Sunday, April 28, 2013

Bad blogger

It is thanks only to Sarah, with her stimulating guest post on gender segregation, that this blog has limped through the last few weeks. Still, I'm doing better than Martin, who has popped out of retirement for "POOPCANS", on how liberal infoolectuals can ruin their best books.

A wonderful post I missed earlier in the month is Peter Ryley's "Beauty and bestiality", on music and the Shoah. Two more must-reads, both tangential to the left's received wisdom on the late Margaret Thatcher, are Marko Attila Hoare on how Maggie turned us upside down, and Kellie Strom on Terry Glavin's Irish politics. Another is George Szirtes on Hungary's fast track to the past. I also liked Michael Harris on meeting a Chinese dissident on a train. Some important reading is Ben Six's series on Theocracy in the UK.

Some other things that have caught my eye: Two posts on academic boycotts, both via Engage: Jonathan Lowenstein on historical parallels; Raphael Cohen-Almago on the fallacy behind the boycott. The IWCA on UKIP and the working class. Carl Packman on Why David Cameron is right about Syria. Ben Cohen on deepening authoritarianism in Venezuela.

New blogs: Steve H's new music blog: Disaccumulation. Rob Palk's new blog, with posts on War WearinessBoston Bombing ConspiraciesNew AtheistsThe Other Side of Orwell and a Defence of Book Snobbery.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Some thoughts on gender segregation

A guest post by Sarah AB

The issue of gender segregation has been in the news again recently.  It’s a topic to which people often react quite emotionally – both ‘sides’ are likely to feel their cherished values are under attack.   I want to try to think through some of the implications of the recent disputes over gender segregation in the context of ideas such secularism, liberalism, pluralism, relativism and consistency.

In the UK, and other similar countries, we accept a certain degree of gender segregation pretty unquestioningly – public toilets and changing rooms are the most obvious example, as well as hospital wards.  Women’s only exercise classes, swimming sessions for example, are fairly common. Although most segregation relates to contexts where sexual modesty is an issue, single sex schools are neither unusual nor particularly controversial. 

Sexual modesty is of course also a significant factor in the preference, on the part of some (mostly Muslims), to segregate in more general social contexts.  The threshold for gender segregation is set much lower, as it is felt desirable to separate even when attending a debate.

At recent events on campuses sexual segregation has been implemented.  There is some dispute as to whether, on various occasions, the segregation was enforced or whether people could choose to mix freely if they preferred.  It is my understanding that both options were available at this event, though I believe at other events complete segregation has been maintained.

Some compare this to apartheid – if conservative Muslims argue that they freely choose to segregate themselves by sex, they are asked in return how they would feel if people chose to segregate themselves by race.  But as people already segregate by sex in other contexts (e.g. toilets) this does not seem fully fair. 

In the context of another sensitive topic, male circumcision, one of the best arguments I’ve heard against those who want to ban the practice relates to unacknowledged inconsistencies on the part of the dominant culture.  Most people don’t want to ban alcohol and tobacco even though, objectively, they could be seen as harmful enough to warrant a ban – that’s because they are part of our culture so we sidestep logic.  But if circumcision isn’t part of one’s culture – then one has no reason to be anything other than coolly rational about the issue and may conclude the practice should be outlawed. 

I tried to think of another activity people might voluntarily decide to engage in at university (like partially gender segregated events) but which was harmful. The first example I came up with was boxing, which the BMA wants to ban.  There are many boxing clubs at British universities. Is it so much more shocking to allow voluntary, partial segregation at a debate or lecture?

This is one reason why I wonder whether it is completely rational to react with end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it level horror to an event at which one can choose either to sit in a single sex or a mixed group.  In the context of dress it is common for people to argue that women should be allowed to be as modest or immodest as they choose, and that headscarves should neither be banned nor mandated. It is fairly widely accepted (though not of course by all) that it is illiberal to force a woman to remove a garment she has freely chosen to wear without good reason.  Might the same argument not be applied to women (and men) who want to sit apart but have no wish to enforce that preference on others? 

