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The real ‘Blit-con’ Secret Rulers of the World? Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie…or not December 10, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Books, Culture, The War On Terror, Totalitarianism.
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Reading the Guardian yesterday an article by Ziauddin Sardar on what he terms the “Blitcon supremacists” (literary neo-conservatives), these being Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, caught my eye. Sardar, who is on occasion a perceptive commentator, is riled by what he perceives as these three “using their celebrity status to push a neocon agenda”. Amis, and his new found interest in ‘horrorism’ (as unconvincing in it’s way, for all his sincerity on the matter, as his interest in Stalinism was previously) has been more than adquately dealt with by smiffy here. McEwan by contrast has written in the shape of Saturday a fairly mainstream novel which is rather equivocal about the Iraq war and rather less equivocal about the ‘great writers’ in the Western literary canon. Now, I’m as suspicious as the next guy about ‘canons’, but even so. Is McEwan this prodigy, this titan, this behemoth of the Project for the New American Century, or is he, as seems rather more likely, simply a left liberal English writer of relative fame and relative importance? Rushdie (of the three of them the only one to actually come from a Muslim background) is characterised as [having] a “suspicion of and distaste for Islam [that] is obvious in his novels Midnight’s Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses. In Shame, Rushdie describes Islam as a mythology that cannot survive close examination, but in The Satanic Verses it becomes an abomination”. Firstly I think Rushdie has every right to write about Islam as he sees fit, secondly I think this is a mischaracterisation of a vastly more subtle engagement with Islam on the part of Rushdie across his career, one which in fairness has probably been shaped by the response within certain elements of Islamism (I use the term specifically) to his work.

Sardar puts forward a highly contentious thesis that three elements combine in their writings, firstly the ‘supremacy of American culture’ (sorry, mate, can’t see it myself unless one is eliding American with British or Western in a way which is as short-sighted as the very worst conceits of ‘orientalism’), secondly the idea that ‘Islam is the greatest threat to this idea of civilisation (again, this seems hugely unlikely, at best Amis has noticed Islam in the last four years, for McEwan it’s hardly even on his radar, and for Rushdie – well, let’s not go there), thirdly and finally is that ‘American ideas of freedom and democracy are not only right, but should be imposed on the rest of the world’ (is there any evidence at all that if they believe the first part of that sentence (American ideas – gah!) that that necessitates the second?).

Well yes. And no. These are books, literary works, no more, often less. I find the idea that McEwan, Amis and Rushdie (perhaps particularly Rushdie in view of his grim experience at the interface of Islamist thinking and cultural practice) are either as reified within our societies as Sardar suggests, or deserving of such opprobium is ludicrous. But what is slightly disturbing about this is that Sardar (who has recently been appointed a commissioner of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights) appears to think it suitable to portray them in such a superheated fashion. I’m sure it fills up the pages…

Most disheartening though, is that just at the point when the real neo-con agenda founders, with even it’s greatest cheerleaders leaving by the exit door, this sort of rhetorical froth should point in a radically different direction, one which seems to willfully confuse politics and culture in a way which is misleading if not downright puzzling. A pity.

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While on the subject of the Guardian, yesterday’s edition came with a “preview” copy of ‘Look and Learn’ a childrens magazine published in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember this far too well from the time.

Anyhow, the idea is that this is being reprinted across two years with specially chosen highlights from it, including it’s comic strip, ‘The Trigan Empire’ (a source of huge discussion amongst it’s fans as to whether Don Lawrence, the original illustrator was better or worse than his successor Oliver Frey). I wonder, though, who this is really aimed at. A letter from the new editor suggests that Guardian readers in particular would appreciate the way it isn’t ‘dumbed-down’, and indeed it wasn’t, at least at the time. Only problem is…it’s twenty years and a generation or two out of date. So I kind of suspect those who will be purchasing it will be people in their forties, fifties and sixties who remember it from the first time around.

And while I think of it, will they reprint the letters page? Originally this was a forum that printed questions and replies about hobbies and such like. However, as the 1970s drew to a close a certain…would you believe it…political…tone began to emerge with letters about unions and privatisation, left and right.. All very puzzling too for many of the target audience at the time, altough a more telling indication of just how the world was really changing during those years would be hard to find.

Post-Nationalism 4: Dissidence, sovereignty and abstention December 8, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, Ulster, Unionism.
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The rhetoric coming out of the ‘dissident’ camp about abstention is very reminiscent to me of that utilised by the WP back in the day – only of course it is an inverse. I’ve written here about how one of the great errors of socialists (as manifested in the British and Irish Communist Organisation, but elsewhere, in WP, Labour and so on) has been to ignore the power, the signification, the very authenticity of nationalism as a dynamic and seek to wish it away. Often this attitude has been for logical, even noble, reasons, these being that one form of conflict on this island could be removed and replaced by the more submerged, less hard-edged issue of class. It’s an analysis I find attractive, but insufficient. Like it or not, when faced with competing national identities the recourse to class is going to fail. It has in numerous conflicts around the world.

