“You’re so dangerous and it’s so exciting.” (On UUK)

Another stupid, misleading article by Myriam Francois-Cerrah:

Universities UK’s guidance was not about the rights or wrongs of segregating an event by gender, rightfully steering clear of this important discussion in order to allow, as a free society should, the full expression of a range of distasteful, illiberal and even offensive views. It’s a lesson Muslims are regularly lambasted with. This means that although as a Muslim, I oppose the segregation of lectures along gender lines, even side by side, I’m glad British universities have upheld their commitment to securing free speech and promoting debate, which is exactly what university is about. It is now up to Muslims internally to push forward with greater gender equity, increase female representation and challenge sexist views which bend theological interpretations to fit their patriarchal desires. Banning segregated seating will do nothing to resolve the misogyny which at times underpins it.

“Do anything controversial, however bad, and I’ll support it. Because I like disagreeing with things.” And who said careerists were vacuous?

Francois-Cerrah has either not read UUK’s guidance, which she so readily explains to us, or she has so subsumed herself into the inferiority complex of the Muslim community that she feels that she must throw herself behind its most reactionary – and unrepresentative – elements. It’s either ignorant or dishonest.

Firstly, take a look at what UUK actually said:

Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely- held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.

In other words, for men and women to choose to sit next to one another in a public gathering is an attack on the speaker’s “genuinely-held religious beliefs”; if you do not abandon your rights when you are instructed, you are being an odious, inward-looking and regressive troublemaker. Indeed, Omar Ali appeared on Channel 4 News to celebrate the victory of religious bigotry as being that “we live in a liberal society.”

One has to wonder whether he has completely misunderstood the meaning of liberalism – which, to its credit, were such frivolities as the emancipation of women – or whether the political Islamic pressure groups have finally understood the virtues of their alliance with the far-left.

But to Francois-Cerrah:

It is Universities UK which is calling for bans; here, on the right of individuals to express their beliefs in the physical (not merely “spiritual”) equality of the two sexes. That is an assault on freedom of expression. No one is saying that deluded victims of indoctrination – male or female – may not voluntarily segregate themselves at a mosque or Agatha Christie-esque dinner party. But I will not allow you to force me to sit where I do not wish to sit.

1) Grow up.

2) This is why we need socialism and not this stupid wishy-washy liberal attitude to things.


Stop abusing Voltaire.

I forget why – something probably riled me on Twitter – but I was thinking about that quote widely, if erroneously, attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

It makes for a very poor argument. We can do much better. Hardly one to whom hubris was unknown, Voltaire would nevertheless, on the back of his truer if more ironic comment – that “a witting saying proves nothing” – have known how flippant that dictum is; why it has become the most lubricated quote on liberal matters completely eludes me.

Firstly, how many people say things that they really believe? To me it doesn’t matter; arguments don’t change. But there is a problem in “Voltaire’s” suggestion, perhaps reminiscent of Milton’s statement in Areopagitica that the vocalising of injustices may undo them, that an individual’s emotional engagement matters. It’s very easy to understate another person’s intellectual integrity, however high-minded you might be of your own. It allows, for example, the religious to prioritise their “genuinely-held beliefs” (as that semi-literate report from Universities UK put it) over secularists, whose views apparently lack divine sanction.

Matters of deeply-held beliefs shouldn’t matter, but when this part of the quote is challenged it leads on to part two:

Will you really fight to the death to say something of which you disapprove? A few minutes on Twitter, with all the virtual safeguards afforded to the cowardly guttersnipe intelligentsia, and their bitterness, provides a rough glance into what people think when they are without their social mannerisms and inhibitions. They (or we, I guess) hide behind keyboards because we want people to know that they are wrong, and they must, at once, alter their views. I for one, I suspect like most others, do not tweet out of a desperate urge to laud pillocks and their faceless avatars.

It is necessary, in other words, to be a political masochist in order to defend freedom of expression. And I am not sure whether it is a positive or negative corollary that this means most people will not, by instinct, want everyone to say what they want. So the statement entirely fails to convince; freedom of expression is all about legal safeguards, not the curious system of liberal fealty that Voltaire supposedly cherished.

