illegality’ of conflicts such as Kosovo and Iraq. This ‘illegality’ is presumed to derive from a lack of a mandate under international law, but particularly the UN. I’m not entirely convinced of the necessity for the latter in every circumstance, but I’m pretty certain that where forthcoming it is necessary to move forward. The response of Cole and Boyd Barrett is such that one wonders just how much more legitimation is necessary before they would accept the necessity to despatch peace-keeping forces.
However, the unfortunate but intrinsic logic of their position is one that would prolong the conflict and the suffering of the Lebanese people. No UN forces on the ground and fighting will almost inevitably (and at the behest of one or other of the parties) break out again. Indeed former ambassador Noel Dorr makes much this point in a thoughtful article in today’s Irish Times (again subscription required) where he notes “The UN force will certainly face difficulties. Yet without it, the present “cessation” is unlikely to last”. The calls for something to happen to improve the situation were heartfelt and sincere from almost all sides. The reality was that that ‘something’ could only occur through the UN. Now something is happening it’s apparently not good enough.

Yet another example of the better being driven out by the best?

Mayo not as light as predicted… August 28, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Gaelic Football, Sport, Uncategorized.
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I wasn’t able to get a ticket to yesterday’s semi-final. On the other hand the opportunity to see it in all it’s gory detail on the television was perhaps some slight consolation. The score was a disappointment, one knows that in a parallel universe it went the other way.

But a great game, played by two great teams, one of which was clearly better on the day. Congratulations to Mayo.

I’m looking forward to the final.

Embryo Watch – Part II…or just what is it about scientific research that it is so fast-moving? August 27, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, Frozen embryos, Medical Issues, Uncategorized.
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Not three weeks have gone by and already science has caught up with and overtaken the current embryoresearch.org campaign – referred to earlier on the blog.

Those of you interested in such matters will recall that I pointed to a serious error of fact in the campaign leaflet where:

It also states that “scientists strip stem cells from human embryos. This always kills the developing baby”. Unfortunately that’s not exactly true either. A fairly widely available technique called PGD, or Preimplantation genetic diagnosis, is used in IVF where a number of cells are removed from an embryo and tested for various hereditary genetic diseases. The embryo, can then be implanted inside the womb and can lead to successful pregnancy. This technology allows a fix which the leaflet doesn’t mention.

Now, I keep my finger on the pulse of ART therapies for one reason and another, but even I was surprised by the following report in the Guardian [here] which underlined and extended that point where new research precisely allows the removal of a cell from an embryo, a process which – as with PGD – is within the statistical margin of error indicating any negative effects regarding the further implantation of the embryo.

To quote:

Scientists led by Robert Lanza at Advanced Cell Technology in Massachusetts created the stem cells by adapting a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which is already used in fertility clinics to check IVF embryos for genetic defects.

In PGD, a single cell is plucked from an embryo when it is a three-day-old ball of only eight cells. The cell is then tested for defects such as cystic fibrosis, and if it is healthy, the embryo is implanted. More than 2,000 babies have been born worldwide following PGD.

Dr Lanza’s group showed that the single cell removed from an embryo can be grown into many cells overnight, and some of those can then be turned into embryonic stem cells. In tests, the team took 91 clumps of cells from 16 embryos and created two sets of embryonic stem cells, according to Nature today.

So immediately this removes the central charge of the embryoresearch.org campaign. To put it simply in the same words as embryoresearch.org “scientists strip stem cells from human embryos (Actually they don’t, they remove a cell – not a stem cell – from the embryo). This does not kill the developing baby”.

There remain problems with the technique. It remains to be seen will it be widely used, particularly in view of the likely removal of the Presidential veto on state funding in the US on embryo research after the next US Presidential Election (all the leading contenders have indicated they will remove it). And it’s also arguable, as I’ve noted before, that picking this ground on which to make a stand in some respects cedes ground where none might have been necessary. Yet, it makes it clear that embryoresearch.org must completely reconsider the central thrust of their public pronouncements to date.
There are currently posters around the country advertising a meeting in Wynns Hotel, Dublin, next week organised by embryoresearch.org. I’m almost certain that embryoresearch.org will be delighted by this news which vindicates their approach to protecting life from conception onwards, while also potentially opening up new medical techniques for children and adults suffering a broad spectrum of chronic and fatal conditions, and will take that opportunity to retract their previous leaflets and wind up the campaign.