That doesn’t mean that, as the classic phrase from the Easter Rising through the War of Independence had it ‘Labour must wait’, but it does mean that a serious engagement indicates that an understanding, perhaps even a sympathy to nationalism and nationalist thinking is necessary in order to progress the situation. In it’s BICO (actually I’m being a little harsh on Brendan Clifford, he always took a somewhat more nuanced view) and WP incarnation it led to a curious blindness, one which sought unity of the working class in Northern Ireland in a context where such unity was a chimera, while ignoring the very real repression suffered by Nationalists and Republicans. To hold one view was, almost per definition, to have to ignore the other. So there were ludicrous convolutions of policy about human rights which ultimately saw the WP adopt increasingly conservative positions on the nature and status of Northern Ireland completely at odds with their professed radicalism on the class front (indeed WP Ard Fheiseanna were always grimly entertaining during the debates on Northern Ireland as any motion about human rights became a non-too delicate balancing act lashing state violations but really really lashing PIRA and PSF and a remarkable reworking of class struggle where the most advanced section of the Irish proletariat (TM) decided the future lay in alliance with the middle class Alliance party and upper middle class ‘moderate’ Unionism – not that individually such alliances were inappropriate, but collectively, well, everyone got the message loud and clear).

Eventually – and I suspect there were psychological reasons for this as much as political i.e. a sense that in some sense the nationalist working class in NI was insufficiently advanced – there was a disengagement from the North when DL was founded.

So when I read what the ‘dissidents’ are saying I am struck by how they take the opposite route to WP. For them all other issues, class (bar the IRSP), whatever are irrelevant in the context of the monolithic embrace of the ‘Republic’ or, to be fair to the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, an ideal of sovereignty. They don’t see the people or can’t see the people in some sense. If they did they’d recognise that their brand of Republicanism is very much a minority taste (actually, yet again I’m being a little harsh, they are aware of their status, but they choose to see it as a badge of legitimacy). It’s one of the main reasons for the adherence to abstentionism as a principle. Which is curious in the historical context. Consider that in 1918 the majority of MPs elected in the British held General Elections on the island were Sinn Féin members. They then left to establish the first Dáil. Of course they could do such a thing for two reasons. Democratic legitimacy from the election was one reason. But more importantly they were a majority of those elected, so therefore the establishment of the Dáil wasn’t a mere gesture, but carried a democratic mandate and by the very nature of that majority indicated the strength of their argument.

It was as the years followed that abstention in the more modern sense of the term, i.e. non-participation in either the Dáil in Dublin or in any parliament or assembly in Northern Ireland became elevated to the status of an absolute. Indeed it’s worth noting that while the anti-Treaty side did indeed eventually eschew the Second (26 county) Dáil within a mere five years de Valera was working on a means to re-enter it. However a very small rump based in part around the remaining element of the anti-Treaty IRA and those members of the Sinn Féin party who remained after de Valera departed for the more balmy shores of Fianna Fáil and eventual state power slowly shaped abstention into a core principle. This element brought together the anti-Treaty survivors of the Second Dáil and their retainers and gifted their ‘authority’ to the Army Council of the IRA in a Proclaimation in 1938. The civil and military ‘authority’ combined in a seamless unity, free of the encumbrance of the necessity to be representative to the Irish people.

And from here abstention appears to be borne of necessity rather than absolute principle. A necessity derived from the fact that unlike 1918 where it was possible to establish a full, reasonably operational independent Irish political assembly, it was utterly impossible to do so from 1922 onwards. Sinn Féin would not contest elections, or hadn’t the membership to do so. In Northern Ireland the policy of the Nationalist parties to effectively boycott Stormont, locked out of power as they were by the internal demographics which led to an inexorable Unionist majority, would appear to have influenced, at least in some respect the thinking of SF in the South. But this was a terrible trap, one which led to marginalisation and political impotence. Abstention meant logically that the voters in the South were aware from the start that their vote was a wasted vote. Hence the number of Republican candidates elected throughout the 20th century was minimal (even if we take into account the residual attraction of Fianna Fáil for the ‘Republican’ constituency and chalk that up as in some respects representing part of that constituency). So even if SF in whatever incarnation did run for seats it’s likelihood of winning them was low, the numbers returned would be small and any pretensions to ‘speak’ for the Irish people would be demonstrated as false. Clann na Poblachta, which emerged in the 1940s with a heady mix of Republicanism and Labourism was a good example of the limits of rhetoric on this issue. They could, in part, drive Fine Gael to declare the Republic of Ireland. They could not, and did not shape the political discourse within the six counties in any effective fashion. The Anti-Partition Campaign of that period was an appalling misfire, with no possibility of success, and arguably a profoundly negative effect on the more socialist elements within the six counties as Dublin part-funded nationalist election campaigns.

Suddenly a tactic from 1918 altered, from being a means to demonstrate power through the establishment of the First Dáil to becoming a principle that served to conceal a lack of power. New absurdities arise in the excuses put forward for abstention: that Republicans cannot sit within a democratic body established by British law. Well, that’s entirely wrong, if only because the authority of the Oireachtas derives from the 1937 Constitution where authority is derived from the people, not the Government of Ireland Act. Or the idea that these parliaments are ‘partitionist’. Even that makes little sense in that the Irish Constitution explicitly seeks unity, and through Article 3 expressly agrees to the establishment of agreed bodies with all-island ‘powers and functions’. Unless one is wedded to the most legalistic of arguments it is clear that a claim across the entirety of the island without any means to exercise that claim (as was the situation with the previous version of Articles 2 and 3) would be entirely rhetorical.

