Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Killing

Did you see The Killing last night on BBC4?

If you didn't I recommend that you catch up. It's a Danish tv drama about a 20 day investigation into the murder of a young woman. Soon after the investigation begins evidence is found pointing to local politicians and the media.

What gives this show an edge is that, unlike most tv detectives, the lead character is a woman investigating what you could call a hate crime against women.

Genuinely thrilling stuff.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

House of Books

There's something about the physical paper book that cannot be replaced by an e-reader. It's the feel, the texture, the weight, and the sense that you're doing something that people have been doing at least since the days of Wynkyn de Worde.

Here's Saul Abramsky's account of his grandfather's house of books a house of books.
A little over 30 years ago, a family friend of my mother's came from Los Angeles to visit us in London, and was taken to see my grandparents' house near Hampstead Heath. An artist, he immortalised that evening with a black and white ink drawing. Titled Chimen Abramsky's House of Books, it showed a house the walls of which consisted entirely of books; the occupants sat around cluttered tables in old chairs drinking endless cups of coffee or tea while engaged in animated conversation.

Every single room of the house, except the bathroom and kitchen, was, indeed, lined floor to ceiling with books. And when the shelves were filled, the floors succumbed to great, twisting piles of paperbacks and hardbacks. To me, growing up, this house was my school, my library and my sanctuary when things got tough at home. My grandfather had been a bookseller in the East End from 1940 until the mid-1960s, an antiquarian, an academic – self-made, without even a completed degree. He had been studying history in Jerusalem in 1939, had come to London to visit his parents, and had been stranded by the outbreak of war; he never returned to his undergraduate studies. But he was soon corresponding with many of the world's leading intellects, sometimes writing as many as 10 letters a day.

To that extraordinary place traipsed generations of scholars and rabbis, politicians, refugees, artists, students.
Books, tea, coffee, cake, biscuits and conversation makes for a damn good afternoon.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A Nice Cup of Tea

Over in the USA Christopher Hitchens is complaining about the difficulty of finding a nice cup of tea. It's good to see the Hitch drinking tea. He discusses George Orwell's 11 golden rules for a nice cup of tea. Here are the tenth and eleventh rules:

# Tenthly, one should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.

# Lastly, tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.

Some people would answer that they don't like tea in itself, that they only drink it in order to be warmed and stimulated, and they need sugar to take the taste away. To those misguided people I would say: Try drinking tea without sugar for, say, a fortnight and it is very unlikely that you will ever want to ruin your tea by sweetening it again.
Go on, have a nice cup of tea.

[Hat tip: Norm]

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A critique of Brecher on universities and the neo-liberal revolution

In the current Chartist magazine Bob Brecher writes on universities and the neo-liberal revolution.
Education has always served two quite contrary needs: continuity and renewal. Now, provided the numbers are small, that is no great problem. The majority of that small minority can be safely relied upon to deal with continuity: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have performed that task magnificently for centuries. And the small minority (of the small minority) who do concern themselves with renewal will have in mind only those forms of renewal that serve, rather than undermine, the ruling order. So we should not be surprised that Cameron has a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (I'm not joking) from Oxford; his sidekick, Clegg, a BA in Social Anthropology from Cambridge. This presents a problem for contemporary capitalism. It needs to engage the vast majority for its project – as consumers, if not as producers. As it becomes more technologically complex, so it needs workers with more and more skills and more and more knowledge. With the increasing pace of technological change, it also needs those workers to be 'flexible', as Browne so disarmingly tells us. In short, the old division between those fit only for secondary modern schools and those who can be permitted to enter grammar school needs to go much deeper and to go on for much longer.
So we have the two conflicting needs served by education of continuity, the majority, and renewal, the task of a small minority of graduates or institutions? Whether these are "needs" of capital or "needs" of society is left unclear.

When Brecher argues that "[those who] do concern themselves with renewal will have in mind only those forms of renewal that serve, rather than undermine, the ruling order" he is negating the existence of left parties and groups who seek renewal of society through undermining and overthrowing the ruling order.

Why does Brecher write "we should not be surprised that Cameron has a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (I'm not joking) from Oxford"? Does Brecher find it funny that there is a PPE degree? Or does he find it funny that someone should have studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics and not be a socialist? Just as studying humanities subjects does not necessarily humanise the individual, the way, the truth and the light do not all appear to everyone who has followed the path of PPE. In any case Cameron and Clegg have both "proceeded MA" and relinquished all rights to their BA degree, as is the Oxbridge way.

