Monday, April 14, 2014

Lewisham's future

[Post updated 15.05.2014 15:53]

Tonight - Tuesday  Tuesday 15 April 2014 - the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign will be holding its AGM. It will start promptly at 7.30 in the Lessof Auditorium* at Lewisham Hospital. Details are here on the campaign's website. I'm not sure I can go, but you should - and here's why.

The Lewisham Hospital campaign has mobilised a large proportion of the local community and had some important victories, saving the A&E and maternity services from the threat of closure, and, through the courts, successfully defeating Jeremy Hunt's un-democratic decisions. These victories have been won by working with Lewisham council and its Labour leadership.

The campaign has also faced defeat, as Hunt responded to his court defeats by pushing through dangerous legislation (Clause 119 of the Care Bill) that would give the government arbitrary powers to overrule local decision-making and close hospitals at will. 38 Degrees put considerable effort into supporting a Lib Dem amendment that would have mitigated the worst aspects of this. However, the Lib Dems moving the amendment were bought off with empty assurances and an offer of a chairmanship of a parliamentary committee. In the event, there were more Tory rebels voting/for the amendment than principled Lib Dems (Leeds' Mark Mullholland was the only Lib Dem voting against Hunt). This leaves Lewisham - and other hospitals across the country - very vulnerable. And the Tories are also moving to "clamp down" on judicial reviews such as that which defeated Hunt, making government even more unaccountable.

Our NHS, locally and nationally, faces other challenges, including outsourcing, privatisation and the burden of inherited toxic PFI debts.

The AGM will vote for its officers and steering committee. There will be an election for the chair, between the incumbent Louise Irvine and challenger John Hamilton**. Irvine has led the campaign up til now, working closely with 38 Degrees. Hamilton is also a Lewisham mayoral candidate for People Before Profit, while Irvine is standing in the European elections for the National Health Action (NHA) Party.

Hamilton's nomination statement starts by attacking Irvine, saying she has "compromised the independence of the campaign by pandering to Labour apologists for PFI". It is true, I believe, that part of the problems faced by Lewisham Hospital have been due to the legacy of bad PFI deals set up under the Labour government. But in my view that does not mean that the campaign should focus its energy on fighting against a Labour council which has defended the hospital. Considering that the accusation against Irvine is that she has been too willing to work with others, the final words of Hamilton's nomination statement seem ironic: "Sectarianism will be our undoing." Indeed.

In the elections for the steering committee, there are several candidates associated with the Labour Party and NHA. My understanding is that they have worked well together, although they will be in different corners in the Euro electoral race in May. Broadly speaking, my sense is that these candidates will maintain the campaign in more or less its common form, based on a broad popular local base, while also rising to the new challenges the coming period poses. I think this probably includes: Toyin Adeyinka, Tamsin Bacchus, Jos Bell, Carol Brown, Kathy Cruise, Anita Downs, Beverly Ejimofo, Vicky Foxcroft, Louise Irvine, Barry Mills, Staurt Monro, Jill Mountford, Marilyn Murray, Tony O'Sullivan, Vicky Penner, Janet Scott-Philips, Hugh Shrapnel and Barbara Veale.

They will be challenged by People Before Profit candidates (including Hamilton, Cheryl Coyne and Richard Proctor), who I personally would vote against, as I think they would take the campaign in a very divisive, sectarian direction.

I would also vote against candidates from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), whose record has been to destroy almost all the broad-based campaigns they have gone anywhere near. I think Ian Crosson, Mark Dunk and Maggie Palmer are SWP candidates.*** Their strategy motion, calling on the campaign to defend migrant workers' rights, is a good example: while I also oppose "the Government scapegoating migrants, and blaming them for the cuts in the health service", committing a broad-based campaign to this might be seen as a distraction from its core aims.

I write this as something of a spectator rather than activist, so I welcome corrections, comments, disagreements, alternative views.

Short version: if have been a supporter of the Hospital campaign, go along to the AGM tonight and use your vote.


In posts over the next month or two leading up to the Euro, mayoral and local elections on May 22, I hope to post more on both local and national campaigns, including my take on Lewisham's mayor and why I think the NHA party is a bad idea. If you have an idea for a guest post on these topics, get in touch (bobfrombrockley at gmail). Along with other local bloggers, I will be using the hashtag #Lewisham2014 for debate on Twitter.