Another reason for pausing and reflecting on one’s responses to gender segregation relates to attitudes towards different groups in society.  Although antisemitism is certainly a very serious problem it does not generally, certainly not so often as anti-Muslim bigotry does, focus on religious practice.  That is just possibly one reason why stories of gender segregation within the context of Judaism don’t seem to press buttons in the same way such stories do when they involve Muslims, stories such as this one about (limited) segregated seating at a concert (for the benefit of Orthodox Jews).  Muslim segregation, by contrast, has attracted the ire not just of atheists and secularists (including Muslim secularists) but also more threatening groups

There are various reasons against being phlegmatic about gender segregation. One is that although the choice may seem free to some, for others ‘voluntary’ gender segregation is no such thing – if the option is there they may feel expected to avail themselves of it or be seen as morally lax. (This argument is also used in support of veil bans.)  Although I think this is a very important issue I’m never sure how far one can legislate for coercion.  In countering one sort of possible coercion one is formally, and more decidedly, instating coercion the other way – against those who want to segregate or veil.

Another reason is that sexual segregation is seen as inherently discriminatory against women.  It is certainly the case that segregation often fits this pattern – women’s seats generally seem to be at the back of such events.  It is also the case that arguments in favour of sexual modesty from a religious perspective can seem discriminatory against women.  They tend to frame women as objects of temptation and desire, and it is inaccurately implied that keeping covered up will protect against harassment.  Of course such arguments are also very insulting to men.  But for some, religiously motivated sexual modesty may not be conceived in this way, but as part of a more equally shared burden of virtuous behaviour – and recently in fact Saudi Arabia has expelled three men for being too handsome

Another factor which is at least implicit in arguments against segregation is that it is viscerally offensive, it seems to strike at the core of our values and beliefs. But – have we the right not to be offended?

Finally – I’m still not sure what I think about this issue – but it’s important to remember that just because we say something shouldn’t be banned doesn’t need to imply approval.  I certainly don’t welcome the influence of groups such as iERA on campus, or the conservative views on sexuality and gender which provide the impulse behind segregation.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

From Jams' archive: Thatcher and Solidarnosc (and Pol Pot)

I was planning to write something about Thatcher's death, and still might do, but for now something not new but timely. I have been browsing through the archives of my late friend Shaun Downey, who, as you know, blogged (wonderfully) as Jams O'Donnell at The Poor Mouth

I came across the interesting piece, entitled "The Joy of Realpolitik", from February 2012. I thought this is significant, because her alleged role in defeating Soviet totalitarianism and winning the Cold War is one of the things that Thatcher has been much praised for among the mountains of sickening hagiography from trans-Atlantic hacks and pompous politicians. This post shows how thin that achievement was. I have corrected a couple of Shaun's minor typos; otherwise it is un-edited.
My thanks go to to the excellent James Bloodworth who tweeted this item earlier today (James writes for the Independent and has an excellent blog called Obliged To Offend)*. The tweet relates to an item on Spiegel Online which reveals that the British government in the 80s would have shafted Solidarity.

The article states that German chancellor Helmut Schmidt appeared to be the only top Western politician who was skeptical about the Polish trade union Solidarity in the early 1980s. However, it now seems that Thatcher was also had deep reservations about the movement and its leader Lech Walesa.

New evidence, reported in Monday's SPIEGEL magazine reveals British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was suspicious about the influential movement and Lech Walesa, the man who later became a Nobel Laureate.

In September 1981, British Premier Thatcher even considered supporting the Eastern bloc regime in Warsaw in quelling Solidarity. This is according to a declassified German Foreign Ministry document. 
According to the document, Thatcher's Foreign Secretary, Lord Peter Carrington, told colleagues in New York that Britain sympathizied with Solidarity. But if Solidarity got out of control and the government had to take repressive measures, it might make sense to help the government, he added.

Carrington had earlier outlined the UK's position, saying that his government only backed Solidarity out of respect for public opinion, but that perhaps, from a more rational position, they would actually be "on the side of the Polish government".