How do you jump from saying an increasingly complex capitalism "needs [flexible] workers with more and more skills and more and more knowledge" to saying the "old division between those fit only for secondary modern schools and those who can be permitted to enter grammar school needs to go much deeper and to go on for much longer." The "old division" does not necessarily follow from the need for workers with more skills and more knowledge and more flexibility (whatever that means).
[I]t comes as no surprise that the most noticeable thing about academic responses to the Browne Report is that no one has seen fit to locate its recommendations in the context of the government's commitment to using the so-called economic crisis as a pretext for initiating a neo-liberal revolution beyond Thatcher's wildest dreams. It is as though its plans for the universities were ignorant, spiteful, blatantly illogical or all three. But they are not; unless we understand government policy for what it is we have not the slightest chance of overturning it, whether in the universities or elsewhere. The transformation of the universities from being a public good, and recognised as such, to being at once providers of private consumables and a vanguard of the values thus entrenched is an integral part of the neo-liberal fundamentalists' opportunistic revolution.
Now "no one has seen fit to locate [the Browne report's] recommendations in the context of the government's commitment to using the so-called economic crisis as a pretext for initiating a neo-liberal revolution beyond Thatcher's wildest dreams" is a claim of bewildering chutzpah. Does he mean that I, Bob Brecher, am the first to locate the recommendations as part of a neo-liberal putsch? Most people I talk to, some of them academics and some not, see everything this Con-Dem government does as part of a neo-liberal realignment.

It is, almost, beyond dispute that universities are a recognised public good. A university is failing its community if it does not dominate the culture and debate in its region. Also society benefits from having skilled and knowledgeable members but there has always been a private benefit to the individual from higher education. The individual often gets confidence and satisfaction from understanding how to come to terms with how the world works, or at least how a part of the world works, and, often, is paid more than those who haven't been through higher education. So universities produce a public good and, at the same time, a private good for its alumni. That has always been the case, even since William of Ockham's time.

Later Brecher asks why neo-liberals need to marketise the universities.
First, because neo-liberalism requires that the majority of people are taught not to think clearly and not to question what they're told, lest they rebel. Second, and this is even more important, if the universities can be made into vehicles of the neo-liberal creed then they will do more than most other social institutions to reproduce and enforce that creed. Not only will 'students' come to believe that everything – and perhaps everyone – is a commodity, but their teachers will themselves be products of the same ideology. For who but the rich will be able or willing to take on postgraduate work once they're already tens of thousands of pounds in undergraduate debt?
That is bollocks. That's more a description of the demands of a command and control economyy than neo-liberalism. Surely neo-liberalism requires that people believe in the tenets of neo-liberalism. It does not require "that the majority of people are taught not to think clearly and not to question what they're told". Neo-liberalism as a doctrine may be something I don't like and oppose, but it has its own logic and its own problems that require clear thinking to overcome. The neo-liberal doctrine of renewal through creative destruction also requires a reqular questioning of orthodoxy to do things in new ways.

Does Brecher suppose there are courses in universities on teaching people how not to think clearly? Surely it's more likely that people are just not taught how to think clearly. At the moment hardly any English universities have modules on critical thinking that teach logic and reasoning skills.

Just because the neo-liberal creed is being driven into universities that does not mean universities are neo-liberal vehicles. There is no necessary causal relationship between how a university, or university department, is funded and what it teaches. When Brecher asks "who but the rich will be able or willing to take on postgraduate work once they're already tens of thousands of pounds in undergraduate debt" surely the answer is those who know that that is what they need to do if they want to do what they want to do. It's not about being rich it's about coming to terms with a debt that you're not going to have to consider paying while you're still a student, even a postgrad. The debt may deter some people; it may attract some people in the way that some people prefer to pay to go to an attraction rather than to a cost-free art gallery. At the moment we don't know the debt's impact.

The next bit
Everything else – from engineering to physics to business to design – will become bereft of critical content, taught – again if that is the right word – by people who understand themselves to be 'delivering' quantifiable commodities to their customers.
is just more speculative bollocks. Why will these subjects "become bereft of critical content"? It's an interesting, and agreeable, definition of "teach" to only include subjects with critical content but can you teach calculus critically, and if you could, should you?