Cartoon time (again) August 23, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Middle East.
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Forget the Edinburgh Fringe, the Kilkenny Arts Festival or the Yeats Summer School.  The hot ticket that’s got all the bigwigs chattering has got to be the Holocaust cartoons exhibition underway in Tehran.  You have to hand it to Iran; just when you think the rhetoric can’t get any more bizarre, Ahmadinejad’s regime never fails to step it up a notch.

Let’s get the pleasantries out of the way first.  Yes, there is a double standard in some Western European countries when it comes to freedom of expression.  Yes, the imprisonment of David Irving in Austria for Holocaust denial was perfectly timed for those who wanted to argue that the publication of the Mohammed cartoons in Jyllands-Posten represented typical Western  perfidy – defending ‘to the death’ (to use the well-worn cliché) the speech of those attacking Muslims, and imposing criminal sanctions against those who offend other protected groups or beliefs.

It seems obvious, to my mind anyway, that laws against Holocaust denial, however well intentioned, represent an absolute affront to the principle of freedom of expression and should have no place in the legal system of any liberal, democratic state.  I’ll put my hands up, however, and admit that that’s easy for me to say, as I don’t live in a country with a legacy of Nazi occupation, or even any serious threat from the  far-right, just as it’s easy for me to be quite uncomfortable with laws (which are on the statute books in Ireland) on incitement to racial hatred when I’m never going to need their protection.

Something odd the Holocaust exhibition has sparked off, though, is the way some of the contributors to Harry’s Place, and elsewhere, seem to be rowing back on their supposedly absolute commitment to free speech in the face of protests about the Danish cartoons and seem to think that the content of what’s on display in Tehran should be a matter of debate.  One can, of course, absolutely support the right of Jyllands-Posten to  publish their cartoons and at the same time argue that they shouldn’t exercise that right – and, incidentally, apply the same principle to a picture of Hitler in bed with Anne Frank.

The Harry’s Place crew (that is, those who leave comments, rather than just the bloggers themselves), though, appears to be up in arms at any attempt to draw an equivalence between the two sets of pictures.  From what I can see, though, the motives behind each are quite similar.  Both were attempts to provoke and offend particular groups of people using the principle of freedom of expression as a cover.

Sure, if you like, you can argue that one set of cartoons is worse than the other, or that wider geo-political context means that the anti-Semitism displayed in Tehran is more dangerous than the anti-Islamic sentiment in the Danish paper.  But if you go down that road, it’s important to be aware that you’re no longer defending freedom of speech per se, only the freedom of some speech.  This rings a little hollow compared to a few months ago, when there were calls not just for the right to publish the cartoons to be respected, but supporting the publication itself.

Liberal hand-wringing aside, there’s still something grimly fascinating about the way the Tehran exhibition has been organised.  I can’t help but feel that I’m somehow missing something here.  What point do the organisers actually think they’re making?  Is it that people in the West are more sensitive about the Holocaust than they are about the representation of Mohammed? That’s hardly something that was ever in question in the first place (and, I’d argue, it’s probably quite healthy).

Are they arguing that Western societies limit freedom of speech as well? That’s certainly true. No society has absolute freedom of speech, so it’s always going to be relative. However, it could hardly be denied that the levels of freedom in Copenhagen, London or Tel Aviv compare somewhat favourably to the situation in Tehran. And it would be a little too obvious, if not entirely unfair, to raise the matter of the Satanic Verses.  But it’s interesting to see a profoundly illiberal regime (and don’t make the mistake of buying the line that this is an independent body.  The paper organising this exhibition is run by the municipality of Tehran, which in turn is run by the colleagues of the former mayor, Ahmadinejad) using the rhetoric of rights as long as it suits its own purpose.  A little like a Persian John Waters, perhaps.

Are they trying to show Western commentators to be hypocrites? If so, they seem to have failed.  For that argument to stand up, they’d have to defend those who have occupied Iranian embassies for allowing these pictures to be shown, or those who have marched carrying placards saying “Death to those who demean Auschwitz!”. And given that nothing of the sort has occurred, that line of argument comes to a dead end.