Back then, Warsaw was threatened with insolvency and Thatcher evidently feared that the demands of the workers' movement could trigger a Soviet invasion. A few months later, the Polish communist Leader Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law and the US invoked economic sanctions against Poland. Britain, however, avoided levying sanctions on the country.

The imposition of martial law was a setback for Solidarity. About 100 "political dissidents" died in internment camps. But it did not prevent Solidarity from helping to bring about the end of communist rule in 1989-90. 
To be honest this does not surprise me. While I despise Thatcher and her minions, I know that any other British government would have shafted Solidarnosc in a heartbeat. Western governments pay lip service to freedom and human rights but are happy to cozy up to the nastiest of regimes if it means trade and profit... Look at our relationship with Saudi Arabia for proof of that.
In a similar vein, John Pilger - who had been a hero of both Shaun and me, before we became disillusioned - had an article in the New Statesman about Thatcher's support for Pol Pot, it being 25 years since Pol Pot entered Phnom Penh and the Year Zero genocide began:
In the months and years that followed, the US and China and their allies, notably the Thatcher government, backed Pol Pot in exile in Thailand. He was the enemy of their enemy: Vietnam, whose liberation of Cambodia could never be recognised because it had come from the wrong side of the cold war... 
Until 1989, the British role in Cambodia remained secret. The first reports appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, written by Simon O'Dwyer-Russell, a diplomatic and defence correspondent with close professional and family contacts with the SAS. He revealed that the SAS was training the Pol Pot-led force. Soon afterwards, Jane's Defence Weekly reported that the British training for the "non-communist" members of the "coalition" had been going on "at secret bases in Thailand for more than four years". The instructors were from the SAS, "all serving military personnel, all veterans of the Falklands conflict, led by a captain". 
The Cambodian training became an exclusively British operation after the "Irangate" arms-for-hostages scandal broke in Washington in 1986. "If Congress had found out that Americans were mixed up in clandestine training in Indo-China, let alone with Pol Pot," a Ministry of Defence source told O'Dwyer-Russell, "the balloon would have gone right up. It was one of those classic Thatcher-Reagan arrangements." Moreover, Margaret Thatcher had let slip, to the consternation of the Foreign Office, that "the more reasonable ones in the Khmer Rouge will have to play some part in a future government". In 1991, I interviewed a member of "R" (reserve) Squadron of the SAS, who had served on the border. "We trained the KR in a lot of technical stuff - a lot about mines," he said. "We used mines that came originally from Royal Ordnance in Britain, which we got by way of Egypt with marking changed . . . We even gave them psychological training. At first, they wanted to go into the villages and just chop people up. We told them how to go easy . . ." 
The Foreign Office response was to lie. "Britain does not give military aid in any form to the Cambodian factions," stated a parliamentary reply. The then prime minister, Thatcher, wrote to Neil Kinnock: "I confirm that there is no British government involvement of any kind in training, equipping or co-operating with Khmer Rouge forces or those allied to them." On 25 June 1991, after two years of denials, the government finally admitted that the SAS had been secretly training the "resistance" since 1983. A report by Asia Watch filled in the detail: the SAS had taught "the use of improvised explosive devices, booby traps and the manufacture and use of time-delay devices". The author of the report, Rae McGrath (who shared a joint Nobel Peace Prize for the international campaign on landmines), wrote in the Guardian that "the SAS training was a criminally irresponsible and cynical policy".
Via Blood & Treasure, here is Thatcher on Blue Peter, a British BBC children's TV programme from 1983, when I was about ten. The key bit is about three and a half minutes in.

She says: 
Some of the Khmer Rouge, of course, are very different. I think there are probably two parts of the Khmer Rouge, there are those who supported Pol Pot, and then there’s a much, much reasonable grouping within that title, Khmer Rouge.... So, you’ll find that the more reasonable ones of the Khmer Rouge will have to play some part in the future government, but only a minority part. I share your utter horror that these terrible things went on in Kampuchea. The United Nations couldn’t do anything about them, none of us could do anything about them. They were absolutely terrible.
In short, far from being tough on totalitarianism, Thatcher tried to return to power the worst Stalinist dictatorship of the twentieth century for reasons of realpolitik, and for reasons of stability and order contemplated supporting the Polish Communist junta's repression of one of the most powerful movements for freedom to emerge behind the Iron Curtain. Some legacy.

