Listening to Afghanistan

January 11, 2010 at 9:23 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

The observant among you will note that, in the aftermath of its quite calamitous election, I became increasingly sceptical about the efficacy of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan:

So Karzai’s stolen re-election cuts at the very heart of what the Obama administration is trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Any action it takes from this point on will be seen to reinforce a rotten, corrupt, powerless and fraudulent government which has not brought anywhere near enough safety, security or prosperity to a war-ravaged people. Under these conditions, I can’t see how our presence there will be anything but counter-productive.

At the time, I thought the rationale behind that post was sound: the Obama administration were seeking to practice some form of Counter-Insurgency strategy to stabilise the country. COIN only works when military operations are accompanied by civilian outreach, aid & some measure of state-building. That’s hard enough to do under normal conditions, but Karzai’s election meant that we’d now be seen to be propping up a corrupt leader. Crucially, however, I was disturbed by the prospect of equipping this corrupt & fradulent leader with his own shiny new army.

So how to square that position with this poll by the BBC which shows the people of Afghanistan feeling quite chipper about their prospects for the year? Support for the occupying forces is reasonably high, support for either the Taliban or whatever remains of Al Qaeda is low, people have noted improvements to most areas of their lives and, tellingly, economic concerns are beginning to overtake security fears as Afghanistan’s #1 political issue. Even Karzai seems to enjoy favourable approval ratings.

I suppose the small sample size and the massive jump in figures from last year could raise questions about how representative this poll is, but let’s assume for a moment that its conclusions are sound. What to make of it? Well, it’s nice to see that some people are happy, but it doesn’t mean the Afghan mission is succeeding (indeed, most commentors conclude it is not), nor that those seemingly intractable problems have gone away. However, nor can this optimism be swiftly dismissed; many of us look to the year ahead of us in the context of the year just passed, and if the public really is positive about 2010, then it suggests they had a reasonable 2009.

But it does pose us an interesting question: how much weighting should we give to opinion polls as a measure of the success or validity of a military campaign? Should these numbers strengthen the argument for remaining in Afghanistan? Would damning numbers strengthen the argument for leaving? Critics of the Iraq invasion (myself included) frequently pointed to poll numbers which said Iraqis wanted us to leave, but if those numbers had said something different, would that have changed our minds? Probably not, which unfortunately means that we tend to use public opinion only when it suits our position. In something as serious as war and peace, that’s not really satisfactory.

Snow, Society and Conservatism

January 9, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron | 7 Comments

383564341 7acb80c0fbI know there’s a recession, freezing temperatures, and we’re at the start of what looks to be an unpleasant election campaign, but there are still times when you can smile and think “y’know what, we’re a bloody brilliant little country, aren’t we?”

As much as the bad weather has caused everything from irritation to havoc, there’s still much to enjoy in reading about the ways people coped, and plenty to admire in the many acts of kindness and heroism.

People like the employees from a building company who downed tools to help a charity deliver meals to the vulnerable, or the residents of a West Sussex village whose community spirit & soup kitchen helped them survive a power failure. People like this Doncaster park ranger who battled through five hours of thick snow to rescue two trapped women, or the chap who drives his 20 year old tractor through Gloucestershire, clearing snow. People like Barry and Sid, who drove through 30 miles of snow saving trapped motorists, or folks in the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, who helped dig out an ambulance which had got stuck. People like the public sector workers who went above and beyond the call of duty, the passing driver who saved an injured cyclist’s life or the two teenagers who risked their own lives trying to save men from drowning.

These stories are inspiring & heart-warming, but they are also so frequent as to seem mundane. These people are ordinary and they are everywhere.

I mention this because snow is, for some reason, a political issue. On his blog, Dan Hannan described how he’d been ‘public spirited’ enough to clear snow for his neighbours, and wondered:

If everyone were responsible for his own patch of pavement, the disruption caused by snow would be much diminished. Is our reliance on state intervention symptomatic of the sapping effects of big government?

Hannan’s argument here is that ‘big government’ discourages us from exhibiting the same public spirited behaviour as himself. Because there is a big, unweildy state delivering public services, we choose not to show kindness or consideration for others because we expect the government to do everything for us.

It’s a view which is also shared by the Leader of the Opposition. Here’s what David Cameron said when he gave his Hugo Young Lecture:

But as the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours. Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society – and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property, to use your own discretion and judgement.

What Cameron is essentially arguing is that the state is a social evil, for it subverts all our better instincts. If this were true, then these examples of kindness and heroism would be outliers; unrepresentatuve of the country as a whole and made all the more extraordinary in light of the state’s discouragement of public-minded behaviour. According to this speech, to show human kindness, generosity and imagination is to go against the grain.