No, no. This over-worn cliche – however succinct – is weak; detach it from Voltaire and throw it away. In our fight for pithy principles I’d much rather turn to my favourite heroine; the greatest rebellion against the classical view of human liberty – see Dryden’s stale remark that “slaves are made citizens by turning round” – was dreamt in a single line by Rosa Luxemburg: “Freedom,” she said, “is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.”

There.

Now stop filling Voltaire’s mouth with garbage.


Stupid Students 1: The haunting fear someone may be having fun.

What better way to celebrate this week’s Thanksgiving than with a dose of liberating puritanism:

The Sun newspaper has been banned from sale at the Union, following a student vote.

Politics student, Niall MacLaughlin submitted the idea for the Union to support the No More Page 3 campaign by refusing to sell The Sun.

MacLaughlin told LS: “it is my belief, shared by many other students here, that Page 3 is damaging and completely out of place in a newspaper.”

The first year student has since been targeted by internet trolls.

This would be a relevant moment, if somewhat arbitrary in its timing, at which to kick off a new blog series about Stupid Students. Being a student myself, with absolutely no viable ambitions in campus politics, the most I’ll ever contribute is with embittered hissing noises from under the dust of this blog; I might as well make them honest.

So to begin with Leeds. At the risk of some whataboutery, I’m genuinely puzzled by these people’s mindsets:

  1. Replace “internet trolls” with “counter-revolutionary saboteurs”. Feels a tad Stalinist, don’t you think?
  2. The niqab, much like prostitution and Page 3, justifies itself under the illusion – however real – of resulting from a woman’s “choice” when external compulsion is usually a far more powerful cause. Will the veil be banned? I suppose not.
  3. Will it be banning any other potential outlets of women’s objectification? Porn websites? Sexist jokes? Pink aprons? Men with overbearing and over-enchanting charisma?
  4. More tangibly, where is the outrage at UUK’s acquiescence to sexual apartheid?
  5. What will happen if the rules are broken?
  6. And, finally, perspective. The visceral climate of British feminism could do with re-evaluating itself from time to time.


“At least facetiousness is funny.”

So says Russell Brand:

Brand condemns some rather old problems, among them inequality and “political disillusion”: only then, with the same swiftness, to dismiss some relatively useful questions about how on earth they might be addressed. Which is rather to miss both the point and the long intellectual history to have spent time struggling with it.

Socialism makes the modest suggestion that welfare should not depend upon the charitable donations of the rich and religious to the deserving poor, a view that holds petty paternalism and charity as insults to human dignity – what Marx called the soothing of the heart-burned aristocrat. It’s why charges of hypocrisy are so ludicrous: “champagne socialism” is an attempt to vomit egalitarians out of public discourse with a pithy remark, alluding, apparently, to the miso soups and lattes over which they denounce the bourgeoisie. (I can only afford cava myself but we’ll let that pass.)

Is this really “hypocrisy”? Compare socialism with the sickly utopianism of so-called “compassionate capitalism”: a view – usually of the wealthy and often of the masochists whom they exploit – in which the accumulation of money by private individuals can only and inevitably operate to the benefit of wider society. It’s why the liberals who befriend this fatuous verdict are usually such chillingly dull specimens.

Now: whatever questions might be raised about the viability of economic rationalisation under socialism (usually envisaged as being without a monetary system), or the popular tyranny that any “revolution” would risk stirring, there’s at least a sense of commitment to this ideology. On the practical level, you might say, there’s the nationalisation of production; and more romantically there are distant visions of equality and internationalism. Neither scientific nor humanistic impulses can be separated from socialism.