Of course there is another reason why non-mainstream Republicanism clings to abstention. And this is that it fears the implications of entering the Dáil and Seanad or Stormont. This fear is twofold, one part a belief that the exercise of power in itself corrupts principles, the other part being that it will dilute the ‘struggle’ as TDs become engaged in the minutia of state power, or representation. While there is a grain of truth in both these propositions one has to ask what precisely is the alternative? The idea that parallel institutions, as in 1919, can be established seems to be a fantasy. Who will organise them, who will notice them, who will give them allegiance?

And what appears to be the alternative is a sort of denial of reality. Republican Sinn Féin only contests local elections (poorly it has to be said, having only had a handful of candidates elected and currently having none). It refuses adamantly to sit in Dublin or Stormont. It believes that it is the receptacle of Republican legitimisation, being the annointed successor the rump Second Dáil. It believes that the Continuity IRA is the rightful embodiment of the authority of the Republic and that all actions undertaken by that organisation in order to accelerate the end of what they characterise as ‘British rule’ are lawful. This is a high-minded group, fiercely loyal to the ‘Republic’ and all that entails but high-minds can bring great detachment.

The 32 County Sovereignty Movement, drawn from a split in Provisional Sinn Féin in the mid 1990s, takes a more hard-headed approach. For them there seems to be a belief that if only there had been a harder push by PIRA in the late 1980s the British would have been forced to leave. But they don’t believe themselves – in the main – to be the living embodiment of the Republic, but more a means of upholding the sovereign rights of the Irish people on the island. Still, they too exhibit the aversion to electoral politics, no doubt aware of how their progenitor has shifted away from the struggle. And their idea of sovereignty is rooted in a Westphalian concept that appears increasingly at odds with the reality of a Europe that has ceding considerable degrees of sovereignty in it’s very structures. So it’s an uneasy mix, some would perhaps argue an unfeasible mix, of support for physical force Republicanism allied with a very legalistic and rather old-fashioned concept of sovereignty.

The Irish Republican Socialist Party, anti-GFA, but also wedded to a version of socialism that while honourable appears less and less relevant to the ‘realities on the ground’, appears to have no clear cut position on any of this and remains in relative impotence, a tragedy for a group which was founded with the highest of ideals and a hard dose of realism courtesy of Seamus Costello. The IRSP is realistic enough to know that an armed struggle of itself would achieve nothing for the Irish working class, hence it’s support for the current ceasefire by the Irish National Liberation Army, but appears to be unable to take the next conceptual step which is that an armed struggle even in tandem with social campaigning will also achieve nothing for the Irish working class.

There is another strand, based around The Blanket website and Anthony McIntyre which repudiates the armed struggle, but equally repudiates PSF.

The major flaw of anti-GFA Republican dissidence is the obvious one, the fractious nature of those groups. Simply put there are too many of them and they’re too small. Where PSF could act as a broad church containing left and right wings, conservative and liberal, Republican essentialists and those who simply wanted to take a swing at the British, but also a clear direction, these are, to some extent, more like the competing platonic ideals that constitute Irish Republicanism. PSF could utilise the ‘armed struggle’ itself as the ultimate legitimisation – ‘look at us, we’re actually fighting for a United Ireland’ while it’s constituent elements could take equal shelter beneath that legtimisation. That wasn’t an absolute as 1986 proved when RSF upped and left over abstention (albeit over an amendment that only permitted entry to the RoI Dáil Éireann – although in truth it was much more complex than that with abstention signifying both adherence to armed resistance and the absolute opposite for both sides involved in the debate). But even so, the schism was minor. Not so today. The schisms are now before in their most precise significations. Simply put because we now see the core arguments anti-GFA Republicans propose, in all their different forms and with their different analyses, they lack a power and coherence. Three small groups with differing strategies (indeed sharply distinct ideologies) are a very different proposition to the former might (whatever one thinks of the actual tactics utilised) of PIRA. The hegemony of the PSF in the political context of the North is quite remarkable. The recent Hearts and Minds poll for the BBC gives of all Nationalist voters a significant 50.3% to SF as against 42.1% for the SDLP. RSF gains 5.9% while 32CSM 1.6%. Of course neither of the latter two would contest an Assembly election.

Beyond these more, shall we say, philosophical, issues a major problem for these groups is the current situation where there appears to be something of an aversion to the use of ‘armed struggle’ by any group claiming to represent the ‘Irish people’. This was in some respects deepened by the Real IRA/CIRA bombing in Omagh, but the tendency was gaining ground throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. In the absence of any appetite for a more hard-edged response their function becomes that almost of think tanks or churches, repositories of concepts that remain outside the mainstream. Violence in this context becomes entirely gestural (although I’d argue that even at the height of the PIRA campaign it too was gestural, in that it could never hope to succeed in purely military terms) and of intermittent frequency and a very low level of intensity (as exemplified by the recent fire-bombing of homeware shops).

