Wednesday 30 July 2014

Does Israel "Cause" Anti-Semitism?

The great German socialist August Bebel once dubbed anti-semitism "the socialism of fools". This oft-quoted aphorism referred specifically to the conspiracy-mongers of his day for whom capitalism was the front for international jewry. But could it be that anti-semitism is the delusion of the desperate too? This question was raised in the Lords last night. Ex-diplomat and crossbencher Lord Wright of Richmond mused whether there was a link between the rise of anti-semitism in Europe and Israel's brutal assault on civilians in Gaza. He further suggested that its spread might be curbed in this country if the government acted resolutely against current operations, and pressured Israel to take the two state solution seriously by withdrawing from illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. This drew two sharp responses. One from Lord Winston, who argued that if such a link was tenable, then "the affairs in Syria would cause anti-Islamic feeling in this country". Likewise, Lord Ahmed, "the Islamic faith is very clear - in such situations you should protect churches, you should protect cloisters, you should protect synagogues, you protect all innocent life."

Let's be clear about this. Israel doesn't cause anti-semitism. Lest we forget, the Holocaust and centuries of pogroms and massacres precede it. Yet as a species of racism, anti-semitism as a jumble of prejudices and attitudes are no different from any other set of ideas: they form and cohere in the crucible of history, and their breadth and acceptance waxes and wanes according to specific historical conjunctures. No collection of ideas free-float. There isn't an ideological grab bag from which perfectly rational beings pick and choose according to reasonable criteria. The notions, opinions, prejudices or otherwise each and every human being adheres to is done so because it speaks to their personal circumstances. There's something about an idea that makes sense, that helps people understand their situation, that anchors them in the world. For example, conservative views of various stripes find a readier audience among business people because it speaks to and orders the social world for them as business people. Similarly, socialism has a greater reach in trade union circles because, again, it provides a coherent explanation of the issues confronting them.

Let's explore this in relation to racism. When the BNP was on the rise during the last decade, where did this racist party find its wells of support? Here in Stoke it was almost-entirely white working class estates blighted by low pay, unemployment, and insecurity. Might there perhaps be a link? Or think about it in terms of a more pertinent analogy. After the September 11th terror attacks, British Muslims experienced greater press hostility, increased everyday racism, an epidemic of vandalism against mosques and an increase in physical attacks. Did Muslims "cause" the antipathy and violence they received? No. Was the increase in Islamophobia heavily conditioned by terrorist outrages and war in the Middle East? Undoubtedly. Does the context of war excuse racist abuse? Absolutely not. Understanding and explaining is not the same as justifying, apologising for, or accepting racism.

That brings us to anti-semitism now. Let's think about it from a Gazan viewpoint. If your family had their land and property stolen by Israeli settlers at the point of a bayonet, if the sprawling slum you now called home groaned under the weight of an economic blockade, was subject to periodic attacks by the Israeli army and friends and family were lying injured and killed, might anti-semitism strike a chord? Might the idea that the Holocaust was a myth to justify Israel's foundation find a ready audience? Could the stony silence of the West and, in some cases, their connivance with Israel's slaughter in Gaza lead some to think they're under Jerusalem's sway? Might this go some way to explain the support for Hamas, an organisation that - until 2006 - was formally committed to Israel's eradication? In Palestine itself where anti-semitism exists it is inseparable from the occupation and all that goes with it. It doesn't excuse it, but it does help explain it.

What then of the West? Unfortunately, anti-semitism is on the rise. The electoral support enjoyed by the French Front National, for example, has nothing to do with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. The explanatory axis there is secured in economic precarity and persistent mass unemployment. For long-term anti-semites in fascist parties and movements, Israel and Gaza is a pretext, not an impetus. And if some of their anti-semitic actions, like daubing the walls of synagogues and attacking Jewish cemeteries can be pinned on Arabs/Muslims, so much the better. What then of Muslim anti-semitism? Is Israel's behaviour merely an excuse as per white racists? For some, undoubtedly. For others, it's complex. Being a Muslim in the West is more "political" than perhaps any other religious identity, and it is an identity location that identifies more readily with co-religionists elsewhere. Palestine "speaks" to Western Muslims more because there, in its most extreme form, do you have the epitome of injustice to Muslims - all accepted without a qualm by Western governments. Their experience is identifiable, understandable. The anger and hate Palestinians feel is readily translatable to Muslim communities in the West. Anger against the occupation is shared, along with the hate. So when Israel continues the killing, so anti-semitism provides a simple, convenient but poisonous frame that, for some, makes sense.

Would the transformation of Israel from a belligerent warmonger to a paragon of peace make a difference to anti-semitism in Europe? Perhaps. Its actions can influence the ebbs and the flows. Ultimately, however, rooting out anti-semitism is a problem for politics here. Blaming Israel is easy. The hard work is putting into place policies that tackle the root causes of racism, whatever forms it assumes and from wherever it comes.

Monday 28 July 2014

Palestinians and Intersectionality

Shamelessly ripped from here. Raises some interesting questions for carriers of "Israelis stop killing Palestinians, Palestinians stop killing queers" placards.


Eight questions Palestinian queers are tired of hearing
July 25, 2014

You might think that the main goal of a group of queer activists in Palestine like us in Al-Qaws should be the seemingly endless task of dismantling sexual and gender hierarchy in one’s own society.

It is. But you might think otherwise, judging from the repetitive questions we get during our lectures and events, or from inquiries we receive from media and other international organizations.

We intend to end this once and for all. Educating people about their own privilege is not our burden. But before we announce our formal retirement from this task, here are the eight most frequent questions we get, and their definitive answers.

