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They haven’t gone away you know… UK party funding and the shape of the political future. February 27, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland.

Will come back to the question of some sort of detente on the left that Michael Taft, franklittle, smiffy and others have been discussing here.

But in the meantime it’s always useful to remember that old adversaries change only slowly, if at all, and an article in today’s Guardian points up something that leftists of all stripes from centre out to the furthest reaches of the further left should note. David Cameron may, or may not, be the next Prime Minster of the UK, but so far his ‘project’ of a seemingly more moderate and modified conservatism is both popular with the public as seen by the clear shift in polling data towards the Conservatives and more importantly with those who would underwrite him and his party.

Consider that donations to the Tories are now at record levels, and most notably are pouring in from various parts of the UK including Scotland where Conservatism had been effectively leveled during the peak of the Blair period. Labour received £12 million (just under half of it from the unions), the Conservatives twice that, and the Liberal Democrats a not derisory £6 million.

Now funds alone mean less than one might expect, but sentiment is an important aspect of political activity and money tends to leech towards those it perceives as being potentially successful. If I were a member of the British Labour Party (and I once was many years ago) I’d be thinking long and hard about what this particular flight of capital represents. Perhaps it is the victory of the left liberal centre ground, hewn almost single handed by Blair from that most unforgiving of political materials, the British electorate. But somehow I doubt it.

Two thoughts strike me reading the report, firstly funding for the Liberal Democrats is increasing significantly. This can only be to the good for them (incidentally, I hate to hate, but I can’t stand them on a political level, I mean, what exactly are they for? I’m sure they’re lovely people in person but yet…ach, no. I’m not much of a class warrior, if at all, but they leave me cold). And is it possible to see them now play the role as regards the Labour party that they played in relation to the Conservatives for the past fifteen or so years, one of suppressing that vote sufficiently to hobble the party nationally? And perhaps Blair will regret that he didn’t eventually bring the LDs into his cabinet as he mooted with Paddy Ashdown prior to landslide victories making that but a distant dream.

Thought number two arriving hot on it’s heels is to wonder how the increased trend to union funding of the Labour Party is going to influence it as time progresses. Now, as we’re all aware, the unions are not quite holdouts of revolutionary socialism (which is broadly speaking a good thing). But their general tendency is to be left social democratic. That has to have some form of an impact. Does that mean that spaces to the left might open up with a more avowedly left social democrat Labour Party? Or does it mean that Middle England takes fright and goes with the ever so nice Mr. Cameron rather than the not quite so nice, indeed fairly dour Mr. Brown and an increasingly left leaning LP behind him?

British politics is always fascinating because it is so close and yet so far from Irish politics. It’s very familiar, but to be able to judge detail and nuance is difficult, so it’s difficult to see how this is going to pan out. But the thought of a Conservative government leaves me much colder than even the thought of the Liberal Democrats, both as regards it’s implications for British politics and the possible implications for this island.

Still Hazel Blears could ask Blair cut this particular Gordian knot while Labour retains a majority and institute public funding of political parties, but somehow I just can’t see that being a popular option either among the public or more particularly among the parties.

Saint Mencken? February 26, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Religion.
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A funny little piece by Stuart Jeffries in today’s Guardian G2 section caught my eye earlier.  Entitled Faith, it’s essentially an unoriginal rehash of the same argument that’s been turning up over and over on Comment is Free and elsewhere: aren’t secularists like Dawkins, Hitchens et al really just a mirror image of the fundamentalist religious fanatics they claim to oppose.  Indeed, Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark, is quoted in the article as saying

You have a triangle with fundamentalist secularists in one corner, fundamentalist faith people in another, and then the intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, baptism, methodism, other faiths – and, indeed, thinking atheists – in the other corner.

Wow, even the ‘thinking atheists’? Cheers for the inclusivity, Colin. Very decent of you (asssuming you weren’t coming out of the Embassy of Ireland in London’s Christmas Party, like the unfortunate Bishop of Southwark, when you were quoted).

I’m not going to bother getting into the flaws of the argument, and the misrepresentation of the atheist position it contains. The same points have been made, albeit less elegantly, in the same paper by arch-goon Theo Hobson and poor, mad Madeleine Bunting, as well as featuring in Rod Liddle’s fatuous The Trouble with Atheism. Those arguments have been refuted on numerous other occasions as a simple Google search will reveal.

What I did find interesting, though, was Jeffries’ opening statement:

The American journalist HL Mencken once wrote: “We must accept the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” In Britain today, such wry tolerance is diminishing.

Now maybe Jeffries doesn’t know much about Mencken, or maybe he’s deliberately misunderstanding the quote above to suit his purpose, but the idea that Mencken was any kind of beacon of religious tolerance (wry or otherwise) is ludicrous. If the ‘why can’t we all just accept that there’s merit in every view’ religious relativists think Dawkins is harsh, they would do well to avoid the work of Mencken. If, on the other hand, you’re fond of brilliantly written, while often politically grotesque, journalistic misanthropy, you could do worse than seeking out his work, particular the collection of his pieces on the Scopes Monkey Trial, entitled A Religious Orgy in Tennessee.  In it Mencken writes:

 The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended.  It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion.  A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot.  Is it to pass unchallenged?  If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism.  Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible.  Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many American enterain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan [Note: this is taken from Mencken’s infamously withering obituary of William Jennings Bryan – smiffy], but probably the number is very large.  They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities.  Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish.  Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts.  No man whose information is sound as whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them.  They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilised man’s attitude towards such superstitions?  It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt.  If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none.  If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level.  When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.  That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act.  Bryan went there in a hero’s shining armor, bent deliberately upon a gross crime against sense.  He came out a wrecked and presposterous charlatan, his tail between his legs.  Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours.