Yes, we can all agree that the Con-Dem government is taking advantage of the current fiscal crisis to drive ideological change.
So again, it will not be 'a huge mistake' to 'value our students simply for what we can get out of them or what they might earn in the future' because 'they will in turn estimate our value by what they can get out of us' ('Hefce chief: prepare for tough journey', Times Higher Educational Supplement. 28 Oct. 2010). On the contrary: that is exactly what Browne intends. The neo-liberal revolutionaries know exactly what they are doing and why. They intend to take advantage of the current 'crisis' – the ideological power of which is in inverse proportion to its material reality — by encouraging the √©lite universities to go private in frustration if for no other reason, forcing the 'bottom of the range' into the hands of commercial companies such as Kaplan and BBP and slowly strangling the rest as any sort of public institution. At least some academics are coming to realise this, and have just formed the Campaign for the Public University (http://publicuniversity.org.uk/).
It is a mistake to "value our students simply for what we can get out of them or what they might earn in the future", irrespective of Browne's intentions. If you don't see it as an egregious mistake it is still the wrong thing to do even if they are Browne's intentions. And, I think, Brecher, believes it is the wrong thing to do. If it is the wrong thing then, it is mistaken, even deliberately so.

As I understand it, all, bar one, of the higher education institutions in England are incorporated as private charities. The single exception is the Guildhall School of Music which is part of the Corporation of the City of London. So legally all, bar one, of England's universities are already private institutions.

Now we are heading to the conclusion:
So what is to be done? We must understand the ideological nature of the Coalition's attack on the universities and not be sidelined by their disguising it as a cost-cutting exercise: this year's planned bonuses for top bankers amount to three times current public spending on the universities. We have to understand and oppose it, not in isolation, as though it concerned the universities alone, but for what it is: a genuinely revolutionary policy.
Yes, it is important to understand this is an ideological attack on universities and society and is merely disguised as a cost-cutting exercise. That's fine and dandy. To then say "this year's planned bonuses for top bankers amount to three times current public spending on the universities" has no relevance to anything unless the money available for banker's bonuses is appropriated by the government. As an argument it's like saying that the money spent on scratch and sniff lotto cards each week is twice current public spending on universities. There is no connection, it's just 3 oranges added to a pomegranate. Now this final paragraph is fine.
Students, administrators and academics need to take themselves seriously as members of a university and to join forces with all the other workers, paid and unpaid, whom the multi-millionaire fundamentalists around the Cabinet table regard as so much dross. Most pressingly of all, academics have to understand, realise and use the power that as academics they have. A good starting-point would be to refuse to act as the self-interested egoists which too many of them have become and whom the neo-liberals would have the rest of us become; to refuse to compete with one another, whether within or across institutions, or with other groups of workers; and to make a new reality of what was once known as solidarity.
I have very little disagreement with the conclusion but the arguments used to reach the conclusion are a mix of speculation and ranting polemic with little evidence to back them up.

As always unite and fight against the neo-liberal agenda.

Gaza Manifesto for Change

Gaza Youth Breaks Out has issued a manifesto against Hamas; against Israel; against Fatah.

GAZAN YOUTH’S MANIFESTO FOR CHANGE

Fuck Hamas. Fuck Israel. Fuck Fatah. Fuck UN. Fuck UNWRA. Fuck USA!

We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community!

We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference like the Israeli F16’s breaking the wall of sound; scream with all the power in our souls in order to release this immense frustration that consumes us because of this fucking situation we live in; we are like lice between two nails living a nightmare inside a nightmare, no room for hope, no space for freedom.

We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes; sick of innocent farmers getting shot in the buffer zone because they are taking care of their lands; sick of bearded guys walking around with their guns abusing their power, beating up or incarcerating young people demonstrating for what they believe in; sick of the wall of shame that separates us from the rest of our country and keeps us imprisoned in a stamp-sized piece of land; sick of being portrayed as terrorists, homemade fanatics with explosives in our pockets and evil in our eyes; sick of the indifference we meet from the international community, the so-called experts in expressing concerns and drafting resolutions but cowards in enforcing anything they agree on; we are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas and completely ignored by the rest of the world.

There is a revolution growing inside of us, an immense dissatisfaction and frustration that will destroy us unless we find a way of canalizing this energy into something that can challenge the status quo and give us some kind of hope.

The final drop that made our hearts tremble with frustration and hopelessness happened 30rd November, when Hamas’ officers came to Sharek Youth Forum, a leading youth organization (www.sharek.ps) with their guns, lies and aggressiveness, throwing everybody outside, incarcerating some and prohibiting Sharek from working. A few days later, demonstrators in front of Sharek were beaten and some incarcerated.