1. Doesn’t Israel provide Palestinian queers with a safe haven?

Of course it does: the apartheid wall has sparkly pink doors lining it, ready to admit those who strike a fabulous pose. In fact, Israel built the wall to keep Palestinian homophobes out and to protect Palestinian queers who seek refuge in it.

But seriously: “Israel” creates refugees; it does not shelter refugees. There has never been a case of a Palestinian — a descendant of a family or families who were forcibly displaced, sometimes massacred, often thrown in jail without charge — magically transcending the living legacy of this history to find him or herself granted asylum in “Israel” — the state that committed these atrocities.

If some people manage to cross the wall and end up in Tel Aviv, they are considered “illegal.” They end up working and living in horrible conditions, trying to avoid being arrested.

2. Aren’t all Palestinians homophobic?

Are all Americans homophobic? Of course not. Unfortunately, Western representations of Palestinians, particularly lesbian, gay, transgender or queer Palestinians, tend to ignore diversity in Palestinian society.

That being said, Palestinians are living under a decades-long military occupation. The occupation amplifies the diverse forms of oppression that are experienced in every society.

However, homophobia is not the way we contextualize our struggle. This is a notion comes from specific type of activism in the global north.

How can we single out homophobia from a complex oppressive system (patriarchy) that oppresses women, and gender non-conforming people?

3. How do you deal with your main enemy, Islam?

Oh, we have a main enemy now? If we had to single out a main enemy that would be occupation, not religion — Islam or otherwise.

More fundamentalist forms of religion are presently enjoying a global resurgence, including in many Western societies.

We don’t view religion as our main exceptional challenge. Still, increased religious sentiment, regardless of which religion, almost always creates obstacles for those interested in promoting respect for gender and sexual diversity.

Palestinian nationalism has a long history of respect for secularism. This provides a set of cultural values useful in advocating for LGBTQ Palestinians.

Furthermore, religion is often an important part of Palestinian LGBTQ people’s identities. We respect all of our communities’ identities and make space for diversity.

4. Are there any out Palestinians?

I’m glad you asked that question. We have great Palestinian gay carpenters who build such amazing closets for queers with all the Western comforts you can dream of — we never want to leave.

Once again the notion of coming out — or the politics of visibility — is a strategy that has been adopted by some LGBT activists in the global north, due to specific circumstances. Imposing this strategy on the rest of the world, without understanding context, is a colonial project.

Ask us instead what social change strategies apply to our context, and whether the notion of coming out even makes sense.

5. Why are there no Israelis in al-Qaws?

Colonialism is not about bad people being mean to others (“bad” Israelis don’t steal queer Palestinians’ lunch money). Being super “good” doesn’t magically dissolve systems of oppression.

Our organization works within Palestinian society, across borders imposed by the occupation. The challenges that LGBTQ Israelis face are nothing like the ones faced by Palestinians.

We are talking about two different societies with different cultures and histories; the fact that they are currently occupying our land doesn’t make us one society.

Moreover, being queer does not eliminate the power dynamic between the colonized and colonizer despite the best of intentions.

We resist the “global, pink, happy, gay family” sentiment. Palestinian-only organizing is essential to decolonizing and improving Palestinian society.

6. I saw this film about gay Palestinians (Invisible Men/Bubble/Out In The Dark, etc.) and I feel I learned a lot about your struggle

You mean the films that were made by privileged Israeli or Jewish filmmakers portraying white Israelis as saviors and Palestinians as victims that needed saving?

These films strip the voice and agency of Palestinian queers, portraying them as victims that need saving from their own society.

Moreover, these films rely on racist tropes of Arab men as volatile and dangerous. These films are simply pinkwashing propaganda, funded by the Israeli government, with a poignant oppressed/oppressor love story the glitter on top.

If you want to learn about the reality of our community and our struggle, try listening to what queer Palestinians have to say, at the Al-Qaws or Palestinian Queers for BDS websites.

7. Isn’t fighting for gay rights a more pressing issue than pinkwashing?

Mainstream LGBT groups in the North would have us believe that queers live in a separate world, only connected to their societies as victims of homophobia.

But you cannot have queer liberation while apartheid, patriarchy, capitalism and other oppressions exist. It’s important to target the connections of these oppressive forces.

Furthermore, pinkwashing is a strategy used by the Brand Israel campaign to garner the support of queers in other parts of the world. It is simply an attempt to make the Zionist project more appealing to queer people.

This is another iteration of a familiar and toxic colonial fantasy — that the colonizer can provide something important and necessary that the colonized cannot possibly provide for themselves.

Pinkwashing strips away our voices, history and agency, telling the world that Israel knows what is best for us. By targeting pinkwashing we are reclaiming our agency, history, voices and bodies, telling the world what we want and how to support us.

8. Why do you use terms from “the West” like LGBT or queer to describe your struggle? How do you answer that critique?

Though we have occasionally been branded as tokenized, complicit with Israel, naïve and Westernized (by those based in the West), our activists bring decades of experience and on-the-ground analysis of cultural imperialism and Orientalism.

This has provided the raw material for many an itinerant academic. However, the work of those in the Ivory Tower is rarely, if ever, accountable to those working in the field nor does it acknowledge its power (derived from the same colonial economy) on activists.

We are accountable to our local communities and the values developed over years of organizing.

Language is a strategy, but it does not eclipse the totality of who we are and what we do. The words that have gained global currency — LGBTQ — are used with great caution in our grassroots movements. Simply because such words emerged from a particular context and political moment does not mean they carry that same political content when deployed in our context.

The language that we use is always revisited and expanded through our work. Language catalyzes discussions and pushes us to think more critically, but no word whether in English or Arabic can do the work. Only a movement can.

Ghaith Hilal is a queer Palestinian activist from the West Bank who has been part of Al-Qaws leadership since 2007.

