Thursday, June 30, 2005

One of the best there was

Briefly: let me commend Ellis Sharp's blog the Sharp Side (not for the first time). Back here, I wrote (with reference to Raymond Williams' Drama in performance):
Picture a play - lines, stage directions, acting styles. Now picture the stage it's produced on - the dimensions, the equipment, how it faces or projects into the audience. Now picture the audience - who are they and what brought them into the theatre? Finally, picture society in this period: who's in charge, who are they in charge of and how do they do it?

Now, how do all those levels fit together? (Because they do fit together.)
I don't know if Ellis has read much Raymond Williams, but he's just provided a superb illustration of this approach: The Meanings of 'The Duchess of Malfi'. Read. Learn. Enjoy. (To quote a line T.H. White gives to Merlin, somewhere in The Once and Future King: "Learn something new - that's the only thing that never fails.")

(What, you thought I'd be posting about G8 or something?)

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

God is an arms dealer

My hopefully provocative question: since those who tend to oppose this legislation tend to draw a disanalogy with laws banning incitement to racial hatred by pointing to a distinction between what is chosen and what is unchosen, with race not being chosen and religion being chosen, does it matter whether sexual identity is chosen when considering laws against discrimination or incitement of hatred towards particular sexual identities?
Robert suggests an interesting way in to the 'religious hatred' question. But first, let's talk about hurting people. Before I'm a libertarian, even before I'm a Marxist, I'm a humanist, at least in the sense that I believe that human beings - all human beings - are more worthy of preserving from harm than anything else. Of course, this isn't an absolute rule; the test-case scenarios are legion (the death of one person vs. the loss of an entire species? what about an entire genus? what about the loss of an entire genus vs. the death of the last surviving member of a tribe?). Let's just say that the prevention of harm to people is value #1 and work from there. It does at least differentiate my position from that of the Texas sheriff I once saw on TV; his words were, "I've seen plenty of people that deserved shooting, but I've never seen a wallet that deserved to be stolen." I'm not planning to go to Texas. Personally, I've seen plenty of wealth that deserved to be redistributed (did I mention that I went to Cambridge?), but I've never seen anyone who, in my eyes, deserved to be shot.

What Robert's post suggested to me was that the question of religious hatred is part of a broader set of trade-offs, between harm done to other people and our own sense of identity: not the (few) unchangeable facts of identity that we're born with, but our personal frameworks of habit, compulsion, self-fulfilment - the things you do to feel OK, to feel like you're you. If you get off on wearing an SS uniform in bed, it's no business but yours and your partner's. If you write long articles about the joys of wearing Nazi regalia in bed, I may feel that you've got the right to express your sexual identity, or I may feel that publicising this particular sexual identity is a bad idea. And if you tell me that what gets you through the night is driving around Jewish neighbourhoods in an open-topped car wearing a leather overcoat and a death's head cap, I'm likely to tell you to stop it - the distress you're causing to other people will matter more to me than your ability to get your kicks. This isn't a public/private question (assuming for the moment that that distinction is meaningful); the question of harm can have the same gradations in an entirely 'private' context. Someone who gets off on inflicting pain, for example, may be fearlessly exploring the outer limits of sensuality; they may be a boring and creepy bully (who, nevertheless, has every right to be boring, creepy and domineering in bed, as long as they can find a willing partner); or they may be actively dangerous and in need of therapy and/or locking up. The distinguishing factor is whether they're doing any harm to other people. We may not choose the framework through which we see the world, or how we'd like to act, but we can choose what we do with that framework and how we do act. The choice whether or not to cause harm to another person, above all, is always ours.

Having said that, it's not always obvious whether or not what we are into is harmful. In both the S/M-based scenarios I've given, there's one extreme where harm done clearly takes precedence and another extreme where it's equally clear that nobody is being harmed. Then there's an area in the middle where (to paraphrase Altered States) the right answer is that there is no right answer. Your critique of leather queen A may be equally applicable to his friends B to Z; it may be a valid but extreme response to diffuse trends in the leather-queen community; or you may just have happened to pick a leather queen who is also a twisted bastard. You aren't going to know until you talk it through, without either assuming that a particular course of conduct is harmful nor ruling out the possibility. The point is to have the conversation - and, more broadly, to maintain the conditions in which that conversation can happen.

But there's a complication. So far I've assumed that 'critique' and 'harm' are not only distinguishable but entirely different things: 'harm' is all about actions and bodies, 'critique' is about thoughts and brains. But brains do more than think, and bodies do more than act: between these two (more or less imaginary) extremes is the muddy terrain where people actually feel stuff. In particular, where they feel hatred - where they desire to harm (or at least severely demoralise) certain other people, or groups of people. Which is a problem. There may be some individuals who it's entirely appropriate to loathe and despise, but it's rarely appropriate to view an entire social group with unalloyed, non-negotiable hatred. But, of course, prejudice of this kind does exist; feeling prejudice seems to come fairly naturally to most of us, followed closely by finding justifications for prejudice. And, where justifying prejudice is concerned, there's no absolute distinction between a mindset based on a set of reasoned arguments and one built on unquestioned beliefs and habits: either one can be used to express and justify hatred. What's worse, both can be used to portray the hated enemy in ways which will evoke hatred among other people - even people who don't subscribe to those beliefs or arguments.

This, it seems to me, is very much the area in which the proposed new law on incitement to religious hatred is working. Whatever criticisms we might have of particular religious beliefs (advocates of the new law argue) we should recognise that there is such a thing as prejudice against a group defined by its religion, and that this is no more defensible than racial prejudice. Fears that the new law will have a chilling effect on criticism of religion are misplaced, we're told; the law will only kick in at the point where critique stops and hate begins. We don't condone racial hatred, and few people now object to the criminalisation of incitement to racial hatred (which dates from 1976); why should religious hatred be treated differently?