Am I the only one who thinks this an awfully pessimistic view of the country David Cameron wants to govern? There are many different arguments for slashing spending or reducing the size of the state, but to actually go to the country and say something which is just a more polite form of “we need a new government because Labour’s turned you into a bunch of bastards”, seems a little over the top.

This pessimism is something Alex Massie’s noted in the past. Cameron started out by promising to ‘let sunshine win the day’, but the closer he’s got to Downing Street, the more dystopic his depictions. As Massie puts it: “Frankly, if you were to take Tory rhetoric at face value the only sensible course, for those with the means to take it, would be emigration.”

This brings into question Cameron’s view of British life and the character or its people. Is he simply fulfilling the requirement of any opposition leader to note how terrible everything is, or does he really believe it? Were he ever in a position to answer that question honestly, it’d reveal much about his values, and about his perceptions of the people whose state he wants to govern.

Picture via Lawrence OP

Dr Who, X-Factor and social gloom

January 7, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | 2 Comments

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Last night, I finally got around to watching the last chapter in David Tennant’s role as Dr Who. Unlike other people who were sad to see Tennant go or infuriated by an incomprehensible plot, what I found depressing about ‘The End of Time’ was something entirely different.

The Doctor’s last assistant was Donna Noble. At first, they seemed an unlikely couple: Donna came across as negative, insecure, loud, and a bit mediocre. Of course, these first impressions were soon blown away, revealing a woman who was funny, witty, caring and exceptionally smart.

The next time the Doctor encountered Donna, she was back to square one: still working as a temp, planning for an unenthusiastic marriage and with all that brilliance remaining dormant & untapped. For his parting gift, the Doctor gives her a lottery ticket.

When the credits started rolling, my first thought was: ‘what does it say about our society when the only means Donna has of improving her life is by getting married to someone she didn’t express much love for & being given a lottery ticket by a time-travelling alien?’

What the scene demonstrated was a profound lack of faith in the prospect for social mobility, and it’s something which is quite a recurrent theme in television. In soap operas, youngsters who start out with hopes of attending university rarely get there, and in Hollyoaks, even those who graduate from university struggle to find good jobs.

Then there’s the desperate karaoke contest of X-Factor. The open auditions for the show are a depressing affair; a parade of tuneless, delusional hopefuls whose motivation for winning seems more about money and fame than talent. You’ll often hear contestants talk about wanting to win to escape their past lives in deprived communities, and they’ll contrast footage of drab, gloomy-looking council estates with the Technicolor glitz of the show’s studio.

The nagging fear among Conservatives is that they’ll be punished politically for what they feel is necessary economically. There’s a concern that Cameron’s cuts will be seized upon by the Labour opposition and rejected by the voters. They worry that the coming election will only result in a one term Tory government.

Whilst that fear is justified, it may yet be negated by the scale of the task Labour faces if it wants to build a positive message for voters.

I think the perception both in our culture and amongst the electorate is that not only were the ‘boom years’ a house built on sand, but that they weren’t even all that good. If people think social mobility is achieved through lottery tickets, X-Factor or Big Brother rather than education, work or government policies, they’re not going to be receptive to the claim that a new Labour government could improve lives.

Entertainment and culture may be distinct from society, but they are influenced by it, and if people look back on the ‘days of plenty’ and conclude that opportunities for social mobility mobility only improved because of a talent show, they may not look too fondly on the party which was in power.

Selected Reading (04/01/09)

January 4, 2010 at 9:30 pm | Posted in Misc. | 1 Comment

It’ll be quiet around these parts this week. Deadline from hell.

  • PZ Myers on the connection between American fundamentalists and Ugandan homophobes.
  • In the Washington Post, Carol Graham’s been looking at the economics of happiness.
  • Ed Husain explains why racial profiling is bad AND stupid.
  • Bill Conroy suggests that the Americas’ new year resolution should be to end the drug war.
  • Marc Lynch advises us not to go nuts about Yemen.
  • This is just bloody brilliant.
  • And I have a chat with Bella Gerens in which I almost suggest the abolition of the Department for Children, Schools & Families. Whoops!

Meanwhile, if you’re still after link over this barren week, follow Asquith. He’s where the good reads are.

Greatest Hits

January 3, 2010 at 9:08 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 4 Comments

Since it worked out rather well for me last time, I’ve decided to test that old cliche about lightning not striking in the same place. Yes, I’ve put myself forward for the Orwell Prize. Yes, I realise that I’m full of it…

Anyway, the list below comprises what may or may not be my greatest hits. I’ve not really ranked ‘em in order of preference, but the first post is the one I’m most pleased with.

    1. The Politics of Pulp

    Whilst pulling this all together, I realised just how much this blog exists in a permanent state of identity crisis. Some of my posts will be wry or irreverant, some wistful, others furious. Some posts will have a quite chatty tone; others will be formal, as if I occasionally forget that blogs have commenters. Some (the majority of this list) will be quite personal and relate to background or past experience; others (the majority of the blog as a whole) will be more dry, wonkish discussions about social or foreign policy.