That, in three paragraphs, encapsulates the essence of what Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Grayling and all the rest have to say on religion.  If the self-pitying sky-worshippers are upset that The God Delusion says some nasty things about them, they should thank whichever imaginary superbeing takes their fancy that Menckenian ‘tolerance’ isn’t as widespread as Stuart Jeffries might like.

Lessons from Europe for Labour? February 26, 2007

Posted by franklittle in European Politics, Ireland, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, The Left.

I thought about making this simply a comment after finding WBS had just posted on it, but I’d like to broaden the discussion out a little bit.

Our ‘friends’ in the SWP are fond of pointing to revolutionary, or quasi-revolutionary, struggles in the developing world and then arguing that the lessons we learn from this can be applied to Ireland. I am told that one SWP comrade, at a meeting about the Shell to Sea campaign, argued that if the campaign was pursued along SWP lines, it could end up with a ‘Morales type situation’. Latin America watchers will know this means the nationalisation of natural resources through the use of the National Guard. This is line with the long-standing SWP position that the further away from Ireland a struggle is, the more revolutionary it is. One wonders with some nervousness what would ever hapen to this habit if space flight was developed further.

I think there is a more interesting, and more applicable lesson, in some of the re-alignments, and attempted re-alignments, in Europe. In 2005, we saw a major victory for the left in France with the rejection of the EU Constitution. This entailed a unification in the radical left of the French Communist Party, the LCR, Lutte Ouvriere, as well as the major unions and organisations like ATTAC. What was interesting, and probably crucial, was the decision of a large section of the Social Democratic ‘Socialist Party’ led by Laurent Fabius, to oppose the Constitution.

In 2006, this time with a united Socialist Party that recognised the need to work with other elements of the left, they came together to defeat the CPE, or First Employment Contract, which would have made it easier to fire employees under the age of 26, after massive, and virulently militant mobilisations.

In Germany, a similar re-alignment took place when former members of the German Social Democrats, disgusted about Schroder’s welfare reforms, quit and established the WASG, under former leading Social Democrat, Oskar Lafontaine. Now uniting with the PDS as the Left Party, they won 54 seats in the 2005 Federal Elections, becoming the fourth biggest party and over-taking the Greens.

These have not been perfect successes. The unity in the French left has not survived the Presidential election bid with parties and individuals pursuing their selfish interest. The Left Party had a poor enough 2006 state elections in their Berlin stronghold but at 8-10%, the whole is greater than the sum of two parts.

In all three cases sections of the Social Democratic bloc, all of it in the case of the CPE, moved away and established links with more radical left parties. Successfully in Germany and with less long-term success in France. In both cases, the split in the social democrats was ideological in nature, part of an opposition to welfare or employment reforms, and the neo-liberalism of the EU Constitution.

So what is the lesson in Ireland? I think the first thing to note is what’s missing. Unlike France or Germany where the internal disagreements in the social democratic parties existed for some time,. there seems to be no ideological argument within the Irish Labour party, with the exception of Labour Youth, and anomalies like Declan Bree. Smiffy’s post points out the interesting phenomenon of Labour bloggers (All very good blogs btw) rejecting Rabbitte’s proposed tax cut. This is the closest to a political disagreement within Labour that is not restricted to Labour Youth that I can think of. Previous disagreements centring around coalition tactics. Consequently, without serious ideological division in Irish Labour, the notion of a split, with sections of the party re-aligning with the radical left, is not going to happen. The days of the 80s and the ideological battles within Labour, and major party figures articulating radical left-wing positions, seem further than 20 years away.

This leaves the possibility, that like the French Socialists over the CPE, Labour could move to the left, obviously not under Rabbitte, as part of a broader realignment. It was interesting to see the possibility of working with Sinn Féin being discussed in Labour Youth’s magazine Left Tribune, though the article opposing it by Donal O Liathain was interesting more for the vitriol and basic errors of political analysis, than because he said anything interesting. Curiously, later in the same magazine he lauds David Ervine, an hypocrisy pointed out by others on this site.

But for Labour to move this way, it would require an acceptance that the Greens and Sinn Féin are here to stay and they better get used to them. It would require a change of leader and political direction, not necessarily unrealistic if they do not enter power in 2007. And Sinn Féin would still have to go through a ‘disinfection’ period before the literati of south Dublin (Also know as the Labour and Green leaderships) would deign to break bread with the Shinners. 

Lastly, WBS makes an interesting point that labour still sees itself as having a stranglehold on left politics in Ireland. It reminded me of a speech Roger Cole, a former member of Labour’s General Council and a candidate in the ’04 elections, made at an otherwise tiresome Desmond Greaves Summer School in 2004, arguing that Labour was now the FOURTH party, behind Sinn Féin. Obviously Cole is way out there by Labour standards, but I thought it was interesting he felt able to say this nonetheless.

Perhaps, if Labour does not assume it’s role as leader of a multi-faceted Irish left-wing in the short to medium term, it will find itself overtaken, and not merely by events.

