General


(To the tune of Elton John’s Candle in the Wind)

Good bye, Ariel,
Didn’t need to keep us waiting, though.
You had the front to say ‘Well done!’
When the blood began to flow.
They sought refuge in the darkness,
So you said: ‘Turn on the lights!’
And your signature was a cut throat
With two eyes that died of fright.

And it seems to me you met your end
Like a crap Arriva train,
When some light rain outside Pontypridd,
Makes it two hours late again.
And I cannot help but notice,
Now that you’ve pissed off at last,
That a quiet death in hospital,
Doesn’t suit your blood-soaked past.

Ariel, you’re in luck,
The media don’t care at all,
They’ve pre-ordered enough whitewash,
To put ten coats on Whitehall.
They’ll say ‘He was controversial,
But, in the end, a man of peace.’
That’s to say ‘He was a scumbag,
But he was our scumbag, at least.’

I wish I could say, now you’ve shot through,
Everything will surely change,
But we both know that you’re no one-off,
You’re part of the standard range.
Your death doesn’t end an era,
no new time does it begin,
but, on balance, it’s still nice to know
that you’ve gone off oxygen.

I just finished reading Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some.

On the positive side, Greenwald provides a highly detailed account of the degree to which political and media élites have, particularly in the past decade, openly embraced the idea that the powerful are above the law, discussing not only the crimes against humanity committed under Bush and Obama, but the crimes of the financial sector, and much more.

However, there are two weaknesses to Greenwald’s account, which are interrelated.

For one thing, he repeatedly claims that the élite embrace of lawlessness dates back to Watergate. Although it is certainly not unusual for liberals to list Watergate as the date of Washington’s fall from grace, it is patently false. Although he mentions the criminality of COINTELPRO, which was revealed at roughly the same time was Watergate (and led to markedly less élite outrage), he only does so in order to provide historical context to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

A true account of élite lawlessness in the US would go back much farther, and include the US slaughter in Vietnam, the refusal to prosecute various economic powerhouses for trading with the Nazis during World War II, the refusal to prosecute Texaco for violating the Neutrality Act during the Spanish Civil War, the US dirty war against Latin America, the fairly regular massacres of striking workers and other political dissidents throughout US history both by and with the approval of top US officials. Nor does he mention that the US has never taken seriously the treaties it has concluded with those less powerful, such as the indigenous population. Indeed, a true account of Greenwald’s thesis – that the powerful in the US are above the law – would require him to go back to the very foundation of the state.

And this is the second problem. In his quest to create an ‘innocence lost’ narrative, he gives the Founding Aristocrats an egalitarian makeover that most of them would have found deeply offensive. Whilst acknowledging, in a cursory nod to historical accuracy, that the system the founders created was based on profound inequalities, he insists that the founders’ ritualistic invocation of the concept of equality was ‘aspirational’ rather than ‘hypocritical’. How a ruling class that regularly opposed popular demands for equality with murderous violence could be said to be ‘aspiring’ to that which they were desperate to combat is a question Greenwald does not address. He mentions Abigail Adams’ statement in her letter to John Adams that ‘every man would be a tyrant if he could’, but only as a set-up for a more general point: he does not inform readers that this was a letter in which Abigail Adams was imploring her husband not to disenfranchise fully half of the population, nor does he mention her husband’s reply, which deserves pride of place in the annals of mansplaining.

Greenwald acknowledges slavery and the disenfranchisement of anyone who was not white and male, but does not mention the property requirements that served to disenfranchise the working class. He quotes James Madison at length, but never mentions Madison’s statement that the purpose of government was ‘to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority’, nor Madison’s distress at the ‘levelling’ tendency in the population, Madison’s term for the fact that the rabble who weren’t allowed a seat at the grand constitutional bargaining table mistakenly believed that all this talk of equality included them.

Indeed, there is not a single aspect of the élite lawlessness that Greenwald eloquently condemns that does not have a parallel in the founding period. Even the foreclosure scandal has its analogue in the founding period: many veterans of the War of Independence came home only to discover that the landlords who had urged them to go off and fight had evicted them and their families for not paying the rent whilst they were away. Popular rebellions demanded debt relief; the founders responded by enacting a constitution that prohibited it.