    One of the big pieces of advice that would-be bloggers are often given is to ‘let your personality shine through’. Alas, The Bleeding Heart Show doesn’t have a personality; it has six.

    I think I do that because I wouldn’t be able to sustain blogging for this long if I wrote in one particular style or about a single subject. I always thought the reason I quit writing about music because I’d run out of things to say; in hindsight, I realise that I stopped because I’d exhausted the way I said things. I’d become bored of my writing style, so I stopped writing.

    So I guess it’s the fluctuations in style and subject matter which have kept this blog going for far longer than I thought I could. I realise, of course, that this is probably quite disorientating for readers who’re used to some… oh, I don’t know… consistency from their bloggers, so for those of you who keep sticking around; cheers! You’ve shown far more tenacity than me.

    Local pride as patriotism

    January 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Posted in British Politics | 5 Comments

    Because it’s New Years Day and I missed The Sound of Music, I’m going to tell you a love story.

    yorkshire-map

    This is Yorkshire. I like Yorkshire and Yorkshire likes me. We’re made for each other.

    There’s a lot about Yorkshire that I like. I like the barren beauty of the Pennines, the lush pastures of the Dales & the neon glint of Sheffield and (grudgingly) Leeds.

    I like food. In fact, I like Yorkshire food. I like the breads and the cheeses and the meats, the ice cream, wine and cider. I like Yorkshire Pudding.

    I like trivia. I like that Sheffield has more trees per person than any city in Europe, and can stretch from just 30m above sea level to more than 500m.

    I like trams and trains and cycle paths. I like the Penistone line. I like that the Penistone line passes through a village which celebrates great and historic events by building an enormous pie.

    I like the people. I like Compo, Clegg and Foggy. I like Alan Bennett. I like slagging off Michael Parkinson.

    I like the pick ‘n mix possibilities of our cities, and the rustic monoculture of our countryside. I like that folks from Leeds don’t like people from Sheffield. I like that people from Barnsley don’t really like anyone. I like that none of ‘em really mean it.

    Lastly, I like the fact that if I’d been born anywhere else, I would be just as gushing about that.

    Whilst reading Sunder Katwala’s excellent piece on patriotism and the search for some shared symbols which identify us as English, I was struck by the following thought: what if we’re looking at this whole thing from the wrong angle? Instead of trying to boil down this great vat of difference & eccentricity into a few platitudinous bromides, why can’t we anchor our patriotism in a deep sense of local pride?

    From my own experience of teaching, exploiting the inherent attachment most kids have with their surroundings can be absolute dynamite, and watching the enthusiasm they put into something like fundraising for a local charity would quickly dispel any gloominess you might’ve had about a loss of citizenship and a ‘broken society’.

    Sure, all this difference is difficult to write a song about, and even harder to accept if you’re looking to reattach patriotism to an antiquated vision of what it is to be English. But it does at least do away with the old conundrum of how you reconcile the more traditional ‘Englishness’ with our increasingly eclectic society.

    I don’t know, it’s a thought which might need expanding upon a bit more. But for me, my sense of patriotism comes from a deep love for where I’m from, and the happy acknowledgement that there’ll be millions of people who feel the same way about wherever they live or come from.

    In fact, I suspect even Lancastrians feel some affection for their own strange, backwards part of the world! And if you can find common ground between two old enemies, then you know there’s something to it

    Stay Positive

    December 31, 2009 at 11:00 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

    (From Edward Monkton)

    Since my last New Years Eve song had a chorus of “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me”, I thought I’d go with a something a little more, well, upbeat. Hope you all have (or had) a fine end to the year.

    [And yes, I wrote this in the afternoon and scheduled it for now. I'm hardly going to sit behind a computer when there's cider to be supped, am I?!]

    The Rap Fan’s Guide To Political Blogging

    December 31, 2009 at 7:13 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 6 Comments

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    Sensitive thugs, y’all need hugs

    Since we’ve already discussed what a bunch of callow indie rockers can teach the rest of us about blogging tribalism, I wondered whether there were any other pop cultures which could explain our strange little ways.

    A non-blogging friend of mine once asked “why do you bloggers seem to spend half your time attacking each other? I thought you started blogging because you had something constructive to offer.”

    It was a good question for which I had no simple answer, so I decided to explain things by comparing the blog game to the rap game.

    Because it’s an aggressive, proud and often quite vain genre, ‘beef‘ and rivalry between rappers is as old as hip hop itself.

    There are two categories of beef. The first is basically a personal vendetta which snowballed out of a few slights (either real or imagined). For example, Tupac’s beef with Notorious BIG started because Shakur thought Biggie had tried to kill him.