300 February 26, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Film and Television.

When the first trailers for the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 (about the Battle of Thermopylae where a small band of Spartan warriors held their own against a huge Persianinvastion force) began to appear in cinemas, the geek excitement was palpable. Effectively a Sin City with Sandals, the trailers contained some incredible visuals, big battles, shouty macho men and the hint of ultraviolence. And, based on a comic (or ‘graphic novel’, if you want to be like that about it). What more does one need in a film?

Unsurprisingly, it received an early showing at the unpleasantly titled ‘Butt-Numb-A-Thon’, a kind of mini-festival held in Austin, organised by the equally unpleasant Harry Knowles (whenever you see a film marketed with an excerpt from anAint -It-Cool-News review, watch out). It then received its official premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this month where it was apparently very well received. Now, last night, it was the surprise film at the Dublin International Film Festival and smiffy happened to be in the audience.

So is it, in fact, any good? Well, yes and no. Visually, it’s pretty stunning. It uses CGI to great effect, shunning any pretence at realism and going for highly stylised backdrops which glory in their artificiality. The muted colours (apart from red, of course) and use of slow motion effectively capture the nature of a comic (like Sin City, this is apparently an almost frame-by-frame replica of the source material, although I haven’t read the original, so don’t know). The battle scenes are compelling, although gruesome, and make best use of a limited cast. They resemble more the battles of the Lord of the Rings films (which effectively used CGI without overwhelming the narrative) than those in more recent epics like Troy, Kingdom of Heaven or even Braveheart.

And yet, impressive though it is, I don’t think it will endure as a great piece of film-making. Unlike Sin City, where the visuals went hand-in-hand with the heavily stylised noir storytelling, here the two don’t gel neatly. The overstylisation distracts at times from the narrative, or hits you over the head with it. One slow motion decapitation is fine; two might be pushing it a bit. Constant slow-motion spurts of blood, while fun for a while, gets a little grating, rather like watching a 90-minute television ad for Guinness. If the previous Miller adaptation was a case of the style being the substance, here the substance (with portentous claims about freedom and based on a well-known story) loses out.

The film-making aside, though, the reason it occurred to me to write about it here was that this was one of the most bizarrely reactionary movies I’ve been to see in quite a while. I don’t generally have a problem with violence in cinema but not this The Passion of the Christ do I remember this kind of queasiness when watching a film (and it wasn’t from the scourging scene then either).

Perhaps I came to the picture with some preconceptions. I was vaguely aware of Frank Miller’s politics, which seem to have been not so much conservative vaguely libertarian coupled with a jingoist, ‘let’s kick their ass’ approach to the so-called War of Terror. The forthcoming Holy Terror (where Batman meets Al Qaeda, in a throwback to comics of the Second World War, where superheroes fought Hitler and the Nazis, as memorably documented in Michael Chabon’s fantastic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) doesn’t sound too promising, and the tone of this piece from NPR suggest that Miller was another writer who had a Yossarian moment on September 11th – “Those bastards are trying to kill me”.

There’s certainly a highly questionable racist undercurrent to the entire film. It’s presented largely as a small group of brave, white Westerners standing firm at the gates of Europe (which represents liberty, justice, freedom and reason) against the swarthy hordes of the East. Some of the representations of the different Asian cultures pitted against the Greeks are little more than odd racist stereotypes, dark, mysterious and forbidding, not far from having a bone through the nose and dancing around a cooking pot. The most extreme example was the scene set in mad King Xerxes’ tent where exotic, naked and occasionally deformed dark-skinned women writhed naked around the floor, like an Orientalist’s fantasy of a swingers’ party. The whole film recalled the fictional white supremacist TV series Storm Saxon from the V for Vendetta comic.

On a more contemporary note, there seems to be a clear analogy with the neo-conservative understanding of the War of Terror, the Mark Steyn view that only a small few understand the true nature of the threat from the East (which will enslave us all if we don’t submit) but that by standing firm in the name of liberty others’ will be inspired and join the fight. A little Googling shows that the comic was published in 1998, so it would be interesting to see how much of the film is taken from the source material and how much has been added. A large element of the plot hinges on the legality of King Leonidas’ actions in going to war, against the explicit instructions of a council of deformed, inbred priests. Similarly, the Spartan Council refuses to support the war until the main opponent of the King is revealed to have been in the pay of the Persians all along.

Now, this may all be coincidence and I may well be reading too much into it, particularly in relation to the Iraq War analogies. Regardless, there’s certainly a fetishisation of violence, particularly jingoistic violence, at play. It perpetuates a certain view of war as a noble pursuit, in contrast with the sordid world of politics and diplomacy. It reminded me, in some ways, of the idea made popular in the 1980s by the Rambo films: that the Vietnam War could have been won by the United States if only the cowardly politicians and protesters at home had allowed the soldiers to get on with the job (i.e. killing lots more people).

While there may be some similarities in how the battle scenes are staged, this glorification of war is where 300 parts company with the other films mentioned above, flawed though they may be. With those there was, at least, a certain ambivalence about violence if not a rejection of it. Indeed, The Two Towers is a far more powerful anti-war film than many other ‘realistic’ pictures. 300, by contrast, is almost entirely without nuance or substance, relying on shouting and chopping rather than depth. If Olivier’s Henry V stood as a morale booster for Britain during the Second World War, 300 stands as a call to arms for 15-year-old boys in the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, and a rather dumb one at that.