It is comforting to think that there was some period in which the values we are told this country was founded on were actually taken seriously by those in power. However, it is also bollocks, and as long as we are willing to buy into it, we will always be easy prey for hucksters who promise a return to former glory.

Chile, ¡la alegría ya viene!

Chile, the joy is coming!
- NO Vote campaign jingle

Nos prometieron que llegaría la alegría
pero mintieron, gobiernan pa una minoría.
Nos oprimieron con injusticias cada día,
pero siguieron naciendo hijos de la rebeldía.

They promised us that the joy was coming,
but they lied – they govern for a minority.
They oppressed us with injustices every day,
but the children of rebellions kept being born.

-Vamos, Conspirazión

In the official narrative, Pinochet’s handover of his office to Patricio Aylwin (himself an unabashed supporter of the Pinochet coup), is known as the retorno a la democracia (‘return to democracy’). Painted on walls throughout Chile, however, we find the words Aún vivimos en dictadura (‘We’re still living in a dictatorship’).

In the book discussed in Part I, Chilean social historian Gabriel Salazar explains:

 

Los partidos políticos, golpeados como estaban, flotaron agarrados al vértigo de nuestro movimiento (aunque algunos pretenden convencernos de lo contrario) hasta que llegamos a 1990. Y fue allí entonces, en 1990, cuando, olvidando nuestra laboriosa autonomía y nuestra fuerza, depositamos de nuevo nuestra confianza en la clase política civil…Como si ‘ella’ hubiera sido la ‘gran’ vencedora en la retirada de Pinochet.

Y hemos estado más de 20 años esperando que ‘ella’ mostrara su declamada vena democrática, su supuesta lealtad a la voluntad soberana del pueblo. O por lo menos su profesión de fe nacionalista.

The political parties, beaten as they were, were dragged along by the current of our movement (although some would have us believe otherwise) until we reached 1990. And it was then, in 1990, that, forgetting our hard-fought autonomy and our strength, we once again put our trust in the civilian political class…As if they had been the great victors in Pinochet’s departure.

And we have been waiting for more than 20 years now for them to show their oft-proclaimed democratic credentials, their alleged loyalty to the sovereign will of the people. Or at least their profession of nationalist faith.

(ellipses and emphasis in original)

(more…)

‘Revolution’ (at least the idea of revolution at ‘home’, rather than in Egypt or some other suitably distant part of the world) has probably received more mainstream attention in the past few days than in the past five years, starting with alleged comedian and serial sexual harasser Russell Brand’s remarks in a recent – and fulsomely praised – interview with Jeremy Paxman.

There, and in a subsequent article in the New Statesman, Brand spoke from the hearts of millions (judging from the response he’s received) with statements like:

I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance; I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned. As far as I’m concerned there is nothing to vote for. I feel it is a far more potent political act to completely renounce the current paradigm than to participate in even the most trivial and tokenistic manner, by obediently X-ing a little box.

Total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me, but that’s not on the ballot. Is utopian revolution possible? The freethinking social architect Buckminster Fuller said humanity now faces a choice: oblivion or utopia. We’re inertly ambling towards oblivion, is utopia really an option?

[…]

young people, poor people, not-rich people, most people do not give a fuck about politics.

They see no difference between Cameron, Clegg, Boris, either of the Milibands or anyone else. To them these names are as obsolete as Lord Palmerston or Denis Healey. The London riots in 2011, which were condemned as nihilistic and materialistic by Boris and Cameron (when they eventually returned from their holidays), were by that very definition political.

Further on in the article, Brand recounts his glee at participating in a riot at the turn of the century. The ideas, aspirations, demands, and anger at oppression that make riots like the one he claims to have been involved in, apparently do not merit a mention. Of the people doing the rioting, we only find Brand’s lament that, being a corporate media figure, he was not immediately trusted and embraced as a comrade by people who have every reason to distrust media outlets that routinely lie about them:

“The right seeks converts and the left seeks traitors.” This moral superiority that is peculiar to the left is a great impediment to momentum. It is also a right drag when you’re trying to enjoy a riot.