    But it’s also created by market forces. Feuding is the rap game’s equivalent of quantitative easing: if your sales are sloppy & your commercial stock is low, the best way of getting back into the game is by calling out another rapper. This is why the lowly (but fittingly titled) Game has spent half the year trying to get the better-selling Jay-Z to respond to his disses. If Jay responds, Game’s commercial stock soars. Always has, always will.

    To show how this applies to the blogosphere, here’s a useful recent example. You can decide for yourself which category this particular beef falls into:

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    What you have here is a diss; an example of one rapper blogger trash-talking somebody from another clique. To people from the same clique, this diss may be flippant or a little risque. However, to people from Rush Limbaugh’s clique, it’s a grave insult and enough to start a beef.

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    Soon the game was ablaze with recrimination. As with any rap beef, the frayed tempers produced a raft of daft accusations, from the mildly amusing (Lib Con has become ‘plain nasty’) to outright lies (“most days you can read bile rejoicing about the day Margaret Thatcher dies”). Unpleasant stuff, but it’s all necessary for the rapper blogger to succeed in persuading his own clique that beef is necessary. Demonise your opponent, and all that.

    Thankfully for Mr Dale, his plan had worked; his clique was down to ride:

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    So you see, for all our fancy words & hyperlinks, our blogwars really aren’t much more sophisticated than your average rap feud; we just use CAPS LOCK AND RIDICULOUSLY OVER THE TOP STATEMENTS instead of hip hop beats. It’s not enough to merely better our opponents in debate; we have to actively show them up and stoke antipathy. This is true of folks on both the left and right.

    So how to resolve this particular conflict? Unlike a rap beef, we can’t send for Jessie Jackson & Louis Farrakhan to help cool the tempers, and just think how bad things will get when election year rolls around!

    I have an idea. I suspect that much of Dale’s mischaracterisation of Liberal Conspiracy comes from the fact that – as he recently admitted – he doesn’t actually read it. Sure, he’ll read Sunny (despite saying he doesn’t), but that’s because Sunny is the goateed blogging boogeyman who stalks his dreams. And so all the analysis, news articles & wonkish thinkpieces on the site get ignored.

    So the solution to this problem is really quite simple; just follow this advice that Jay-Z dished out to his own haters:

    You ain’t feelin’ me? Fine. It costs you nothing; pay me no mind.

    Given he’s mentioned Hundal in no less than 7 posts this month, that might be a hard habit to break. Still, it is a time for resolutions!

    Escaping From Class

    December 29, 2009 at 8:24 pm | Posted in What's left?, Working Class Britain | 9 Comments

    CH 12

    I’ve never been able to get worked up about class and its distinctions, but then I’ve never felt the conventional three-tier account of social divisions has much to do with the case. [...] My mother’s scheme of things admitted to much finer distinctions than were allowed by the sociologists. She’d talk about people being ‘better-class’, ‘well-off’, ‘nicely-spoken’, refined’, ‘educated’, ‘genuine’, ‘ordinary’ and – the ultimate condemnation – ‘common’.

    In a happy coincidence, a few days after the Prime Minister uttered the jibe which started a class war, the BBC ran a repeat of Alan Bennett’s glorious Dinner at Noon. Part documentary, part voyeurism and part personal reminiscence, Bennett guides you around the stately surrounds of Harrogate’s Crown Hotel, eavesdrops on other people’s conversations, shares stories about his parents and muses about what place class has in contemporary society.

    Made at the end of a decade marked by union-busting, industrial decline and emerging consumerism, Bennett uses the people-watching habits of his parents to demonstrate how our rigid definitions of class tell us little about the people wearing the labels. What he prefers to observe are manners, behaviours, embarrassments: “Not class, which I don’t like, but classes, types“.

    His preference for thinking of people as ‘types’ rather than ‘classes’ reminded me of a family gathering I attended a few years ago. It was the funeral of a patriarch who was much loved, as evidenced by the fact that his passing had managed to draw a greater number of our extended, estranged family members than other functions of this sort.

    The church was like a sweetshop of different ‘types’. You had the emotionally distraught, the jolly reminiscers, the tanned couple who’d just got back from Tenerife and ‘you know, we wouldn’t have come back if we’d had the choice’. There were the self-conscious mums who checked every 10 minutes that their husbands or children were dressed correctly, behaving appropriately & grieving at acceptable levels. You had the step-family who weren’t welcome but felt like they had to turn up, so fidgeted quietly at the back of the church, speaking only to themselves. You had the proud veteran who refused his war medals because ‘you shouldn’t be rewarded for doing your duty’, and the boisterous old busybody who flashed her own accomplishments (holiday in Corfu; new fitted kitchen) as tactlessly as youngsters flashing their bling. It was a church filled with hundreds of years of collective experience, dozens of unique, eccentric, exciting types, and if you could find one thing which united them all, it was that their social class had little importance. Because class really can have little importance. Well, sometimes.

