Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger z''l

During my lunchbreak reading I just saw that Pete Seeger has passed away. I grew up with Pete Seeger's warm, beautiful voice and his distinctive banjo and 12-string picking. In my appalling singing voice, I often sing his version of "Hobo's Lullaby" to my kids at bedtime. So, it's a sad day. Here are a couple of his songs, and below are some of the posts I've published about him.

"Hobo's Lullaby":

[There's a live recent version here, Seeger over 90 and no longer on form but still moving.]

 With Arlo Guthrie, singing "You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley":

 With Johnny Cash, singing "Worried Man Blues":

Finally, a much older and no longer full-voiced Seeger singing Dylan's lovely "Forever Young". Cheesy, but poignant:


In 2009, I wrote this:
I was brought up on his sweet, clear, warm voice. I sing "Hobo's Lullaby" to my kids, in the version I learnt from him. My son also likes to sing "Shake Sugaree", the song written by Elizabeth Cotton, who cared for Pete's younger half-siblings when they were kids. The Elizabeth Cotton story is amazing: a self-taught genius who only reached an audience when she was over sixty. It was pure coincidence that Cotton found little Peggy Seeger when she was lost in a department store, which led to the Seegers employing her as some kind of housekeeper or maid, after which she rediscovered her childhood passion for guitar and began to record and play live. 
Without the Seegers, she would have been unknown to the world of music, and the world in general would be a poorer place for that. But there is also something a little icky, a little colonial, about their patronage of her, with which I am uncomfortable. However, even my heart was melted by this lovely YouTube clip of Elizabeth with Pete, posted yesterday by Paulie, with her telling the story of and singing her classic, "Freight Train".
This clip, to me, alone justifies the existence of YouTube.
In 2007, I posted this guest post by Jogo, on Seeger's belated denunciation of Stalin:
Amazingly, I did not notice this NYTimes story when it appeared Sept 1. I read about Seeger this evening on worldnetdaily, the rightwingy website, and then I googled and found the Times article. The article links to a short piece by Seeger's former student Ron Radosh. The story had been linked to and commented upon by many blogs, but this was all news to me until a few minutes ago. 
If you did not live through my time and in my environment, and did not experience him many times yourself, you can know only intellectually who Seeger was in the Left community of the 40s and 50s. There is no comparable person today. The outsized Bono is no Pete Seeger. He doesn't make the emotional connection Seeger made. 
Joan Baez came close for a while, but she didn't have Seeger's longevity. John Lennon, Bob Marley and Fela Kuti were global Pete Seegers, but they were grandiose characters who didn't operate on the humble man-with-a-banjo level of Seeger. 
Victor Jara was probably on Seeger's level, but he was murdered by the fascists he sang against. Seeger was never murdered, and while his fascist enemies gave him a hard time, they have allowed him to sing, travel, speak his mind, make many recordings (to the point of becoming an icon of American folk music generally), own property and live a very long, very happy life. 
A great man, Pete Seeger, despite being a Useful Idiot.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Our politics and theirs

David Hirsh has written an important post on Engage: Opposing the campaign to exclude Israelis from the global academic community. It is worth reading for resources and guidance on exactly what the title says. But I think it is also worth reading for the way it clarifies "our" politics and "our" political moment. The first point that David makes is that the boycott movement - like the wider BDS movement and in my view perhaps also the "stop the war" movement - is a symptom of the crisis of the left. This means, I think, that its growing success is not an indicator of the growing success of the left but almost of its opposite.
We live at a time when the positive creative movements for a better world are largely defeated and have been replaced, for the moment, by movements for resistance and opposition.

Supporting the boycott of Israel offers the opportunity to appear radical without having to do anything. ... The boycott doesn’t help change the situation in Palestine or in Israel but it does address the personal needs of boycotters to avoid feelings of complicity. 
Pathological narcissism 
In a recent tweet, Noga used the term "pathological narcissism" to describe anti-Israel campaigners, which I think aptly sums up what David is talking about here. Western anti-Israel politics is almost always about us, the West, and not about Israel/Palestine. David again:
For some Europeans and Americans, Israel is ‘us’ but not quite ‘us’. People think of it as “white” or “western”, they point to the support it receives from the US and Europe; yet it can be disavowed, our own “western” failings can be put onto its shoulders...