Much – probably substantially more than Brand’s ideas really deserve – has been said about the vacuous notion of ‘revolution’ that Brand has lately been flogging. Saswat Pattanayak, in Red Monthly, points out that Brand’s actual proposals, to the extent that they are coherent at all, amount to ‘Obama clichés’ such as:

“Heavy taxation of corporations and massive responsibility for energy companies and any companies exploiting the environment…I think the very concept of profit should be hugely reduced.”

As Pattanayak points out, Brand readily concedes interviewer Jeremy Paxman’s false dichotomy of ‘democracy vs revolution’, and adds his own conflation of revolution (a practical matter of overthrowing one power structure and replacing it with a different one) with utopia (literally ‘a place that does not exist’).

This, then, is the quality of thought we are dealing with: An aesthetic enjoyment of ‘disruption’ and ‘chaos’, whatever the cause, and outright contempt for the idea of having principles (which he dismisses as the left’s ‘moral superiority’). An acknowledgement of popular disaffection with a hollowed-out ‘democracy’ that offers at best the illusion of control, harmoniously combined with the ever-present sense that he thinks the whole thing is there for his amusement.

As I noted in a piece I posted yesterday, the only really worthwhile thing about Brand’s intervention is that it allows those of us who have been discussing and working towards actual revolution (not the romanticised chaos that Brand seems to be talking about) to use him as an excuse to talk to a wider audience about what an actual revolutionary project for a decent society would look like. Brand himself is not even a worthy distraction.

Not to be outdone, the New Statesman today published a response that is truly worthy of Brand’s contributions to the debate, a whiff of Scotch-egg flatulence penned by fellow celebrity Robert Webb under the title Russell, choosing to vote is the most British kind of revolution there is.

That title is as good a place to start with as any. First of all, Webb never actually defines what he means by ‘revolution’ anywhere in the piece, except to say that it’s something to do with lopping King Charles I’s head off and that it’s a bad thing that ‘ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder.’

Because I would probably be accused of being too flippant if I were to say that, by his own terms, Webb is saying that voting is the most British way of initiating a bad thing that ends in repression and a diverse tapestry of different ways of murdering large numbers of people in short order, I will note that Webb, like Brand, seems to assume that ‘revolution’ inherently refers to war, such as the Civil War that Webb adduces as proof that ‘the English invented’ revolution in the modern era. It goes without saying that Webb doesn’t notice another equally obvious problem with his reasoning: the idea that the selection of one or another political party that exists within (and supports) the current system, in a manner compliant with the rules of that system, is a sort of revolution (i.e., overthrowing the existing system and putting something else in its place).

If one were feeling pedantic, one might also note that Webb uses ‘British’ and ‘English’ interchangeably, though the error is excusable: What is Britishness if not the combination of Parliamentary Power and the Anglicisation of the Whole Country? One need only ask around in Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Penzance (but it would be best not to do it in Welsh, Gaelic, or Cornish, since the heroic efforts of the Westminster regime over the centuries to eradicate non-Anglo-Saxon languages have largely paid off). Indeed, if the trend towards devolution continues and the popular Scottish independence movement is successful, ‘From Land’s End to John o’ Groats’ may soon enough have to be changed to: ‘From the Isle of Wight to Berwick-upon-Tweed’.

In a similar vein, who gives a toss whether revolution is ‘un-British’? Surely, the question is whether it’s a good idea or not, not whether it fits in with the notion of Britishness we find in the ‘Life in the UK’ test.

But I fear I have already made the mistake of donning SCUBA gear to examine the bottom of a mud puddle.

What substance there is to Webb’s piece is dedicated to announcing and explaining his decision – in response to Brand’s remarks – to re-join the Labour party, because ‘if you want to be a nuisance to the people whom you most detest in public life, vote. And vote Labour.’

And here, alas, yet another problem arises. What if the people I most detest in public life are not David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith, who are at least open and honest about their contempt for the overwhelming majority of the population and their intention to rob them of every bit of hard-fought socioeconomic security they have left, but the likes of Tony Blair and Eds Miliband and Balls, who lead a party that calls itself ‘Labour’ and wraps itself in a long and honourable tradition of workers’ struggles, only to take the wrecking ball to whatever the Tories haven’t destroyed yet?