Still, don’t take my word for it. Go and see it when it comes out later in the year and judge for yourself. As jingoistic, flag-waving, sadistic nonsense goes, it’s really not that bad.

Where next for Labour? Or the new party system. 2 and one halfs and two quarters and a twentieth… and counting. February 25, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics, Sinn Féin.
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Reading smiffy’s thought provoking post here and some of the responses to it, what strikes me most forcibly about this period of Labour history is how it has ceased to be a national party (the 1/2 in the dreaded 2 and 1/2 party system) and is now one of a number of parties of and on the centre left. I’m not certain whether this is an inevitable byproduct of structural change in Irish politics, or down to individuals (I tend towards the former view, but no doubt individuals by their actions or inactions have assisted this process), but happen it has and to the detriment of the opportunity for the left to gain any serious measure of state power.

Telling, is it not, that centre-left and left progressive parties have been eyed up on an individual basis for coalition with the larger parties, but not on a collective basis despite the rhetoric of the ‘Rainbow’ coalition consisting of Fine Gael, Labour and perhaps, maybe, or arguably never the Green Party?

There is little or no talk of the Green Party and the Labour Party as part of a left progressive axis, and none at all except on the margins – such as here – of a Labour/SF/Green axis that might bring a pragmatic alternative to the people. Of course self-definition is a tricky thing. The Greens, although clearly of the left, do not in some respects see themselves of it (or perhaps more accurately some of their number do not see themselves of it). Sinn Féin is, to some degree, in a similar situation. And as we know mutual hostility between these formations is strong and deep rooted.

And also telling is the rhetoric out of the Labour camp which presumes that it retains a hegemonic hold on the ‘left’ in Ireland which it doesn’t (although Rabbitte has said publicly that all parties are shifting towards the centre). I’m fairly certain neither the Greens nor SF will make very large gains in the forthcoming election, but…should they together equal or exceed the Labour tally then we’re looking at a very interesting situation on the left.

And it’s difficult to see Labour retaining it’s current position into the future (even if we disregard the most recent RedC poll which sees it gain 2%, and this following it’s Annual Conference).

Still, it’s dispiriting stuff for those who would look for a broader consensus moving forward.
I was at the merger conference back in 1999 between the DL and Labour. An ironic day for me, if only because I attended in the name of a party I didn’t belong to any longer and to see a party I had no intention of joining. Why not? Because I couldn’t see the purpose of the exercise (on a strategic political level as distinct from the point of view of those within the DL and Labour who were thinking tactically). The membership and outlook of the two parties struck me as quite different, an impression I’ve had no reason to alter in subsequent years. Moreover it struck me that the two parties addressed rather different sections of the left/liberal electorate that a combined party wouldn’t be capable of albeit this could only be done if the parties acted in concert which for the first couple of years DL most certainly didn’t with Labour. If anything I was a little surprised at them eventually merging with Labour given the history of those involved.

But this cannibalising the left hasn’t really worked for Labour. So far we’ve seen at least three groupings join it over the past fifteen years, the rump of Jim Kemmy’s DSP, the socialist organisation in Sligo centred on Declan Bree and the DL. None has brought significant gains. And in fairness to Pat Rabbitte the temptation to look to further fields must be very great indeed. The problem is that those further fields don’t appear particularly socialist, or even very social democratic. And it’s that problem that is in part the genesis of policies such as the 2% tax cut. Labour has to break away from centre left pack. But to do so it musn’t appear too centre left, which leads to disenchantment (at best) from the left and a further loss of support to the Greens and SF. But what is there about Labour as an entity that makes it a particularly attractive home for those tired of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael?

I don’t see it. And that’s why I wonder if this project is flawed from the start.

This new political landscape appears to be emerging as one where there are ‘flavours’ of centre leftism, Green, Republican, Social-Democratic and so on. That’s all very well, but it seems to me that in such a context the emergence of say Sinn Féin or the Green Party in a hegamonic position replacing Labour is unlikely. Instead we’ll have three, or perhaps more (if the SP increases it’s number of TD’s, and as an aside that will create some interesting pressures within that organisation) parties in or around 8 to 12% of the vote vying for the left vote. If so the opportunity exists to broaden the left through incrementalism across a range of fronts rather than placing hope in a single political entity.

But for that to be successful some serious thinking needs to be done about how to generate some degree of cooperation amongst the major groups on the left. There is no apparent sign of that. And if one or other element does enter coalition post-election any prospect of serious cooperation will be put back at least another three or four years.  That would be seriously bad news for anyone who seriously hopes that some sort of differentiation in Irish politics from the current situation will develop, and seriously bad news too for the left.

Whatever you want, whatever you like, whatever you say February 22, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Irish Election 2007, Irish Labour Party, Irish Politics.

 Pat Rabbitte’s recent conference address, in particular the proposed cut in the standard tax rate met with predictable disdain from non-Labour leftists and was hailed as a masterstroke by those more interested in elections than politics.  Interestingly, though, it’s been received quite poorly by many of those whose sympathies would tend to lie squarely with Labour.  Gerry Quigley is “uneasy” about the proposal, the Progressive Gardener asks “how did they get it so wrong after getting it so right” and Michael Taft sums it up with the title “Unsolicited, Unnecessary, Unwelcomed” (as an aside, if you’re not a regular reader of those blogs, start now).