Indeed, the only sane reaction to this exhibition is to pretty much ignore it.  Either that, or the alternative Israeli competition inviting Jewish cartoonists to submit their own entries, arguing that no one should be able to laugh at Jews better than Jews themselves.

Unfortunately, most of the cartoons are pretty rubbish, and look like they were drawn by Napoleon Dynamite, but there are a few gems among the dross (watch out for the Elders of Zion reunion).

How soon is now? August 21, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Ireland, Irish Politics, Marxism, Northern Ireland, The Left, Uncategorized.
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The relationship between other parties and Sinn Féin in the run-up to the General Election has already been discussed here. That looks like a serious can of worms. However, an even more interesting can of worms must be the status of Sinn Féin as a possible coalition partner in government. To date most parties have ruled out such a coalition – which is interesting in itself.

Sinn Féin is, apparently, for the moment beyond the democratic pale. Or…not quite beyond the pale, as it is permitted to stand in elections at all levels within the society, but the idea that it might actually enter government at this point in time is somehow anathema. Now the great contradiction is that the political dynamic of parties within the Republic of Ireland has at least rhetorically, as expressed in numerous Dáil debates and elsewhere, for Sinn Féin to give up violence and become a ‘normal political party’, and moreover for it to do these things in part so that it could exercise power in a devolved administration at Stormont. The rationale between the strict differentiation between the ‘national’ parliament in Dublin and the ‘regional’ or ’subsidiary’ assembly/executive at Stormont. That both exercise power over citizens (or more accurately subjects in the North) appears to be less important.

I’ve posed this question before on Politics.ie, and one response I received was that if SF went through the same process as the DL, ceasefires (while the OSF), a change of name, a reconstruction of the party, the jettisoning of the party leadership then, and only then, would it be ready for government.

To be honest I think this is inadequate, and worse, a misreading of history. Firstly DL didn’t go through that process – or not exactly. And it strikes me that it overstates image over identity. (Incidentally I’m always entertained by the charge that Sinn Féin is in some respect ‘Marxist’. I don’t think so. Left wing reformist – at best, to use the jargon. And to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen…I’ve been a member of a Marxist party, and Sinn Féin are no Marxists).

Let me explain, it is true that the Workers’ Party went through a number of name changes. There was Sinn Féin, Official Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin – The Workers’ Party, The Workers’ Party, and then the Great Split where the leadership of the WP effectively reconstituted themselves as the Democratic Left in the early 1990s. But what’s important about this is the following. The names changed, but the personnel didn’t. Those who had leadership positions within the party during the 1970s still held leadership positions during the 1990s. Indeed – whisper it quietly – some have gone on to do quite well in another party.

The reconstruction of the party is a different issue – and it was one that the WP’s opponents used to use as a stick to beat it with on a continual basis. The WP, as with many supposedly Marxist parties, organised through the principle of democratic centralism, in other words once a decision was agreed democratically by the party it was meant to be adhered to with a rigorous discipline. Often that meant the decision was never resubmitted to the party membership and it allowed the core party leadership to retain considerable control over the membership. This isn’t unusual in political organisations, but openly adhering to this principle elevated it’s significance.

DL dropped ‘democratic centralism’ but – perhaps inevitably due to the small size of the membership – tended to be driven by the leadership rather than the membership.

Ceasefires. Hmmm…tricky one this. Official Sinn Féin certainly did ceasefire back in the early 1970s. However, as Vincent Browne has maintained (throughout something of a career of studying the WP in an earlier incarnation of Magill), a ceasefire is not a decommissioning. The unfortunate reality is that the Official IRA maintained an existence throughout the 1970s and on – and if we are to believe the FBI and the UK security forces it still exists. Indeed, it’s hard to countenance anyone who was a member of the WP in the 1980s and early 1990s being unaware of the nebulous existence of such a body. And it wasn’t entirely nebulous either. Yet, no decommissioning was ever carried out by the OIRA. And it’s arguable that the activities it appears to have been involved in – such as counterfeiting – posed as great, in not a greater, potential threat to the state than the localised, often murderous, activities of the PIRA.