Finally, I want to note with sadness the passing of Jean Kysow, a great Lewisham activist, at the age of 85. Jean, a Downham resident, will be well known for her role in FELTRA (the Federation of Lewisham Tenants and Residents Associations), Justice for Pensioners, and Defend Council Housing. Jean also stood for the Socialist Alliance and other left groups in local elections over the years. She was a wonderful woman, a larger than life character despite her small size, and a great voice for justice for ordinary people locally and nationally. She will be greatly missed.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

On Brandeis University and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is a guest post by Sarah AB

The headline chosen for Toby Young’s recent Telegraph piece pulls no punches:
The case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali: cowardly Brandeis University capitulates to Islamist pressure
However, I am not sure you have to be an Islamist, or even a Muslim, to find some of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s statements about Islam quite startling. 

Here’s one of her responses to David Cohen, taken from a 2007 interview published in the Evening Standard:
Violence is inherent in Islam – it's a destructive, nihilistic cult of death. It legitimates murder. The police may foil plots and freeze bank accounts in the short term, but the battle against terrorism will ultimately be lost unless we realise that it's not just with extremist elements within Islam, but the ideology of Islam itself.' 
And here's an extract from another interview given in the same year. 

Reason: Do you think Islam could bring about similar [i.e. positive] social and political changes?
Hirsi Ali: Only if Islam is defeated. Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.
Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?
Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace.
Reason: We have to crush the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims under our boot? In concrete terms, what does that mean, “defeat Islam”?
Hirsi Ali: I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. … There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.
Reason: Militarily?
Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed.

Since 2007 Hirsi Ali has expressed herself in more measured terms, and is quite justified in feeling let down by Brandeis University, who should have researched her views more carefully (or stood by their original decision if, as some have suggested, they were in fact aware of her controversial statements.)

And some Muslims (and indeed non-Muslims) do seem intent on introducing blasphemy taboos by the back door, and some – as Ayaan Hirsi Ali herself knows only too well – are driven to violence by those who criticise or mock their religion.

But to question whether Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an appropriate recipient of an honorary degree is not an attack on freedom of speech.  One might be perfectly happy for her to speak at the university, to share her views in a debate – yet have misgivings about seeing those views formally and flatteringly endorsed. 

Toby Young seems to confuse the issues of free speech and endorsement here:
Whether you agree with Hirsi Ali's Manichean view of Islam, she's entitled to express it without being bombarded with death threats or accused of "Islamophobia" which, in this context, amounts to "hate speech" since it's precisely that charge that has led to threats on her life. You would think that an American university would be a staunch defender of Hirsi Ali's right to free speech and wouldn't capitulate to a mob of politically correct Muslims at the first sign of trouble. If the same institution had offered an honorary degree to Richard Dawkins, it's simply inconceivable that it would change its mind after being attacked by Christians.
Of course she is entitled to express her views without receiving death threats, but Toby Young seems to be trying to chill our speech a little by insinuating that criticism of Hirsi Ali amounts to ‘hate speech’ because it might incite others to violence.  Brandeis has said she is still welcome to speak at the university – so it is misleading of Young to imply that it is depriving her of free speech in any way, shape or form.

It is often noted that Islam is not a race, and that people must be free to criticise any ideology.  But Islam isn’t the only idea about which people are passionately protective.  One can imagine that honouring someone with strong pro-life views or a well known supporter of BDS might also spark controversy. 

There need not be any absolute disjuncture between signing up to all the recent secularist causes (most, such as opposition to gender segregation on university campuses, involving Islam) and sympathising with those Muslims who didn’t welcome the decision to honour Hirsi Ali. The problems she identifies and campaigns against are all too real, and do indeed need to be combated resolutely.  But her own recent shift in rhetoric – towards talk of reforming rather than crushing Islam – is itself perhaps an acknowledgement that her earlier approach excluded Muslims who agreed with her on pretty much all substantive points.  Maajid Nawaz is one example – watch his response to her on just this issue here (from about 52:00).