System Amoebae adds

There is a hell of a lot to learn here, for activists around the world. Not just about Palestine, but about how everyone approaches particular oppressions. This critique of activism in the global north should be used to examine how we should focus on root causes: patriarchy and capitalism (and different types of apartheid where applicable) — remembering that CAPITALISM is a crucial part of that. Expanding the concept of patriarchy out from how it’s typically come to be used (men holding power over women) and linking it with capitalism in its broader sense is important as well.

Overcoming our Western, identity-based conceit should be high up on our list of ‘things to do’ as activists of any kind.

Sunday 27 July 2014

Lauren Goodger: Against Revenge Porn

Another Sunday, another case of celebrity revenge porn. This time Lauren Goodger from The Only Way is Essex is the victim and the piece itself is said to be a six second clip of her performing "a sex act". You don't need a particularly filthy imagination to work out what that might be. The alleged culprit is apparently an ex-partner, Goodger's "co-star".

As I've argued before, 'revenge porn' is something of a misnomer. Porn, regardless of content, is performed by willing participants who also consent to its dissemination. Performers might be professional and do it for payment, or amateurs giving it a go for kinky kicks. Revenge porn on the other hand misses one or both elements of consent and therefore is a form of sexual assault. In Goodger's case this is doubly so as she has not consented to the clip's circulation, and wasn't aware she was being filmed.

There have been calls to make "revenge porn" illegal, and I broadly agree for the following reasons. It is a form of sexual bullying. Regardless of whether the victim is a woman or a man its sole intention is to shame, degrade, and humiliate. As things on the internet have a tendency to stick around forever revenge porn is calculated to damage the victim now and, crucially, in the future. It can destroy careers, wreck life chances, and poison relationships. It already has - there's plenty of testimonial evidence to back it up. As far as this case goes, a celebrity like Goodger might weather her assault in terms of future career - as unpleasant and deeply hurtful it feels at the moment - but others not in the public eye will be as fortunate. And let's also be realistic about this. While men are and will continue being victims of revenge porn, it's women bearing the brunt of it. Revenge porn is very much part of the slut-shaming subculture that's everywhere, from casual internet misogyny to a continuing blockade and occupation. Leaving it unhindered is basically giving the reduction of women to objects, to sexual latrines a cultural free pass. 

Western culture has a screwed up, confused, and confusing attitude to sex. In Britain, it's best summed up by the two conservative papers who scream loudest about morality and family values. The Sun and The Mail also happen to, respectively, publish half-naked photos of women and revealing snaps of under age celebrity offspring. At the root of it all is our cultural understanding of sexuality, of how it somehow speaks to the truth of our character, that finding out what one gets up to in the bedroom and with whom is the reference point for the quality of their soul. Most of us treat our own sexual behaviour this way too. Yes, people do talk about their sex lives with friends and acquaintances, especially when you're young, but it is mostly done so from a position of control, of revealing tidbits in terms of managing the self. It's frequently abused. Indiscretion about sexual partners is the stuff of gossip, but that tends not to carry too far. Revenge porn is different. Because sex and quality of character is so bound up, wilfully exposing someone else's body and what they like to do with it is charged with psychological damage, made worse by the betrayal of trust it implies. And thanks to the wonderful sexual hypocrisy we live with, it is the victim who is blamed for allowing the photos or film to be taken, not the perpetrator who uploads and shares those intimate moments with the world.

Revenge porn is a type of sexual assault. Time for considered action to be taken against it.

Saturday 26 July 2014

Saturday Interview: Louise Whittle

Louise Whittle, blogs under HarpyMarx, has been involved in leftie politics for nearly 30 years. Socialist feminist, currently working for the rat race, trade unionist and overall activist. Likes art, film, photography and drinking cocktails. You can follow Louise on Twitter here

- Why do you blog?

Remember couple of years ago someone said to me that blogging was purely about narcissism. Possibly there’s an element to that but for me it’s kinda about highlighting and exposing issues that have an impact on people, which don’t always get the attention they deserve. People who are experiencing the sharp end of austerity. Also, blogging about things that take my fancy plus personal/political experiences from feminism to mental health to film reviews. I like to write about a whole raft of stuff ...

I think this sums up blogging for me.

- What has been your best blogging experience?

I suppose it was at the G20 protests in London in 2009 when I happened to take a photo of a woman activist at the front of the kettle at Bank of England, her arms were outstretched and facing a line of tooled-up cops. I was standing behind her and I thought, in that split second, that this would make a powerful image. Minute or so after I took that pic cops decided to attack. It gave me that first hand experience of citizen blogging. Plus the photo being short-listed for the 2010 European Women’s Lobby photo competition regards to World Visions of Feminism in the 21st Century.

- What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger?

Don’t take it too seriously, have fun and make sure your comments moderation is on.

- Is blogging different now from when you started?

Seems to be fewer blogs now. Maybe wrong but looks like it.

- Why do you tweet?

Used to tweet more but all this social media stuff is losing its appeal a tad. If I do it’s concerning my blog posts or retweeting, ‘The Fucking Cat’ ...

- Who are your intellectual heroes?

Past or present? Present ... Lynne Segal, Sheila Rowbotham, Angela Davis, Barbara Ehrenreich, Southall Black Sisters, Steven Rose.... Past? Too many to include.

- What are you reading at the moment?

The Failed Experiment by Andrew Fisher. Excellent book btw.

- What was the last film you saw?

American Hustle, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Somos lo que hay (We Are What We Are) ... It was a movie night!

- What is the best novel you've ever read?

I dunno. Don’t think I have. Have read lots of great novels I don’t have a best one.

- Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

No, not really ... I mean, things develop and evolve over time. I’ve not had a ‘road to Damascus’ experience.