So an awful lot of what’s going on appears to be whistling in the dark in the hope that the situation will change and that there will be increased support for an armed campaign…

And the alternatives to this? Some talk of civil resistance, although the form of that resistance remains opaque. And what’s the point if one can’t mobilise Nationalism to any great degree? And here in a sense is the huge problem at the heart of these competing enterprises. They are hugely detached from the realities of the situation they find themselves in, an example being the 32CSM documents on Unionism, generated for the very best of intentions, but destined to fall on deaf ears because of it’s provenance.

These groups are (largely) sincere and heartfelt in their beliefs, but being sincere or heartfelt isn’t really sufficient, they are also, to my mind at least, entirely wrong in these beliefs, their tactics and their strategies.

But they’ll keep whistling…

It’s bad in Iraq. Yeah, we know that, but it’s no joke Mr. President. December 7, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq, Tony Blair, US Politics.
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Very briefly, perhaps it’s me but I’ve always shied away from the sort of analysis that goes: “Bush is stupid or inarticulate”. I’ve always thought that conclusion is too sweeping, too bien-pensant for my liking. To get where he is today he’s jumped through some hoops, pressed some flesh, found some formula of words that expresses his beliefs successfully. Or his class interests, which may or may not be the same thing.

But wow, this evening is an eye opener.

Nick Robinson of BBC1 News enquired:

Mr. President, the Iraq Study Group described the situation in Iraq as grave and deteriorating. You said that the increase in attacks is unsettling. That will convince many people that you’re still in denial about how bad things are in Iraq, and question your sincerity about changing course.

A moment’s pause, perhaps affronted by the directness of the question, before the response:

It’s bad in Iraq. Does that help? (Laughter.)

His laughter, it should be noted.

It’s bad? It certainly is. Wildly inappropriate is the phrase that springs to mind with regard to his response.

The Chicago Tribune has a fuller transcript and analysis of this so I won’t dwell on it, other than to say compare and contrast with the gravitas of a serious Republican like James Baker yesterday (and one wonders how in retrospect he feels about his little jaunt to Florida back in 2000).

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it. December 7, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.
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You know what this is?

dyson.jpg

That’s right, it’s a Dyson.

And this?

ipod.jpg

Correct again, it’s an iPod. From the scroll wheel it looks like it’s a fourth generation version….mmm smooth corners.

Well, I gave a presentation on Tuesday to a bunch of students in their early to mid-20’s. Both of the above were on the slide together along with something else.

At the end of it one of them came up and asked, entirely sincerely, ‘What were those things on the last slide beside the Dyson and the iPod?

That’d be these yokes then…

imacs.jpg

Ferris Bueller was right.

When did they say the singularity is coming?

The real Budget Day give away! London and Dublin, oh yeah, and Belfast too… December 6, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Democratic Unionist Party, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, Ulster.
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Things afoot in the undergrowth. Or not. Bertie Ahern visited London this week to be treated to dinner by some of the finalists in the BBC’s Master Chef programme at Number 10 Downing Street (and as a side point, since when did the world become one unending talent competition where everything is judged by a panel of ‘experts’?).

Yesterday Blair met the DUP at the same address, while he almost simultaneously sought to limit the negative impact of MI5’s expansion in the North. This appears as reported in the Irish Times to involve “the appointment of an independent assessor to monitor MI5 activities in the North as part of an attempt to reassure Sinn Féin that the security service will not be operating as “a force within a force” in its future relationship with the PSNI”. Not sure that’s going to be sufficient to assuage entirely reasonable fears about just what’s going on on the security front. Yet Ahern has said following his – no doubt – delicious dinner (and telling that Blair thought of him immediately as a dining partner when the idea was mooted) that “he was confident that Sinn Féin’s difficulties about the role of the British security service, MI5, and its relationship with the PSNI could be resolved”.

As to the DUP, well they’re continuing with their hot/cold approach to the situation. Very interesting to see Nigel Dodds, who went native (so to speak) over the last month against the St. Andrew’s Agreement, was one of the DUP London delegation. Nice to see him back on message. And if the messages coming out are contradictory, with Paisley saying ‘time is of the essence’ while Robinson is saying that the DUP won’t be ‘driven by deadlines’, at least (and yeah, this is the perennial cry of the peace process) something is happening. Or as Frank Millar puts it in the IT, “to Downing Street’s relief Dr Paisley resisted the opportunity to repeat the private predictions of some senior colleagues suggesting the March 26th deadline for devolution cannot be met”.

And meanwhile at the Assembly the other day we had, well, not quite a meeting of minds, but at least some sort of engagement between Adams and Paisley with both giving us the benefit of their no doubt exhaustive knowledge of Presbyterianism and the United Irishmen. Still, to hear Paisley ‘plead’ with Adams for some movement on policing is something. Or another. Or perhaps both. Or more likely not…

So in a way is this real movement or is it simply the circling around prior to the shut down of the whole process as either the DUP or SF walk away? Obviously there’s no way of knowing, but meanwhile it’s fairly clear that the two governments are making strenuous efforts to ensure that ‘all shall have prizes’ in the great GFA/St. Andrews giveaway.

