On the Moving Train: Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

Right up until the present day did Howard Zinn engage in heated political debate, choosing not to toe a line, but push boundaries, and integrate untypical language and concepts into a political field which has stayed much the same – with war, and poverty. You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train is of course the title of his autobiography, but no truer words have been spoken. Not only must we recognise that if we switch off from affairs that affect us, this allows the unpalatable of this earth to swoop in, but neutrality itself is a position which can not be an option, we are thrown – as Heidegger said – into the world, and the space with which we occupy as a consequence is our starting pad to change the world, to acknowledge that the train is moving, and operate the same.

On Obama, Zinn identified little other than rhetoric, “I don’t see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies” he exclaimed. But the point is not to stop there. Zinn explains further that “people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president … unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”

The flirtation with whether Obama marked the era of post-racial society would have stirred uneasy with Zinn. A black president is not the end point at which we sit hands on heads, it is necessary to manoeuvre thereon – democracy has no such an end point, democracy is the motion with which neutrality is not an option. Like Dr. Cornel West hoped of Obama, he will be a “progressive Lincoln” so that West can be the “Frederick Douglass [abolitionist who held talks with Lincoln in 1863 on the treatment of black soldiers] to put pressure on him.” Zinn would have wanted Frederick Douglass’ of us all!

Proof of Zinn’s “redemptive politics of activism“, and his Lenin-esque attitudes towards leadership*, can not be found in any better place than during the interview with Harry Kreisler, where upon the question of his first teaching assignment at Spelman college, Zinn noted that “I learned more from my students than my students learned from me”. His time living in the south, before the black movement geared up to fight for their rights, was an enriching experience for Zinn, one in which he notes “I began to look at history from a black point of view. It looks very different from a black point of view.”

In the words of Eddie Vedder, whose song “Down” was inspired by his friendship to Zinn finishes: “So long“.

Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

*Leaders are not born, Lenin held; they must be trained

Prison ships: Float your boat?

Prison hulks, the last of which the government sold in 2005 owing to lack of fresh air and lack of promotion of exercise, are the new in-thing for (half of the) Tories. The idea, said to be floated by that timely wonderboy Andy Coulson, or so some Conservatives are saying.

The Tories in support, seeing it as a way of to fulfill David Cameron’s statement on the shortage of prison space, want to raise dosh for the so-called nautical nicks. But appointing places for such an arrangement will be met with much antagonism, especially or those places said to be fit for the hulks. Tilbury, in Essex, is said to be one of those target places. Labour councillor Carl Morris, who is hoping to replace Andrew Mackinlay, noted that “We successfully fought these stupid ideas in both 2004 and 2006. In the first instance I think the ship was even brought to the Thames but never used.”

Frances Crook of the The Howard League  for Penal Reform, noted that Alan Duncan spoke at a seminar in Oxford last week floating (!) rather “colourful” language about what the Tories will do about overcrowding etc., but urged readers of her blog not to conflate this with support from the front bench.

The prison boat “practice was popular with the British government in the 18th and 19th centuries” and we were evidently good at sinking Nazi prisoner boats, but as for investing once again, I’m not convinced.

Another vague notice is the “target” areas that will have prisons closed in order to fund the boats. Where they? Personally, I don’t think Cam will have it, and the idea is supposed to be one of many just being thrown out there, probably just hype. I might not even write a blog post about it.

Why I am Left Wing

Open Left, the project for which James Purnell is the director at Demos – “renewing the thinking and ideas of the political Left” – asked various types their reasoning for being left-wing. I had a couple of minutes so I answered the questionnaire. As follows:

What is it about your political beliefs that puts you on the Left rather than the Right?:

The so-called political surgeons are attempting to suture up the old left/right divisions, but the fair arrangement of capital, the welfare state and the public services are best overseen by those with everyone’s best interests, regardless of class. It is on the left that these values will stay put, where the right might only flirt with them for political gain.