Related posts: The Hitch and Cambodia; GHW /Bush on the wrong side in the Cold War; 25 years of Solidarnosc; From the Cold War to the war on terror.

*For the record, James Bloodworth is now at Left Foot Forward. He wrote this fine post in anticipation of Thatcher's death over a year ago. I will try and post some more gems from Shaun's archive over the coming weeks, as well as links to some of the moving obituaries to him in the blogosphere.

Monday, April 08, 2013

This week's reading

Austerity Britain
Chris Dillow on how big an issue scrounging is. Will Davies on Britain's Breshnev capitalism. The Heresiarch on class consciousness. Alan White on reading the Daily Mail. The Lewisham Hospital Worker bulletin no.14. Richard Seymour on The actuality of a successful capitalist offensive.

On varieties of crap leftism
Terry Glavin on Occupy. Rebecca on Kathy Boudin. Bill Weinberg on the contradictory legacy of Hugo Chávez. A thousand flowers on SWP steward violence against women in Glasgow. Willaim Brett on Cyprus, the communists and anti-European populism. Nick Cohen says beware Zuckerberg's cool capitalism. Capriles on skin-deep socialists.* Pham Binh on Beyond Capitalism.

The People's Assembly Against Austerity
Anna Chen: People's Assembly and Nechayev's Catechism: be very afraid ... Flesh is Grass on The Spirit of '45. AWL: Left unity must be linked to real action. Ian Bone on John Rees.

After the Arab Spring
Lauren Wolfe on Syria's rape crisis. Pham Binh: Have Islamists Hijacked Syria’s Democratic Revolution? Brian Slocum on the left in the Egyptian revolution.

The Soupy One on genteel racism at Liberal ConspiracyWas FDR an antisemite, and could he have done more to stop the Shoah?** Giles Fraser on why we need Israel. Daniel Moneterscu on European Israel-hate.*

Homophobia and transphobia
Francis on homophobia, transphobia and the media.

The right
3WF: Far right split over Chavez.


*Hat tip: That Lefty Tosser. **Hat tip: Jogo. Image credit: Martin Rowson in the Guardian.

Friday, April 05, 2013

I sang for the birds, for the river, the trees and the flowers but not the mullahs: Goodbye Shaun

I was shocked and saddened last night to hear, from my friend Francis, of the death of  Shaun Downey a couple of weeks ago. Shaun's blog, The Poor Mouth, was a year younger than mine, but I always thought he'd been blogging longer: he and his blog epitomise what blogging was once about for me, and should be about. Shaun (who blogged as Jams O'Donnell - more below on why) reached out on his blog, creating a large, dispersed and diverse community.

Although he claimed that "a macaque with a cleft palate is more eloquent that I am", he had a nice way of phrasing things, as well as great research skills and an omniverous frame of reference. He also had an incredible generosity of spirit, which you can see in the reactions in the comment thread of his final post, A young dancer.

Francis has written a lovely obituary, of sorts, for Shaun: Jams O'Donnell has left the building. I hope he does not mind me reproducing it here:
Bloggers are a peculiar bunch. A popular image is of recluses tapping away in poorly-lit rooms, speaking their brains on life, the universe and stuff. The political ones tend to be more focused, with a few of them leading lives of blameless bourgeois professionalism and domesticity. But by and large bloggers communicate with each other online rather than in real spacetime. 
I have in recent years developed proper eye contact relationships with a number of bloggers from various walks of life: academics, fellow journalists, bus drivers, handypersons, bureaucrats, the retired, unemployed and more. It takes all sorts to make a world, and some of them can write. 
In London some of us get together occasionally for a drink or three. Annually at least, with the next“droggy blink” of left-libertarians and other political misfits tentatively scheduled for next month at some or other hostelry in the heart of the Great Wen.