The real question is, do we the long-suffering onlookers get to keep them?

Bringing the 2007 Election into Focus courtesy of Frank Luntz: or the strange (and sudden) passion of the Irish Times for focus groups. December 5, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Election 2007, Irish Politics, US Media, US Politics.
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An entertaining editorial in the Irish Times today. It notes that the RTÉ programme, The Week in Politics, has conducted election research based on an ‘undecided’ focus group. This follows in the path of similar focus groups, and is overseen by Frank Luntz who has worked with the US Republicans and with Channel 4 News in the past.

What’s intriguing about the editorial is the language used. Apparently this is ‘A new element … injected into the general election campaign’ and ‘is likely to become compulsive viewing as the election approaches’ and ‘By shifting attention to social issues and matters of policy, RTÉ may have helped to broaden the political debate into what kind of society we want to create’, and not only that, but also ‘the programme has managed to transcend the rather lazy “who will win” coverage which is encouraged by political opinion polls’. Now call me a cynic, but amidst the breathless enthusiasm, do I sense a certain grasping at straws here? The coverage isn’t ‘lazy’ in any reasonable sense of the word. ‘Who will win’ is the key question. Perhaps, admittedly, slightly less so in view of the remarkably similar platforms the two contenders appear ready to inflict upon us. But still key. One feels that the real problem is – from the lofty perspective of the IT – that Fianna Fáil appears to be sailing high with a near-winning margin. Or being even more cynical, perhaps it’s that although there is still all to play for, the Election doesn’t feel there’s quite as much to play for. And boring Elections make for boring newsprint. And boring newsprint makes for falling sales…

Anyhow…I’ve seen Luntz in operation on Channel 4 News as well and I have one major problem with this sort of focus group approach in that it tends to lead towards a sort of ‘group think’ if not organised correctly. This much was very clear in a similar exercise carried out during the last UK Labour Party conference where various alternative leadership contenders were put before just such a group. Gordon B. fared remarkably badly. John Reid remarkably well. Yet, errors and omissions excepted Gordon B will be the next Labour leader, and Prime Minister and will therefore most likely contest the next election (And where then will Dr. Reid be?).

The IT notes some of the findings to date: Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is ‘popular but ineffectual’, Enda Kenny is ‘weak and lacking punch’, Tánaiste Michael McDowell is ‘arrogant’ and Pat Rabbitte is ‘hard-working but lacking focus’. This is remarkable stuff, isn’t it? No doubt Rabbitte will be worrying over how to regain ‘focus’ – or perhaps not. More likely he’ll be more concerned with regaining Labour voters.

But if I have problems with focus groups, surely I’m not the only one? Perhaps my memory serves me incorrectly, but hasn’t one of the great cri-de-couers of the liberal left been the banishing of ideology in the face of these abominations? Isn’t this – these seemingly innocent groups of the ‘ordinary voter’ – the source, the well-spring, from which the spin that has tarnished Clinton, Blair and now apparently even our own beloved political class emanated? And now the IT is recommending it as necessary viewing for us, that it is ‘shifting attention to social issues and matters of policy’? By telling us that Enda Kenny is ‘weak’ or Ahern is ‘ineffectual’? Ah, well. Fire with fire and all that.

Good so that Luntz is an affable and capable guy (although one wonders what the back story is that he winds up working on commission for RTÉ – perhaps that Democratic landslide last month was even more exhaustive than we surmised), and no doubt it will make for entertaining viewing – at least for some of us.

And its the ‘some of us’ that is important. I wonder if this enthusiasm on the part of the editorial betrays the ‘wonk/ette’ aspect of the view from the IT. How many watch The Week in Politics? I rarely do any longer, and I’m one of those annoying people who actually finds certain aspects of …er…psephology interesting. I don’t buy into the idea that blogs, this one, or any other will really shape the discourse around the up and coming Election, although notably one point of view that seems to have wide, almost monolithic, currency on the web is the low-wattage of the current FG/Labour arrangement. And perhaps that sort of view is feeding into the rather telling statement in the final sentence ‘And while the formation of a Fianna Fáil/Labour Party coalition has been ruled out by Labour, if its preferred arrangement with Fine Gael finds few takers, it may respond to public demand’.

It may indeed. But I doubt Frank Luntz or all his pomps and works will be the motive force behind this demand.

The Turner Prize: Tomma Abts and good old-fashioned but entirely modern fine art painting! December 4, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture.
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Briefly, Tomma Abts won the Turner Prize at the Tate this evening. She’s the first painter to win since 1998 and Chris Ofills elephant dung and acrylic pieces.
Abts produces compelling pieces, to me at least, sort of art deco set to oil painting, all diagonals, sharp edges and sweeping curves with clever visual tricks.
And there’s a nicely concise aspect to her work. She works on a consistent 48 x 38 cm format and for the Turner Prize she presented – I think – only eleven, or was it fifteen paintings, which took her five years to produce.