There are two problems with this argument. Firstly, as we have seen, the idea that hatred can be cleanly divided from critique is illusory. If I believe that a defined group of people regularly do something to which I strongly object, I'm not going to feel kindly towards that group. The question is whether this is hatred arising from a reasonable belief, or a prejudiced belief arising from hatred. In the case of racial prejudice, it's generally not a tough call, for the simple reason that 'race' doesn't govern behaviour. Where religion is concerned, the question is more difficult. Anyone who hates Muslim men on the grounds that they all require their wives to cover their faces is clearly prejudiced ('Islamophobic', even). But if I said I hated those Muslim men who do require their wives to cover their faces (basing this policy on their reading of Surah 24:31), would I be expressing illegitimate prejudice against Muslims or a valid critique of sexism? It's arguable both ways; I think it's a conversation that should be held, and held out of the shadow of the criminal law.

Instead of opening up the question of what can and can't be said about religious and cultural practices, the proposed law would shut it down, giving legal definition to the cut-off point where criticism (legal) becomes hatred (illegal). Since that borderline is essentially imaginary, in practice the law would be liable to bite off either too much (chilling legitimate debate) or too little (leaving genuine incitement to hatred unpunished). The former outcome seems much more likely than the latter. It can be argued that the 1976 legislation has itself had a chilling effect on discussion of race: the legislation only criminalises 'threatening, abusive or insulting' statements which are also likely to stir up racial hatred, but it has tended to make it difficult to make any general statement about 'race'. On balance, this is probably no great loss. By contrast, the new law attacks an area where debate is widely seen to be both legitimate and useful; what's worse, it doesn't include that saving stipulation that the language used should be 'threatening, abusive or insulting'. If somebody says that what you've said or written is liable to stir up religious hatred, the law says they've got a valid complaint, more or less by definition. (But (we're told) we needn't worry, as the Director of Public Prosecutions won't bring prosecutions most of the time. We're being asked to give the state new powers which could be abused, in other words, and trust that they won't abuse them. Why don't they just drop the big one and pass an Enabling Act?)

There's another problem. Saying that rational arguments can support prejudice doesn't mean that unquestioned convictions can't: religious beliefs may themselves articulate and buttress hatred. The way I feel about the 'conservative' Muslim husband who insists on his wife covering her face is very much the way that I feel about the sadist who insists on spanking his partner with a table-tennis bat. Both are constraining someone else's behaviour; both are doing something which seems unarguably right to them; both are reproducing broader patterns of gender-based subordination, in the form of a culturally-specific practice. And, crucially, in both cases this practice may articulate and support a personal hatred of women, or it may sit alongside feelings of genuine respect. It would be absurd - and grossly insulting - to assume that full-face veiling invariably reflects personal feelings of misogyny. But it would be equally absurd to ignore the degree of 'fit' between the injunction for women to be veiled and broader misogynistic social structures, and to assume that contemporary veiling is never associated with misogyny. The conversation needs to take place, out of the shadow of the criminal law.

Instead, the proposed law would tend to protect prejudice, as long as it was expressed in the language of religion. There are Christian ministers - to look no further afield - who express themselves in the most vitriolic terms on the subject of gays, or Jews, or members of other Christian denominations. Anyone denouncing this kind of purportedly religious hate-mongering would need to tread carefully: using the wrong kind of language about the minister and his flock could itself be classed as incitement to religious hatred. (We're assured that this wouldn't happen, of course, but that's almost beside the point. We could expect to see prosecutions - or rather, we would expect to see prosecutions, and most of us would moderate our language accordingly. Is it getting chilly in here?)

Prejudice exists; hatred against any number of groups exists, religious groups included. (To bring sex in one last time, prejudice is a bit like pornography: if you can identify a group, you can be sure that somebody somewhere is prejudiced against it.) Prejudice against religious groups is a genuine problem; the rationalist argument that all beliefs should be equally open to criticism is valid but irrelevant, given that rational arguments can buttress and articulate prejudice just as well as unexamined systems of belief. Unfortunately, the proposed law attacks only one half of this pairing, giving its blessing to the other - and, for anyone who believes in rational debate, the law has picked the wrong side to protect.

But it'll help Labour get back some of the votes they lost over Iraq, and I guess that's the main thing. Make Secularism History!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

These things take time

I don't think the word 'blog' is really a contraction of 'web log'. I think the 'b' stands for 'back'.

The other day I worked out I had four blog posts planned: one on religion and hatred (half-written); one on attitudes to technology (complementing some of Chris's recent posts); one on ideas of 'old' and 'new' in politics, & how pervasive and misleading they are; and one, probably for the Sharpener, on immigration and social control. The trouble is, each one of these will probably take about an hour to write, & that's on top of blog reading time (not to mention work, sleep, life etc). So it could take a while - especially since, when I sat down the other day to finish the 'religious hatred' post, I ended up writing a brief response to one of Alex's posts, which turned out not to be that brief after all and raised several issues I hadn't thought through properly (thanks, Robert). And I'd really like to write something a bit more developed about Orwell in response to Justin...

Aaargh. Too much to think, too little time to think it in.

Part of the problem is that I was blogging like a mad thing at one stage, & don't actually have the stamina to keep it going at that rate. I hope shortly to arrive at a revised definition of normal service, whereupon it will be resumed as soon as possible. In the mean time, I've reshuffled my blogroll, adding some good writers I'd missed and removing a bunch of blogs, including everyone else who posts at the Sharpener. I don't really like blogrolls; as I wrote at my other blog,
the globally 'popular' blogs are quite popular enough already without their readers directing yet more traffic their way - and, for most of us, global 'popularity' is an irrelevant distraction. From which it follows that blogs don't need blogrolls. If we blogroll everyone whose posts we respond to, the blogroll's unnecessary. If, on the other hand, we blogroll everyone whose blogs we read - or, from the look of some blogrolls, every blogWeb site we've ever readheard of - the power law will kick in: links will inevitably tend to cluster around the 'top' five or ten or fifty blogs, the blogs Everybody Knows, the A List (ugh).
I'm keeping the blogroll here, but trimming it to focus on particularly good and overlooked writers. (If I've dropped yours, it was obviously because it was too well-known.)