But these questions probably don’t arise with quite the same urgency for someone who lives on giros with six figures before the decimal rather than three.

The case Webb seeks to make, then, is not just that voting is the supreme expression of people’s power (‘election day is when we really are the masters’), but that voting Labour will benefit ordinary people.

This case he makes as well as anyone could given the available evidence, which is to say, badly.

Webb has harsh words for those who have trouble distinguishing between a beating administered by the Tories and one administered by Labourites:

They are not all the same. “They’re all the same” is what reactionaries love to hear. It leaves the status quo serenely untroubled, it cedes the floor to the easy answers of Ukip and the Daily Mail.

(That would be the Daily Mail that is no more chuffed about Brand’s remarks than Webb is.)

Tellingly, Webb’s evidence for the proposition that the Labourites are clearly different to the Tories is not Aneurin Bevan or Clem Atlee, but Tony Blair. The NHS, trade union rights, and the British social safety net (such as it is) – laurels so old that they have long since petrified – may be the best available evidence that Labour has ever cared about ordinary people, but it seems even Webb knows that none of that would have been enacted if the current mob had been around after the war.

He’s gracious enough to acknowledge that ‘The last Labour government didn’t do enough and bitterly disappointed many voters’, but doesn’t elaborate on the reasons for that disappointment, wisely sensing that it would not help his case to note that the current coalition government did not have to invent their murderous welfare ‘reforms’ from scratch, but were able to build on the destruction already wrought by Blair and Brown. The murderous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which bear Labour’s stamp of approval, are not mentioned even as an aside.

Even the Daily Mail had to admit that the current lot are so right wing that only way to red-bait today’s ‘Labour’ party is to smear Ed Miliband’s dead father. 

Also absent from Webb’s defence of the Labour party is any reference to the policies the Labour leadership have proposed for their next government (a matter to which we will shortly return). Instead, Webb tells us what a Labour government wouldn’t have done:

You specifically object to George Osborne’s challenge to the EU’s proposed cap on bankers’ bonuses. Labour simply wouldn’t be doing that right now.

So, you see, readers, the Labour Party is subjunctively different to the Tories. Webb doesn’t bother us with any further explanation on the matter, though one can certainly be excused for wondering why he is so confident that the party that rewarded the banks that were responsible for the ongoing economic crisis with £500 billion would draw the line at bonuses. In any case, the idea that banks, and not individual bankers, should be rewarded for destroying the economy seems an unlikely rallying cry to say the least.

‘Why’, Webb asks:

do pensioners (many of whom are not poor old grannies huddled round a kerosene lamp for warmth but bloated ex-hippie baby boomers who did very well out of the Thatcher/Lawson years) get so much attention from politicians? Because they vote.

It is true that the over 65s have the highest rate of electoral participation in the UK. According to AgeUK, they also have a 16 % poverty rate (1.8m living below 60 % of the median income after housing costs), and are ‘the biggest group of people on the brink of poverty with 1.2 million on the edge’. Clearly, voting pays – the rent or the electrical bill, but not both at the same time.

And what sort of attention are pensioners getting from Labour, you might ask? Ed Balls has promised to cut pensions as part of an overall intensification of the coalition government’s attack on the welfare state. Webb’s ‘bloated ex-hippie baby boomers who did very well out of the Thatcher/Lawson years’ probably don’t have to worry, but, then, when have they ever had to worry?

But voting Labour will show them. For example, it will show Iain Duncan Smith that he’s been too soft on working people to give them a proper beating such as the one as Shadow DWP Secretary Rachel Reeves has promised.

Hell, these days, Labour can’t even be counted on to stand for the admittedly radical notion that doing a day’s work gives a person the right to get paid.

In short, voting Labour will do bugger-all for the disaffected poor and working class people Brand co-opts in his piece, and Webb dismisses in his.

And so, Webb moves on:

What were the chances, in the course of human history, that you and I should be born into an advanced liberal democracy? […] That we can say what we like, read what we like, love whom we want; that nobody is going to kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured? The odds were vanishingly small.