I have seen a comparison made between the Brandeis case and the campaign against Maajid Nawaz (for retweeting Jesus and Mo).  But there is quite a gulf between asserting one doesn’t find a cartoon offensive and declaring that an entire religion is an evil ideology which must be defeated.  I am rather uncomfortably aware that many people I respect are more unambiguously critical of Brandeis’ decision than me – and quite a few of these actively admire Hirsi Ali, without (much) reservation.  I’m also aware that many loathsome people loathe her.  But it shouldn’t be assumed that all of the ‘mob’ (to use Toby Young’s word) who opposed her being honoured will be either extreme or illiberal in their views.

Monday, April 07, 2014

What's wrong with the left, etc (Dead Bloggers Society special edition)

In which, once again, we list some of the things wrong with today's left.

First, Sarah Ditum on why displaying our own liberal cleverness is always a worse strategy than sharing human stories. Ditum exposes the left-liberal intelligentsia's masturbatory performances of smartness as bad politics in a human world, suggesting that such performances won't win people over even when the facts are on our side, as with welfare reform and migration. In relation to migration, this is a point Jill Rutter has made recently too:
"economic arguments will not persuade a sceptical public about the merits of immigration... most of the UK-born do not see immigration in terms of its economic benefits. Most people I interviewed struggled to articulate the benefits that immigration might have brought them, even those from higher income brackets.The economic impacts – for example – on food prices, or fiscally, are abstract and difficult to quantify. At the time of a squeeze on living standards, most people do not ‘feel’ the benefits of immigration to their everyday lives, except on a superficial level in relation to a wider choice in food or cursory gratitude to migrants working in the NHS."
Second up,  Michelle Goldberg on what's wrong with the anti-liberal left: Goldberg analyses the converse, anti-intellectual folly of the new illiberal left and its culture of "repressive tolerance". By this she refers to the use of trigger warningscall-outs and no platforming to deny free expression in the name of some spurious idea of social justice: the politics of the hashtag attack dogs.

The liberal fallacy and illiberal folly they invoke have this in common: both dis-engage the unconverted from politics; both play to a gallery of clued-up insiders. And thus both help maintain the disenchantment and sense of hopelessness of the majority, and both help maintain the grip of elites on our body politic. (See also James Bloodworth ()Want to defeat UKIP? Then get more working class people into politics.) And the repressive tolerance Goldberg describes also plays into something Nick Cohen and Kenan Malik have written about many times: the culture of taking offence that has gripped our world.

On our next pathology of the contemporary left, the anti-imperialism of foolsNick Cohen (recently wrote a superb deconstruction of Noam Chomsky's position on Crimea, showing how Chomsky's take exemplifies the double standards of the "anti-imperialist" left. Somewhat updated, but still very incomplete: this long resource list includes several texts on  left antisemitism, conspirationism and left-right convergence, and a few on philo-Islamism, vicarious social patriotism, Third Worldism and the anti-imperialism of fools. Some of the more recent ones include: Nick Cohen How the left turned against the Jews (2012), Sean Matgamna The SWP and Israel (2013), Colin Shindler  The European left and its trouble with Jews and The Left and Israel: A Tortured Path (2012), Pham Binh The Anti-Imperialism of Fools and the Syrian Spring (2012), Allan Massie Israel, Palestine and the anti-Semitism of the Left (2012). (Here's a couple more, not on that page: Padraig Reidy on Katy Perry and the Illuminati.)

Alan Johnson, meanwhile, argues that the 20th century's anti-imperialism of fools is giving way to a 21st century "anti-establishmentism of fools" (illustrated by the alliance around the quenelle). Paul Evans () linked to that piece back in January, along with a great article by Sean Wilentz on the cross-party cult of Assange/Snowden/Greenwald. Paul suggests that perhaps the old disciplined orthodoxies of Leninist democratic centralism were in some ways healthier than today's believe-in-anything political culture. I fear he might be right. Or, as Public Enemy puts it, 'If you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything'.
Before I finish, I want to stress that while this post (like a lot of this blog) has focused on what's wrong with the left, there's plenty wrong with the right. In fact, some of the things wrong with the left are also what's wrong with the right. The culture of complaint we see in the #CancelColbert version of intersectionalism is mirrored by a conservative panic about our young being desensitised and corrupted by all the bad stuff out there (a tendency Padraig Reidy (), in an excellent recent post, called "declinism"). And the tankie left's anti-imperialism of fools mirrors the isolationism of the Europhobic hard right, an isolationism that leads to the likes of Farage taking more or less the same objectively pro-Putin line on Russia and Ukraine as Stop the War and its ilk, a line long taken by mainstream Tories like Malcolm Rifkind. And so on.