One final thought: three cheers for the Foreign Office!
Lady Thatcher told Reagan in a telephone call at the end of May 1982 that Britain could not contemplate a ceasefire before Argentina withdrew from the Falklands.

According to Sir Lawrence, she asked Reagan: "How would the Americans react if Alaska were invaded and, as the invaders were being thrown out, there were calls for the Americans to withdraw?" She is said to have been "dismayed" by Reagan's attitude and wanted him to know just how "upset" she was.

Washington pointed out that the US had secretly supplied Britain's special forces with communications satellites and ammunition. But Lady Thatcher was adamant. "We have lost a lot of blood, and it's the best blood," she told Sir Nicholas Henderson, Britain's ambassador to the US, on an open line.
It's the best blood. I know I should be thinking of Enoch Powell here, but I keep coming up with Hilary Briss.

Senior civil servants, we salute you! For at least eight years - perhaps for as long as eleven - our government was clearly headed by a crazy person. The principled men and women of the Foreign Office stood between the world and Thatcher's delusions of racial grandeur. Only now can we see just how well they played their part.

I mean, check it out.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Where are they hiding?

[Some edits and additions in response to Robert's comments, 26/6 and 27/6]

In 1997 Francesco Cossiga was interviewed for a book called Una sparatoria tranquilla (mentioned back here). Cossiga was one of the leading figures of Italy's old establishment - a former President of the Republic, a former Minister of the Interior, an unapologetic defender of the covert anti-Communist Gladio network. The interesting thing about this interview was the identity of the interviewer: Francesco Piccioni, a former member of the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades).

The BR were a left-wing 'armed struggle' group - one of 40 or 50 groups which flourished in Italy in the 1970s. The BR were the largest and longest-lived of all the groups. Between 1970 and the mid-eighties, over 900 people were arrested and charged with BR membership; more conservative estimates suggest that around 400 people were members of the group at some point, half of them joining in the group's peak years of 1978 and 1979. The armed struggle 'scene' as a whole was much bigger than the BR - groups other than the BR carried out around 3,000 actions in total, as compared with the BR's total of 500. But the BR were much bigger than any other single group: few of the others lasted as long as five years, or had as many as a hundred members. Discounting a penumbra of sympathisers and supporters, the people directly responsible for the Italian left-wing 'terrorism' of the 1970s numbered, in all probability, no more than 2,000. And that was a huge scene by contemporary standards: far beyond anything dreamed of by the RAF in West Germany, the Weather Underground in the USA or our very own Angries.

Bearing in mind the actions carried out by the BR over the years - notably 58 murders, including the 'execution' of the kidnapped Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro and the slaughter of his bodyguards - it's interesting to read what Francesco (Cossiga) said to Francesco (Piccioni).
"The great semantic trick which we all carried out was calling you 'terrorists' - I thought about this later - because calling you 'terrorists' kept us from realising what you were. I understood this later, because I was trying to understand Moro's attitude. What led me to think of you, historically and ideologically, as a subversive phenomenon rather than as terrorist, was the interest and curiosity which Moro demonstrated in his letters [from captivity] - a curiosity which he wouldn't have shown for a gang of people who planted bombs and that was that. And, in fact, you didn't plant bombs."
[Piccioni: "Never."]
"Terrorists plant bombs in cinemas. This was something else. Your operating methods were precisely those of partisan warfare. If I'd said something like this at the time... Who taught you those things?"
[Piccioni: "Books, and a few veterans."]
Cossiga's argument suggests that 'terrorism' has - or at least can have - a specific meaning. We can start by defining 'terror' tactics as the use of personal violence against non-specific targets, with the immediate goal of causing panic and alarm. If one person mounts a 'terror' attack, they're going on a rampage, going berserk or wendigo. If a mob uses terror, it's a pogrom. If armed forces use terror, it's either warfare or a war crime, depending on who the targets are. Finally, if an organised group of non-state actors uses terror, it's terrorism. Whether a group, rather than its individual actions, can be described as 'terrorist' depends on how consistently it uses terror. Neo-fascist groups in Italy and Spain can reasonably be described as 'terrorist'; the record of the IRA, for example, is more mixed.

On the other hand, if an armed struggle group targets buildings rather than people, or if personal violence targets selected individual enemies, linguistic precision alone suggests that something other than 'terrorism' is going on. This is where I part company with Robert's proposed definition of terrorism as "the extension of the rules of battle beyond what is normally thought to be a battlefield ... expanding the spaces of violence, so that we are combatants in places we had never thought we would be, something which would obviously be terrifying". Irregular and guerrilla warfare has precisely these characteristics; indeed, Robert's formulation recalls the words of Senza Tregua ("No Quarter"), a hagiographic history of an early Partisan group which was very popular in certain circles in the early 1970s:
[these were] groups of patriots who never gave quarter to the enemy: they struck him at all times, in all circumstances, day and night, in the streets of the city and in the heart of his fortresses
But I'd argue that these attacks (unlike the German reprisals which often followed) were too precisely focused to qualify as terror.

Having said all of which, the invocation of 'terrorism' is also a value judgment and hence a rhetorical move: 'guerrillas' may be people engaged in politics by other means, but 'terrorists' are evil people dedicated to causing destruction. An 'armed struggle' militant can, in theory, be negotiated with; a 'terrorist' must be defeated. Treating the BR as terrorists made it easier for the Italian state to crush them, but - Cossiga suggests - at the cost of failing to understand them. What was obscured by the 'terrorist' labelling is suggested by Cossiga's reference to partisan warfare - a live reference point in Italy in the 1970s, as we have seen. Cossiga's contrast between the BR and a mere 'gang of people who planted bombs' also suggests a question of scale: a nihilist gang of terrorist bombers could not have had the roots the BR drew on, or drawn in so many people, or lasted so long. This isn't to say that the BR was engaged in Partisan warfare in any real sense - although a large part of the appeal which enabled the group to enlist so many people and survive so long did derive from its orchestration of Partisan themes and memories. But Cossiga, in 1997, was right: the term 'terrorist' alone wasn't adequate. Something was going on there, and he didn't know what it was.