The boycotters are good at framing the boycott issue as defining who is good and who is bad. Supporters of the boycott are constructed as “pro Palestine” and opponents of the boycott as “pro Israel” – then to many people it is obvious which side one must be on, to stand with the oppressed nation not the oppressor nation, against (US) imperialism not for (US) imperialism. The conflict on our campuses seems to be between wavers of the Israeli flag and wavers of the Palestinian flag. We refuse to pick up one or the other flag and to hope for its victory; better to embrace a politics of reconciliation....
What David is criticising here is what we might call the "camp thinking" of the BDS movement, and of the wider "anti-imperialist" left of which it is part - reminiscent of the Cold War division of the world into two rival blocs, with many socialists sucked into a "second campist" position of support for the terrible Stalinist tyrannies because they were "against" the capitalist camp. 

Camp thinking
The term "camp thinking" (taken up by Paul Gilroy in his book Between Camps, an attack on “the lore of blood and bodies, and fantasies of absolute cultural identity”) was used by the 1960s German leftists Negt and Kluge. They spoke about the 1920s, as Communism shifted from a revolutionary ideology into a militarised defence of the Soviet state. They wrote:
Within this camp mentality, difference of political position, the smallest deviations from the general line, and indeed, criticism become insupportable because the autonomy is unstable and in actual fact under constant threat. What the Stalinist party organization does with individual communists who transgress or call into question these clear... demarcations (this as a rule entails avowals of loyalty to decrees and programs) corresponds to the attempt of the ruling power within the socialist camp to pledge the various parties working under specific conditions in other countries to its line of foreign and defense policy.
I think today's "anti-imperialist" left has reproduced this camp mentality. The boycott gesture is the membership test of the camp, the leap of faith one is expected to make; anti-Zionism is the cultural code by which members recognise each other.

The second campism of the narcissistic Western left is above all a failure of, a retreat from, real solidarity. David again:
We need to have a conversation about what solidarity is... .Solidarity begins there not here. It doesn’t answer our needs first, it relates to others first. We are interested in peace in the Middle East, not in our own political cleanliness and not in using events far away rhetorically against our own enemies at home.... Solidarity is always also a responsibility to engage and to think for ourselves. Solidarity changes ‘us’ as it changes ‘them’, it is never a slavish or a one way responsibility to ‘answer a call’ or obey those who claim to speak in the name of the oppressed....Solidarity is about relating to the reality of diversity within Israel and Palestine, not treating each as a single monolith wrapped in a flag....
Non-Jewish Jews
As well as this critique of the failure of solidarity, David also makes three important points about antisemitism. First, there is the issue of the "as a Jews", whose own narcissistic politics licenses the gentile BDS movement:
Much of the energy for the boycott campaign comes from anti-Zionist Jews. They are no different from many Jews in so much as, for understandable reasons, they are especially concerned about Jewish issues and about Israel – its crimes or its victimhood, real or imagined.

Sometimes small groups of anti-Zionist Jews are successful in exporting their own particular concern about Israeli human rights abuses into non-Jewish civil society organizations like trade unions or academic associations. This then creates an anomalous situation with respect to consistency.
Some anti-Zionist Jews today express their Jewishness primarily through their hatred of Israel, just as some other assimilated Jews feel their Jewishness primarily through an attachment to antisemitism.* These are interesting dynamics of Jewishness. But they have been allowed to drive the agenda of whole swathes of the mainstream left, who surely have better things to focus their energy on. 

The politics of vengeance
Second, there is the way that the Western anti-Israel left, both its "as a Jew" strain and its gentile majority, vicariously identifies with the damaged identities of Palestinians, arguably another form of narcissistic politics, which opens it up to damaged identity's antisemitic hate:
If you were brought up in a refugee camp under the occupation of a Jewish army, it might be understandable, though by no means inevitable, if you internalized a hostility to Jews; If you were brought up under the threat of suicide bombs, and missiles with hostile Arab neighbours, it might be understandable, though by no means inevitable, if you were to internalize a hostility to Arabs. But we, in our comfortable academic lives do not have such reasons or excuses to embrace a politics of violence, exclusion or racism.
Locating antisemitism
Third, he makes a point which I have tried to make a few times on this blog: that antisemitism, like all racisms, should not be seen as a thoughtcrime, is not about intent, is not a feature of "antisemites" - but rather should be seen as a social fact, in its effects, as words or stories or images:
antisemitism, like other racisms, does not always appear as open and conscious hatred. Often it appears as ways of thinking; often it appears as unintended effects; often it appears in rhetoric which mirrors older antisemitisms. Antisemitism is an objective social phenomenon, not simply a malicious motivation inside people’s heads. There can be antisemitism and racism which is not caused by hatred and which is not a result of an intention to discriminate.

Friday, January 17, 2014

1930s Paris comes to South London

The folks who brought us the Brockley Jack Film Club and Piccadilly are returning to South London with a night of surreal cabaret: Revue ZouZou.


