Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Muswell Hill has lots of 'health shops' - we have a Planet Organic, a Holland and Barrett, and two vitamin shops. Last week I went in to one of them -- the delightfully named 'Panacea' -- to ask the staff there to shut the door. It was a cold day, and they had the heat full on with the door open.
I politely (really politely) pointed out that wasting heat and energy like that wasn't good for the planet, and that their customers might just possibly be the sort of people who cared about that sort of thing. The staff agreed, and said that they'd like to shut the door if only to keep out the traffic noise, but that the manager insisted that they keep it open so as to signal to customers that the shop wasn't closed.
So I asked for the manager's contact details, and phoned her and had another very polite conversation. She said she understood my view and hoped that I understood hers, but that she'd talk to the owner about it.
Yesterday I went past again. The door is now shut, the staff are even happier and more helpful, and there didn't seem to be fewer people in there. Hats off to Panacea for listening to customers!
And now I feel a campaign coming on...the nice manager in Rymans tells me that he'd like to close the shop door, but it's head office policy to keep it open.
Monday, December 14, 2009
That’s the claim of Shlomo Sand’s book, provocatively titled “The Invention of the Jewish People”. By choosing the word ‘invention’, Sand begins to stake his claim that the account of Jewish history with which we are familiar is not reliable – so ‘invention’ in the sense of inventing the facts – and has been consciously created.
This is a fascinating, dense but patchy work, and one that requires careful reading.
Some of the patchiness comes from the fact that this is really three quite different books locked inside a single cover.
The first book is a scholarly account of developments in the writing of Jewish history – a history of historians and histories. Here we are introduced to pioneers like Isaak Marcus Jost, to Heinrich Graetz, and to the arrival of Zionism in the making of Jewish history (and History Departments). This part of the book is based on a very strong theoretical approach to the relationship between nationalism and emergent national intelligentsias; Sand argues that though we tend to think of nationalism as premised on a pre-existing entity called the nation, in real history nationalism often comes before the nation – with nationalist movements bringing into being the entity that they claim to represent. This is particularly the case in the multi-national empires of Central and Eastern Europe, where intellectuals who couldn’t get their share of state patrimony created their own small ponds in which they could be the big fish. Sand recognises that all nations are to some extent “invented” – not only the later arrivals of Eastern Europe but also the major players like the English and the French.
The second book is a popular account of some key episodes in Jewish history. Sands debunks the widely held belief that the Bible can be relied on as a historical source, marshalling arguments from Biblical criticism and archaeology. (This shouldn’t really be necessary at all in the twenty first century, but a surprising number of intelligent people think that the stories in the Bible of the Exodus, or the United Monarchy of David and Solomon, are grounded in history rather than in myth).
More important, he examines the historical evidence for the Romans’ exile of the Jews from their land, and finds it wanting. And he shows the importance of conversions in the creation of large Jewish populations, both in the ancient world and in the middle ages – there are long treatments of the Jews of Southern Arabia, North Africa and Spain, and of course the Khazars.
The third book is the most polemical, focusing on the way that the specifically Zionist account of Jewish history has been used to construct a sense of Jewish identity that serves particular political ends. It looks at the impact of this process on Palestinian Arabs, Jews in Israel, and Jews elsewhere. It’s hard to find fault with much of this analysis, or with Sand’s conclusion that Israel is a ‘liberal ethnocracy’ – with the word ‘liberal’ used in a technical sense rather than as a term of approbation. One almost wishes that Sand had also taken aim at diasporic constructions of Jewish identity – the recent rows over the admissibility of converts to faith schools in the UK would have been an interesting addition to the story.
However, while this section will certainly be the part that is most interesting to readers of Jewish Socialist, but the latter should be aware that Sand is throwing a lot of secular Jewish identity baby out with the Zionist bathwater. He quotes with approval Rabbi Yeshaiahu Karelitz’s dictum that “the [secular-Jewish] cart is empty”, to bolter his argument that “There has never been secular Jewish culture common to all the Jews in the world”. He puts the boot in Simon Dubnow as a proto-Zionist, even though Dubnow’s thinking on Jewish nationality inspired alternative strands of Jewish nationalism and Dubnow himself was an inconstant Zionist and more often association with Diaspora autonomism.
Sand seems to be a very nice, thoughtful person. Some of the hatchet-job reviews on his book are unfair, if not unsurprising. Although he’s been accused of lack of sensitivity to the Jewish predicament, a prologue to the book full of quite moving personal anecdotes shows the very opposite. On the issue of how Israelis and Palestinians might be reconciled he is a pragmatic post-Zionist rather than an ‘Arab Nationalist of the Jewish Persuasion’, with lots of useful insights – and some wonderful stories about the early Zionist settlers hoped to recruit the Palestinian fellahin to an ethnically-based secular Jewish identity.