Admittedly, Cian over on IrishElection makes a valiant stab at defending the proposal against the (clearly hypocritical) argument that Labour is engaging in ‘auction politics’ in this regard.  Unfortunately, though, the defence seems to be that while it is tarted-up clientalism, it’s no different from what everyone else is doing, and what everyone’s done previously.

While those listed above make persuasive cases in many respects, they do seem to share a broad view that the 2% promise is a vote-grabbing stroke, but that the rest of Labour’s platform is fundamentally sound.  I’m not so sure.  To my mind, it appears very much in line with the position Labour under Rabbitte seems bent on adopting in the Irish political marketplace (that ugly term chosen deliberately).

It seems to me to be the logical terminus of the kind of thinking that gives us a slogan like ‘But are you happy’?, rather than a diversion from it.  It’s completely in keeping with the way Labour seems to be grappling with the politics of happiness that the Progressive Gardener talks about so eloquently in the post linked to above (and which, in a different sense, boy-faced New Labour former Mandelson-crony Derek Draper touches on here).

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all in favour of happiness (and I’m a miserable sod).  It’s a welcome development that political and economic discourse now incorporates a serious approach to rather nebulous concepts such as happiness, or wellbeing, rather than just number-crunching.  What I’m disheartened by is the way the current Labour Party seems to be taking a very cynical line of this – engaging with progressive concepts, but using them to tart up the same old empty clientalism (Cian was more right than anyone would like to think).

Look at the ‘Commitments for Change‘ Labour is proposing: more hospital beds, pre-school education, increased Guards, no means test for carers and (as far as I can understand it) an improved version of the shared ownership scheme for first-time house buyers.  All very laudable, but pretty limited.  Apart from the pre-schooling (which I’d hope is more than just a sop to those who want ‘something done’ on childcare costs) there’s nothing original there, and nothing that would raise eyebrows at any other party conference.  It’s hardly the foundation for radical change – rather, it appears to be a manifesto for ‘more of the same, only better’.

Most depressing of all is the way these proposals are framed – they are, apparently, what “you” are thinking and represent what “you” want.  Rabbitte tells us that he’s been up and down the country, and these issues are what ‘the people’ are concerned with.  And whatever you want – Pat delivers.  You don’t like the way hospitals are run? Labour will fix it.  You’re worried about crime? Labour has it under control.  You want happiness? You got it.  Oh, and you don’t want to have to pay for it? Well, I think Labour can manage that as well.
At the risk of sounding paternalistic and elitist, are the random desires of participants in focus groups really the way a supposedly progressive party should decide on its priorities for action?  What happened to, if not telling people what they should want, then sticking with your principles and tring to bring people along with you: changing people’s minds rather than prostrating oneself before the opinion of whichever random yahoo happens to open the door when canvassing?

The problem, I think, isn’t Labour’s adoption of the politics of happiness; it’s the failure engage with such a politics deeply enough.  The main concern seems to be happiness of those most likely to vote, or whose votes are most required, rather than those (to flog this dead horse of a concept even further) who are most unhappy.  It’s selling an easy idea of happiness, selling easy solutions to difficult problems rather than really debating what the right solutions might be.

For all his faults (amply catalogued previously by this site) Nick Cohen makes some interesting, and related, points in an interview with Little Atoms last week.  While the context is different (he’s talking primarily about critics of US foreign policy) Cohen suggests that the fall of the Berlin and the subsequent death of what might be termed  ‘traditional socialism’ as mainstream political ideology (who now seriously advocates nationalisation of banks, or workers’ control of industry) was almost a liberating experience for certain elements of the left.  It allowed them to be critical of things they didn’t like, without having to offer any kind of alternative political platform.  He likens this to political consumerism, where people can pick off-the-shelf opinions, without having to make any effort in developing something better.

This, I fear, is what Labour risks falling into under Rabbitte, the only difference being that instead of being consumers, Labour becomes the political version of McDonald’s.  What matters most is that you sell, rather than thinking about the quality of what you’re selling.

So what could Labour do differently? I’m not expecting to see Rabbitte popping up in a pre-election broadcast, rising the starvelings from their slumbers.  And the ‘happiness’ approach has potential. So why not take it further? Why not talk about ‘happiness’ for all – prioritise ending child poverty, tackling climate change, looking at how best to integrate new communities into Irish society (all areas which I know are important for many Labour members, even if they’re not what we hear Pat Rabbitte shouting about, and which mightn’t be as electorally popular as vague noises about ‘change’) but incorporating these into a real ‘happiness’ framework? Why not lead by example, and explain why you think these issues are important, and give voters the credit of some intelligence, rather than telling them what you think they want to hear and hoping to sneak some serious politics in through the backdoor.

Eoghan (The Dread) Harris once infamously spoke to the Workers’ Party about the ‘socialist fist in the social-democratic glove’.  How depressing is it to think that we’ve come to the ‘social-democratic glove in the vaguely-liberal-but-essentially-empty-of-substance glove’? It’d like to think that Labour could do better than that, but under the current leader I won’t hold my breath.

Authority: Personal and Political, or just where is the tipping point with George Bush and Tony Blair? February 21, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, Irish Politics, Israel, Israeli - Lebanon Conflict, Lebanon, Middle East, Palestine, United States, US Media, US Politics.

Listening to To The Point on KCRW about Condoleezza Rice’s latest foray into the Middle East, and in particular her attempt to act as an honest broker between the Palestinians and Israeli’s, I was struck by how fragile authority can be.