In the ghastly American Enterprise (via Alex), I've just read this:
Contrary to the impression given by most newspaper headlines, the United States has won the day in Iraq. In 2004, our military fought fierce battles in Najaf, Fallujah, and Sadr City. Many thousands of terrorists were killed, with comparatively little collateral damage. As examples of the very hardest sorts of urban combat, these will go down in history as smashing U.S. victories.
Yes, that is what he said:

Many thousands of terrorists were killed

I don't know what it does to the enemy, but by God the American Enterprise frightens me. My first thought, on reading that passage, was that something had gone very, very wrong for those words to be put together at all: I'm not sure there have ever been "many thousands" of non-state political actors devoted to creating panic through indiscriminate killing. Then I wondered if 'terrorist' was becoming a working public synonym for Giorgio Agamben's homo sacer (discussed recently by Slavoj Zizek in the LRB). On this reading the definition of 'terrorist' would be functional: the point is not that a 'terrorist' is someone who carries out certain acts, but that anyone who is a 'terrorist' is excluded from society and can be killed with impunity. But many thousands of them...

Something is going on there, and they don't know what it is. But they're prepared to go on killing people until it stops.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Let's get it understood

I recently happened across a blog called Broadband Stars ("Covering the social media revolution"). This series, in particular, impressed and irritated me in equal measure. The author, Colin Donald, begins with this quote:
We were talking about how much the UK (and Europe) was lagging behind America in blogging terms. For example, how many British CEO's are blogging? How many "A-Listers" are British? How many British ad agencies are using blogs to alter the marketing landscape? How many Brits are blogging to radically improve their business's fortunes? The Brits have a lot of catching up to do.
There's a real question in there somewhere, but it's hard to make out - and Colin's attempt to substantiate this 'lag' doesn't do much to clarify it. (Some questions which came to my mind: are we talking about the British blogosphere in general, about professional/corporate bloggers, about 'creatives' in particular, or what? If there is a 'lag', is it measured in addition to the time it took for blogging to get established over here? (If so, how does the blogging lag compare to the Web lag or the e-business lag?) Which "A-Listers" are we talking about, and why are they relevant?)

To give Colin his due, he does end up with a fairly precise focus ("British blogs about new media"); unfortunately, he goes in search of these 'missing' blogs by means of "a systematic click-around of British blogrolls", and rapidly finds that lots of the people he already knows already know other people he already knows. (I do like that 'systematic'.) He then gives this unstartling finding the heading of "Britain's Missing Bloggers". Yep - it's not just a matter of Britain's Arguably Under-blogged New Media Sector, it's a definite shortage, affecting Britain as a whole.

In comments, I wrote:
It's not so much "find Britain's missing bloggers" (although if you're really bothered about the health of the British blogosphere, I can give you 50-odd URLs to get you started); it's more "help me find the British bloggers who I'd recognise as candidate members of my online social circle, because all I can see is bloggers who are members of my circle, because the bloggers I link to only link to other bloggers I already link to". It's Lawson's Fallacy all over again - "I can't see anything! There's nothing there!"
Colin took my comment in good part; in fact he called my bluff, the swine. Which is why I've spent the last hour and a half compiling the following: the last fifty British blogs I've visited. (Not counting this one, my other blog and our thing.) They're all good; they're all different (and some are very different). They're not all political; some of them are even about new media. And several of them have got blogrolls which would defeat the most systematic click-around.

It really is a big blogosphere out there. Even in Britain.

A few words before we go
Antonia's blog
Blithering Bunny
Blood and Treasure
Boob Pencil
Chase me ladies, I'm in the cavalry
Chicken Yoghurt
Consider Phlebas
Dead Men Left
Ephems of BLB
Fair Vote Watch
From Despair to Where?
Gnus of the World
International Rooksbyism
Kitty killer
Lenin's tomb
Liberal England
M C Harper's musings
Matt T
Our word is our weapon
Owen's musings
Pessimistic Leftist
Pub Philosopher
Reasons to be impossible
Shot by both sides
The Apostate Windbag
The Billblog
The inside of my head
The Law West of Ealing Broadway
The Sharp Side
The Virtual Stoa
The Yorkshire Ranter
This Leaden Pall
Tim Worstall
What you can get away with
Where there were no doors

Share and enjoy.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Under the mirror

Not so much a Googlism, more a (thanks to Mr Bartlett for the inspiration).

What could be more British than...

the quintessential Village Inn
a sweet cup of tea
Heinz Baked Beans
the zebra-crossing
fair play
a young builder sharing a fish and chips supper with his girlfriend
Thousands of people camped out in the mild evenings drinking tea
a nice cup of tea
roast beef with all the trimmings followed by apple pie
fish and chips
a gastro pub, situated in the heart of London's East End
a garden, to remember the 67 British victims of September 11th
cheese and chutney sandwiches
The Times or The Sun
a jolly old picnic in a park
the Royal Family
"Here's a picture of my bum"
marching peacefully through London
war, spies, betrayal
a breakfast of bacon and eggs
the Vulcan
A fillet of haddock in crispy batter, served with chips and peas (mushy if you prefer)
a Curry
the red, white and blue rosette of the British Motor Corporation
fish and chips, donkey rides, Ovaltine and Bingo
a cup of sweet tea
the old "working class hero" routine
Stoic, restrained, humorous, lousy teeth
real ale
a pint of beer
tea and scones
Huge bosoms, pert bottoms, and lots of innuendo
the sight of a cricket bat in the boot of a Jag
“Bloody Hell”
communing with God in a garden
a story about a Scotland Yard inspector investigating the murder of a star soccer player
inventing a sport, and then losing at it to every other nation for centuries afterwards
a long wheelbase Jaguar
the Henry Moore Statues 'Double Oval' and 'Oval with Points'
Lawn Bowling and Afternoon Tea
a Mini
the Big Garden Birdwatch
muscular Islam
a good old motorway
a car that lends itself to having the Union Jack painted on its roof
total lack of enthusiasm
the National dish of England, Chicken Madras
hanging painted wooden or ceramic ducks on the wall
the ultimate symbols of the monarchy, the Crown Jewels
Michael Caine
an Indian banquet
the traditional "cuppa"
“doughy and bland”
an Oxford Companion to JMW Turner
Ealing Studios
a symbol of Britannia carrying a shield that clearly shows the Union flag motif
to have your Mini painted in the red white and blue colours of the Union Flag
Roger Moore in a safari suit
to enjoy a cup of tea
a record of Rolf Harris's "Two Little Boys"
Goodbye to Berlin, Women in Love, The Heart of the Matter or A Passage to India
British Airways, Rover cars and Moss Bros
blue jeans and a tan pork pie hat