‘Vanishing’ is a very apt term for the current state of democratic liberties. Let’s have a look at what this paean to advanced (neo-)liberal ‘democracy’ leaves out. We could start with the fact that, whilst saying what we like, reading what we like, and loving whom we want, the NSA and GCHQ are taking copious notes (leading many to remark that they’re about the only government agencies that still listen to ordinary people), and that those copious notes may indeed be used in order to ‘kick the door down in the middle of the night and take us or our children away to be tortured’, perhaps in that bastion of advanced liberal democracy that is the Guantánamo Bay concentration camp. We might further note that, the minute we leave the privacy of our homes (such as it is, see above) to ‘say what we like’, there’s a fairly strong likelihood that agents of the state will show up to exercise their freedom to truncheon, kettle, arrest, and occasionally beat to death whomever they like. And those who make the mistake of being politically active with the wrong name, religion, or skin colour can experience the ultimate in advanced liberal democracy: the control order, which allows the Home Office to put anyone they want in a ‘prison without bars’ without even accusing (let alone convicting) them of a crime, and with little recourse for the person in question (courtesy of the last Labour government, in case anyone’s keeping track).

In closing, Webb writes:

I understand your ache for the luminous, for a connection beyond yourself. Russell, we all feel like that. Some find it in music or literature, some in the wonders of science and others in religion. But it isn’t available any more in revolution.

Leaving aside the fact that revolution is often about things rather less fuzzy than ‘the luminous’, such as food, clothing, and fucking shelter, Webb does not explain why ‘the luminous’, whatever it is, is no longer available in revolution, except to say that

We [sic] tried that again and again, and we know that it ends in death camps, gulags, repression and murder.

This was, of course, just as true of the civil war that leads Webb to remark that the English invented revolution, and of the ‘advanced liberal democracy’ he praises, but Webb does not seem to notice. Instead, he enjoins Brand to ‘read some fucking Orwell’, by which he presumably does not mean to suggest that Brand read the censored foreword to Animal Farm, in which Orwell describes the structurally undemocratic realities underlying Britain’s ‘advanced liberal democracy’.

Brand may not have ‘started the revolution’, as some enthused after the Newsnight interview, but he certainly has unleashed an epic clash of vapidities.

Thinking about the discussions on the Russell Brand/Jeremy Paxman exchange that have taken place over the past few days, I’ve come to the following tentative conclusions:

The fundamental question, to me, is how we on the left use the moment that has been generated by that exchange, by Brand’s remarks and the resonance that some of them had with quite a few people.

Too much of what I’ve seen focusses on Brand himself, often with uncritical adulation because he’s ‘started a conversation’ and admonitions that we should be so grateful to him for starting the conversation that we shouldn’t actually so much participate in whatever conversation that is, but nod reverently and keep our criticisms to ourselves.

This, to me, is fundamentally missing the point, and, more importantly, the opportunity.

We owe Brand nothing. Brand isn’t some member of popular movements who was able to fight his way onto the Beeb to get heard: he’s a celebrity who is in the public eye specifically because of that, and who happened to say a few things that strongly, and validly resonated with a lot of people who are disgusted with the hollowed-out shell that passes for official politics in the age of neoliberalism.

So we’re not beholden to him, and there’s no reason for these discussions to revolve around the underlying idea that he is somehow a (potential) movement leader when, to my knowledge, he’s never really shown any interest in getting involved in grass-roots organising to begin with.

What he is is a walking opportunity to talk to more people about the things that need to be talked about. If there is to be any point to the conversation his remarks to Paxman have started, then it really needs to start with a critical appraisal of the issues raised both by his words and proposals (such as they have been) and his behaviour.

There’s much to discuss: Are his proposals, to the extent that they’re concrete enough to comprehend on this level, really revolutionary? What is missing from that that must be included in order to have some hope of building a decent society? How can we best overcome the impulse to declare certain people ‘movement royalty’? What do the discussions that have arisen over Brand’s repulsively misogynist behaviour tell us about sexism on the left and how best to combat it?