- How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Probably four ... Mists of time has an impact on the memory. International Socialist Group (ISG), Socialist Alliance, Labour Party and Labour Representation Committee.

- What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate?

Always be on the side of the oppressed.

- What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat?

No one philosophical thesis needs to be combatted. Various ideologies need to be combatted.

- Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major and lasting influence on how you think about the world?

Not just one but three... Not in Our Genes by Steven Rose et al, Is the Future Female by Lynne Segal and Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels

- Who are your political heroes?

John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, Katy Clark ... Ordinary people who take on the state whether it is a death in custody, workplace, mental health setting and so on. Activists organising and challenging the attacks on the benefits system, workfare, tax evasion/avoidance. Disability rights activists and mental health user movement activists too. Really admire the work Kate Belgrave has done highlighting the injustice towards people on benefits. Also trade union activists who organise in the workplace. They are the unsung ordinary political heroes who do it to make a difference, expose injustice and oppression.

- How about political villains?

Usual bourgeois suspects...New Labour, Tories, UKIP, Britain First ... LibDems.

- What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Where to be begin? Nationally? Globally? Confront the ideology that is bound up with austerity such as racism. If we don’t, then we are a heading towards reactionary times, scapegoating specific groups of people and we know from history where that leads us ...

- If you could affect one major policy change, what would it be?

One? I can’t prioritise ...

- What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

Western imperialism ... as usual with their interventions, occupations and proxy wars.

- What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

Say what you mean, mean what you say ...

- What is your favourite song?

I don’t have one. Have a collection of favourite songs.

- What do you consider the most important personal quality?

Humour ...

- What personal fault do you most dislike?

No sense of humour ...

- What, if anything, do you worry about?

Where to begin ... List is endless. Job security (personal level), austerity (personal and on a global level), mental distress, oppression and discrimination. What’s happening in Gaza is just so tremendously anger inducing. Free Gaza!

- What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Don’t worry! Always have a sense of humour and build that self-confidence/esteem. Go to art college

- What do you like doing in your spare time?

Photography, drawing, reading and watching endless television and DVDs. Cinema visits.

- What is your most treasured possession?

A photo (which is the only one I have) of me when I was 5.

- Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Too many to tell. Sad that How I Met Your Mother has ended.

- What talent would you most like to have?

Play the piano.

- If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true, what would you wish for?

Permanent contract (though that is wishful thinking ...)

- How, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

Bigger house, indoor swimming pool, gym room, then give the rest to grassroots campaigning organisations and cat charities.

- If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Groucho Marx, Marilyn Monroe and Lotte Lenya.

- Socialism: will you live to see it?

I suspect not ...

Friday 25 July 2014

Nick Griffin on Question Time

Not that it really matters any more, but the BNP deposed Nazi Nick this week and replaced him with an idiot who goes round in an army uniform "in solidarity" with British troops. As Griffin bows out of the limelight to spend more time with his money worries, here's the seminal Question Time moment of 'peak BNP' from 2009.

You can watch the rest here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday 24 July 2014

Fifty Shades of Grey

The trailer for the much anticipated Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation touched down today. Looks stylish. Due for release on Valentine's Day next year, it's getting billed as a "romantic drama". That's like describing Ron Jeremy as "an actor". Whatever. Fifty Shades is a proven literary juggernaut, with some 60 million books sold. Not bad for a trilogy that began life as Twilight fan fiction. And as I was busy doing anything but blogging when the books came out, the trailer's release is the perfect opportunity to belatedly throw down some words.

First off, snooty reviews like Salman Rushdie's and Julie Bosman's spectacularly miss the point. It makes no literary pretensions. EL James wasn't fishing for the Booker or the Orange prize when she wrote it. As a piece of fan fiction it was conceived and written as simple wanking fodder. James used her appropriated characters to explore kinky sex, BDSM and other fantasies she may or may not have. It has always been thus since the earliest days of the internet. The written word is a powerfully erotic but safe way of working through fantasies, in this case with the support and feedback of anonymous and semi-anonymous communities of fans. James's pieces grew because, for whatever reason, her work was passed around, read, and - ahem - used, more than her contemporaries. If you were getting great feedback about your naughty stories, wouldn't you try your hand at a book-length helping of filth?

I know what the literary snobs have in mind when they approach Fifty Shades. James would have had to turn something in like the erotic masterpiece, Delta of Venus. Making such a comparison is stand up ridiculous. Delta is a work of literary fiction. Its eroticism lies in the careful construction and corruption of believable characters, and their negotiation of scenarios involving old taboos around homosexuality and threesomes as well as problematic explorations of incest, abuse, and rape. Nin's collection speaks to sexualities repressed by the times and invites her readers to binge on an orgy of possibility, of letting the libido go and indulging all its fantasies, including (especially including) those dark places no one dared to speak of. All very disturbing and thought-provoking, but that's not where James wanted to go. Such comparisons are as facile as comparing Andy McNab to Leo Tolstoy, as opposing Dan Brown with Umberto Eco. James merely wishes to turn her readers on. Just as McNab and Brown want to thrill and puzzle theirs.