Rather a lot of food and drink in there, wouldn't you say? Fish and chips, real ale, and of course a nice cup of tea - can't beat it. (Bill Bryson said that one of the things that first struck him about the British was our ability to get "genuinely excited at the prospect of a hot drink". Well, yes and no, Bill. We get genuinely excited at the prospect of a nice cup of tea.)

Being the artsy-bloody-fartsy type, I was also reminded of T.S. Eliot, who wrote this about 'culture' in 1948:
It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.
As Raymond Williams noted ten years later, "This pleasant miscellany is evidently narrower in kind than the general description which precedes it. The 'characteristic activities and interests' would also include steelmaking, touring in motor-cars, mixed farming, the Stock Exchange, coalmining and London Transport." (What could be more British than coalmining?) "Any list would be incomplete, but Eliot's categories are sport, food and a little art - a characteristic observation of English leisure." It's a good argument, but fifty years on the folksonomic zeitgeist of Google tends to agree with Eliot: food, sport and a little art, plus cars, protest, a total lack of enthusiasm and Newcastle. Nice to see protest coming up as part of the national character, mind you - better that than Henley.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google's view of English culture isn't very different, although there's less about cars and more about gardening. Oh, and buggery:

Gilbert and Sullivan
afternoon tea
fine fabrics and fibers [sic]
a fish and chip shop
consort music
Dr. Doolittle
to see THE QUEEN in all her royal gloriousness
an exhibition of original Flower Fairies watercolours
marching peacefully from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square
a country church with a tower
a laburnum in full flow
Sunday dinner with the vicar
A man dressed in medieval costume emblazoned with the cross of St.George
Gardens and tea
a lazy Sunday afternoon watching cricket on the village green
Steak and Kidney Pudding
drinking imported German lager and tucking into a plate of chicken and chips
beginning a meal with a chilled soup made with fresh strawberries
feeling too diffident to complain
Tea and scones overlooking Kensington Gardens
a fried breakfast
buggery and croquet
Curry houses
a Peter Noone song with a corny, contrived introduction
a May Day Bank Holiday Brass Band Concert
a pink rose
Terence Stamp
good old-fashioned boarding-school style buggery
poking fun at Americans

Poking fun at Americans? Wouldn't dream of it. Purely by way of contrast with the previous two lists, here's what Google thinks is typically American:

the gold rush
a Beer run
apple pie
baseball and apple pie
a can of Campbell's soup
a marketplace
blue jeans
buying the best
standing up and saying "no, not in my name you don't"
an African-music concert in an Irish/Italian neighborhood
migrating to a thinly-settled area to experiment with liberty
blatantly trying to get money out of a tragedy
blowing stuff up
the idea of a second chance, a fresh start, Act Two
a barbeque
doing our best to abide by the law
an afternoon at a Braves game
the automobile
the dollar bill itself
the lawsuit
Easy Rider
the eternal optimism that we can always improve our lot
the saying "you can't stop progress."
a trial by media
a composer grounded in Hollywood, but who has belatedly rediscovered his concert music identity
a tailgating party at a football game
equating second place with failure
Michael Moore
small-town citizens coming together to solve problems by consensus
a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air
a vote
an Oreo
Columbus Day
Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life
mud wrestling
standing up for the Constitution
reaping just rewards for your own labor
a history textbook that decides, halfway through, to be a detective novel instead
betting $1 million on the flop of a single card
corn growing on an Iowa farm
a hotly contested college football game between division rivals
the right to choose for oneself
the American Red Cross
Little League
watching commercials
baseball, hot dogs, and the Fourth of July
a fun-filled day at the park
suing the bastards
giving people a second chance
protesting and exercising our rights
raping the expressive and unique nature of a foreign culture for material gain
the socialist goals of social justice, equality of opportunity, economic security, and peace
Guns and money
fair play
baseball, hot dogs, and the Democratic Party
the flag
french-fries and hamburgers

Phew. Tea, anyone?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Could have moved mountains

Over at the excellent Burning Bird, Shelley recently announced that she was abandoning the Democrats and joining the US Green Party. Here's one of the responses:
To say “the Democratic party does not represent me” is not a meaningful statement, because what a party stands for in America is constantly in flux, depending on what the vote-getters are perceived to be.

I think in England, the only party that truly gets it is Labour — they have ditched many of their core principles to grab the center, and focused heavily on branding and spin — and it has worked like a charm. Forget about a three-party system. If the Conservatives or the Lib Dems don’t buck up soon and take their place as a proper opposition party, soon we’d be calling Britain a one-party state.
"The only party that truly gets it is Labour." I think this is valid, and I think what they 'get' is something relatively new to British politics. It's not opportunism or the willingness to abandon principles in pursuit of votes - Harold Wilson's first term as Prime Minister began over forty years ago, after all. It's stronger than that: it's more like a commitment to abandoning the party's principles, repeatedly and demonstratively, so as to disorientate and marginalise the opposition, so as to make it impossible for the party not to be in power.

The trouble is, this can't possibly be a long-term strategy. Political principles aren't a renewable resource; abandon them once and they're gone. Here's something I wrote in 1995, for the wonderful but short-lived magazine Casablanca.
What bothers me is Tony Blair's obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections - look at Bill Clinton) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely - look at Bill Clinton) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there's no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left.