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    The real solvent of class distinction is a proper measure of self-esteem, a kind of unselfconsciousness. Some people are at ease with themselves so the world is at ease with them. My parents thought this kind of ease was produced by education: ‘your Dad and me can’t mix; we’re not educated.’ They didn’t see that what disqualified them was temperament, just as, though educated to the hilt, it disqualifies me. What keeps us in our place is embarrassment.

    A few months after that funeral took place, I moved down to Cambridge for my first term as an undergraduate. For someone who’d never lived away from home before and was completely unused to its customs & traditions, the first few months were an exhausting experience and a period for intense self-criticism. I always assumed I was at ease with my self; that I knew who I was, where I’d come from, how events and places and people had helped to shape me. I soon found out that not only was that just a flimsy edifice, but, like Alan Bennett, I was embarrassed by everything: my birthplace, my accent, the fact that most of my clothes were from Matalan, my schooling, parents & former school friends. I was embarrassed that people whose parents had spent tens of thousands of pounds on their education (and, unwillingly, on mine) were now sat next to a podgy northern dilettante who hadn’t a clue what to do with all these bloody knives & forks. I thought, this can’t have been what they paid their money for.

    I felt like an imposter, and because I desperately wanted to belong there, I tried to fashion myself into what I thought was expected of a Cambridge student. I decided to dress like I was in The Strokes; tried flattening my accent; I ate out regularly and expensively; I over-compensated for my low cultural vocabulary by bingeing on records and books; I started getting drunk. I must’ve spent a whole year trying to escape my class.

    Of course, when I realised that no amount of styling would fashion me into one of those well-spoken, confident Home Counties kids I used to envy from my smoke-filled corner of the college bar, I reacted violently against it. I started inventing reasons to dislike people: a love of rowing or rugby, a posh accent, a fondness for Cambridge’s antiquated little traditions, membership of the Conservative Party. I started acting like my background made me one of the few ‘authentic’ kids in a university teeming with pretence, entitlement, self-importance & sycophancy. First my embarrassment made me want to change myself; next it made me want to change everyone else.

    Thankfully, each passing year brings with it just a little more experience and wisdom. Thanks to my many embarrassments (and the counsel of some quite wonderful friends), I did eventually reconcile the class-based insecurities of my background with the immense privilege that I had the fortune to enjoy. I realised that most of the public school kids weren’t quietly sneering at the commoner in their midst, and that people from very wealthy backgrounds could be just as prone to embarrassment & self-doubt as I was. I no longer had anything to be embarrassed about, either before the people back home who warned me not to ‘forget my roots’ or those whose roots were already sunk deep in privilege.

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    I suppose one of the purposes of coming to this hotel in Harrogate was an evangelical one: I wanted to find people who were as awkward as I used to be in these surroundings and show them it didn’t matter. Only I didn’t find them, and besides, quite sensibly, everybody seems to know that it doesn’t matter. I wanted to revive or relocate some of the embarrassments or awkwardness I felt when I was younger. I didn’t. I’m older, the world has changed, and maybe it’s the businessmen who’ve changed it. Class isn’t what it was; or nowadays perhaps people’s embarrassments are differently located.

    When we talk of class in the 21st century, there’s a tendency to either reach for numbers or stereotypes.

    Some will clumsily paint the wealthy as airheaded, workshy toffs or bankers as cash-gobbling spivs; some will generalise the working class as uncomplicated & honest or as crass, boorish chavs who rock in the hammock of the welfare state.

    Those who prefer their data will seek empirical markers which indicate dividing lines between rich and poor. They’ll study education, inherited wealth and earned income and use those findings to determine where an individual lies in the social hierarchy.

    Whilst there’s some populist utility in the stereotype and an analytic function to quantitative research, what these very different approaches have in common is that there’s no room for the vast breadth of difference. They can’t factor in all our strange little sayings, habits, accents, slang, likes, antipathies, old wives tales & folk legends which people from similar backgrounds often share.

    That’s a shame, because it’s in these details & this difference where a most personal part of our identities resides. They can influence the way we look at the world or deal with problems, the way we relate to and interact with others, the types of work we choose, the types of hobbies we pursue and the different ways we seek to enjoy ourselves. These differences are also, in many cases, fixed. Many of our traits are inherited; bequeathed to us by the process of socialisation and impossible (no matter how hard I tried) to reject, disown or erase.

    My advice to those who wish to exploit the seemingly self-serving aspects of Tory policy to promote a more progressive agenda is this: by all means, go ahead, but please take the language of class out of it. Our politicians will not possess the authenticity, subtlety, sensitivity, respect for difference or understand the deeply personal attachment that people have to their backgrounds. I don’t want to see a succession of well-heeled Labour cabinet ministers clumsily trying to ingratiate themselves with the ‘common man’ anymore than I want society slandered as ‘broken’ and working class communities rendered as stark, dystopic hinterlands populated by perverts & slobs.