Brand, on the other hand, has nothing to say on this tradition: he’s an anarchist of the most vacuous sort. It’s the political activism of weed and hedonism: he was arrested for public nudity in 2001 as though ventral modesty and complicity in child labour were inextricable allies. As a rule, anarchism doesn’t impress me; it’s a commitment to distaste rather than principle, the populism of idiocy and intellectual dishonesty plagued by the frivolous hypocrisy of which socialists have the right to be dismissive. In 1968, thousands marched through London demanding Harold Wilson take a moral lead in his foreign policy; while the Occupy Movement, four decades later, would say nothing beyond vaguely austere denunciations of capitalism and Wall Street suits somewhat overly overly-sharp for the primate species that we are.

If we don’t confront social crises, they’ll defeat us: it is not enough to complain about flooding in winter and then to stay silent when people march against building the flood gates in spring. And that is why Lenin and Brand should never be mentioned in the same sentence.

Goodness. How on earth did I become this left-wing?


Not In My Name: Why I Left the Labour Party

In 1939, in order to be excused from joining the war, Mussolini sent Hitler such a ludicrously long list of materials he needed that the Fuhrer simply waved them away. The hope was to jump in a few months later, win the war, and then claim the credit from the good old Berliner fascist.

I thought about that as I watched the horror on Ed Miliband’s face as he realised that he had, in fact, defeated the government on the matter of launching strikes against Assad; that rather than appearing to be the strong leader who had forced concession after concession from a war-monger, whom he could then criticise for his efforts while satisfying the undercurrent in his party longing for an intervention, he had forced Britain to abandon the principle of aiding the Syrians through military measures. He wanted to have his cake, eat it, and then serve up the excrement to the unsuspecting British public.

I have, as a consequence, left the Labour Party.

The Looming Legacy

“We have absolutely abandoned any idea of nationalist loyalty,” Clement Attlee told the Labour Party conference at Southport, in 1934. “We are deliberately putting a world order before our loyalty to our own country. We say we want to see put on the statute book something which will make our people citizens of the world before they are citizens of this country.”

True to his word, Attlee visited the volunteer British Battalion of the International Brigade in Spain, in 1937, who conjured the “Major Attlee Company” in his honour. But the most inspiring moment was perhaps in 1939 when the Republican government in Spain was close to collapse, Barcelona nearly overrun; the British public, resting in that awkward winter between Chamberlain’s announcement of “Peace For Our Time” and Hitler’s invasion of Bohemia and Moravia, had less stomach for war than in two decades; and there was expected to be a general election in a years’ time. And in spite of all that weighing in on his political capital, Attlee stood at a podium in Whitechapel to unveil Picasso’s Guernica as an attempt to raise funds for the Republican war effort. The goal was to persuade working-class Londoners, for whom the entry fee was only a pair of shoes, of the urgency facing their Spanish comrades.

b4570989b7313010_clement-atlee-speaks-before-picassos-guernica-at-the-whitechapel-gallery[1]

Clement Attlee unveiling Picasso’s “Guernica” at Whitechapel, 1939.

By a soft rhyming of history, to paraphrase the late Seamus Heaney, just as Attlee was forging alliances against fascism his predecessor was joining it for tea. First Hitler, and then Mussolini, the pacifist George Lansbury paid visit to all the leaders of Europe in 1937 believing them “children of one Father”. Reminiscing shortly before his death, Lansbury remained determined that “Christianity in its purest sense might have had a chance”; he had grasped perhaps a little too confidently Hitler’s commitment to an old man to a World Peace Conference under the chairing of Roosevelt. Lansbury’s failed nomination to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1940, the year of his death, was tragically fitting – it seemed to admit with a sigh of regret that, though the dove is peaceful, he cannot change the nature of the lion.

In his will, Lansbury gently requested that his ashes be scattered at sea because “although I love England very dearly … I am a convinced internationalist.” Neither his idealism nor Attlee’s pragmatism compromised their humanitarian impulses, which had simply been schooled in different ways. Neither undermined the basic instinct that transcended the trivialities of national barriers, languages and economies. Though both saw that the better world could be much better realised as a webbed community, only Attlee understood what the Tory benches meant when they shouted, “Tell that to Hitler!”