Here we have the Secretary of State of the United States, still the global hegemon, clearly unable to bend the regional powers to her will. Indeed it’s telling how Saudi Arabia has moved strongly into the frame on this issue, no doubt eager not to allow the Syrians or Iranians further increase their influence after what they no doubt regard as the largely successful Israel/Hezbollah conflict of last Summer. The US hasn’t changed. It’s highly unlikely that US policy in the Middle East will change radically whoever finally arrives in the Oval Office. Yet somehow Rice is simply unable to project the necessary power and authority into the public space.

That piece was followed by another considering the Presidents Day public holiday in the US. Presidents Day is held on the third Monday in February and was originally brought in in the late 19th century to celebrate the birthday of George Washington. Since then it has expanded somewhat in scope with some states linking it explicitly to another President born in February, Abraham Lincoln. Yet, according to KCRW the holiday has now become something of a festival of shopping Here too we see the authority of the ‘myth’ (in the broad Barthesian sense of it being a cultural narrative or concept) being drained away from what was once a reasonably significant memorial.

And I was thinking that in some respects that over the past decade we’ve seen how Presidential authority in the US and elsewhere is draining away before our eyes and in two very specific ways. Indeed this can be drawn more widely to incorporate most political authority wherever it may be, but the US Presidency offers a more focused example.

Consider how the authority of Bill Clinton seemed to recede as the wash of scandal broke across him in his second term in office. This loosely could be considered personal authority, and in a way relates more to character, or perceived character. By contrast in the case of George Bush, also a two term President, we’ve seen how his authority has vanished in the wake of the Iraq debacle (if ever two words were made for each other surely it’s those two at this point in time). This is of course more clearly rooted in political and ideological authority.

And, as ever, Tony Blair, riding in the wake of Bush (his own personal and political tragedy to my mind) can be judged to be an interesting combination of both forms of authority deficit, with political and personal authority diminished both by Iraq without and scandal (albeit fairly low-level stuff, whatever the papers may say) within.

Now none of these thoughts are particularly original, political and personal authority has always leeched away in the wake of what Harold Macmillan referred to as ‘Events, dear boy’. Nixon in the 1970s can be seen as being the victim of his own personal and political misdeeds and his authority flat-lined rapidly. But what really interests me is not so much that this happens as to the point at which it happens. If I were to take a guess at it I’d suggest that Bush’s authority diminished in the lead up to the Mid-Term Elections late last year, not after those elections (his relatively unguarded response to them as a ‘thumping defeat’ was accurate, more worrying was his admission ‘I didn’t see them coming’ which whether in jest or not tells me rather more than I need to know about his political acumen).

And I’d make the case for that authority receding then because sometime between early last year and the Mid-Term vote the voting population shifted against Bush and the Republicans. The vote was the symptom, not the cause as it were, and it’s entertaining to see how the supertankers of the US media fought to turn from their courses and deal with a political landscape that had changed without their registering it. Some, needless to say, still have to make that turn.

Can we expect a similar process here? If one is charitable one could propose that Bertie Ahern (whose alleged misdeeds are venial in the scale of the events already noted here) has had a remarkable capacity to retain authority even in the most trying of circumstances. And that’s irritated some people no end. But whether there is a tipping point ahead, a rake hidden in the long political grass that has in some sense already been trodden on but hasn’t come into view yet, remains to be seen. I doubt it to be honest. I think that the political situation here is too confused for such clear cut outcomes. But, I’m prepared to be proven wrong.

And as for Blair. Well, despite his own authority slipping away somehow in some part he still retains sufficient to be able to continue in power. He’s been an exceptionally fortunate politician over the years both in his friends and his enemies. Winning the last British General Election, even with a much diminished majority gave him the political traction to continue in a way that Bush, prey to the minor key disruption of the mid-terms simply couldn’t emulate. Yet Blair has been damaged, damaged to the point where he had to concede that this year would be his last in office. Perhaps there were no mid-terms in the UK, but in some respect he too has passed the tipping point both with the British public and his own party.

They must wonder too if they loved (well, okay, tolerated) too well a man whose protracted demise has led them to a new low in the opinion polls according to the Guardian yesterday. And perhaps gaze nervously at the chosen successor and contemplate just what degree of authority he will have.

And lucky us, we too can look at Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte, consider their authority and contemplate our own possible future.

Judas! February 20, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Books, Culture, Religion.

Reading a recent edition of Private Eye magazine over the weekend I was drawn to the Literary Review pages, and the Books & Bookmen (sic) column. In it was a brief piece about how last year New Zealand novelist had “My name was Judas” published. As PE noted this was ‘a fictionalised memor in which Judas Iscariot defended himself against he charge that he betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. In Stead’s version, Judas didn’t kill himself after the crucifixion but lived to a ripe old age and with a clear conscience’.

PE goes on to note that ‘with a loud fanfare’ Jeffrey Archer ‘reveals the startlingly original premise of his next book’… The Gospel According to Judas. As PE continues this is a ‘fictionalised memoir dictated by Judas Iscariot…defending him against he charge that he betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver’… where he ‘lived to a ripe old age and with a clear conscience’.

PE finishes with the quip ‘Another triumph for the master story teller’.

Well, perhaps. Far be it for me to defend Jeffrey Archer. But… this is far from the second time around for this particular plot line (and TGAtJ) is actually co-authored with Professor Francis J. Moloney described as “one of the world’s leading biblical scholars”).