Interestingly the title of each is a German first name, but let’s be honest, they’re not exactly swathed in meaning. Which is good. Instead they seem to be timeless, it’s easy to imagine they could have been painted in 1926 or even earlier

Here’s one of her pieces entitled Veeke:

abts-veeke.jpg

Blaming the Iraqi’s, or how to explain away something worse than a civil war… December 4, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, United States, US Media.
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The latest statement from Kofi Annan (as found in the Irish Times) is – to my mind at least – the most accurate description of the present situation. Whatever way one cuts it the sectarian strife in Iraq is vastly worse than a typical civil war. It pains me to say this, but I also think he’s correct that the situation under Saddam was better. I don’t say that lightly, nor in the wish that Saddam was still in power, but it does point up the incredible vacuity and lack of responsibility of the US led coalition in exercising even the most basic of it’s duties as regards maintaining the integrity of Iraq following the invasion and occupation. I’ve said it before, I supported the invasion. I thought it was a good thing. Unfortunately I was wrong – although even still the majority of Iraqi’s are glad to see the back of Saddam. But the occupation was, as I’ve also noted previously, beyond abysmal in it’s implementation.

In part it’s due to this not being a ‘civil war’ of the usual model that the violence is so appalling. There is an excellent, if depressing, article in this months Prospect magazine by John Keegan and Bartle Bull which argues that since the various groups involved in the violence in Iraq do not have coherent aims as regards attaining state power – these groups being the Sunni insurgency, the Shia militias and extra-judicial elements allied with the state, with infiltration of the state forces by the previous three – therefore it is impossible to characterise it as a civil war. And it’s notable that within each of those groups are sub units. Sunni’s are split between Wahhabists, Salafists and Baath secularist. As the subhead on the article put’s it ‘Lessons from history suggest that Iraq, though in chaos, has not yet reached civil war’. That’s correct in one sense, but most observers would argue – I suspect – that it has in fact moved beyond a civil war. Keegan and Bull note that a curious feature of the Iraqi violence is that it’s ‘decidedly unmilitary’, and this much is true. There are no set pieces, no real attempts to stake or hold territory. And in that respect this is much worse than a civil war. If one thinks of Al-Zaqawi one can see how effectively amateurish his goals and means were. Yet amateurish means do not lessen the ability to massacre.

I said it was worse than a civil war, and I mean that in the sense that the violence, since it has no clear state power aims, is both reactive and entirely uncontrolled. The most appalling acts are carried out by all sections involved with no clear restraint. These acts fit into no particular strategy, indeed run completely counter to the purported aims and interests of those involved in carrying them out. The bombing of the Samarra mosque is indicative of this. Some see this as the final trigger for the involvement of the Shia militias in significant resistance, and altered the complexion of the conflict from one largely between the Sunni insurgents and the state into a broader more inclusive conflagration. But while conflagration is easy to achieve, an end point is more difficult. The complex nature of Iraqi society means that domination of it by Wahhabists is impossible. Yet neither can Shia dominate if the Sunni refuse to engage. In a way this reminds me to some degree of the situation in the North in the very early 1970s where competing groups vied as much to be heard as to make any strategic progress. But, the difference is of course that in Northern Ireland there were clear political programmes pursued by all involved (with the possible exception of Loyalists) and as time progressed it was possible to discern and engage with those programmes.

Frankly the most disgusting thing I’ve heard recently on this matter has been the chorus of voices from some on the US right effectively blaming the Iraqi’s for not being able to ‘do democracy’. Such a charge is specious in the extreme. Firstly it’s clear that Iraqi’s do do democracy as the successful election last year indicated. What they don’t ‘do’ at this point in time is coherent state building since the aftermath of the US invasion saw the willful attrition of the minimally required infrastructure of the Iraqi state and its replacement by – at first – an equally minimal security entirely inadequate for a country as large as Iraq. Secondly the very nature of the invasion and occupation robbed any serious legitimacy from the US – even if one accepts, and I tend to, that this wasn’t a ‘resource war’ fought for oil. No effort was made by the US administration to dispel that impression in a context where such an impression could only serve to weaken it’s bona fides. Indeed the administrations approach was one which actually exacerbated that impression by refusing to seriously engage with the UN, or make any effort to step aside from being the prime mover in the immediate aftermath. Thirdly, the actual make up of Iraq as an enormously intricate society divided along different religious, ethnic, political and other lines was such that it required the most delicate and nuanced of efforts to arrive at a reasonable solution. No such delicacy or nuance was forthcoming.

And now the situation is one where Keegan and Bull suggest that the ultimate shape of the conflict may be similar to that played out in the Lebanon. Fifteen years of civil war passed before a negotiated settlement. Fifteen years. And it’s worth considering for a moment how that settlement in Beirut is this very week under threat, in part due to Hizbollah’s drive to exercise greater power, in part due to another unintended consequence of US policy in the region, a foolish and short-sighted support for foolish and short-sighted Israeli military actions.