The Wretching Legacy

Nostalgia isn’t any good for anyone. The historian betrays his discipline if it livens him up too much; I am not attempting to draw a bland parallel between the Republican government and the rebel forces fighting Assad. The civil wars in Spain and Syria both began as struggles for pluralism, morphing into proxy wars from foreign powers with the liberal democracies sitting idly by – but we will never know how the Spanish war may have evolved if Attlee had won parliament over to his cause of ending the “farce of non-intervention”, as he called it. Would the Republicans have won? Or is it possible that, had Britain and France sent troops to aid the Republicans, the Germans would have doubled their efforts and in so doing brought war to the allies and defeated them?

We can never know, of course, and these sorts of questions don’t tend to be especially fruitful. But counter-factuals aren’t wildly different to the speculations filling the columns of every wannabe “expert” on Syria right this second; we must not presume that simply because one believes bombing Assad will help the secularists in the ranks of the Syrian rebels and the millions of displaced civilians that he is right to do so, or that those who oppose the methods he proposes are isolationists or hysterical “anti-imperialists”.

I’m a bit of a puritan, you see – motive is everything. A right action performed for the wrong reason is morally frivolous; equally, I’ll forgive a mistake made by an honest man.

So after Cameron agreed to publish the legal case for war, and then the Joint Intelligence Committee’s evidence for Assad’s responsibility, and then to work through the UN as far as the Security Council would allow, and then for a second vote after the UN reported its findings, why still did Ed Miliband vote against the government?

Did he fear that strikes against Assad’s weren’t worth the civilians they might kill, or that we should find a more humane route of assisting the democrat rebels with the long-term prospect of bringing down another Baathist dictator? Was it the imminenscy of a jihadist bloodbath if he falls? Did Miliband, instead, call for open borders for Syrian refugees and billions of pounds of international aid to be sent to those who remained?

All of these positions would have been honourable, and though I might have disagreed with them would at least have been comforted by the prospect of a principled leader.

With this in mind, allow us to consult the reasons he emailed to party members:

  1. We must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and report to the UN Secretary Council;
  2. There must be compelling and internationally-recognised evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks;
  3. The UN Security Council should debate and vote on the weapons inspectors’ findings and other evidence. This is the highest forum of the world’s most important multilateral body and we must take it seriously;
  4. There must be a clear legal basis in international law for taking military action to protect the Syrian people;
  5. Any military action must be time limited, it must have precise and achievable objectives and it must have regard for the consequences of the future impact on the region.

The only man of importance still uncritically recycling Assad’s narrative, Vladimir Putin, holds a veto on the Security Council; I will not believe that a man who taught at Harvard cannot see the moral farce of a man selling tanks to its only non-Soviet ally, to kill children, advising on the principles of judicial legitimacy. As he well knows, no serious politician could bring this program into the Commons. Miliband has whipped his party into the stables of Moscow, by accident, and is now telling his passengers to enjoy the sights.

Not a single Labour MP voted with the government on Thursday. Not one. Their amendment failed; and so when the government’s motion was proposed to the house, it became a choice between the principle to support military intervention and to rule it out entirely. Ed Miliband grabbed his opportunity, and he reaped his rewards.

Unapologetic – and unhumbled – by his party’s victory over Cameron, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander appeared on the BBC to say:

If [Cameron] was now to return to the Commons, and say, “Well, actually, the President of the United States has decided to go to the Congress, I’ve changed my mind about what Parliament was saying and about what the British people were saying,” I think that would weigh very heavily on the ability for him to convince the public or parliament that his judgement was sound. [Emphasis mine.]

If the decision were a principled one, Alexander would not be invoking public opinion into the vindication of his leader’s decision; and it’s beginning to make sense that the Shadow International Development Secretary, Ivan Lewis, would happen to be the architect of Miliband’s project for old-school Tory paternalism, “One Nation”.