In 1972, Peter Van Greenaway, one of the more interesting British thriller writers of the 1960s and 70s (and author of the Medusa Touch on which the not really great horror movie was based) wrote a book called...The Judas Gospel. Now it’s at least fifteen years since I read it, but I seem to recall something along the lines of a ‘fictionalised memoir dictated by Judas Iscariot’…etc, etc, etc. Greenaway’s work is more subtle – at least in intent – than those above (well I’m being unfair to at least one of the authors above since I’ve read neither of their books) as a review in Time magazine from 1972 indicates (incidentally, what an internet to be able to get that particular review).

In 1995 Daniel Easterman, or Denis MacEoin to use his proper name (born in Belfast no less) released the Judas Testament. Another thriller, this time with the author of the Testament being Jesus. Okay, that’s a little confusing, as was the thriller, with various machinations by factions within the Catholic Church and neo-fascist groups to gain control and/or destroy the Testament. As I recall it was an entertaining read.

A quick look at wikipedia reveals a tidal wave of fictional usages of Judas in one way or another.

So in truth it’s hard to get too worked up about a device used so freely.

Still, in a way what is fascinating is that in a largely secularised period of history this particular narrative retains a currency. Is it the equivalent of that old publishers trick, putting a Swastika on the cover of a thriller, anecdotally said to be always good for a couple of extra thousand sales? Or is it that the inversion of a history (and I use the term advisedly) learned so young by many in Western culture somehow has a peculiar power? Curious too that there have been no significant religious sects built around the figure of Judas, but perhaps his ‘betrayal’ is too rooted in the mundane and the human to have much traction in the divine, even as an alternate focus for worship.

Perhaps Manichaeism was closest in spirit to such a sect. Or indeed the Cathars with their development of Manichaeism into a more explicitly Christian influenced religion. Dualism, a battle between the material and the light (and their belief that the Christian God was essentially an imposter) echoes the duality between Jesus and Judas.

The material world as a prison? The Old Testament God as usurper… Great stuff. Although some of the proscriptions of Catharism don’t seem quite so…cheering…

Maybe it’s time someone wrote a thriller about the survival of the Cathars into the modern era…

What’s that? You say it’s already been done?

Still, if the mini-industry centred on Judas is anything to go by there’s always room for one more.

The Closure of Greendale Community School, Kilbarrack: or education and socialism. February 17, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Education, Uncategorized.

Some of you might have caught the television reports last Friday evening concerning the Reunion at Greendale Community School in Kilbarrack. The school is closing after numbers have dropped precipitously over the past decade or so. Opened in 1975 Greendale has always managed to leverage – well, something, some quality so that it has truly been a centre of excellence particularly in terms of writing. Take a Guardian report about Silvio Burlusconi’s wife Veronica Lario in her public letter to him a couple of weeks back regarding ‘thoughtless quips’ he made about other women. As the Guardian put it:

Ms Lario said her husband’s comments could not be dismissed as jokey remarks. Hinting at how deeply they had hurt her, she said she felt like a woman in one of the novels of the Irish writer, Catherine Dunne. “I ask if, like the Catherine Dunne character, I have to regard myself as ‘half of nothing’,” she wrote.

Catherine Dunne was of course a teacher in Greendale.spring4.jpg

Well, as it happened I was there myself as a former pupil between 1978 and 1983. So when registering in the gym it was a gloomy pleasure to find myself in a long line of those who had attended between 1975 when the school opened and 1980 (registration was in blocs of years, 75-80, 81 – 85, etc, etc). There was also a certain surreal quality to find oneself wandering around with a garish green sticker with 1978 printed on it stuck to my lapel seeking out others of my ilk. And find them I did. The faces were familiar, but different…most of them. Anyhow, it was an interesting evening and for once more about the pupils than the school or the staff.

What was striking though was that uniformly those I met had nothing but good words about the school. And even more striking was that many of those words centred on the concept that the social mix within the school which drew students from across the North side and across social classes led to a situation where as one person put it to me ‘we could go out and stand toe to toe with anyone from anywhere and have no sense of being in some way lesser’. This I’d note came unprompted and from people who had no idea of my own political beliefs. And sure, any school will generate a degree of pride of place and so on. But… remembering Kilbarrack and Dublin in the 1970s and early 1980s during such crushingly impoverished times…perhaps such a strongly egalitarian approach at the core of the school ethos was a necessary support for those entering into a fairly grim world. A story another friend recalled which encapsulates a sense of the times was of a teacher chided by a substitute teacher for implying pupils should go to college with the words ‘for God’s sake don’t give them any false hope’. Thankfully the general approach tended towards pushing people to be ambitious in their lives whether in terms of skills, third-level education or whatever.

I had the interesting experience of spending one year in fee paying school located in Dublin after finishing my Leaving Cert in Greendale. And although I would praise some aspects of it, particularly the enlightened attitude of the religious there who being Jesuits tended towards a radical liberation theology influenced stance (videos of the social struggles in El Salvador and other parts of Central and South America were an interesting and truly educative feature of religious classes) quite at odds with the broadly middle class and upper middle class attitude of the students and parents, I have no sense of it really being ‘my school’. Moreover despite excellent facilities and good teachers it lacked the spark of Greendale, that sense that it was truly pushing barriers, both intellectual, social and otherwise.