    But whilst I don’t particularly want to see politicians talking about class as a means of getting elected, I still think we should be prepared to talk about it. If Alan Bennett is right and ‘class isn’t what it was‘, then it seems that we’d all benefit from speaking candidly about what it is - only free from the firing squad of front-line politics. If our backgrounds have helped form our characters, beliefs and positions, then – providing it’s done in good faith – we should be open to making that a part of the conversation. It’s perhaps a sign of my own faith in politicians (or lack thereof) that I’d rather they stuck to arguing about policy.

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    “Not class, which I don’t like, but classes, types“.

    There were two eulogies given at this funeral I referred to earlier. The first, delivered in an unmistakable Barnsley accent, described the deceased as ‘a smashing chap’; a loving father and husband who would ‘do anything for anyone’. The second was a theatrically-performed reading from Shakespeare’s Tempest.

    Mingling around the wake afterwards, I overheard two elderly ladies discussing the passage.

    “Well love, I must admit that a lot of it went right over my head”

    “Yes, yes, there was a lot of old words in it, weren’t there?”

    There was a brief silence, as if both ladies worried that they weren’t showing enough sympathy in a time of mourning.

    “Ooh, but didn’t she read it beautifully though! And just look at this grand spread!”

    Older & somewhat wiser, I know now that we can’t ever really escape our backgrounds. Better still, I don’t see any reason why we should try.

    Iran: The Weaker Argument Defeats The Stronger?

    December 27, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

    On Christmas Eve, a time ostensibly meant for peace & goodwill, the New York Times ran an epic op-ed arguing for military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear technology. Should you have the stomach to endure Alan Kuperman’s belch of war-baiting, you can go here; it’s some real ‘Deck The Halls’shit.

    Because I’m not particularly interested in the substance of Kuperman’s argument (there are already some excellent rebuttals by the likes of Marc Lynch & Matt Duss), I’m instead going to note Stephen Walt’s reaction. For Walt, this is but the opening salvo of a concerted campaign to pressure President Obama into taking military action. He warns that opponents of this action should start refining their arguments now because the march for war may soon become a deafening din.

    Now, Walt does occasionally overstate things, but it’s still true that for as long as the diplomatic wrangling continues, the media will continue to give space to those who’re keen to tell us what to bomb when (not if) it all fails. So I think it’s worth reflecting on what kind of shape our side of the debate is in, and to be honest, I think we could use some work.

    There’s definitely a tendency to blithely assume that advocates for military action are just raving mad Bush-era leftovers who never stopped to acknowledge how their rabid war-mongering has diminished both America’s economic prosperity and its effectiveness as an international actor. Whilst that’s true in many cases, although the pro-bombing crowd has the weaker argument, it could still have the winning argument.

    First, opponents of military action should acknowledge that the negotiations/sanctions tactic might fail & that Iran might succeed in developing a nuclear deterrent. When people like Kuperman accuse us of ‘appeasement’, it’s partly because we write as though negotiations will end the diplomatic stand-off. That could happen, but I’m not betting any money on it.

    So we should write with the assumption that Iran could one day have a nuclear deterrent, and that even if that day came, bombing would remain a bad idea. To do this, there are four arguments: that a strike would have negative consequences for the US & its allies, that it would stoke massive instability in the region, and deal a damaging blow to whatever remains of the green revolution. The fourth argument is that Iran is a rational player in international politics, and that building a bomb doesn’t mean they will use it. That last one’s going to be the toughest for folks to accept.

    If a country like Switzerland was in the process of building a bomb, there’d be few people flinching with fear. Sure, that’s partly because the Swiss are friendly, democratic & secular, but also because we assume they would adhere to the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction. In contrast, one of the consequences of 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror is that it’s left the impression that Muslim states, societies & citizens have such a reflex for martyrdom that the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction has no weight. If this were true, then being hit with a retaliatory nuke would be a glorious event for it would further the jihad and bring the Iranian dead closer to Allah.

    If people believe that the Iranians are prepared to use a nuclear weapon against Israel – or anyone else – then they’ll be much more amenable to the idea of making the first strike. The way we win the public debate is by demonstrating that whilst Iran may have a vile regime, it’s not being led by suicidal lunatics. Sadly, I fear that might not be an easy argument to win.

    Merry Christmas!… etc

    December 24, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 3 Comments

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    His name is Frosty Bojangles, and yes, it reveals much about the maturity of my brother and I that we’re still making snowmen in our mid-twenties…

    If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you’ve already demonstrated such a heightened intellect and refined tastes that you probably don’t need a post from me to fluff your egos. But, since it’s the season for giving & all that…

    Many thanks to anyone who’s stopped by here either regularly or by accident, left comments, made links or cross-posted my stuff to one of the more better-known outlets for lefty-liberal comment.