[☚ denotes official membership of the Dead Bloggers Society]

Dead Bloggers Society reading list; Beyond left and right; Blog recommendations for homeless leftists.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

For Bob Crow: Woke Up This Morning (Millwall Calling)

South London's finest, Alabama 3, with a tribute to working class hero Bob Crow:
..born under a red flag

Thursday, March 20, 2014

From Bob's archive: The Miners' Strike at 30

I've been too busy for blogging lately, so here's something to fill the space. I write it almost exactly five years ago, at the quarter century of the Miners' Strike, whose 30th anniversary it now is. 

Yesterday was Budget Day, and our Tory government gave us a penny of a pint of beer and reduced tax on Bingo, claiming this was "to help hardworking people [note how "hardworking" has become a single word under the Tories, their austerity policy even extending to dashes and spaces] do more of the things they enjoy", the keyword being "they". Meanwhile, in London, Mayor Boris Johnson approved the use of watercannon against disorder in the capital, presumably for when us hardworkingpeople are no longer sufficiently distracted by beer and bingo. 

In the morning of budget day, BBC Radio 4 were in Easington, County Durham, talking to ex-miners in a place where there have been three decades of job losses, a place where people are not feeling the economic"recovery" the government has promised us. It was heart-breaking listening. My comrade Harry Barnes has written about Easington colliery; his father moved there in 1912 and when he died there 84 years later when the pit had been three years closed. Here's an extract from Harry's post:
Although Easington went through some tough pioneering years, by the time the 1931 economic depression broke and my father was 22 the population (of Easington Colliery and adjoining Easington Village combined) had reached 12,000. This meant that even with relative impoverishment it established a range of shops, cinemas, clubs, pubs, churches, chapels, schools and Miners' Welfare facilities. The Miners' Federation was committed to building Aged Miners' Homes and providing medical facilities, whilst the Labour Council embarked upon Council House building. It meant that although my father did not have an easy life, he had a full life. These fulfilments need to be appreciated if we are to put the harsh aspects of his life in perspective.
Note: the songs at the start and end of this post are by Ed Pickford, from County Durham, who turned seventy last year. 


It’s Monday night, and I’ve been watching BBC4’s documentary on the Miners’ Strike, which started a quarter century ago. The documentary, focusing on a small group of Hatfield strikers, is a well made piece, and a powerful experience. Most affecting are the men, the strikers – Dave DouglassDave Nixon, Harry Harle, Tony Clegg, Mick Mulligan: incredibly articulate, intelligent, reflective. They relate the stories with a vividness as if they are talking about yesterday, but you do not have the sense that these are stories they have told again and again. And they have an extraordinary nobility about them. It is palpable the extent to which the experience transformed them completely, how the hatred tempered them, how much courage it took to get through it, particularly as the strike came to an end and defeat became inevitable, a shameful, humiliating defeat.

Also clear is the level of solidarity and community that was present in the pit villages before the strike, and which also strengthenedby the strike. As two of the men suggest, Thatcher’s victory over the miners was partly a victory for individualism over community. Thatcher’s successors like to point to our working class communities and the social fragmentation there – “Broken Britain”; but what broke these places? Thatcher’s war on the unions, with the confrontation with the miners as the central theatre of battle, broke the institutions of self-help and mutual aid, destroyed the culture of solidarity that bound such villages, devastated a working class moral economy which sustained these communities. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

If you were...

Here is a question from a friend:

If you were organising a Labour Movement Film Festival, what films would you show, and why?