Dialogue and characterisation set the scene and fill the bits before and after erotic encounters. While the term "mummy porn" is problematic for all kinds of reasons, porn is what Fifty Shades most definitely is. Consider your average blue movie. Where they do have some sort of plot, it is almost entirely superfluous to the action that follows. It might establish the parameters of the situation (doctor/patient, teacher/pupil, cop/wrong 'un) to link in with the fantasies of the viewer, but they are relatively brief . Anything not to do with sex is merely filler. Fifty Shades operates on similar principles - scene setting, bonking, scene setting, more bonking, dialogue and development, yet more bonking. And the scenes themselves are written functionally from Ana Steele's perspective. While James fixates on the sex, it's not quite as crude as a crotch shot scene might be. This, for me, is one hook of James's writing. For Ana, sex, sub-play and BDSM (which is merely hinted at in the first book) are part of her process of sexual self-discovery. Christian Grey isn't just a beguiling billionaire with a penchant for kinky fucking, Ana wants him (and has him) as her first. For millions of James's readers part of the erotic charge is the connection between the broadening of the character's sexual horizons and their own early awakenings. It evokes that lost sense of excitement, of when everything was new, fresh, of that time when readers were at it like rabbits with their new and equally enthusiastic boyfriends and girlfriends. What James builds, especially for her core readership of 30/40-something women, is sexual nostalgia, of hot memories long since buried beneath the routine of the weekly fumble and occasional "alone-time". For large numbers of women, Fifty Shades is a welcome tonic.

All just good clean filthy fun? The characterisation isn't great, but that's not a problem in and of itself. It's just a means to a rather naughty end. Yet I'm not the first and I won't be the last to note the troubling gender politics underpinning the book. This owes something to its roots in Twilight, a tired and thankfully out-of-fashion reworking of the damsel-in-distress trope - but with vampires. Give me Buffy any day. However, James is not a prisoner of convention. Her protagonists did not have to be a naive, virginal young woman barely into adulthood, or a worldly-wise, brooding but mysterious billionaire who sweats masculinity. Ana didn't have to be the supplicant, the tool and foil of Christian Grey's sexuality. And yet she is, and this is James's second clever move. 

As problematic the gender dynamics are, the relationship suffuses femininity's conventional subordination to masculinity with a sexual charge. Not every woman wants to be a princess, but gendered messages of that character bombard girls even before their infant minds awaken to consciousness. James's female readers are intimately acquainted with the domineering shadow of the masculine other, even if they consistently resist and reject the dependency it inculcates. Fifty Shades embraces that relation. The constant evocation of Ana's "inner goddess" when Grey is stoking and sating her desires affirms yin and yang gender essentialism, that knowing herself, finding herself, even discovering the pleasures of her own body is possible only by giving herself over to the powerful man. James here has provided an erotics of submitting to male domination. Power play is common in sex games, and by tying it to rather traditional but deeply embedded gender relations James allows her readers to experience its sexual power filtered through the intimate familiarity with growing up a girl.

Then comes the final move at the end of the first novel. There are glimpses of Grey's troubled past, and in the end Ana resists his will to make her his sexual receptacle. Yet she wants to save him. As his outward composure of mystery and demand for control dissolve with some mental disarray, the reader realises long before Ana does that he is equally as needy, that despite himself he can only become the settled man he affects to be if he truly shares with another. It's fairy tale stuff by way of riding crops, blow jobs, and sex in lifts, but provides a conventional narrative, one that is - despite the sex - quite conservative and totally unthreatening. Fifty Shades doesn't have the sophistication and nuance of literary eroticism, but its author's black and white play with the libidinal energies tied up in gender relations connects it to an audience of a size most writers can but dream.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Detoxifying the Liberal Democrats

Speaking of the LibDems, what are we to make of the party's about-turn on the bedroom tax? Whole-hearted penance or are more cynical motives at work? I'm sure readers won't be shocked if the truth lies closer to the latter pole than the former, but it begs the question. With up to two-thirds of the Parliamentary party looking to have an abrupt career change after May next year, what kind of strategy should the LibDems pursue to avoid outright catastrophe?

If there is one thing they can take from the coming disaster, next year's results are likely to be "trough LibDem". It cannot get much worse. The problem is that the brick wall is coming, the collision is inevitable - but there are things that can be done to ease off on the accelerator. And signalling opposition to the hated bedroom tax is just one of those late-in-the-day things. To detoxify they need to put clear water between themselves and a Tory party whose nastiness is matched only by their determination to drag Britain down the plug hole.

As anyone who's sought therapy will tell you, saying you're going to change is easy. Carrying it through is something else. Courtesy of Labour, the bedroom tax is to be the subject of another Commons vote in the autumn. Here's the chance for the LibDems to act according to their conscience. Will they?

It has all the makings of a political crisis. For the Tories the bedroom tax is a point of principle: they believe it's popular (it isn't, and opposition is hardening) and will fight tooth and nail to retain it as part of their Dickensian assault on the poor. So Clegg has a choice: to take the coalition to the wire and potentially break it, or take the first significant step to detoxification. For let there not be any doubt. Just as breaking manifesto promises on tuition fees did the LibDems, so a heroic stand, of putting principles before eight months longer in ministerial seats could help them turn that corner, and make a deal with Labour a wee bit less unpalatable should the electorate gift Westminster a hung Parliament again.

From here flows further political opportunities. The lead up to the election introduces a new dynamic into the mix and one so-called professional commentators still haven't picked up on. That is two parties will be scrapping over their record in government. Already, of the coalition the LibDem narrative is one of tempering the Tory party's worst impulses, of trading acquiescence to bad things as the price of some "good things". The LibDems here would point to the Pupil Premium, raising of the tax thresholds for the lowest paid, and, yes, the fact students don't have to pay exorbitant fees up front. The backdoor privatisation of the NHS, the work capability assessment debacle, cutting tax for the very richest - the LibDems are rather less keen to be associated with these. However, punting that message between now and next May is easier for the depleted activist pool to deliver if there is demonstrable evidence of change behind it.

There is a clear party interest in pursuing this course, yet I expect Clegg will order his troops to abstain and/or stay away from the Commons. Partly because voting against it makes the parliamentary party look like hypocrites, partly because - actually - some LibDem ministers have relished their time in government and are willing to stay there as long as possible for any price, partly because of the Westminster parlour game - do the LibDems want to be seen falling behind a Labour "stunt"? And lastly, there's Nick's self-interests too. If by the skin of his teeth he hands on in Sheffield Hallam, what future awaits? A return to opposition or coalition with Labour limits his prospects somewhat (Tim Farron or an unlikely comeback from Charles Kennedy put pays to that). However, another coalition or confidence and supply arrangement with the Tories might keep him safe.