If one is to argue that PSF sought to overthrow the Republic of Ireland and replace it with a different state, is that in itself radically different from the variation on a theme that the Workers’ Party also proposed? Both argued (although it’s interesting how SF is moving towards more mainstream positions) that a revolutionary change was necessary that would utterly transform this state.

The chronology is interesting. Democratic Left sprang into being in 1992. By 1994 it was a part of a Fine Gael led government and by 1999 it had merged with the Labour party. I don’t for one second wish to impugn those who were members of the party, but this is a remarkable transformation from hard-line Marxism, which was the particular political brand the WP promoted, linked to a still extant paramilitary organisation that had not jettisoned any of it’s weaponry (and it’s worth bearing in mind that at the time of the original PIRA/OIRA split the latter was for some time the larger organisation in terms of personnel and weaponry, and even the attrition during the 1970s and the further split with the INLA left it – so it is believed – with considerable firepower).

Compare and contrast with Sinn Féin. A process of political engagement from the 1980s onwards. A number of cessations during the 1990s leading to a complete end of armed activity against the state in the North and South. An internationally monitored process of decommissioning carried out thoroughly enough to satisfy the hard-headed individuals overseeing it and most recently the disbandment of the Provisional IRA. Indeed the background noise of paramilitary inspired violence (punishment beatings etc) has reduced to a whisper. Granted PIRA was an organisation that was directly responsible for the death of many more individuals than OIRA. Yet the journey it took and the destination it arrived at suggests greater effort and – arguably – greater sincerity on the part of those who made it, however self-serving, or deluding, that might have been.

And worst of all is the sense that while Fine Gael may take a decade or more to deal with Sinn Féin, that too is but a matter of time. Some day, and apologies if I’m upsetting anyone, there will almost inevitably be a coalition involving SF, FG and Labour.
With Fianna Fáil and Labour that eventuality is probably much closer.

And time for what? To expiate all previous sins? Is that actually possible? I’m not sure that it is. It’s worth considering the Sean MacBride who was Chief of Staff of the IRA during the 1930s was part of the first Inter-Party government as Minister for External Affairs.

But if we hold Sinn Féin to a standard it is interesting that we appear to hold others to a different standard. And although I can see differences between the Workers’ Party and Sinn Féin they’re not on such a scale as make the comparisons invalid.

Finally, I’m raising these issues not because I think Sinn Féin in government is necessarily a good thing, or a bad thing, but simply out of curiosity as to the reasoning behind the current seeming fatwa against their participation and a further curiosity as to how long such a fatwa is expected to last.

Whataboutery, Part 1 August 18, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Middle East, Palestine.
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Did you see the article by Alan Shatter and Rory Miller in the Irish Times earlier this week? I hope so.  Apparently it was the best opinion piece to appear in an Irish newspaper all year. Who but a fool would have missed it?

Of course, I’m lying.  It’s not the best opinion piece to appear all year (that’s just the view of Richard Waghorne, the increasingly cartoon-like Anthony Blanche of Irish blogs).  It’s not even the best opinion piece to appear in the Irish Times that day?  What it is, in fact, is an entirely predictable example of one the laziest arguments put forward not just by those who defend the actions of Israel, but by an array of conservative wannabe pundits – the old ‘ah, but what about them?’ appeal.

Shatter and Miller’s ‘argument’ (to be generous) is that those who, like the Lord Mayor of Dublin or the organizers of the Festival of World Cultures, criticise Israel during its recent military action in Lebanon, are guilty of hypocrisy, as they don’t apply the same scrutiny to other regimes which breach human rights, such as Saudi Arabia in its treatment of Palestinian refugees or Russia in its actions in Chechnya.  It’s not a particularly original point (and it’s hard to see what it was that made Waghorne so giddy).  Indeed, it’s the same criticism that was leveled at those who participated in the mass anti-war marches in 2003: why are they only protesting against the war in Iraq?  Why aren’t the marching against the genocide in Darfur?