To me, in the end, the left ought to approach the openings and resonances generated by the Brand/Paxman exchange the same way we would approach it if Iain Duncan Smith were to show up pissed at the next question period and drunkenly acknowledge that the government was fully aware that the disability benefit ‘reforms’ were probably going to be murderous, and that there were no actual jobs to be forcing benefit claimants into, and these policies had been pursued specifically with a view to lowering working-class living standards:

AS AN OPENING TO TALK ABOUT WHAT MATTERS.

One of the methods I have come to rely on quite heavily in language learning is the use of translated editions: Basically, I look for a translation of a book I know well (John Grisham’s The Firm and The Shining and Misery by Stephen King are old standbys) in the language I am trying to learn. The underlying idea is that, since I already know what is happening in the story (and sometimes have much of the dialogue memorised), I already know what the book says, and can direct my attention to how - with what words, arranged in what way – it is being said.

My first conscious use of this technique dates back, as it happens, to the first time I took an interest in learning Hungarian. (more…)

Will: Do you play the piano? 
Skylar: A bit. 
Will: Okay, when you look at a piano you see Mozart, right? 
Skylar: I see “Chopsticks.” 
Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play. 
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano? 
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano. 
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour. 
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play. 

- From the film Good Will Hunting (1997)

 

By Way of Introduction

 

I have often been asked how exactly I go about learning a language by people curious about how I could have gained proficiency in such a wide variety of languages. In the following notes, I hope to provide the most detailed answer possible, using examples of languages I am currently studying.

What follows are notes on the methods by which I am learning Finnish, Hungarian, Icelandic, Hindi, Greek, and any number of other current projects that seem worth mentioning in order to illustrate a particular technique or thought process. To be clear, this is not a manual on how others can or should go about learning a language. Although I will try to describe my own methods in enough detail that they could be reproduced by language teachers and/or learners, I haven’t the faintest idea how useful any of the techniques I describe will be to others. (more…)

The reaction in left circles to the recent pronouncements by Deep Green Resistance, elevating bigotry against trans people to the official policy of that organisation has largely been a positive development. In the past week, we have seen a number of members – including one founding member – resign from the group in disgust. In addition, left venues such as the Bluestocking bookshop in New York City, have denied a platform to DGR, explicitly citing their promotion of anti-trans bigotry as the reason for cancelling a DGR representative’s appearance there.

It is heartening to see that so many leftists refuse to grant quarter to bigotry, especially when that bigotry camouflages itself with a faux-feminist discourse. There have been other times.

Predictably, however, there has also been a backlash by defenders not only of the right to spread bigotry against trans people, but of the right to demand that other people accept that bigotry as a leftist, feminist position. Thus, the Bluestocking Facebook page has been flooded with accusations of “McCarthyism” (an ironic charge, coming, as it is, from defenders of a policy and ideology that has long been used to engage in witch hunts against “suspected” trans people). According to defenders of the DGR trans exclusion policy, actions like Bluestocking’s are stifling legitimate debate.

(more…)

1. If someone is implicated who isn’t white: Stigmatise people who aren’t white

2. If someone is implicated who is white: Stigmatise people with disabilities

3. If the US military did it: Ignore it completely

the opposite of what american liberals doRecently, following a discussion about a particularly annoying Facebook meme circling in left-liberal circles of late, C. Derick Varn of The Loyal Opposition to Modernity asked if I would be interested in being interviewed on the subject. I was, and the result was a wide-ranging discussion on the causes and remedies of left malaise in the US, entryism, misogyny, conspiracism, The entire interview, which can be found on the Loyal Opposition blog, is reproduced by permission below. I have added a few links to articles and pages referenced in the discussion, and corrected a few annoying typos that I had overlooked.

I would like to thank Derick for this opportunity. This interview allowed me to articulate quite a few thoughts that had been circling around my mind for a long time, but that I had not previously been able to set down in a cohesive manner. I would also like to thank Emma Rosenthal of Café Intifada, Jinjirrie of Kadaitcha, and Karen MacRae – discussing and working together with them has been a major help in formulating and refining the thoughts you will find below.

(more…)

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