What makes it even worse is the odd references to 'socialism' from Blair's direction - a 'socialism' which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of 'society') or individual freedoms (except the freedom to 'achieve'). It's as if they'd realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We've still got 'Comrade', I suppose, and 'Point of order, Chair', but that's about it).
I remember, at a planning meeting for the newspaper socialist (a distant forebear of Red Pepper), suddenly realising what we were doing: we were trying to make water flow uphill. We were giving our time and labour without payment - many of us were giving money as well, in fact - in order to create something which might, one day, be able to sustain itself. (Or perhaps simply to create something which was worth creating, even if we had to go on subsidising it indefinitely.) It can be done, but it needs a language to do it in. Initiatives like socialist need a culture around them which can sustain the belief that they are worth doing and that they are possible: to make water flow uphill, it takes words of power. (I suppose 'Comrade' and 'Point of order, chair' do have a certain numinosity - at the first Chesterfield conference in 1987, somebody even tried to table a point of order at the evening social - but it's not much to work with.)

Other Labour leaders have neglected the Leftist underbrush or cleared it from around the party, but only Blair has set out to poison it at the roots. This is bad news for Labour as well as for the Left. There will be a Labour Party after Blair; there will be a new generation of Labour leaders, there will be ideological renewal. Or rather, there will be a crying need for ideological renewal. At the moment, I'm not sure where it can possibly come from.

My 1995 comparison between Blair and Clinton - although not, obviously, my eerily accurate predictions for both of them - was echoed by something David Runciman wrote in a recent LRB.
In Britain, during the recent election campaign, the battleground for this newly personalised form of politics was not tax, but defence, immigration, terrorism, security and crime, where all the arguments were played out on Tory territory. In due course, when the Tories recover their nerve and the state of the economy starts to place Gordon Brown’s reputation under pressure, the argument will move on to tax.

It is worth considering what then will be the price of the triangulations of the Blair years, the abandonment of principle, the remorseless pragmatism, the cynical disregard for constitutional proprieties. Too much attention has been focused in recent months on the legacy Blair is likely to leave for Brown, when what really matters is the legacy the Labour government leaves for the next Tory government (and the next party to govern Britain will be the Conservatives, unless the electoral system is changed). The example of the transition from the Clinton years to the Bush years is a salutary one. Clinton left an open door for his opponents to march through, by draining his supporters of their resolve, and hardening it among his enemies. He also acquiesced in the personalisation of politics, without finding a convincing narrative to counter the stories of injustice on which the Republican Party chose to feed. In the end, he made it too easy for them to undo his good work, and he destroyed the short-to-medium-term electoral prospects of his party in the process. Can anyone in Britain say with any confidence that Blair won’t turn out to have done the same?

"they have ditched many of their core principles to grab the center, and focused heavily on branding and spin — and it has worked like a charm"

"It is worth considering ... the price of the triangulations of the Blair years"

And the swordsmen, the damned stupid swordsmen will win after all...

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Meme II

Or: I'll be your mirror. Or: I got it from Clare.

Not so much a chain letter as a chain interview. Carrie interviewed Clare; Clare interviewed me; and I might (I said might) interview you.

More on that later. Now for the much more interesting topic of, er, me.

1. What role does music play in your life?

Two different roles (but they're starting to converge). I've invested quite heavily in recorded music for quite a long time; I can still remember the smell of my new copy of Aladdin Sane, the first time I opened out the gatefold sleeve. Sudden Sway, the Fall, Family, Underworld, Faust, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Hatfield and the North... these I have loved. Music has always been around, and it's often tended to be quite difficult music; I remember reading about copping-off tapes and wondering what on earth people put on them. (I mean, I can't stand Dire Straits, or Simply Red...)

I've also sung songs, if not all my life then certainly since before my voice broke. And I can play the flute, not particularly well. What's happened in the last couple of years is that I've started singing for an audience (mostly at my local folk club) and subsequently writing my own songs. Probably because of this, these days I'm more likely to listen to James Yorkston or the Earlies - or Love or Nick Drake or the mighty Bob - than Kid Koala or Flying Saucer Attack. Still not much copping-off-tape music, though.

2. What role does politics play in your life? For instance, does it influence your personal relationships?

Yes and no. I've often wondered about this: it would be easy to say, for instance, that I could never be friends with a Tory, and at one level it would be true. As a statement of fact, though, it would be ludicrous - apart from anything else, I have actually got friends who are Tories (or say they are). I really don't think I could be friends with a racist or a homophobe, though - then again, I feel the same about animal liberationists.

My political beliefs (which are broadly Marxist, in the sense of being vehemently opposed to most existing forms of Marxism) are very important to me. But I've never had much luck using politics as a basis for choosing friends - or even people I could trust within a shared project. This is partly because there are so many issues & angles & nuances involved that it's really quite hard to tell whether someone else's beliefs are the same as yours, but mainly because the substance of your beliefs isn't really where you start from. It's more important to find people with the same kind of attitude as your own - an idealistic but critical and rather grumpy attitude, in my case. (Although I suppose some beliefs are fairly fundamental - "all human beings are equal", for example.)

3. Have you ever written / would you ever write a novel?

No, and I doubt it. I've written short stories, some of which have been published, but not for several years. I feel quite comfortable with the short story form - I can't imagine having an idea big enough for a novel.

4. What time do you get up in the mornings?

Ha! Too early; much, much too early. I'm currently in a rut of waking up before my wife's alarm goes at 7.00, lying there pretending to sleep and feeling utterly knackered for another 25 minutes, then falling asleep and being woken up by my alarm at 7.30. Actually my problem is the nights rather than the mornings; if you fix the time you get up, your body's supposed to start telling you to go to bed early enough for you to get enough sleep. My trouble is I don't listen; I get a second wind around 10.30 and then I'm fine until midnight or later.

5. In the last twelve months, what (if any) activities have put money in your pocket? If none, what activities have emptied it?