And this when the need for international solidarity has never been so great. The working-class electorate in Britain is – as Marx defined it, at any rate – shrinking, and labour power passing overseas. This is especially true of the Arab world whose economies are based heavily on undercutting European manufacturing, leading to artificially depressed wages and living standards. In times of war, we have an opportunity to alleviate some of that suffering that now has pushed northern territories of Syria into the open embrace of clerical fascism. Instead, Labour does nothing.

There’s some hysteria out there that Miliband has allied himself with the isolationism of UKIP – but that is rather to miss the point. One can be a patriot and an internationalist, because it’s possible, as Orwell put it, to wish for the best for those who bring colour into your daily life but to contextualise them as one school of art among many. One cannot, however, be a populist and an internationalist, because the moment you put vote-counting before international solidarity then you cease to truly believe in the equality of nations, and instead leave it dependent on the arbitrary whims and fantasies of mob rule.

An Abdication From Giving A Shit

For once, Miliband has it right that the vote on Thursday is not an invitation for “soul-searching” (hopefully not to excuse himself from the doctor’s invitation to Syria). But what’s a party without its members?

Looking back it’s odd to think that it was Tony Benn’s speech at the Oxford Union last year – a man who has otherwise not said anything sensible for two decades – that confirmed my faith in the Labour Party. When asked why he stayed a member of a party so mutated by its “Thatcherite tendencies” he responded, in a tone of slightly self-righteous victim-hood, that Labour was nothing if not a coalition. The best that one could hope for was that those closest to sharing his views would lead the party forward.

But LabourList revealed the results of a rather telling poll on the day of the vote, one which deep down I knew I was losing as I voted:

And what reasons did the readership provide for this landslide hostility to punitive strikes?

81.8% of LabourList readers said that Labour should only support action backed by the UN (as opposed to Miliband’s position, which involves evidence presented to the UN and debate by the Security Council, but doesn’t imply support from Russia/China is needed for military action). Only 18.2% said that Labour should back action without the UN.

I wish the likes of MPs Tom Harris, Ben Bradshaw and Megg Mun all the best of luck, anamolies though they are: they recognised the importance to support Syrian civilians, whatever form that should take. But I cannot overcome the apathy to greet Putin, Assad, Nasrallah and Khamenei dining on Friday to celebrate Britain’s moral lethargy, Asma even on a diet (because of all the children she’s been eating).

It is regrettable, it is sad, but decisive: the Labour Party, whose worst leader was said to be the Ramsay MacDonald who still had the guts to abandon the Fabians when they refused to condemn the Boer War, has fallen to those Western narcissists who have stolen the name “socialist” and extracted its heart. It is a wicked twist of fate for those of us now reluctantly named “liberal interventionists” that Blair, who abolished Clause IV from Labour’s constitution, would appear to be the last internationalist of Labour leaders; that the stumbling Red Ed should choose party politics over the death of non-English speaking children, for whom he clearly shares no more affinity than the average Joe.

The deeply humanitarian principles of the party have either melted away or slipped into the manifesto: the would-be programme of a “grown up” political party. One has only to ask, I suppose, why it was able to last for so long.

And the gong has been struck; it is the sound of the disenchantment of socialism.


Turkey Needs A Literary Voice More Than Ever

Some time ago I submitted to your attention an article, written by Ayfer Tunç, expressing the need for Turkish literature to stand independent from any supposed Occident-Orient conflict. She argued that such a narrow literary outlook confined its voice to a set of Western expectations in which there was no space for nuance, overlooking poetic idiosyncrasy as some sort of curious cultural trivia.

Over the weekend, Reuters reported that Erdogan’s government has replaced a number of key military personnel following its leadership coup in 2011:

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who chaired the Supreme Military Council meeting, has eroded the army’s power since his Islamist-rooted AK Party first came to power in 2002. The secularist military staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pushed the first Islamist-led government out of office in 1997.

The council decides on promotions and retirements of top officers every year at its three-day August meeting and had been expected to make major changes at this week’s gathering.

The forced retirement of paramilitary gendarmerie force commander General Bekir Kalyoncu, who had been the leading candidate to take over land forces, was the most unexpected of the Council’s decisions.