    Hope you all have a fantastic Christmas (or whatever), and that 2010 brings nothing but Good Stuff.

    I should still be posting bits & bobs here over the holiday, so feel free to come back even if you’ve overdone it on the sherry.

    All the best,

    Neil

    Certain Songs: 75-71

    December 24, 2009 at 8:25 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | Leave a comment

    Continue Reading Certain Songs: 75-71…

    New trouble in Guinea

    December 22, 2009 at 8:20 pm | Posted in International | 1 Comment

    610x

    I apologise for going all Geldof on you this Christmas, but I think it’s worth noting the anniversary of an event that’s led to some grim consequences in The Republic of Guinea.

    Last year, Guinean President Lansana Conté died after a long illness. He’d held power since 1984, and whilst there wasn’t much of a democracy during that time, there was at least a procedure to ensure a succession and swift elections.

    Moussa Dadis Camara had other ideas. Just hours after Conté’s death, army captain Camara went on state TV and announced a coup d’état. Fresh elections, he warned, would not be for at least two years, rather than the constitutionally-mandated 60 days.

    On 28th September – the anniversary of the referendum which won Guinea its independence – supporters of the opposition filled a football stadium to demand Camara’s resignation. And all hell broke loose.

    Security forces stormed into the stadium and fired on the crowd, leaving 157 dead and over a thousand injured. Now the UN’s report into the events seems to confirm many of the horror stories which were reported: Camara’s men went on the rampage, committing murder, rape and torture against people inside the stadium and nearby villages. The accounts [pdf] of these acts are heinous and gruesome, and the descriptions of sexual violence could turn even the strongest stomach.

    The UN claims there is clear evidence of crimes against humanity, and has referred the case to the ICC. The report names three men as directly responsible for the violence: President Camara himself, his chief aide, Lt. Aboubacar Chérif Diakité, and a third officer who is in charge of the special services.

    What complicated matters is that two of these suspects are rather indisposed: Camara is currently recovering from an assassination attempt after Diakité worried that he was being set up as the fall guy. All of this has led to yet more instability & violence, as observers warn that a power struggle between rival commanders could lead to a civil war which would destabilise the entire region. West African regional group ECOWAS – which suspended Guinea’s membership after Camara’s coup – is so concerned that it’s already called for foreign troops to prevent violence from escalating further.

    Now, Guinea isn’t yet on the brink of civil war – it’s suffered instability even during President Conté’s reign and managed to recover – but the current power vacuum, the army’s rank indiscipline & the country’s parlous financial state all add up to the perfect conditions for conflict. Given this, the international community should be vigilant of the dangers in Guinea and take as many diplomatic steps as possible to encourage some measure of stability for its people.

    They had also better move quickly – as last year’s events showed, they don’t stop to partake in much festive cheer.

    Update: This video illustrates some of the violence that the UN went to investigate. I know that feminist blogs have a trigger warning when it comes to this sort of stuff, so I thought I’d better put that in there.

    Certain Songs: 80 – 76

    December 22, 2009 at 8:14 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | Leave a comment

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    Continue Reading Certain Songs: 80 – 76…

    Certain Songs: 85-81

    December 19, 2009 at 11:50 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | 2 Comments

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    85

    Nina Nastasia

    On Leaving

    (Fat Cat; 2006)

    Nina Leaving

    The most distinctive thing about Nina Nastasia is her brevity. No fan of choruses, middle eights or instrumentals, most of her songs clock in at under three minutes. In lesser songwriters, this might suggest a lack of ideas, or show that her songs are underdeveloped. On the contrary, it’s the leanness of Nastasia’s compositions which lends them their power. In On Leaving, she will reel you in; sing you into silence and then cut off your supply. And she will repeat this trick on every single track.

    Whilst that’s irritating on the first listen, it’s not long before you appreciate her grace, her discipline and the beautifully sparse soundscapes she fashioned with producer Steve Albini.

    The biggest compliment you could pay a musician is to say you’ve never heard enough. In that respect, Nina Nastasia is beautifully cruel.

    Key track: Treehouse Song

    84

    Cat Power

    The Greatest

    (Matador; 2006)

    Cat Power The Greatest

    It might be this generation’s ‘Dusty in Memphis’. Before Chan Marshall released this gloriously tender, soulful piece of music, she was merely a beguiling but erratic singer whose shows could either be transcendent in their venue-shushing beauty or an awkward, rambly, intoxicated mess. As for her recorded output, it was telling that her previous best album was a selection of cover versions.

    Quite what went right in Memphis may remain a secret, but The Greatest completely shattered expectations and provided Cat Power with the finest record of her career. It was an album where she departed from the brittle indie rock arrangements that had been her stock-in-trade and embraced the rich musical history of the south, teaming up with a cast of seasoned session musicians who added trumpets, organs, pedal steel and cello to her smoky-voiced reminisces. The songs themselves sung of dating game disappointments, her battles with alcoholism and that end-of-an-evening wistfulness you get when you go home to an empty house.