On the face of it, there may be some substance to the allegations.  Certainly there are those whose attitude towards Israel borders on the obsessive and whose criticisms of that state are so over-the-top they can be readily dismissed (such as Nobel laureate José Saramago’s opinion that the attack on Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah by the IDF was ‘a crime comparable to Auschwitz’).

On the other hand, there may be good reason for marching in protest against certain violations of human rights, when other, more heinous, ones are occurring elsewhere.  Champions of Israel are fond of lauding its democratic credentials.  Surely, then, the Israeli government would be more sensitive to world opinion than, say, the Taliban, making protests against Israel more likely to achieve a positive result than those against other regimes.  Similarly, while the likes of the SWP might disproportionately criticise Israel, that state also receives far more support from Western governments, particularly the United States, than the other regimes mentioned.  It’s difficult to imagine any other state taking military action against another state and violating international law and receiving the same backing that Israel recently did, from both governments and commentators (unless, of course, it was the United States itself).  Apart from a minority of die-hard Stalinists, I don’t recall many people making the argument that the Serbian government had ‘the right to defend itself’ by committing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, even among those who opposed to NATO intervention.  Contrast that with the ‘Israel right or wrong’ attitude adopted by many in the past month and a half.

Those who, like Shatter and Miller, seem to feel that pointing to hypocrisy on the part of others, and the fact that some conflicts receive more coverage than others, is an argument in and of itself fail to grasp that the same criticism can be made of them.  Alan Shatter thinks that the Lord Mayor hasn’t been vocal enough about the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia? Fine, perhaps he can point us to the protest he himself has organised about it, or the outcry he has raised about Chechnya or the Congo.  The same applies to the criticism of the 2003 anti-war marches; how many of those who complained that those marching against the US should have been concentrating on Sudan actually marched against Sudan themselves?  It seems that, for many on the right, violations of human rights which the ‘Stoppers’ aren’t particularly concerned with are only important as a stick which they can beat critics of the US with.  Is anyone adopting such a position really entitled to take the moral high ground?

Finally and, perhaps, most importantly, the crucial weakness of Shatter and Miller’s apparent attempt to defend Israel is that it doesn’t work as a defence at all.  It falls into a rather obvious trap of the ad hominem fallacy.  Even if one was to accept that everyone who has criticized the recent actions of the Israel military is a complete hypocrite, and possibly anti-Semitic to boot, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the criticisms themselves are invalid (as any fule no!).  By ignoring the substance of the charges, Shatter and Miller are implicitly conceding them.  Sure, Israel might be guilty of war crimes, but what about the crimes of A, B or C? Is this really the kind of point they want to make?  And, if so, where it does leave them in attempting to answer those who genuinely do criticise human rights violations wherever they occur?

Funnily enough, what this article serves to show is that Shatter and Miller, as well as many other defenders of Israel, are simply a mirror image of the likes of George Galloway, clown prince of the anti-war movement.  For Galloway, any criticism of Hezbollah, Hamas or the Iraqi resistance can simply be answered (well, ignored but responded to, to be more accurate) by pointing to the crimes of what he describes as the ‘little Hitler state on the Mediterranean’.  Similarly, Shatter and Miller respond to charges against Israel by ignoring them and pointing to the actions of others.  ‘Whataboutery’, it seems, is not confined to any one side.

It’s all over… bar the shooting… August 18, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Palestine, Uncategorized.
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So emerging from the wreckage what’s the lay of the landscape?

Borzu Daragahi of The Los Angeles Times mentions on KCRW’s To the Point (15th August) [here] the feeling of betrayal from Lebanese who believe the international community had betrayed them and the Cedar Revolution and their dreams of being the first proper democracy in the region other than Israel. This is a crushing indictment of the US and Britain, and more generally the ‘West’ such as it is. Not to support a secular, democratic leaning state has been an appalling derogation of responsibility. (Incidentally Daragahi also noted that compared to USAF actions during the Iraq war where he had previously reported, the damage from the Israeli aerial bombing campaign was ‘unbelievable’ with ‘whole apartment blocs flattened’ and in no sense pinpointed).

It’s not difficult to identify some crucial problems that arose during the course of the conflict.