I still take a view that it was necessary to remove Saddam. But necessity is one thing, means employed another. It’s very clear that a non-military option was being explored just prior to the war. It wasn’t explored fully, a profound mistake. And this is a world which is crying out for a different approach to international relations, one which isn’t limited by 19th century concepts of state sovereignty, or by entirely sincere but effectively passive anti-war thinking. War happens, dictators dictate, people are imprisoned by the very concept of state sovereignty sometimes. A beefed up UN approach to totalitarianism is a good thing. But as Iraq demonstrates it won’t be feasible as a strategy simply by pretending that regime change through military force is the only, or even the preferred, option.

The limits of activism: Sinn Féin, Independents, Socialism, Community and Party. December 2, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Ireland, Irish Politics, Sinn Féin, Uncategorized.
5 comments

One of the perennial jibes cast against Independent politicians is that they are effectively little more than ‘parish pump’ politicians, adrift to some extent upon the whim of their constituents and with no responsibility or obligation to the wider political system. And the problem is there is a considerable element of truth in this. The current polls have registered a slight shift upwards in their share of the vote, so we’ll see how that impacts next year during the Election.

But I think that while such a dynamic is manifested in many Independents at council and national level, a contrary dynamic is also evident. That of political parties or machines which seek to remove the messy business of the voter, particularly the micro-level concerns of voters, from the political equation and replace that with ‘national’ issues. It’s the old technocratic solution, one which prefers list elections over constituency based elections or some element thereof, and it is a tendency that appeals to those on left and right who believe there is a purely rational way to run a society.

For myself having come from strongly ideological parties (which I agreed with more or less – and as time went on generally less) to the much less ideologically constricted shores of the broad ‘Left’ with no responsibility to accept policies which I disagree with and the peculiar luxury of being truly able to pick and choose between candidates or combinations of candidates from different parties – even from entirely different standpoints – I appreciate the dynamics of this process more keenly than I used to and strongly doubt in pure rationalism, or at least those who suggest such solutions.

Politics is a messy business which demands that representatives represent, not simply their parties (although that too is necessary) but also their constituents. An example of where disconnect can occur is in the Seanad, where Senators are elected (those who are elected – but that’s a whole different story) by certain constituencies. These constituencies are to some degree ‘imagined’ in the same sense as Benedict Arnold [edit: I mean Anderson!] uses the term with reference to ‘nations’ and are somewhat opaque to true representation. That’s not necessarily a problem. Certain gestures in politics are necessary, they have a symbolic importance which can transcend their implicit limitation. I think in particular of how the Senate was utilised as a means of representing the Anglo-Irish and Protestant elements of the nation post-Independence. Was it feasible that individual Senators drawn from that tradition could directly represent all those from the tradition – of course not, but the simple gesture indicated that at some level (and it has to be said in retrospect that it was sadly limited) the nation recognised the necessity for such representation if only on the practical grounds that it damped down societal tension.

In any case the Senate, as the second chamber of the Oireachtas has a function, that while contested by many, at least is readily comprehensible.

As for the Independents, we know their faults, soaking up the left vote (in those instances where the Independent tends to be more of the left than right), generally unwilling to work in concert with other parties (bar through that most exotic of political creatures the Technical Group), populist to a fault and so on. What is interesting is that while all these charges are entirely true, I’m not as antagonistic as I once was. In part because I’ve seen how the left to the left of Labour has fractured, in part because there is now a more ideologically coherent group of Independents in the Dáil who, like them or loathe them, have tended to speak if not with one voice – at least with a broadly similar outlook. Often this translate into pure protest, but sometimes it can be an effective counterpoint to more mainstream opinion and it has the useful effect of pointing up how similar the larger parties are on policy grounds. But it remains true that Independents are essentially independent and the scope for action at a national remains limited – whatever about Finian McGrath’s repeated calls for an Independent Alliance prior to the next election. Truth is that once the election is called such an Alliance, lovely idea that it may be (at least in terms of seeing it work itself out), is going to be lost amidst the hard grind on the doorstep. So, good for the Independents, but we’ll see.

Which leads us neatly to community, the bedrock of our democratic processes. Well having been involved over the years in party and non-party based community campaigns, or the more grandly titled ‘activism’ I’m not so sure. As I’ve already noted I’m leery of the technocratic approach which argues that the link with community should be broken and replaced by that with party (for community read constituency here – not that the two terms are precisely synonymous). But communities have their own dynamics, which often are entirely different to those of political activities. They are localised, partisan and often short termist. Interesting ethical quandries arise more regularly than might be imagined. I’m thinking of litigation over disruption by utilities, and the awarding of compensation. Simultaneously they are the represented, or at least purport to be, the essential link between the electorate on a day to day basis and the representatives. It’s struck me very strongly in recent years how few TDs, bar the obvious examples, have really managed to link into community activism. But there is an obvious answer there. Only Independents are able to project themselves as sufficiently independent so that they can represent people from a wide variety of political backgrounds and none. Party candidates, while occasionally able to slip the leash are always anchored to the Party name for better or for worse. But Independents are few and far between. The numbers in the Dáil and Seanád speak for themselves as to the difficulties that particular route to political success throws up.