I've got some ideas, but I'll see what you say first. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The house of Assad and the house of Rumour

The House of Pheme [Rumour]
Johann Wilhelm Baur, Edition 1709, Ovid, Met. XII, 46-45
In Metamorphoses, Ovid describes the house where Rumour dwells, at “the middle of the world, between the zones of earth, sea and sky”: “Crowds occupy the hallways, a fickle throng that come and go with myriad rumours, circulating confused words, fiction mixed with truth… This is the haunt of Credulity, rash Error… unreasoning Fear, impulsive Sedition.” At its heart, Rumour herself, her scrutiny ranging the whole universe.

The perfect description of the internet?

A couple of days ago, I tweeted something by the Washington Post’s Liz Sly, on the sheer number of barrel bombs dropped  by Assad’s Damascus regime on the Syrian city of Aleppo, a city inhabited at least three millennia before Ovid was born. Sly documented how, even as Assad’s representatives sat in Geneva ostensibly debating peace, neighbourhoods dominated by the opposition were being decimated. The story is filed from the Turkish border, based on the testimony of refugees, who describe the fear of seeing the barrels unleashed from the warplanes, waiting for them to open up and disperse their deadly cargo; stories of human remains scraped from the rubble, of neighbourhoods depopulated, a city left without life. “The only people left are the poorest of the poor, and they are just waiting for death.”

In the second week of February, 215 bombs, 36.6% of them in Masaken Hanano, 22.7% of them in Industrial City. The bombs have killed hundreds, among the 3,400 estimated to have been killed as Geneva 2 stuttered along. The regime’s calculation is simple: no people in the neighbourhoods = no support for the opposition.

In my view, what is going on probably constitutes a genocide, though the victims are Assad’s “own” people.

Liz Sly retweeted my tweet, so it circulated more widely, and it got more retweets, but also a few hostile replies. I have no particular desire to single out, let alone pick an argument with, the individuals who replied to me. But I found their responses disturbing and instructive.

One, a Dutch tweeter describing himself as “Anarchist” and “Pro-Palestina”, replied “Viva Assad…he s killing AL-CIADA”. A second, apparently a lawyer, said “Maduro’s Venezuela appears to be next in line for this, sadly.” A third, apparently a blonde Giants fan, launched a barrage of tweets, containing links to pro-Assad sources, with messages like these: “You #Vichy urinalists won’t be happy till Syria’s totally destroyed. #Truth” and “#Vichy urinalists see what the #war criminals want them to see”.

In this world, anarchists and libertarians play point for dictators. Pro-Palestinians laud the government that has killed thousands ofPalestinians, in Yarmouk and elsewhere. The architects of 9/11 are seen as the creatures of American imperialism. Embattled and under-armed resistance fighters are equated with the Nazi occupation. The victims of industrial-scale slaughter are seen as war criminals. And the testimony of refugees is seen as propaganda while totalitarian state PR machines are hailed as telling the truth.

A quick scan of the three tweeters’ timelines finds a number of shared obsessions. They describe themselves as “conspiracy realists”, with several tweets about chemtrails and GM food. Kremlin and Tehran news sources such as Russia Today and Press TV are used heavily, while the Western “mainstream media” is never trusted.

And again and again, usually with hashtag and a capital T, the word “Truth”.

Having had the scales taken from their eyes, the Truth believers are utterly credulous before any source that says the mainstream media is lying. The denizens of this fickle throng are like kids frozen at that moment in adolescence when they first catch their parents lying and so believe that nothing their elders say can be true. The dispatch of a professional veteran warzone reporter passing on the words of survivors is not trusted, but a blurry YouTube video, which could be from anywhere or anytime, is a first-hand glimpse into “the Truth”.

Where Rumour dwells, the greatest enemies of the truth – and thus of hope for change and peace – are those who speak in the name of #Truth.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Killing of Bob Crow by the Coward Boris Johnson

This is a ballad by Rob Palk, who blogs (infrequently) here and tweets (frequently) here. The ballad was originally posted as a series of 32 tweets, each stanza (is that the right word?) a separate tweet. At the bottom of this post, I've added some links about the real life industrial dispute this refers to. If you want to sing along, I guess you can use the tune of "The Ballad of Hollis Brown". 