So then LibDems, what's it to be? The short sharp shock of breaking the coalition over the bedroom tax, or an absolute pummelling later on?

David Ward and Hypocritical Bullshit

Is this what anti-Semitism really looks like?

"Ich bin ein Palestinian", a channeling of liberal hero JFK. And the other, though clumsily expressed, can only be construed as anti-semitic by those who would paint all criticism of Israel as such. And here are some of those construals:

This is so much bullshit, but there is a lesson here.

If you are in the public eye and want to cast an unwelcome light on the criminal activities of the Israeli government, it's not a great idea to lay yourself open to attack by appearing to condone rocket attacks or suicide bombings.

As the member for Bradford East has made clear, raising awareness was precisely his intention. Instead, his clumsiness has allowed the hypocritical lie machine to frame opposition as racist, allowing the targeting and bombing of innocent civilians a free pass instead of putting this gang of war apologists on the spot.

Monday 21 July 2014

War and Sociology

Sociology is a wonderful thing. As the discipline that busies itself with the analysis of social relations you can find it burrowing into everything. It's like the internet. If you can imagine it, sociology's already had a look. Yet some things tend to get looked at more than others. One of these, according to Hans Joas is war. What is it good for? Not ground-breaking leaps in theory and technique, it would seem. War is as extreme a social phenomenon you can envisage. It is the outbreak of sustained collective violence under the direction of a state or semi-state institution against another collective that is or has the potential to be similarly mobilised. War is officially sanctioned violence and, as such, can pass over into episodes of wanton murder and criminality. Joas' argument, however, is that sociology has had comparatively little to say about war. Collective violence within states, yes: riots, political violence, police violence. But war between states? Not so much.

Hold on a minute. Those with a passing acquaintance with classical sociological theory might say "Joas could have a point with the likes of Durkheim and Parsons. The former through the increasing mutual dependency and integration of societies via the division of labour, the latter with the wide acceptance of the normative basis of social order, but what about conflict approaches?" What about them indeed. You could be forgiven for thinking that conflict between social groups, as per Weber-influenced conflict theory; or class struggle and the competitive pursuit of markets as with Marxism might root the causes of war in the 'external' displacement of this violence. The problem is the former does not explain why war exists. The latter, how peace is possible and why warfare is the exception, not the rule of advanced societies.

Joas 2000 book, War and Modernity looks at why contemporary social theory and sociology generally has had problems thinking about and explaining war, and this is partly dues to the lingering influence of liberalism. As a philosophy of freedom, liberalism has long-acknowledged problems recognising systemic inequalities and social conflict because, classically, it limits itself to questions of right and politics solely in relation to public life. I'm not going to elaborate further (done it already, at length, except to note I broadly agree with Joas on liberalism's impact on the social sciences. On the one hand, there is an economic 'tradition' stemming from Adam Smith, a line of argument that believes boosting trade between nations incentivises cross-border relationships, draws societies closer together and renders war increasingly obsolete. The second is the republican (constitutional) tradition stemming from Kant: the notion that as republics (and constitutional monarchies) place sovereignty in the hands of the people, they are less likely to endorse war because they are liable to pay its blood price. War, where it occurs, is a throwback; an eruption of irrationality or backward attitudes. Provided economics and republics could carry on with their civilising mission, there's no reason why war cannot be "outgrown". Joas argues that these assumptions can be discerned in Durkheim and functionalism/systems theory, but infects Marxism as well. For all its formal distancing (and rubbishing) of liberalism, the liberal assumption of order without conflict is transposed onto the socialist future.

Despite casting a long, peaceable shadow on sociological theorising Joas notes liberalism has tooled-up skeletons rattling in the historical closet. The flipside of "peaceful" trade was the theft of land and resources by gunboat and bayonet. The universalism of republican government excused civilising missions and the reduction of colonial subjects to beings unworthy of rights.

That's the heritage. But it's only been allowed to persist in sociology because of the circumstances of its founding. Sociology was institutionalised as an accepted academic discipline in the two decades prior to the First World War. Its homes in Germany, France and the USA were characterised by relatively cohesive societies with a stable state apparatus, the rule of law, and the development of relatively well-integrated national economies. All three were involved in colonial adventures and, in the USA's case, war with Spain. However their participation did not cause social dislocation nor call for a concerted national effort in the way a long-running conflict would, let alone a world war. Sociology then reflected the social reality of the day. War didn't impinge on everyday, run-of-the-mill social relationships (at least at first remove anyway) hence sociology barely touched upon it.

All that is understandable prior to the Great War, but since? Western societies have been profoundly affected by the experiences of global war. Since 1945 European colonial empires have disappeared, and, in the American and British contexts, post-colonial conflict, Vietnam, the Gulf War and the "humanitarian interventions" in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have upped the cultural and political costs of war in the absence of social dislocation at home - perhaps best illustrated regarding current attitudes toward Syria and Ukraine/Russia. Yet over this period, in each and every sociological tradition war is either ignored or regarded as a minority interest. You're more likely to find sociologists writing about virtual wars than actual conflicts. The faddy sociologies of globalisation that emerged in the late 80s were more or less retreads of Adam Smith's arguments. Postmodernism's identity politics sat very much in the Kantian republican tradition, of overcoming social conflict by the recognition of difference and valorisation of the many ways to be human. Of course, this is possible because advanced capitalist countries are largely safe from bombings and military incursions. Yet it still cannot explain why, now that war "elsewhere" fills the news feeds nearly every day, sociology turns a blind eye to it.