What do you consider made you Left wing?:

Initially it would have been a mixture of two things; discussions with my Grandad who worked for the TGWU, and discussions with participants at anti-BNP/NF demonstrations (which I would attend before I had been politicised).

How would you describe the sort of society you want Britain to be?

One in which Government isn’t held to ransom by the City. A society that measures success by fairness and equality and not by growth. A society where information is not dealt to the highest bidder, where education isn’t seen as an investment but a right, where pension pots are safe from economic fluctuations. A society where the Labour party is the Labour Party again.

What one or two changes would make the biggest difference to bringing that about?

Firstly, to root out the bad wood in the Labour party, those careerists, rightists, and opportunists who figure the best way to win elections is to meet head-on with the Tories, then secondly turn our backs to donators who hold the party ransom for their own personal clout.

What most makes you angry about the way Britain is now?

Sidelining discussion for compromise. James Purnell hit the nail on the head when he said that Labour’s lack of debate on immigration put their political clarity on the subject in flux, and in impromptu discussion on the matter just seem lagging on the back foot. Politics in Britain, when its not in compromise, its contrarian, and this is enough to make any left-winger go red in the face.

Which person, event, era or movement from the past should we look to for inspiration now?

Saint Paul; he knew that political salvation was not meant to be for a select committee, but for everyone, regardless of race, creed or class.

Is Nick Cohen a Neoconservative?

Nick Cohen is now very much in the business of criticising leftists who, according to him are in ‘bad faith’ about a number of issues, namely our opinions on Muslims, the Middle Eastern far-right and the war on terror. Sunder Katwala, who applied the term bad faith to the way Cohen viewed the left, had his lion’s share of the attack, when Cohen accused the Fabian Society of never having, or planning to promote the work of Muslim liberals who criticise fundamentalists. Responses back and forth ensued as Katwala pointed out that Cohen had shared the stage with one such Muslim at a ‘Future of Britishness’ conference held by the Fabian society in 2006.

Katwala picked out another important detail in his retaliatory attack, that ‘We also have here the well-known phenomenon of the zeal of the convert. That is why several of the keenest neo-cons and Thatcherites had been Marxists’. There is a lot of weight in this comment, much of which has been dealt with by political philosopher John Gray (there is some minor convergence here that might as well be pointed out, that though Gray and Katwala are very different politically, Gray is formerly of the LSE, the school founded in 1895 by Beatrice and Sydney Webb, early members of the Fabian society).

In the twentieth century, according to John Gray, most notably in his book Black Mass, owing to a kind of spiritual vacuum, whether rightly or wrongly as a by-product of an age of scientific rationalism, faith-based utopian cults were the preserve of certain political projects. The two most obvious examples are Soviet Communism and Nazism. Gray points out that inherent to these projects is a disavowed desire for what is known as Abrahamic End-Time – a common theme in all three monotheistic religions that sees all who give themselves to God be purified and strengthened by persecution, a short period of time before the return of the Messiah – in Communism this is structured around the Hegelian influenced end-of-history – the end point of socioeconomic evolution – and in Nazism it is the subsequent dominance of the white race, and destruction of the Jews.

Unable to operate without religiously inspired ideas, secularism, according to Gray, is doomed to forever be consumed by Christian eschatology, or the view that society and the economy will eventually converge. John Gray identifies this notion not just in political projects of old, but in concurrent projects also, namely the neoconservative attempts to install democracy in the Middle East. Even if you ignore for the moment George Bush’s pursuit for evil – and the seriously questionable tones of the voice of God telling him to go to war – the war effort in Iraq had as its intellectual infrastructure ideas grounded in utopianism and convergence of social values, two things that were never on the cards any time soon in Iraq. The appeals to Christian End-Time were never more apparent than when Lt Col Brandl alarmingly stated that ‘The enemy has got a face – he’s called Satan, he’s in Falluja, and we’re going to destroy him’.

As John Gray himself has said:

Invading and occupying Iraq was never justified by any clear national interest. Since the end of the first Gulf War, Saddam has posed no serious threat to the US or to Britain. No evidence has ever existed of a connection between him and al-Qa’ida – though in the chaos of post-war Iraq the remnants of the regime may be linking up with radical Islamists to attack US forces.