Media reports said Ankara was opposed to Kalyoncu leading the country’s land forces as he was regarded as a government critic and his name had cropped up in testimony in the trial of the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy against Erdogan’s government. A verdict on that trial is scheduled for Monday.

Instead, General Hulusi Akar was given the job and, according to custom, would be expected to replace General Necdet Ozel as overall armed forces head in 2015.

Meanwhile, General Ilker Basbug has been jailed for his role in the “Ergenekon” conspiracy – what would be appear to be the final gasp of the Kemalist secular military.

The removal of an unaccountable military has been essential since Turkey’s earliest bid to join the European Union in 1987; but the irony is that this is also precisely the methods deployed by authoritarian governments to consolidate their rule. They roll over the secular tradition under the pretense of civil rule – as we found ourselves arguing in remembering Morsi – only to restrict, simultaneously, the power of the voters who gave them the authority to do so. Democracy is meaningless without the constitutional commitment to human rights and political equality; but who now could protest if Erdogan were to lift the ban on religious parties?

Following the violent crackdown on the Gezi Park protests, Germany shut down negotiations on Turkey’s entry to the EU; in response, the Turkish EU minister has been quoted as saying “the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU” and that “if we have to, we could tell them, ‘get lost'”. Where, then, does this leave the Cypriot occupation, poorly enacted women’s rights, the denial of the Armenian genocide, intellectual property law, the Kurds, abuses of the environment?

European, Western, secular, religious, conservative, nationalist? As Hitchens said in 2011:

The nascent Islamist populist movement—the Justice and Development Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan—understood very well that, once in the European Union proper, Turkey would be prevented by EU law from submitting to another period of rule by men in uniform. We thus saw the intriguing spectacle of quite conservative and nationalist Turks (with a distinct tendency to chauvinism in Erdogan’s case) making common cause with liberal international institutions against the very Turkish institution, the army, that above all symbolized Turkish national pride and prestige. This cooperation between ostensibly secular and newly pious may have had something to do with a growing sense of shame among the educated secular citizenry of big cities like Istanbul, who always knew they could count on the army to uphold their rights but who didn’t enjoy exerting the privilege. The fiction of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s complex Nobelist and generally liberal author, has explored this paradox very well. His novel Snow is perhaps the best dress rehearsal for the argument.

We could really do with some more Orhan Pamuks to inform us about which direction Turkey is heading. Preferably beforehand…


“They are afraid of art.”

If you’re looking for insight into Saudi culture – optimism included – you might enjoy this interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the writer and director of Wadjda:

I am really looking forward to watching this film – about a Saudi girl’s determination to buy the bike of which her relatives deprive her. A few things stand out for me:

Al-Mansour states, explicitly, that her objectives were never intended to be political, or even polemical. Although she is conscious of the inevitable stirring she will cause in her home country – once it finally reaches the TV sets, cinemas being illegal – her central image is the innocence of childhood, not its corruption; by its nature it contends with something universal to the memories of all other Saudi women. Why is this significant?

It’s together with Al-Mansour’s rather warm appreciation of the ironic that I think justification for optimism might be found:

The post-9/11 Saudi government – suddenly conscious, as if surprised, that Wahhabi Islam might encourage jihadism – has introduced some token reforms to its systems to appease the White House, which though churned turgid by clerical conservatism might anticipate “giant steps” yet to come. Now, one wouldn’t expect subtle developments in how Saudi women view themselves to be recorded – not if, as she implies herself, women feel as invisible as they are.

But here we have a writer – of a comparatively “liberal” background, admittedly – who sees no real importance to a film exploring instances in which humour stands independent from the primitive, totalitarian background that produces it. Does this point to something wider, something shifting? Al-Mansour’s first film depicted a criminal who wore a burka to escape the law, for example, very much in contrast to the likes of Persepolis in which a girl comes of age under the regressing forces of the Islamic Revolution. Tragedy and satirical detachment arise from pessimism, decline; but comic irony is the signal fire of reformism and the nuance of cultural consciousness.