Key problem #1: an unwillingness to learn from history. Israel had already taken on Hizbullah in 1993 and 1996 in incursions almost identical to those of the last month or so. They didn’t work then and Warren Christopher had to negotiate a ceasefire with Hizbullah.

Key problem #2: an adventurist administration in Washington willing to allow the Israeli government to act with near impunity during the first two weeks of the conflict.

Key problem #3: an Israeli government desperate to prove it’s military credentials and therefore simultaneously willing to go too far and also unsure and vaccillating in the face of the military pressure to go further.

Key problem #4: an IDF which had burnished it’s reputation decades ago (and reduced more recently to the effective policing of Gaza and the West Bank against opponents unable to mount a serious military threat) facing a motivated and largely professional guerilla force capable of inflicting serious casualties.

Key problem #5: an Israel unable, or unwilling, to understand international public opinion on this issue and making egregious errors of tactics and strategy which only served to undercut what little support it already had. An example, the 48 hour ceasefire granted in order to allow civilians and medical supplies access and egress from the area. At the very least, were Israel thinking rationally such a move would have been made much earlier in the conflict, perhaps at the start. Not because it was necessarily the smartest military move in the short term, but because it was morally right and because it would then allow them to act more decisively later.

Finally, and I keep hearing this, the imbalance between what some perceive as an existential conflict for Israel and yet what in reality was not. Therefore the acres of rhetoric about how the Hizbullah rockets presented a threat (which they did on a real basis to individual Israeli’s but not to the state of Israel) that justified the extreme actions undertaken in Lebanon were simply wrong or self-serving. A million people in shelters is a dismal prospect. But – it’s not as if the adversary was unwilling to cut a deal as demonstrated over the past 48 hours. Nor was, at any point, Israel in a position to degrade Hizbullah to the extent that would render it ineffective. That’s not to say Hizbullah hasn’t been degraded. Clearly it has in some respects, and it will be interesting to see how it’s reputation weathers the next year or so on the ground.

Why do I talk of Israel mainly? Because it is Israel that must carry the bulk of weight of responsibility of the last four weeks, because Israel had different choices at every point and did not take them.

A couple of further points. There is a distressing tendency to paint this in Manichean terms, that Hizbullah (and often Hamas is included in this analysis) is an adversary that cannot be dealt with other than by annihilation. I think this is a serious misjudgement of the situation. Yes Hizbullah is anti-thetical to the State of Israel. That is a given, however the very fact it can be negotiated with to this point demonstrates that it is subject to pressure, opinion and force. Hizbullah is – and I don’t mean to legitimate it in any respect – a response to historical pressures which can be countered. Hizbullah is not entirely detached from the public within which it moves and operates. In other words this is not Al-Quida – beyond any possibility of discourse. In the final analysis Israel must start to engage with those around it who seek it’s destruction, must seek to to alter the perception of it. An interesting point was made in the recent issue of Prospect magazine where it was noted that during the height of the Oslo agreements Israeli and Jewish popularity within the Muslim world reached record levels. Those who make this point appear to believe that hatreds are fixed and unchanging, but that simply ain’t so. Sixty years ago on this continent Franco-German hostility was so deep rooted the prospect of any accommodation, much less the contemporary alliance between the two was unthinkable. Enmities can be overcome. Hatred can be diffused. But it requires work, and let’s be honest to turn around the phrase utilised by the Israeli’s ‘a partner for peace’.
Of course for some (perhaps an individual with the initials OBL skulking in caves along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border) such an outcome was disastrous because they too buy into a Manichean worldview, and any agreement would be subject to attack, but it appears to me that a cautious, step by step engagement by Israel would reap rewards.

How could that start? Perhaps by some sort of assistance to Lebanon. Is that likely? Perhaps not, but how could it hurt? Secondly by serious engagement on the Palestinian issue. The last five years demonstrated the futility of undermining all aspects of Palestinian authority, by degrading even the nascent institutions of a functioning state – as if such a strategy could lead to ‘peace’. The result, as in the Lebanon, keep hitting hard and eventually an adversary will arise that will hit hard back. israel isn’t going anywhere, and that’s fine, but the opposite is also true. Lebanon, Syria, Iran and most importantly the Palestinians aren’t going anywhere either. And if I was in Tel Aviv, and had any thoughts of expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank as some of the most revanchist (and admittedly marginalised) elements of the Israeli political spectrum do, I’d think again. Lebanon showed that the world won’t wear it.