Saddam was a tyrant, but the coordinates for the liberal intervention were predicated on the fact that it was of national interest, which, of course it was not.

Neoconservatism is a utopian-based political project much like the terror of Robespierre or the murderous regimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Hitler. Forces were sent to deliver “freedom” without any evidence of Iraq ever taking kindly to an installed liberal democratic programme and without any substantial evidence that attack was in ‘national interest. Despite what Cohen would have you believe, this opinion is not informed by cultural relativism or denial that evil doing had taken place under Saddam’s watch, but it is a question of the motives of the war, and whether the effort could viably safeguard against the mobilisation of fundamentalism in the aftermath, which I’m tempted to say it can not.

For those who say Nick Cohen has moved to the right I say hold back. Cohen has actually operated a utopianism common to neoconservatism and elements of left wing thinking that has unfortunately taken End-Time out of its Christian context and applied it to an existing version of secularism that can only be identified as doomed to failure. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft has alluded to about Cohen, via the Euston Manifesto signatories, why doesn’t he just come out as imperialist, after all he’d be in familiar company, ‘Mill, Macaulay and even Marx made approving noises about British rule in India’?

Stating the bleedin’ obvious

Al Sharpton: “Obama’s first year has shown that the United States is not a post-racial society“.

Well you could blow me down with a feather!

Has the fiscal stimulus argument won the day?

At the end of 2008 a European challenge was erupting – stimulus or hands on heads.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy who voiced his aggravation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel for not implementing a measure of fiscal stimulus said, “While France is working, Germany is thinking.”

Is there not something philosophically pleasing about what he said; France as a nation of philosophers working with material means, inside a philosophically materialist frame (Comte, Debord, Deleuze, Derrida, Sartre, Badiou) whereas Germany exploring idealism – enlightened through thinking and pure thought (Kant, Schelling, Hegel, Fichte, Reinhold, Schleiermacher).

Merkel was actually remaining loyal to the “Stability and Growth Pact” (SGP) originally proposed by the former Finance Minister Theo Waigel at the beginning of the 1990’s and agreed at the EU summit in Dublin in 1997, the purpose of which was to tune the euro so it would be able to compete with the US Dollar and strengthen the stability of the euro-zone.

Now, in January 2010 we might be starting to see some early signs of this European challenge. The UK has had a surprise fall in unemployment figures – which may have part-time jobs to account for.

Two notions at play here need attention; firstly that old Keynesian misunderstanding (see Michael Stewart’s chapter on balance of payments in his book Keynes and After for more information as to why this is a Keynesian misunderstanding) that unemployment is a symbol of too little demand. If part-time work has been used as a means of curbing unemployment, then naturally it is safe to assume productivity won’t increase any more than if half of those numbers were all fully employed, so therefore it is wrong to assume that unemployment in itself is a marker of too little demand (just as it is wrong to assert that rising prices, according to Michael Stewart, is a marker of too much demand).

Second thing at play here is that just because unemployment is dropping in a country that employed a fiscal stimulus, and a country that didn’t employ such a measure that has increased levels of unemployment, doesn’t mean that this is the natural course of events of both implementations, just as the fact that photo of a criminal whose whereabouts are unknown is released and that criminal gets caught, that that photo had anything to do with the catching process.

The French Finance Ministry expects France to lose 71,000 jobs this year, mostly in the first half, despite the fact that the economy is expected to expand by 1.4% in 2010.

One thing is for sure, as it stands, it does look good for Brown, who will be seen, before the election, to have saved people from unemployment, and not  doing what the Conservatives would’ve done by – well, nothing at all. Like in Berlin the doing nothing option was taken, and results have shown it to not be favourable.

This, as Larry Elliot put it today in the Guardian, will be a pre-election gift to Brown. Lets just hope he doesn’t have to anything in the mean time that could jeopardise his chances in the run up to an election, like by having to testify to the Iraq enquiry…oh dear!