    On The Greatest , Cat Power finally struck the perfect sound for her voice and developed a set of songs full of pathos, longing & ache. In a decade where many artists tried to update the blues for modern times, this record showed that its roots were still firmly lodged in the heart of the American South.

    Key track: Lived in Bars

    83

    The Hold Steady

    Boys & Girls In America

    (Vagrant; 2006)

    THS BAGIA

    “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right”, begins Craig Finn on the opening Stuck Between Stations; “boys & girls in America have such a sad time together”. The words were borrowed from another place and another time – Kerouac’s On The Road, to be precise – but the sentiment remains an evocative description of teenage drama & farce both in the United States and beyond.

    They are also the words Finn uses as the theme which unifies each narrative of midwestern misadventure: the guy whose girlfriend’s gambling addiction is paying for her drug habit; the girl who’s gotten bored of her boyfriend & just wants to get high alone; the couple who meet whilst recovering in a festival’s chill-out tent. The stories are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but never show anything less than the empathy of someone who has probably got many more where these came from.

    Meanwhile, the music shamelessly pillages American rock’s storied history: there are Replacements -style guitar jams, E street piano riffs, key changes and sing-a-long choruses. In lesser hands it either be cynical or trite, but the enthusiasm this New York band puts into each perfomance (their live shows are a sensation) makes it sound both sincere and exciting.

    Written when Finn was well into his thirties, Boys & Girls in America is not a soundtrack to youth, nor even an attempt to revisit it. Rather, it’s an attempt to recollect youth; to pick over what at the time may have felt momentous & dramatic and rewrite them with the benefit of experience as funny, farcical or sweetly romantic subplots to the long slog of life.

    Key track: Stuck Between Stations

    82

    Camera Obscura

    Let’s Get Out Of This Country

    (Merge; 2006)

    Lets get out of this country

    In some ways, Camera Obscura weren’t made for these times. At the decade’s end you can look at the likes of The Strokes, The White Stripes, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse & Death Cab For Cutie and conclude that indie could be a commercial as well as a critical success. Their songs appeared on adverts & film soundtracks, were multiplied millions of times over the internet and they even had some low level contact with celeb mag culture.

    It’s worth remembering, though, how different things were at the start of the noughties. When Camera Obscura dropped first single Eighties Fan in 2001, the indie scene was still a marginal & cultish genre which – when compared to the commercial behemoths of Britney, Eminem & Limp Bizkit – must’ve looked like the pasty, sick-looking kid in the corner. When they first arrived, the Glaswegians made the kind of music which was increasingly unloved; their quaint, bookish & polite songs about dilemmas & embarrassments were sung with quiet, reserve and almost apology. It was the kind of stuff which was raved about in the fanzines that nobody read and the twee pop club nights that fewer people were attending. If indie was going mainstream, Camera Obscura looked set to remain on the margins.

    But rather than being a secret shared by a devoted few, the band’s career was ascendent for the rest of the decade. On Let’s Get Out Of This Country the band threw off their twee pop comfort blanket & the constant Belle & Sebastian comparisons and produced a record rich in energy & musicality. The production values were dramatically scaled up, with Spector esque arrangements, boistrous brass and glistening strings, whilst Traceyanne Campbell’s voice and songwriting had become much more confident, ranging from sparse, wilting laments to country-tinged swooners and even a few high-tempo romps.

    Ever fond of self-deprecation, the band’s previous record was called Underachievers Please Try Harder . When they took their own advice they produced one of the best pop albums of the decade.

    Key track: If Looks Could Kill

    81

    The Decemberists

    Picaresque

    (Kill Rock Stars; 2005)

    Picaresque

    The picaresque novel (Spanish: “picaresca”, from “pícaro”, for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a popular sub-genre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.

    There is no central character in this album. Not content to fixate on one anti-hero, Colin Meloy instead sings about a whole parade of malcontents: a ghostly barrowboy who just longs to by his love a fine robe; a writer who’s trying to rid a strayed lover from his thoughts; a sportsman who’s just been humiliated on the field and is haunted by the disappointment on his friends and family’s faces; a forbidden couple in a suicide pact.

    No, instead of constructing a character for his audience to follow, Meloy invites the listener to become the picaro, venture through this richly imagined, vaudevillian world and meet all it’s varied, striking characters. Lyrically, there were few albums this decade which could match the imagination this Portland band’s third record, and it was made all the more impressive that Meloy was able to use such unique characters to speak of the more universal themes of embarrassment, sorrow, escape, revenge and love. Musically, it was all very melodic, enjoyable but unremarkable indie rock fare, but it was his skill as a storyteller which elevated his band far above the also-rans.

    Key track: The Engine Driver

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