The problem is conceptual and theoretical. The big claim of sociology is its attempt to try and explain the world, to lay bare the processes and dynamics underpinning collective behaviour that make social life possible. It's about patterns, order, and great sweeps of social movement over time and across territories. It doesn't like, and is largely allergic to contingency. It has had a great deal of trouble reconciling the theorisation of abstract structures drawn from the observation of collective behaviour with the fact human beings are free-willed, choice-making animals. The tension between structure and agency all too-often dissolves into one side disappearing agency, the other structure. It's the tyranny of the structure vs the tyranny of structurelessness. Yet all social behaviour, all rituals are a blend of mutual conditioning, of dialectical interplay and interdependence - as ably demonstrated in their own ways by Bourdieu and Giddens. The question of war, however, is especially problematic because it is a large-scale set of social processes with structural underpinnings, and yet are radically contingent in a way that can have utterly profound implications for the societies involved. That means it's difficult to pin down a chain of causation in the outbreak of conflicts, because there is no such iron will to war.

As it's the centenary year, look at the causes of the First World War. Who's responsible? Britain declaring war on Germany? The French honouring their obligations to Russia? The Russians declaring for Serbia? The Germans backing Austro-Hungary against Serbia? Serbia for training and funding the Black Hand? Gavrilo Princip's assassination of the Archduke? Or the Archduke's driver for taking a wrong turn? Historians have argued about the efficacy of each of these, and much else besides. Each of these, while building on the preceding set of decisions, were contingent. They were conditioned by the division of Europe into two grand military alliances, and these itself were an outcome of the age of high imperialism, of the division of the world between established and upstart great powers. This context however did not cause the First World War. There was no inexorable inevitability about 1914. The decision-makers all acted rationally according to their perceptions and social knowledge, leading to outcomes that probabilistically increased the likelihood of war, but they had choice within the context of their social universe. They were not passive agents of inter-imperialist rivalries. Rather, war was an outcome of the contingencies the nature of those rivalries threw up.

Let's take a less symmetrical situation: Israel's shelling, bombing and now ground invasion of Gaza. Oppositional analysis of the nature of Israeli society variously emphasise it being a settler state, a land-grabbing state, a project to create a mono-ethnic Jewish state. As colonial in origin, the role of the military in society and willingness to deploy violence against Palestinians is a systemic, structural property of that society. However, those who subscribe to this analysis protest and demonstrate against Israel's actions in defiance of their analysis. Demanding that it stop its attacks on Gaza recognises that there is room for contingency here, that the Israeli government does have a choice. Indeed it does. Israeli society is in a perpetual state of military preparedness. Its politics are so distorted by its continuing commitment to occupying the West Bank and desire to contain Gaza that, internally, there are domestic political incentives for politicians to indulge racist and warmongering rhetoric. Probabilistically, these set of social relations are more likely to lead to war than any other advanced capitalist society, and that is without the specific (and contingent) circumstances of 'normal' Palestinian unrest, peace talks, and Hamas rockets. Decisions matter.

There is no such thing as determination, causation and necessity in sociology: only probabilities. And these probabilities are constantly shifting, moving, bending with the simultaneous weight of interests, conflicts, and contingent social actions. The problem with integrating this into sociological theorising is it's too messy, too banal and, in the case of war and the causes of war, far too close to the domain of International Relations. What's more it's an approach that cannot be spelt out in the abstract, except for some basic methodological rules of thumb. The play of pattern and contingency, of structure and agency can only be realised in close empirical study. Perhaps this unwillingness to read events as opposed to canonised texts is the real root of sociology's aversion of things war-related.

Saturday 19 July 2014

Dark Globe - Break My World

The disco's ringing out with melancholy beats tonight. Break My World is 10 years old, but its video has that haunting, contemporary quality that presents as timeless whenever thousands are perishing under a hail of bombs and shells.

Friday 18 July 2014

On the "Obsession" with Israel and Palestine

I think James Bloodsworth has been unfair locating the opposition to Israel's bombing and invasion of Gaza in the matrix of revolutionary identity politics. Yes, in the fractured universe of British radicalism the Israel/Palestine conflict is an occasion for position-taking, and, as with nearly all positions assumed, be it war in the Middle East, the attitude to Labour, or whether capitalism has been restored in China, they are a locus for identity work. However, it is a mistake to say this determines opposition to Israel. Their "obsession" derives neither from freaks of character nor unacknowledged anti-semitism: it's because mainstream politics recognises, treats and privileges the Israel/Palestine conflict as a strategic priority in ways other persistent conflicts are not. It matters to the left because official society says it matters.

Think about it for a moment. At Labour conference this September there will be, as every year, a huge queue lining up outside the Labour Friends of Palestine meeting. If you go from there to the Labour Friends of Israel gathering, it will be as easily packed. It's worth noting as well that respective memberships do not divide along "tradtional" left/right lines. Likewise, if it's only a matter of lefty identity politics, why are some 80% of Tory MPs members of Conservative Friends of Israel? Like Labour, the LibDems have friendly societies that support either side. The conflict is an issue that goes right to the heart of politics. Why?

Peter Oborne (linked above) is right to mention the deep and abiding links between the Tories and early 20th century proponents of Zionism, but these are as rooted in the Labour Party too. There is a legacy of war guilt hanging over mainstream politics too. Allied governments closed their borders to Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They also knew about the death camps, but chose not to say anything until they were liberated. And they had the capacity to disrupt Hitler's murder factories, but for whatever reason decided not to. There is a historical debt, and supporting the Jewish state is, for some, the contemporary equivalent of 'never again'. The moral case for Israel, drawing as it does from the historical experience of systematic genocide is the wellspring for moral opposition to it as well. Being walled off, subsisting in open air prisons, having land and water resources stolen, demolishing Palestinian property and launching military assaults as collective punishment, if these were the policies of any other state - particularly perceived enemies - its actions would be thoroughly criticised and condemned. As a state founded by victims of industrialised killing, to see successive Israeli governments dole out ethnic cleansing is as awful an irony that can be conceived.