We are really living a nightmare inside a nightmare. It is difficult to find words for the pressure we are under. We barely survived the Operation Cast Lead, where Israel very effectively bombed the shit out of us, destroying thousands of homes and even more lives and dreams. They did not get rid of Hamas, as they intended, but they sure scared us forever and distributed post traumatic stress syndrome to everybody, as there was nowhere to run.

We are youth with heavy hearts. We carry in ourselves a heaviness so immense that it makes it difficult to us to enjoy the sunset. How to enjoy it when dark clouds paint the horizon and bleak memories run past our eyes every time we close them?

We smile in order to hide the pain. We laugh in order to forget the war. We hope in order not to commit suicide here and now.

During the war we got the unmistakable feeling that Israel wanted to erase us from the face of the earth. During the last years Hamas has been doing all they can to control our thoughts, behaviour and aspirations.

We are a generation of young people used to face missiles, carrying what seems to be a impossible mission of living a normal and healthy life, and only barely tolerated by a massive organization that has spread in our society as a malicious cancer disease, causing mayhem and effectively killing all living cells, thoughts and dreams on its way as well as paralyzing people with its terror regime.

Not to mention the prison we live in, a prison sustained by a so-called democratic country.

History is repeating itself in its most cruel way and nobody seems to care. We are scared.

Here in Gaza we are scared of being incarcerated, interrogated, hit, tortured, bombed, killed.

We are afraid of living, because every single step we take has to be considered and well-thought, there are limitations everywhere, we cannot move as we want, say what we want, do what we want, sometimes we even cant think what we want because the occupation has occupied our brains and hearts so terrible that it hurts and it makes us want to shed endless tears of frustration and rage!

We do not want to hate, we do not want to feel all of this feelings, we do not want to be victims anymore.

ENOUGH! Enough pain, enough tears, enough suffering, enough control, limitations, unjust justifications, terror, torture, excuses, bombings, sleepless nights, dead civilians, black memories, bleak future, heart aching present, disturbed politics, fanatic politicians, religious bullshit, enough incarceration!

WE SAY STOP! This is not the future we want!

We want three things.
  1. We want to be free.
  2. We want to be able to live a normal life.
  3. We want peace.
Is that too much to ask? We are a peace movement consistent of young people in Gaza and supporters elsewhere that will not rest until the truth about Gaza is known by everybody in this whole world and in such a degree that no more silent consent or loud indifference will be accepted.

This is the Gazan youth’s manifesto for change!

We will start by destroying the occupation that surrounds ourselves, we will break free from this mental incarceration and regain our dignity and self respect.

We will carry our heads high even though we will face resistance.

We will work day and night in order to change these miserable conditions we are living under.

We will build dreams where we meet walls.

We only hope that you – yes, you reading this statement right now! – can support us. In order to find out how, please write on our wall or contact us directly: freegazayouth@hotmail.com

We want to be free, we want to live, we want peace.
FREE GAZA YOUTH!
GYBO
December, 2010


They are to be found on Facebook, of course.

The revolution will be twittered and facebooked.

Desolation Row

When you think of Detroit you think of Motown, the MC5, Iggy And the Stooges. Now look at these images of the decline of Detroit. If the buildings are just left, abandoned as if a couple of minutes notice were given of impending destruction, what of the people of Detroit?

In the related article the photographers say:
"As Europeans, we were looking with an outsider's eye, which made downtown Detroit seem even more strange and dramatic," says Meffre. "We are not used to seeing empty buildings left intact. In Europe, salvage companies move in immediately and take what they can sell as antiques. Here, they only take the metal piping to sell for scrap. In the Vanity ballroom alone, we saw four giant art deco chandeliers, beautiful objects, each one unique. It was almost unbelievable that they could still be there. It is as if America has no sense of its own architectural history and culture."
This is very much a symptom of the cycles of capital with the decline of Detroits' reason for being (that being the motor industry), and racial politics with "white flight" leaving a largely poor, and African-American city centre. To overthrow capitalism and replace it by something better is a laudable, and vital, aim. In Detroit it is as if capitalism has abandoned the people and their infrastructure, leaving little in the way of food shops and all the other essesntials of modern existence.

The conclusion is worth reading:
as [Thomas J Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit] puts it: "The abandoned factories, the eerily vacant schools, the rotting houses, and gutted skyscrapers that Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre chronicle are the artefacts of Detroit's astonishing rise as a global capital of capitalism and its even more extraordinary descent into ruin, a place where the boundaries between the American dream and the American nightmare, between prosperity and poverty, between the permanent and the ephemeral are powerfully and painfully visible. No place epitomises the creative and destructive forces of modernity more than Detroit, past and present."