Otherwise what’s the alternative? Fortress Israel, surrounded by those who would seek to destroy it, permanently on a war footing, watching impotently as the last vestiges of world support ebb away from it. That would be a tragedy.

Even listening to the discussions on the same edition of KCRW’s To the Point some Israeli commentators appeared to completely misunderstand the dynamic of what is going on.

Yossi Klein Halevi who writes for the new Republic is sharply critical of Israel and Olmert for not prosecuting the land war with more vigour. He considers Olmert made two key errors in that he had ‘an almost unprecedented support from Washington’ and a unified public opinion in Israel and the opportunity to send the ‘message that Israel is unpredictable and Israel is strong and resolute…’. But that’s the problem. In the end Israel didn’t have unlimited support from Washington. Quite the opposite, Washington has it’s own concerns in the region now and despite it’s wish to bloody the Iranian nose (by proxy) general regional stability and the pressure of public opinion was going to tell. So an unconstrained land war was never a real option, and Halevi, a sharp and thoughtful commentator, is deluding himself if he thinks so. [As an aside he went on to describe how he lived in Jerusalem close to the West Bank and how he had been 'subjected' to his Palestinian neighbours holding fireworks displays for the last thirty days in celebration at 'Hizbullah's victory'. Perhaps the real question is just why they would do that and how can the situation be turned around so that an attack on Israel is seen as the last resort of the nihilistic].

By contrast Akiva Eldar of Haaretz noted that Israel had indirectly ‘upgraded Hamas from a political party to a government’ and the same would occur with Hizbullah. And that’s the point. Every action Israel takes is limiting it’s scope for action because by redefining this in existential terms it errs on the side of utilising too great a force against adversaries who could be dealt with more appropriately and alienates support.

My belief is that this is an important point in Israeli/Arab relations because defeat, or more correctly a military stalemate, is something Israel has not experienced before. Stalemate brings it’s own lessons. I genuinely hope they will be assimilated, and not lead to a Likud government closed to the reality of a world which is increasingly turning it’s back on Israel.

But there’s blowback on other issues too. In the US support for the war in Iraq has nose dived and with that there has been a parallel reduction in support for the Republican party, particularly as the party of strong domestic security. This has serious implications for the future as well. Perhaps a future US administration will be just that bit more cautious about handing a blank cheque to Israel, perhaps they will act more along the lines of the US during Suez where it effectively shut down the French, British and Israeli actions.

Perhaps not.

Roar of the Canon August 15, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Books.
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The hoary old dinosaur that is the ‘canon’ of English literature raised its head again yesterday (note: it was ‘yesterday’ when this was first written; unfortunately, the internet has not been a friend to me lately, so it’s now about a week ago. Apologies.), in an intriguing story carried in the Education section of the Guardian.

The British Education Minister, Alan Johnson, has outlined a list of authors from before the first world war who 11-14 year olds will have to choose from as part of their GCSE studies.  The move comes in the middle of a debate about the importance of prescribing texts or authors at all and essentially goes to the heart of the question of what the study of English at secondary level is intended to achieve.

The piece itself focuses on the choice of author (Austen in, Orwell out etc.) and John Sutherland has piece that’s worth reading on the essentially conservative nature of the list.  However, what’s more interesting from a political perspective are the comments made about how the authors who will be included were chosen.  Johnson states that they constitute “a crucial part of our national heritage” while a spokesperson for his Department states that “Whilst there is a need to free up curriculum time, that will not be done by ditching the works of writers who have maintained their status as great and valued works from generation to generation”.  Of course, there’s no discussion or indication of what makes these writers, which include the Brontes, George Eliot and Charles Dickens ( as well as Jonathan Swift, Joseph Conrad and Henry James – which makes one wonder a little which nation Johnson is referring to in the quote above), “great”.  It seems that the Queen Mother criterion is being used – they are ‘much-loved’ in the BBC 2 sense of the term, so it seems a little churlish to ask whether they should be or not.