On no other foreign policy issue does historical debt and double standards feature so prominently. Yet it is far from all. The eternal place Israel/Palestine occupies in the political imagination is all about geopolitical interests. The Middle East's oil reserves are the key lynchpin of the global order organised around the international hegemony of a (declining) US, and for Europe the Suez Canal remains an arterial shipping route. The great game of maintaining regimes friendly to perpetuating the status quo is the core concern for the State Department and Whitehall. It's so ingrained in political common sense that few, if anyone, finds the official concern for what happens there and the West's right to intervene diplomatically or militarily, strange. For instance, few would bat an eyelid if Britain proposed to sponsor talks aiming at ending the current round of violence in Israel/Palestine, Syria or Iraq. But if Brazil or China were to, that's weird if not vaguely threatening. Similarly, geopolitically Israel is an ally of US and British interests. The very existence of Israel has presented a destabilising face to the Arab dictatorships and absolutist monarchies. In foreign policy terms, Israel has proven itself to be a convenient meat shield behind which American interests can hide. The wars against Israel, the deep antipathy felt toward it across the region, often times Israel has proven a useful scapegoat by authoritarian rulers who, if anything, are greater supplicants of US interests. Is it also worth noting Israel is a ready market for armaments?

There are good reasons, and there are real reasons. The third axis of interest lies with the political effects supporters of Israel and Palestine have here in Britain. On the one hand, Israel spends big money promoting its right to existence, of making allies and friendships, of organising tours and establishing relationships between organisations here and organisations there (Labour Friends of Israel, for instance, is directly linked with the Labor Party of Israel). Politicians of all parties cultivate wealthy, Jewish backers for funds - a cultivation helped by their membership of the appropriate friendship organisation. And so on. Just so there is no misunderstanding, there is nothing especially "shadowy" or sinister about this, as anti-semitic conspiracy-mongers maintain. All states use whatever means they can to lobby for their interests. Consider the numerous Anglo-Soviet friendship committees of the Cold War, or the gaggle of transatlantic societies promoting America's bountiful virtues. Guess what, Britain does exactly the same thing overseas too. Israel have a finely-tuned PR and lobbying machine that has served successive governments well. It has helped create a political-material advantage in being seen to be a friend.

No such advantage accrues to Palestinians. Except the antipathy toward Israel transfers from Arab lands to Muslim populations here. Accounts of life under siege, land-grabbing, casual brutality, humiliation, and murder have long travelled from mainstream mosque to mainstream mosque as Palestinian speakers work the circuit. The tragedy of the Palestinians cleaves deep into British Muslim identities, whether Arabian or not. The oppression suffered by co-religionists is something all Muslims can rally around. It underwrites the experience of racism and Islamophobia in the West, is an in-your-face reminder that as far as the powers-that-be are concerned, the lives of Palestinians count for less than Israelis. This too impacts on our politics, consistently assisting the politicisation of Muslim kids (if not Islam as a religion), and integrates Muslim communities into the pro-Palestinian sections of the labour and/or anti-war movements. How many British Muslim supporters of Israel have you met?

So no. The centrality of the Israel/Palestinian conflict is not a quirk of political culture, or an indifference to horrible things happening elsewhere. It has deep cultural and material roots spanning across communities, politics, government departments, and perceived geopolitical interests. That is why it is well-covered, written on, and furiously argued over. It has a unique place because it has a unique place. What-abouting will not do. To make the situation mundane is to work toward a positive, peaceful solution.

Thursday 17 July 2014

Why Was the Malaysian Airliner Shot Down?

What a barbaric week. The appalling suffering inflicted on the open air prison that is Gaza, of which more another time. Then there has been a ratcheting up of the conflict in Ukraine as the government offensive grinds down and routs its pro-Russian breakaways. Now, it's taken an altogether darker turn: the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger jet with the deaths of some 300 people over the skies of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic. Amid the tragedy is the pinning of blame. The Ukraine government say they didn't do it, and lack the capability. Russia do have the means, but not the motive and claim it's nothing to do with them. And there are the rebels themselves, who are also playing the denial game.

Najib Razik, the Malaysian prime minister has called for an immediate investigation. And as the passenger manifest is likely to reveal many people from many nations, the pressure for a thorough probe will be irresistible.

Facts have to be established. But already, there has been this:

The statement, from a Colonel Igor Strelkov of the DPR, according to The Interpreter, translates as:
In the area of Torez, we have just shot down an AN-26 airplane, it is scattered about somewhere by the Progress coal mine.

We warned them - don't fly 'in our sky.'

Here is a video confirmation of the latest 'bird drop.'

The bird fell beyond the pit refuse heap, it did not damage the residential sector.

Civilians were not hurt.

There is also information about a second downed airplane, apparently an SU.
It's unclear whether Strelkov was referring to the earlier shooting down of two Ukraine air force combat craft, or the passenger jet. Either way, the statement has since been deleted.

It is difficult to shoot down a jet cruising at an altitude of 10,000 metres. Despite the denials, Ukraine has the fighter craft capability of doing so. And Russia are supplying the separatists with military hardware. Neither side benefits from this tragedy, and in all likelihood it was an awful, awful case of mistaken identity.

Yet what is deeply worrying is why passenger jets were still flying over a warzone that had seen action in the air. Incompetence or commercial expediency? The families of the victims need to know not who is responsible for the death of their loved ones, but how and why they were allowed to be put in harm's way.