Rod Liddle and shock politics

January last year the independent journalist Ian Burrell interviewed Rod Liddle, to try and get to the bottom of all the offence he causes the ‘liberal left’. It’s all to cause a stir, we find, luckily (phew!), to wind up the band of loonies who operate on the basis of, let us call it “political correctness gone mad”!

Liddle, in the interview, proved that his racist jibes were little more than immature twaddle: “I find racist jokes funnier now than I did 30 years ago because it’s so socially unacceptable”.

But he soon flits back into what we know is a serious comment – “I’ve never had a go at Muslims, I’ve always had a go at Islam” (I’ve said elsewhere what might be wrong with some people’s attempts do this).

The reason, it says in the interview, that Liddle doesn’t live in London is because he would prefer to be away from the liberal elite – usually the sorts who would be in Liddle’s profession. But judging by his Spectator blog entry – that Spectator blog entry – it might have something to do with his opinion that ‘[t]he overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community’ – of which, as Dianne Abbott has said, is “statistically false,” about the crimes which Liddle has listed (if anything it is disproportionate, in which case to mockingly suggest this is a contribution, ignores the proper commitment to uncovering what the causes are. The extent to his sociological investigation for this and other comments is simply his belief that multiculturalism doesn’t work – which in other research laden tasks would be a write-off).

Of the BNP there is serious cause for concern (for decency) and there, after, matched – for childish balance –  with a joke. Firstly, he explains that he feels more comfortable with Millwall fans than other columnists: “It’s funny, y’know, quite a few of my friends would be inclined to vote BNP, and I don’t think they’re racist” and then towards the end

“I’m interested in the BNP tendency within Britain’s conservationists – ‘It’s a foreign animal, kill it!’ We exterminated the coypu in East Anglia, a very ugly rodent which was introduced from South America for its fur, escaped and set up base in East Anglia where it caused damage to riverbanks. So they shot ’em all. The RSPB said recently shall we shoot all those parakeets because they’re not British. ‘They come over here with their green wings…'”

With the tools of a deluded missionary, he wants to tackle taboos like his heroes of comedy Ricky Gervais and Chris Morris (there are small problems with a writer who seriously dabbles in what can be safely regarded as race related stereotypes and, at worst, racism, while simultaneously viewing himself being in the footsteps of comedians satirising polite society) but though he insists he is a “fundamentalist liberal”, there is a fundamental blur between his politics and that of the worst, flimsiest, offending for offending’s sake, Sun reader turned to the pen.

The comedian Jimmy Carr, who threatened continued legal action against fellow comedian (sic) Jim Davidson for stealing a joke of his, noted that when Davidson tells a taboo-breaking joke, he has to look behind his back – the point being that he might actually believe the “ironic” joke to be true. I should imagine the same of Liddle in this context, and where his comedic influences do satire, one can never be quite sure of him exactly.

The Independent interview noted above was very revealing of what I consider to be Liddle’s naughty schoolboy approach to offence, albeit where one can not tell the difference between the satire and the truth of his statements, but little has been said of Liddle recently of his being favourite for the editorial job in the Independent itself. There was an article about that blog entry, and also of Alexander Lebedev’s Indy sale talks, but nothing of late to contribute to the ongoing controversy that surrounds him (proven, no less, by a Dianne Abbot-led early day motion on the matter).

With the knowledge inside that camp, it makes one wonder what is there to hide, doesn’t it?

Further Sources:

Left Foot Forward takes a look at the anti-Semitic streak which runs through the comments supposedly made by Liddle on the infamous Millwall football forum

On the Fringe notes the use of social media in this campaign

Jon Slattery asks why fuss has only been made about Liddle, and not about the former KGB man who is potentially going to be the owner of the Indy

Dan Sabbagh identifies possible strategic reasons as to why the Indy might be exploring tory turf, and pondering on what this could do for its left-of-centre audience and popular staff writers such as Johann Hari.