It's on February 8 at the Ivy House. Gypsy jazz, performance, magic and more.  It'll be a good night. Tickets here, Twitter here, Facebook here.

The Ivy House, incidentally, is London's first co-operatively owned pub, the first pub to be listed as an
Asset of Community Value, and the first building in the UK to be bought for the community under the provisions of the Localism Act. The whole story - of how local people came together to save a local pub - is here. Well worth supporting!

The Ivy House is a fifteen-twenty minute walk from Nunhead and Brockley train stations. Brockley is also on the Overground. (Links are to station info and local maps.)

Here's Django Reinhardt, whose songs Belleville Rendezvous play, with a South London song:

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Dead Bloggers Society reading list

It is a truth universally acknowledged that blogging, or at least political blogging, is dead. Here's a provisional reading list on what it's up to in its afterlife, or at least the London region of it.

Paul Evans () still occasionally blogs at the wisely named Never Trust a Hippy. It was his post about Norman Geras that started me on this posthumous blogging spree.

James Bloodworth () is very much alive. In fact, he was recently named a bloodthirsty warmonger by Ceasefire Magazine. His trajectory from personal political blog to professional group blog (Left Foot Forward) is one of the symptoms of the death of political blogging. Two reading list items: "Steer clear of Russia Today if you are serious about human rights" in LFF and "Conservatives shouldn't be allowed to forget the crimes of the anti-communist right" in the New Statesman. James' bloodthirsty warmongering ambitions have recently crossed the Atlantic: his debunking of Pope Francis for the New Republic is great. I also recommend all his Spectator posts: Where Boris was right on inequalityVenezuela: a shining example of how not to help the poorMother Agnes has pulled out of the Stop the War conference - and yet she would have fitted in so wellRussell Brand: The Jeremy Clarkson of the leftMass immigration or the welfare state? Because we may not be able to have both; and It’s fine to be a ‘new’ atheist, so long as you don’t object to Islam.

Sarah Brown () is also very much alive. Her own site is kind of dormant, but she tirelessly posts at Harry's Place (which has become a much better blog these past year or so that she's been blogging there). I am very proud, too, to publish some of her thoughtful and thought-provoking posts at BfB. On the DBS reading list: why Spiked is wrong about the quenelle, and why context matters in understanding racist expression; and on the continued suffering of the Rohingya.

Flesh is Grass () is alive and well and has recently posted some must-read posts: on the fight against gender segregation on campus being allegedly taken over by the far right, and, closely related, on the racism of low expectations in relation to Islam.

FormerCorr posted for the first time this week at group blog Harry's Place with an excellent piece, "Do universities matter?", on the state of higher education on each side of the Atlantic.

Sam Geall () writes mostly about China. Read his - in turns entertaining and terrifying - review of 2013's environmental apocalypses.

Susan Greenberg () is someone whose blog, oddfish, I don't recall ever linking to, so her two reading list items, about real deaths, are actually from her archive: this beautiful short post recalls her late father, and this one retrieves her fine reportage of Vaclav Havel becoming president.

Scott Neil () blogs at Some Disco. His blogposts, forensic raids on contemporary global capitalism, are almost as short as tweets, so I can't recommend a particular one for the reading list. It kind of works like the Arcades Project or an early modern commonplace book.

Carl Packman () is also very much alive. He long ago migrated from Raincoat Optimism to Though Cowards Flinch, but has since (as a published author) become grown-up enough to have his own .com website. Here he is on why socialists can be happy at Christmas. He can be found at various other outlets, including Left Foot Forward, where he most recently wrote about India's failing democracy.

Rob Palk () hasn't blogged since August. Appropriately, his last post was about when he died and what he was doing when he did it.

Francis Sedgemore blogs as himself. He is represented on the reading list by "Alan Turing: The Good Queer". The point which Francis neatly makes about Turing is related to Hannah Arendt's important concept of "the exceptional Jew".

Kellie Strom () is an artist. He blogs at Airforce Amazons, where he recently posted the excellent "Syria (still) needs a No-Fly Zone". This was re-posrted at Left Foot Forward, and Kellie has written two follow up posts, the must-read "Happy ever after is not a realistic policy" and "They can't aim well", on Obama's shame.

Mira Vogel writes for Engage, where she recently posted "Triangulating Nigel Kennedy" (although it's more about the Stalinoid musical genius Robert Wyatt than Kennedy) on the Atzmonisation of our cultural avante-garde, or, rather, the mainstreaming of Atzmonite forms of Israel-hate.