Among the band of bloggers of varying degrees of grumpiness who have taken part in these Londonish get-togethers is my friend Shaun Downey, a retired civil servant of off-message sensibility and some seniority who later took seriously to photography and writing.
The subjects of Shaun’s creative expression have been many and various. Cats, for example. Not silly snaps of kittens falling off sofas and the like, but proper portraiture, with wide open eyes and apertures, souls laid bare and immortalised. 
Shaun and his not-wife Shirley have over the years been cared for by a number of furry beasts, and I suspect that each and every one of them has in their relatively short lives been photographed more than me in my half century of existence. 
I regret to say that Shaun will not make it to the London pissup, for he died suddenly on Friday, aged 50 and a bit. I knew Shaun from our blogger summits, and had a lot of time for him. So too did many others. We shall miss Shaun, and the first toast in April will be to an absent friend. 
Condolences to Shirley and the family, both human and feline. 
RIP Shaun P Downey, Esq., Gentleman and Blogger of the Parish of Romford.
And here is a version of the tribute I posted to him over a year ago, as part of a post called "Mixing Pop and Politics". Shaun's comments on Marzieh are from his comment on the post - and his demeanour in the comment thread exemplifies why he was such a well-loved blogger. And I've added Mari Boine, who he blogged in response to the post.

The Poor Mouth
Speaking King's English in quotation / As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust water froze / In the generation / Clear as winter ice / This is your paradise
The lovely Jams O'Donnell mixes more photography than either pop or politics into the mix these days. And his musical taste has large areas of non-overlap with mine, but it was him (I think) that introduced me to the extraordinary Sephardic music of Mor Karbasi. So, here's her, then our mutually favourite Clash song, then some beautiful Iranian rebel music.

Mor Karbasi: El Pastor

The Clash: Straight to Hell

I realise that (although I'm not as old as Jams), it's about a quarter of a century since I first heard this song, and it has been intriguing me ever since. What is it about? I thought it's about imperialism, and the Vietnam war, and Graham Greene, and migration, and racism. So, inspired by writing this, I found that crowd-sourcing, via wikipedia and yahoo answered my queries perfectly, and the mystery is over. (Incidentally, if you don't know the song but there's something familiar, it is brilliantly sampled by MIA in "Paper Planes", which is also about migration, and which is in turn used to great effect in Slumdog Millionaire, mixed by the awesome AR Rahman.)

Marzieh: Sange Khara

Shaun writes:

To tell the truth Marzieh is new to me. My dear friend Elahe Heidari was in Paris in September for another stay at the Cite Internationale des Arts We decided to go to Avers sir Oise to visit places relating to Vincent van Gogh, including his grave. Marzieh is buried in the same graveyard. Before that I was not familiar with her life or music.
A very brave and remarkable woman. I love this quote of hers: “I sang for the birds, for the river, the trees and the flowers but not the mullahs.”

If you are interested,
An Bйal Bocht (The Poor Mouth, 1941) was the only book which Brian O'Nolan, alias Flann O'Brien, alias Myles na gCopaleen, wrote in his native language. Why only one, and this in particular? The answer may lie in the identity of the persona to whom the narrative was entrusted, Myles na gCopaleen... On his first day at school, Bonaparte O'Coonassa is asked to repeat his name for the roll-call. The litany which follows is a long-winded tribute to ten generations of noble aspiration, which have resulted in a total erosion of Gaelic identity:
Bonapairt Michaelangelo Pheadair Eoghain Shorcha Thomбis Mhбire Sheбn Shйamais Dhiarmada.. (Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas's Sarah, grand-daughter of John's Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot...). [7]
At this point, the hopeful litany is cruelly interrupted by a blow from the English-speaking master and the terse announcement in a foreign language that "Yer name is Jams O'Donnell", a sentence which is uttered to every single child in Corcha Dorcha on arrival at school. 
Bonus track: Fairport Convention: Jams O'Donnell's Jig

Mari Boine: Elle

As Francis says, we will raise a toast to Shaun in a couple of weeks. I will also, in coming weeks, post some of my favourite Poor Mouth posts.