I left my last full-time job (editing a small IT magazine) at the end of 1998, but got a part-time job last October; I'm researching & documenting sources of statistics for sociology students at Manchester University. Up till then I divided my time between freelance journalism and writing a doctoral thesis. I've completed the thesis (hurrah!) but I've kept the journalism going in a small way. In the last twelve months I've written
six feature articles for the magazine I used to edit
ten jokey columns, ditto
one book review for the Independent
four Web 'micro-sites' for Channel Four
I also went to Normandy for GMTV, just before the D-Day anniversary; I was on screen for about two minutes at 6.30 a.m., introduced as "Phil Edwards, military historian" (which I'm not). But it was an interesting trip, and they did pay me money, so I'm not complaining.

Cheers, Clare. Here's what happens next:
1. Leave me a comment on this post saying "Interview me."

2. I'll respond by asking you five questions, by email. I'll spend some time reading your blog first, and then try and make the questions interesting for you and your readers.

3. Update your blog with the answers to the questions and leave the answers as comments on this post.

4. Include this explanation, and an offer to interview other people, in the same post as your interview.

5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you ask them five questions in the same way.
Over to you, Gentle Reader.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Meme I

Pearsall has handed me the book stick. Thanks, Pearsall (how do you pronounce that, by the way?)

1) Total number of books I've owned
About 2000. Certainly there are at least 2000 books in the house at the moment. Several hundred of those belong to my wife; our children have got at least a hundred between them; and there are another hundred or so waiting to be disposed of, mainly review copies from my Red Pepper period. (I don't count most of these; I only ever 'owned' them in the sense that they came into the house in a jiffy-bag with my name on it.) But set against those all the books I've got rid of over the years and the books which are still at my mother's house, and I think 2000 is about right.

2) The last book I bought
Perhaps not surprisingly, I hardly ever buy books these days - for fiction, in particular, I rely on libraries. (Which have their limits. One of these days I'm going to go mad on Abebooks and completeextend my John Sladek collection...) The last book I bought - with Christmas money - was Paul Morley's Words and music. I've admired Paul Morley's criticism since he was working for the NME; his interviews were particularly good, as were his imaginary interviews (which, remarkably, the NME also printed). He treats music with fannish enthusiasm, bordering on religious awe; he's endlessly curious and genuinely open-minded; he has a superb ear and no conception of taste. Plus he writes like a dream - I think he's a really good writer, masquerading as a really clever one.

Having said that, I've only got about forty pages into the book. (He likes Kylie.)

3) The last book I read:
I'm currently reading Barbara Vine's The Minotaur and re-reading The Lord of the Rings, which I read all of thirty years ago (when I was much, much too young for it, I hasten to add). The last book I finished was probably Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel, A pale view of hills. Ishiguro's a fantastic writer, with an elegantly plain style which allows his books to do a lot more work than they let on. I especially loved The Unconsoled, which was his Pompidou Centre - the machinery was on the outside, so that you couldn't ignore what he was doing with the novel form. But he does something similar, I think, in all his books; certainly A pale view of hills is recognisably by the same writer.

4) Five books that mean a lot to me:

Claudio Del Bello (ed.), Una sparatoria tranquilla
A quotation to explain the title:
"What's going on?"
"Well, the police didn't want to let us pass, so we went round - there wasn't a real clash."
"But they're shooting..."
"Yeah, but they're just firing at the wall, the same as us. Really it's all quiet... it's a quiet shoot-out."
Una sparatoria tranquilla is an oral history of the Movement of 1977. Il movimento was the culmination of five years of activism; 1977 saw anarchist, autonomist and left-libertarian ideas and tactics diffused on a mass scale. (Can't Pay? Won't Pay! gives a faint and distorted echo of this period.) The 'constitutional' political parties were intransigent in their opposition (the Communist Party most of all); by 1978 the movement had been branded 'terrorist' and driven off the streets. (There was a massive rise in left-wing armed activity after the initial crackdown.)

The memory of the movement has been repressed ever since. In the 1990s, that memory was given its due, by this book and a couple of others - notably Nanni Balestrini's novel Gli invisibili and the monumental L'orda d'oro, a history of 'the great creative/revolutionary/political/existential wave, 1968-77', co-written by Balestrini and Primo Moroni. If you read Italian, these books are essential reading. (If not, you could learn.)

Edward Thompson, Writing by candlelight
Robert Wyatt was once asked about his political beliefs and replied, "I don't have beliefs, just certain loyalties". I learned a lot from Edward Thompson's loyalties, and from the hatreds that went with them. Thompson was a good hater. Elsewhere he passionately hated both Communism and American imperialism, but in this book he primarily hated the encroachments of state authority and the arrogance of the middle class. Democracy, for him, was both a condition yet to be achieved and something sketchily produced through ancient institutions such as jury trial; either way, it had to be defended fiercely against everyone who would limit or bypass it.

Guy Debord, The society of the spectacle
In the early 1980s, some time before I encountered Thompson, I came across Debord's "Preface to the fourth Italian edition of The society of the spectacle" in a bookshop in Coventry, in a translation by BM Chronos (thanks, Lu). There I read this:
The workers of Italy - who can be held up as an example to their comrades in all countries for their absenteeism, their wildcat strikes that no particular concession can manage to appease, their lucid refusal of work, and their contempt for the law and for all Statist parties...
Debord was right about the workers of Italy, of course, but what particularly appealed to me was the calm, magisterial tone in which he commended absenteeism and wildcat strikes. Hardly anyone on the Left writes with Debord's confidence - no hyperbole, no outrage, no evasions or apologetics. Hardly anyone apart from Marx, that is.

The society of the spectacle itself is Debord's masterpiece, and one of the outstanding works of the twentieth century. If you know half the sources Debord borrows from, it will blow your mind. If you don't know any of them, it will still blow your mind. (I know - I've read it both ways.)

Raymond Williams, Drama in performance
I read quite a bit of Williams when I was at college. Another confident writer; another writer with loyalties. This book is a personal choice; Keywords, Marxism and literature and The long revolution are more important books, but this is the one that really told me what Williams was talking about. Picture a play - lines, stage directions, acting styles. Now picture the stage it's produced on - the dimensions, the equipment, how it faces or projects into the audience. Now picture the audience - who are they and what brought them into the theatre? Finally, picture society in this period: who's in charge, who are they in charge of and how do they do it?