On this subject, it’s a fundamental cornerstone of my own socialism that education is a key part of the mix in creating a society which strives towards social justice and a sense of egalitarianism. To me it seems that state education up to and including second level is a necessity. I’m strongly aware that there is a tension between libertarianism and statism in this area, and it’s a tension I share myself. It seems illiberal to force parents to send children to state schools yet not to do so leads to a pooling of social groups that even our new social mobility is not going to alter. Indeed our new much vaunted wealth is leading to a renewed emphasis on private second level education as ‘free’ third level frees up resources for the middle classes keen (and genuinely so) to ‘ensure the best’ for their children. Yet, there are arguments for a comprehensive system going well beyond curriculum to promote social solidarity. Lest this sound like a completely authoritarian approach I’d suggest that there are models available that would permit a degree of flexibility in terms of allowing actually greater autonomy for parents and children in organising aspects of their education (and here I’m thinking of home schooling, religious tuition, etc) around a core of the comprehensive curriculum.

I was reading in Prospect about Tony Crosland, author of the Future of Socialism and British Labour Party theorist who had struggled to implement comprehensive education. As Denis MacShane writes:

Crosland’s [other] sustained argument was on secondary education, which he saw then, as it is now, as the Achilles heel of building a reformist, classless, creative Britain. In his book, he called for 75 per cent of all places in private schools to be given to a range of pupils from all backgrounds. Comprehensive schools should be based on streaming by ability. Crosland would turn theory into practice when he became education secretary in 1965. His famous circular 10/65, which “requested” local education authorities to move toward comprehensive education, is today widely recognised as a disaster. His junior minister, the much tougher, more experienced Reg Prentice, begged Crosland to make the verb “required,” not “requested”—an order, not a plea. Crosland refused. As a result, instead of a major reorganisation of education on a par with the creation of the NHS after 1945, the move to comprehensive schooling was a long drawn-out agony, with a leakage of richer families to private schools.

Sounds familiar? What’s remarkable is not that Crosland failed or as MacShane puts it: “Today we have an apartheid secondary education system as a result of Crosland’s botched reform. The metropolitan elites reject state secondary education for their own children.” but that he tried at all, and saw it as a crucial component of his socialism.

Crosland is regarded in some respects as being on the right of Labour, somewhat akin to Tony Blair a generation or so later. And yet here he was arguing for comprehensive state based education, although note that he wasn’t abolishing private schooling – simply altering it out of all recognition. But when a 1950s Labour reformist offers up a vision of education in society which is more radical than anything we hear today in our society from our left parties (consider this from the Labour Party) then I think it’s time to think about the issue a bit more deeply.

Still, that’s what reunions do. Throw up the difficult questions.

Very, very frightening February 14, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Culture, Ireland, Irish Election 2007, Irish Politics, media, Media and Journalism, Northern Ireland, Republicans, Sinn Féin.

With candidates declared for the Assembly Elections in March, a good deal of debate has been taking place around the Dissident, or Independent, Republican candidates running in the election. One of the most high profile of them is Gerry McGeough, running in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, a former IRA prisoner and a former member of Sinn Féin’s Ard Chomhairle. 

He is also editor, and published I think, of The Hibernian, which I’ve not read before but the February edition of which I came across today in Tuthills and with little else to read with my sandwich, thought I’d check it out. 

It’s scary stuff. Very, very scary. On the front page is a picture of McGeough and….the Virgin Mary. A big one. It’s done in such a way that it almost looks like the Shinner strategy of having candidates stand behind Adams‘ shoulder. The headline ‘We can win’ is straight-forward enough, though what the ‘we’ is referring to is an interesting one. Slightly lacking in subtlety, the strap on the bottom advertises an historical article about the Battle for Fermanagh of 1594. And McGeough is running in what constituency again? 

Inside, the editorial, and this is where alarm bells went off.

“For months now, we have been urging our readers to become involved in all aspects of life that would lead to the promotion of the Catholic Patriot cause and help bring about the Kingship of Christ on Earth.”

“We have argued that if we want to tackle the Liberal/Masonic Agenda and prevent the introduction of legislation that would favour abortion, pornography and the promotion of other abominations we must engage the opposition with action as well as prayer.” 

Further down, we have more reference to Catholic Patriotism and he concludes with:

“Let us go forward in the name of the Holy Trinity and under the protective banner of Our Lady. Éirinn go Brách – Ireland Forever.” 

Beside the editorial, an announcement about the magazine’s National Rosary Crusade, which aims to get groups of people together in their locality all over Ireland to recite the rosary and pray for ‘Our Lady’s intercession on behalf of Ireland in these perilous times’. 

I just don’t know where to begin. Other articles deal with the Bilderbergs, the perils of television and homosexuality, and a comment piece arguing that only through Christ can we rebuild Western civilisation. Catholic Patriotism? Creating the Kingdom of Christ on Earth? This is a world away from modern, and even traditional, Irish republicanism. 

It is one of the most right-wing pieces of Irish literature I’ve read in recent times. Backing McGeough raises questions for Dissident republicanism as to whether this is their alternative, though one can’t see the Real IRA going on a National Rosary Crusade. There are also a couple of questions for the Shinners as to how a madman like this got onto their Ard Chomhairle. 

Finally, this is a 36 page, colour publication costing two euros, even if on cheap paper and cheap ink, there’s money behind this. There are questions there too. 

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