Sunday, November 10, 2013

At The Setting Of The Sun

This weekend, every English Premier League footballer played with a red poppy on his shirt. Each of them was, apparently, commemorating the British servicemen and women who have died in action in the last century. They urged us to give money to the Royal British Legion, a charity dedicated to looking after the welfare of serving and former members of the British military, and their dependants. They therefore urged us to give money to a charity dedicated to looking after the welfare of members of the British Army unit which a British judge described in his court martial judgment as 'closing ranks' to protect the men who, in the 36 hours after he was taken into custody, inflicted at least 93 wounds on Baha Mousa, killing him, so that only one man was sentenced, for one year, for Mousa's murder. They therefore urged us to give money to a charity dedicated to looking after members of an organization which was recently subject to 135 High Court cases,  involving the alleged deaths of at least 247 named individuals, dealing with its treatment of civilians during its occupation of parts of Iraq after 2003. Indeed, everyone wearing a poppy is supporting and urging others to support a charitable organization dedicated to providing services for men and women who volunteered to fight for a military which not only engages in unjust wars of choice, but whose members shoot dead their injured foes as well as torture their captives. The Guardian published a piece online earlier this week where the author described how they no longer wanted to wear a red poppy because of the way it is used to deflect awkward questions about what exactly what the soldiers it commemorates were fighting for. Although all that is true, you don't need to go that far. Just look at a picture of Baha Mousa's face.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Good Luck!

The Guardian has been busy today congratulating itself on having been the vehicle chosen by Edward Snowden to make his revelations about the scale of NSA and GCHQ surveillance on the web. It's understandable that journalists in particular would be concerned about the extent that the security services could track electronic communications, since of course it compromises their ability to use sources. Similarly, that, on the back of trying to cast Ed Miliband as a rootless cosmopolitan whose interest in controlling energy prices is obviously just like expropriating the kulaks, The Daily Mail turns itself into the mouthpiece of shroud-waving securocrats is only to be expected. This just shows it's not really interested in journalism, except when it consists in misrepresenting matters of public record to smear people. I wonder, though, whether the Snowden revelations are what civil libertarians ought to be really concerned about at the moment. Democratic governments have been tapping peoples' phones and opening their post, both significantly more serious violations of privacy than tracking but not reading emails, since they've existed. Investigative journalism is still done, politicians are still held to account, and when these things don't happen, it's not obviously because MI5 knows whom you've sent emails to. More, Google and the like already have much of this information and more. Are huge multinational private companies somehow more innocent than imperfect but at least democratically accountable national governments? Rather than worrying about Prism and Tempora, it seems to me that the UK Government's plans to make it impossible to rent accommodation, open a bank account, or legally drive a car if you can't prove you have the right to remain in the UK are a direct and serious threat to the ability of hundreds of thousands of people in the UK to live minimally decent lives. What if your landlord wants to evict you while your visa's being renewed, which can take months? Britons used to regard the idea that without proof of who you were, you could be picked up by the police as the hallmark of absolutist or totalitarian regimes, central to their control over their populations. If Theresa May's plans are passed, although you still won't be able to be picked up off the streets, you may be condemned to live on them.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Last Refuge Of Scoundrels

E. H. Carr, quoting Cavour to D'Azeglio:

If we were to do for ourselves what we do for Italy, we should be great rogues.

Carr may have replicated the faults he pointed out in others, but for all that, at least he knew that politics wasn't applied moral philosophy.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Details, Mere Details

E. H. Carr's The Twenty Years Crisis is, in light of certain recent discussions in political theory and philosophy, a rather interesting book. He had originally wanted to call it Reality and Utopian, and his critique of a kind of Wilsonian idealism about international relations mirrors the now common criticism in contemporary political theory that highly idealized theories of what it would take to realize a given value are not likely to be particularly useful guides to action. One of the claims he makes in pursuing that argument is that such theories are nothing more than a reflection of the interests of the dominant powers or classes of the time they are formulated in. That is surely too bold and deterministic to be quite true, but it does make Carr's own insistence that the inhabitants of Great Britain are Englishmen, just as the inhabitants of Italy are Italians, France are Frenchmen, and Germany are Germans, quite notable.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