The Killing of Bob Crow by the Coward Boris Johnson
By Rob Palk

Bob Crow he lived on the outskirts of town
Bob Crow he lived on the outskirts of town
traveled where he wanted on the Underground

They said he was like Castro, they said he was like Mao
but he stuck up for the workin' man, don't even ask me how

Now Boris he lived in old Islington
spent his days carousin' and a'havin' so much fun

Drinkin' wine from a goblet that was made of gold
didn't give a cuss about the lies he told

Now Bob said to Boris, “boy, your days are through
the people are a'hungry and they're gettin' tired of you

There's going to be a layin' down of underground machinery
you'll have to go by bus, my friend, enjoy the scenery”

When Boris heard Bob's message he began to quail
Said, “you London Transport Workers, you are bound to fail

I'll get me up a scab Army, I'll set the tabloids awn yer
You should count yourself lucky that I even warn yer”

The tube men put down all their tools, they gathered into ranks
Boris wasted all his time with sucking up to banks

We need a revolution boys, we need ourselves a fight
Bob said, “come on you workin' men, you know our cause is right”

Boris strode down to the picket line with his fat cigar
Said “betray your leader boys and then you will go far

This Crow he is a sucker, he really is a rube
Thinks he can control me like he controls the tube”

The union men heard what he say'd and talked amongst themselves
Rememberin’ Bob Crow's warnings about trusting men of wealth

These rich folks love to rob yer, with a fountain pen
And many rich folks love to harm the union men

He saw that they was listenin, he saw he'd made some strife
Boris saw his chance for takin' Bob Crow's life

He said meet me in the morning in Islington town
Swore the next fine mornin' he'd lay Bob Crow down

Now Bob he turned up early, he wasn't ever late
Traveled up to Islington upon the 38

Looked around for Boris, till at last he saw
Boris stood there leanin' at his own front door

"Come into my terrace" he said, "I think you'll find its Georgian,
I've been up late drinkin', carousin' and a-gorgin'.

You know Bob I do respect you, admire you as a rival.
Come into my house Bob, but leave outside your rifle"

Bob walked into the terrace, eyes wide as could be
The house was full of riches, stuff you'll never see

Treasures like something out of a Persian saga,
they had a pig’s head cookin' right ontop the Aga.

"Now Bob, I have to ask you, will you prevent this strike?
I think that I can help you Bob, is there something that you'd like?

Is your weakness women? Or is your weakness wine?
Tell me what it is Bob, we haven't got much time"

But Bob he stood up mighty straight, looked Boris in the eye
He said "Bob Crow never told a lie

It's written in the scriptures, written down by scribes
Honest Bob Crow never took a bribe"

Boris smiled now to himself, lookin' so innocent
But he had an evil plan and he would not relent

He said "I do believe you Bob, you never told a lie
But honest Bob Crow must surely die"

Bob reached for his rifle, rememberin' too late
That Boris had insisted he leave it by the gate

They say the sky turned a sicknin' red
When B Johnson took out his gun and shot Bob in the head

Gather round you orphan children of the underground
Gather round you lost ones waitin' to be found

Never forget what happened to Bob Crow
The coward Boris Johnson laid our leader low


To keep up with what's going on in the Tube strike, follow the RMT's Every Job Matters page, RMT London Calling, the AWL Tubeworker bulletin and blog, Hands Off London Transport, and the TSSA union's campaign page. Some Twitter accounts to follow: RMT London Calling, AWL Tubeworker BulletinRMT official tweets, TSSA official tweetsRMT Bakerloo branch, and RMT activists Janine Booth and Alex Gordon.

Two comments from me. First, I think the "revenue strike" is a brilliant strategy: keeping the tubes running, hurting the management, keeping commuters and onside, and showing how important ticket staff are to us. 

Second, the arrest and draconian bail conditions against RMT picket Mark Harding are a massive attack on the right to strike and right to protest. Here's the Facebook page of the campaign to defend him.(If you're not on Facebook, the HOLT page is the best start.)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger z''l

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

"Hobo's Lullaby":

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

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

 With Johnny Cash, singing "Worried Man Blues":

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


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

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Our politics and theirs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 17, 2014

1930s Paris comes to South London

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


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

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

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

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