There’s an interesting debate in Sinn Féin at the moment around the limits of activism in a political party context which touches on the above and is worth reading at Politics.ie. Again I’d argue, from experience in community activism that it’s self-limiting and to believe that it can be the most serious part of any political expression is somewhat deluding. But, perhaps I’m wrong in that analysis and the future will demonstrate the validity of that route. I wonder though. In an increasingly consumerist society it seems to me to be retrogressive to shift completely into community activism (as with the SF split Éirigi) when state power remains the focal point of political endeavour. Seamus Costello, a key person in the shift in Official Sinn Féin towards the political from the military and later one of the founders of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, was an early cheerleader of such activity. Yet he saw the crucial need to also link that into national campaigns and to attempt to project power at a national level as represented by a speech reproduced here.

It’s like the old saw ‘you need a right and a left wing for a plane to fly’. The same is true of the balance between national and local. Those parties and organisations which have ignored the former to concentrate on the latter have remained peripheral and marginal.

And the contemporary rush by certain sections of the left and some Republican Socialists doesn’t ring entirely true and I wonder whether we’ll see yet more examples of enthusiasm and activity dissipated…

Some underground you’ve got there… or the peculiar case of Banksy December 1, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture.
2 comments

Can’t help but notice in today’s Guardian a photograph on the front page and a piece inside about graffiti/stencilling/traditional artist Banksy and his latest doings. Apparently ‘underground artist Bansky’ as the Guardian describes him (remember that front page) has established Santa’s Ghetto, a shop/installation/event which contains photographs, pieces of art and various detritus produced by himself and 20 other artists. This isn’t the first manifestation of the Ghetto, but this is the first time it’s had a central London location, this year in the heart of consumerism on Oxford Street.

Still I can’t help feeling that far from being ‘underground’ our Banksy (front page of the Guardian) is popping his head right into the mainstream. So far he has sold work to Christina Aguilera (£25,000 for three – what a bargain) amongst other luminaries. His much vaunted anonymity is slightly less anonymous with the Guardian giving us two possible ‘real’ names. The idea that his parents don’t know who and what he really is strikes me as unlikely, and there’s a sort of triteness to that anecdote which leaves me cold.

So, while there’s much to admire in his work, and I genuinely like much of it, something about him troubles me a little. It’s not the fact that he exhibits although the static nature of exhibitions seems to signify a slightly paradoxical engagement with the world. Nor is it the fact that he sells paintings, although that signifies a different paradox. Perhaps it’s simply his ubiquity. I liked the replacement over the Summer of Paris Hilton’s album Paris with his cover art and remixes by Danger Mouse. The paintings on the barrier in Israel/Palestine were interesting if just a tad mawkish. But there’s been a lot of Banksy this year, an awful lot if one is to judge from his wiki entry.

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It’s also striking how illustrative his style has been throughout his career, from the entertaining anarchist rats where the visual language is derived directly from graffiti and also from advertising and ‘street culture’, to the later work which seems to dip a toe in folk art, book illustration and so on. Nothing wrong with that, indeed lot’s to like. Illustration and illustrative styles have always been the poor relation to ‘Fine’ Art. But there’s also an intriguing conservatism visually. This is representation with a capital R. The concepts are concepts. Good meaty political concepts, but somehow they become a little thin and insipid as they are sledge-hammered home. Take the Barrier image which depicts a break in the fabric of the wall and blue sky beyond. We get it, no really we get it. Or as the perhaps apocryphal story on wiki has it after painting an image there a Palestianian said it was ‘beautiful’, Banksy thanked him and the Palestinian replied ‘We don’t want it beautiful, Go home’. And it seems to me, at least, that as his work has evolved it’s become less subtle. It’s much easier to read more into the simple black and white stencil driven images than into the later illustrations. Take the one on the (front page of the…) which depicts two children at the door of a house with Michael Jackson proffering candy to them. The style is classic children’s book illustration. But it’s not the style which is problematic but the completely transparent meaning. I’m no fan of Jackson, but what does this tell us that we don’t already (think) we know? And how does it actually help in terms of educating children to the very real dangers of abuse which occur in far more everyday contexts? Because if education isn’t the object of the exercise, a purpose he seems to believe is necessary in his more politically oriented work, what exactly is this? It’s art? Perhaps.

And maybe it’s just that I dislike the term ‘underground’ for art. Art is a business that often pretends it’s not a business. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But as a business – at least in it’s most public expression – it thrives on concepts such as ‘underground’ ‘outsider’ ‘confrontational’ and so on. Having worked alongside artists for much of the last two decades I don’t really buy into that. I don’t mind it. But I don’t buy it. In this I should say that this is as much an image created by the media as it is generated by artists, but it’s a bit of a virtuous cycle in that both parties tend to benefit from it.


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Comparisons are invidious. But I prefer my Mark Titchner wrapping paper which came with the Guardian which also attempts to engage with a dominant visual language of advertising and a media saturated world. And perhaps because his work is in some respects more banal, depending on simple meaningless slogans like ‘If I Can!’ set against florid floral surrounds they convey a more potent sense of the faux authority of this discourse than the front page of the…

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