It's Her Factory

Apparently, at least the States, "family formation negatively affects women’s, but not men’s, academic careers... [f]or men, having children is a career advantage; for women, it is a career killer". It's hardly surprising that women face disadvantages relative to men in US academia: what's remarkable about Colin McGinn is not that he sent a series of sexually suggestive emails to a female graduate student, but that his university decided this was behaviour worthy of sanction. US academia does not sound like an attractive place to be a woman. What's interesting is that while forming a family is bad for women, it's good for men. Married men do better than their unmarried colleagues. The effects of 'the pram in the hall' are not just significant, but they pull in opposite directions depending which gender you are. That, I think, suggests two things about the problem. First, the cause of the problem isn't babies as such, but patterns of division of domestic labour. Unmarried men tend to do worse than married men, perhaps, because they lack an unpaid domestic servant who ministers to their needs and allows them to avoid doing any work apart from paid work. Second, the author's solutions, which focus on making academia more sensitive to the demands on parents' time, can't be a complete solution. This is not just because men will not take advantage of these entitlements to spend time with their families but use them to further their careers, but also because it's only if you have unreasonable demands on your time in the first place that work as flexible as thinking and writing about things are incompatible with child-rearing or indeed any other commitment apart from paid work. End the tenure track.

Monday, June 17, 2013

No And I Don't Give A Good Goddamn

Alasdair Gray has famously kept using "work as if you live in the early days of a better nation" as a kind of motto, a spur to trying for more than seems sensible or perhaps even possible. Perhaps though, it would be better to work as if we are in the final days of a worse nation; vindictive, unafraid of casting our enemies down, contemptuous of power in our confidence that it will fall and that it deserves to. Were we to work as if we were in the early days of a better nation, we could be guilty of gilding our chains with flowers, of shying away from describing the squalor and constraint we live under. Perhaps artists should gild our chains with flowers; maybe the aesthetics of its inspirational power means that lie, that great lie, it involves is one they should tell. For someone trying to understand politics rather than gesture at the ideals  we should hope for it to realise though, it would be naive to ignore the difficulty of amassing a coalition capable of taking anything but the most incremental steps towards a more just world, of overcoming the significant forces ranged against achieving justice. Political theorists then might have reasons to be more intransigent, more insistent on the basic truth that our world is unjust and less hopeful, complacent even, about the changes needed to bring that to an end. Gray adapted the phrase from a Canadian poet, who only claimed that "best of all is finding a place to be/ in the early days of a better civilization". The best is not what we have here and now though, and pretending may not be the best way of ensuring we do.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Help For Heroes

From an LRB piece on the killing of Baha Mousa and the botched British Army investigations into it, a statement by a former detainee about his treatment after being arrested by British forces in November 2006.

[The soldiers who arrested him] beat him severely, slammed him against a wall and forced him into a stress position in which they stood on his knees and back. His 11-month-old son’s arm was stamped on and broken, and his father had to urinate on himself. The soldiers removed business documents, computers, mobile telephones, licensed guns and 40 million Iraqi dinars … At the [Brigade Processing Facility] the Claimant was initially hooded and earmuffed, then goggled. He was interrogated aggressively, struck with a stick and threatened with Guantánamo. In between sessions he was forced into a stress position in the cold for 30 hours and stoned and beaten. He was twice taken to medics, but not to the toilet, so he urinated on himself … [On arrival at a second detention facility] he was goggled and earmuffed, forced to undress in public and examined by a medic while naked. A female saw him nude. He spent 36 days in solitary confinement in a tiny freezing cell with restricted bedding, food and water. Soldiers beat him, prevented him sleeping by banging his door and shouting insults, restricted his privacy in toileting and showering and twice had sexual intercourse in front of him. Pornographic movies were played loudly and pornographic magazines left in sight. Soldiers exposed themselves, groped each other and masturbated in front of him … Humiliations continued at Camp B with poor conditions, beatings, food deprivation, threats, intimate searches and intimidation with dogs … He was released in November 2007 having had no explanation for his detention. His property was never returned.

Remember that next time someone assumes that British soldiers have some special entitlement to praise and support.