This isn’t, of course, to diminish the artistic greatness of the writers involved (although is Arthur Conan Doyle really more worthy of study than Forster, Joyce or Steinbeck, all of whom are apparently ‘under threat’?).  Rather, it raises the question of what constitutes a national literary tradition, or canon, in the first place.

As anyone who’s looked into the how English Literature became an object of academic study will know, to suggest that these, or any, authors represent some kind of timeless, unchanging and unbroken tradition of literature which has always been recognised is completely ahistorical.  The creation of the canon, as we understand it, has always been political.  Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory, heavily indebted to Chris Baldick’s The Social Mission of English Criticism, shows how prior to the First World War, the study of English in any kind of systematic way was seen as the poor relation of the humanities in British academic circles.  Why would one need to study English literature, when a well-rounded gentleman would already be familiar with it? If it was studied at all in Oxford and Cambridge, English was primarily a philological subject, looking at Old English texts, far closer to Icelandic than anything we would recognise today. The study of modern writing (modern being anything from Chaucer on) was left to the second rung of the college system, suitable for women and servants. Real men read classics.

The change came with the Great War, and with the need to reassert a defiantly British sense of identity against the irredeemable barbarism of the Teuton (not an easy task, given that the ruling family was essentially German).  English literature was called into service, as emblematic of the superior nature of British culture (the books cited above include some hilariously chauvinistic quotes from the early Professors of the subject).

The creation of the English literary ‘tradition’ (or the Canon) as an object of study was, therefore, part of a wider attempt to great a certain kind of British identity. However, as all projects of this kind, it was faced with a rather troubling paradox.  If the national identity already exists in the form in which its presented, then why is one faced with the necessity to construct it in the first place.  As with the pseudo-ritualistic ceremonies dreamt up to accompany the investiture of Victoria as Empress of India (perhaps the high-point of British Imperialism) or, indeed, as with the ambitions of many of the Gaelic Revivalists (particularly those of the Celtic Dawn persuasion) assembling a national identity in this way must always be accompanied by a kind of double-think: selectively rooting through the cultural artifacts of the past in order to identify those which serve contemporary political needs, while at the same time eliding the contemporary nature of the project and presenting it as the exegesis of something far more permanent.

The history of Irish nationalism, particularly since independence, already provides ample evidence of how a selective approach to the literature of the past can be used in forging what is essentially a rather arbitrary political identity.  The institutionalisation of such a reading through the education system and the creation of a curriculum is crucial in this.  An fascinating example of the same phenomenon, albeit in a different context, is described in Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India.  Viswanathan shows how the teaching of English literature to upper class Indian schoolboys who would go on to be local administrators was central to the inculcation of an imperial identity and, hence, essential to the maintenance of imperial rule in the sub-continent.  What’s most interesting, however, is the way Viswanathan shows how the teaching of literature in India was far more ‘advanced’ than the teaching in the imperial homeland at the same time.  While schoolboys in Britain was given a fairly limited potted literary history of Britain, Indian students were encouraged to go into the works in far more depth, and to use them as a starting point for the exploration of wider questions.  Indeed, what’s taught in schools at senior levels now is far closer to the Indian model than the original British one.  Could it be that the approach adopted by Johnson and his Department is motivated, at least in part, by a similar need to infuse students with a certain kind of British identity?

All of which brings us back to the original question of what the purpose of studying English literature actually is.  I wouldn’t wish to suggest that it’s entirely useless, or even that it should be focused on some kind of narrow utility.  However, I think the kind of emphasis placed on ‘big names’ that Johnson seems to be concerned with is missing the point somewhat.

The most important part of studying English at second level is not who or what you read, but how you read.  A graduating student should be equipped with the skills to analyse and interrogate texts they encounter and come to an informed understanding of what they are saying.  There’s a place of Shakespeare and Austen in this, but also for contemporary writers and for different kinds of texts (including film, television and even advertising).  Despite claims that it represents a lowering of standards, or a ‘dumbing down’ of the subject (it’s rather telling how those who claim to the so concerned with the quality of English taught in schools are so willing to use such an inane cliché without irony), it’s good to see that this seems to the way the curriculum seems to be moving in the Irish system.  Let’s hope it continues that way.

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