Now, how do all those levels fit together? (Because they do fit together.)

John Berger, The foot of Clive
I don't know why I read this novel (in 1980, in the summer break at the end of my first year at college); but I'm glad I did. I started reading it in a state of weightless, directionless late-teenage depression. When I finished it I felt involved, engaged, embodied. Berger embeds the trivia of everyday experience in a political narrative - and grounds politics in the experience of everyday life. I went on to read other - better - works by Berger, but none of them turned me round the way this did.

(Plus five books which are also things of beauty: Alasdair Gray, Unlikely stories, mostly; B.S. Johnson, House Mother Normal; Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire; Tom Phillips, A Humument; Edward Tufte, The visual display of quantitative information.)

5) Tag five people and have them fill this out on their blogs:

I was planning to nominate Ellis Sharp and Brian Barder, but other people have got there first. Which leaves three. Paul, Clare, Shelley! I choose you!

Thursday, June 02, 2005


I know that people in the US State Department, friends from my Chicago DJ days, my employees, my family, thoughtful conservatives from Texas, cypherpunk friends, foreign intelligence officers, Japanese business associates and close friends all read my blog occasionally. In real life, I present a very different facet of my identity to these different communities, but on my blog I have to imagine how all of them will react as I craft these entries. - Joi Ito

I don't know anyone in the US State Department and I've never been a DJ, but I know that people reading this blog fall into several different groups. Which is fine: I don't "have to imagine" any of them when I'm writing a post, let alone think of all of them. Equally, Actually Existing doesn't exhaust everything I think is important, or every way I think about significant stuff. I'm writing with an audience in mind, but the only way I define the people in it is as the kind of person who would read a blog like this. Meanwhile, I'm writing as the kind of person who would write a blog like this. It works for me; the definition's not so much circular as self-instantiating.

As it says on the right, I also blog elsewhere. At The Sharpener, I'm one of a group of bloggers - 17 of us at last count - who write about politics. Sharpener pieces are usually fairly long and closely argued, and come to a definite point (ho ho); they're also relatively impersonal. It's blogging as opinion column, essentially. Since I've been writing for the Sharpener, the posts I write here have been getting more informal and less impersonal. It's a matter of degree, though; Actually Existing has its own character, which I want to preserve.

I write Apparently... (no relation to the David McKie column) in work time. It's a blog where I talk about the more speculative side of my current job; it's also for talking about metadata, ontology, taxonomies, ethnoclassification and tagging (among other things), and for responding to arguments raised by Clay Shirky, David Weinberger, Shelley Powers, Pietro Speroni and Suw Charman (among other people). The topics covered in Apparently... are of great interest to a small group of people and of great indifference to the rest of the world. Let's move on.

Me, singing is a blog with one purpose: collecting the lyrics of the songs I've written in the last few years, together with a few notes on what I think about the songs, how they came to be written and who I ripped off in the process. As I write this there are seven songs up there, out of a total of 22. For obvious reasons, this site's much more personal than any of the others; its audience consists mainly of its author. Really, it's not so much a blog as an online repository. Comments are enabled, though - blogs which don't take comments are a pet hate of mine.

Finally, what can I say about Sir Frederick William Jefferson Bodine that he hasn't already said himself? Not a lot, I'll go bail. It is my sad duty to bring the world Remembering Judy Garland, Sir Frederick's pitifully incomplete memoirs, in the hope that the all-too-impressionable youth of today may profit from the lessons contained therein (whatever they may be). Sir Frederick isn't a frequent flyer, up here in the blogosphere; what he actually remembers about Judy Garland, these days, could be written on the back of a paper napkin, and in fact has been on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, his memoirs are - as Sir Frederick comments himself - an invaluable account of
a life in the green room; a life which I can truly say has been lived among the stars; a life that's full, in which I've travelled each and every byway. But more, much more than this.
So that's "Me, elsewhere"; that's Phil Edwards, blogger. It's not that big a deal.

One of the great things about blogs is that it accelerated the the conversation on the web and increased the bandwith. Phone calls are even faster. - Ross Mayfield

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I read the news today, oh boy

Middle England says: Why can't they just stop people doing nasty things? No, really - why not?

Under the new laws, the owners of hedges that are more than two metres tall can be fined up to £1,000 by their local authority if they refuse to cut them down.

The only problem is that some councils will charge those who complain about their neighbour's hedges a fee of up to £550 to investigate and rule on the matter. One protest group has described the charges as "deplorable".

"If I throw a brick through your window, when the police come, they don't charge you a fee, do they?" said Clare Hinchliffe, a spokeswoman for Hedgeline, which lobbies on behalf of victims of high hedges.

The police say: We shoot to kill and we don't care who knows it

Ball-bearing guns used by children could be banned after a string of
cases involving serious injuries.

The pistols, which fire plastic pellets, are not classed as firearms
because they are considered too low-powered to be fatal.

But the death of two-year-old Andrew Morton after being shot in the head with an airgun in Glasgow earlier this year prompted safety concerns. Police officers have also warned that teenagers carrying them may be mistaken for armed criminals and shot by marksmen.

A Guardian reader says: This really doesn't make any sense, does it?

So the police will have the right to stop me in the street to check my ID card. If I don't have the card, I may be required to present it at the station at a later date, as drivers may be required to present their documents. If I fail to comply, how can the police prove it was me they asked? If they can prove it was me, what's the point of the card?
- Dave Forbes, Widnes

Vegans say: Why can't everyone else be like us? No, really - why not?

Vegans branded the event "unethical" and said the cheese should be replaced with a non-dairy alternative.

Yvonne Taylor, chair of the animal rights campaign group Peta, said: "It's just not fair that vegans cannot enjoy the fun of the cheese rolling contest."

lobbies on behalf of victims of high hedges

mistaken for armed criminals and shot

It's just not fair.

Petulant self-righteousness, meet unaccountable authority. You'll get on well together.