But he’s not been too well served by his editors. The book contains at least one howler that I spotted (in which the ‘Marxist Zionist’ Borochov changes his mind as a result of an episode twelve years after his death), and there may be more. There’s a long digression on recent research into Jewish genetics that doesn’t seem particularly well informed or useful. There are some odd omissions in the sources that Sand acknowledges – no mention of Ilan Halevi’s ‘History of the Jews’ which covers much of the same ground, no mention of Abram Leon (though a longish account of Kautsky’s views on the Jewish Question), not even a mention of Hobsbawm on ‘the invention of tradition’. The discussion of Khazar history says much about how it has been ignored by Zionist historians, but nothing about how it has been appropriated by anti-semites (including Henry Ford’s “Dearborn Independent”).
Ultimately, Sand’s book is an important one. It deserves reading, and Sand deserves some support for writing it – though of course, in the great tradition of the left, such support should be critical if unconditional.
Friday, November 20, 2009
Afterwards, HP sponsored the cocktails. To stay with the green theme, what did they do? Make cocktails from locally sourced, sustainably produced ingredients? No, they dyed them green with food dye. 'Nuff said?
Friday, November 13, 2009
Seems very unfair to victimise the civil servants who get bonuses at the MoD. It's an absolute item of management dogma that everyone has to have targets, so that their performance can be measured. And of course to give their managers something to talk about at their annual appraisal, and even more important, to give the HR department something to do - making up a new appraisal system every year or so.
The only way that office workers can be persuaded to participate in the targets game is if there is some incentive, however pitiful, for achieving your targets. So that means that part of their salary is paid as a 'bonus' dependent on performance. We are not talking wheelbarrows of share options here - most of the time we are talking a few hundred quid.
The real enemy here isn't the bonus recipients but the parasitical culture of HR and 'SMART' objectives.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
Sunday, October 25, 2009
I suspect the research is probably right, and demonstrates the hopelessness of trying to stop climate change one energy-saving light bulb at a time. The main effort has to be focused at policy and technical standards, and at changing the supply-side. Trying to change attitudes and behaviour will deliver too little, too late.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Always wondered whether those 'Lost Dog' notes posted on trees ever resulted in any dogs (or cats, or parrots) being found. Why should the routes taken by the lost dog correspond to those taken by the note-posters? The latter must put them up in what they consider to be their own locale but they probably don't ask the dog if it has a similar mental map. Or they didn't, before it got lost.
Delighted to see that a note posted on the gates of my local park has now been updated with 'Found - Thanks!' written across it. So they must work, at least some of the time.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
On Friday 9th October I attended a workshop on Climate Change and Violence organised by Crisis Forum, and held at Senate House in central London. This was the third in the series and was entitled 'Securing the State: Domestic Agendas”. I was attracted by the combination of academic and what can only be described as “practitioner” speakers – a retired Real Admiral speaking on 'what happens to societies and countries after catastrophic shock' and a policeman from the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (who'd heard of that?) speaking on 'Nodes and Networks: The Evolution of Security and Terrorism'.
It turned out to be quite a lively day. The morning kicked off with a presentation on risk by Edward Borodzicz for Portsmouth University, followed by one on Flooding in the UK by Tim Randall of the Oxford Disaster Management Group. The latter included some references to an interesting document from Munich Re-Insurance looking at catastrophes over the past 50 years (which seem to have increased in frequency and magnitude). Lots of references to other material, including the UK-CIP impact model for flooding and the Eurobarometer research on perceptions of climate change. There was, though, a slightly unpleasant undertone, especially in the discussion that followed, that seemed to suggest that everything was the fault of the Chinese; this seemed particularly unhelpful to me – it's equally possible to point to lots of positive developments in China, including some of the absolutely enormous wind farms that they are building.
In the afternoon we had the presentations from the practitioners. The Rear Admiral spoke about Iraq at some length, and about the impact of Katrina on New Orleans (which he made some effort to call “N'orlins”). The policeman spoke about how the state took responsibility to safeguard us all from terrorism, how climate change might make terrorism worse or more frequent, and how the bad guys might incorporate responsibility for climate change and resource conflict into their 'single narrative' of conflict with the West which they used for recruitment.
Not all of the liberal academics in the audience liked this very much, and one argued that the two presentations together were more like propaganda – at which the Rear Admiral very theatrically flounced out, claiming that he hadn't come there to be insulted. (Interestingly, he responded rather menacingly to the critic, who happened to be a black woman, that he could say things that would be just as offensive to her, which would cause her to walk out of the room – a new mode of racist insult, in which it's enough to insinuate that you know the appropriate epithet and don't need to use it, perhaps?). And one can't help thinking that if the senior ranks in the Navy can't cope with really quite mild questioning of their perspective, who do they conduct discussions internally?
Funnily enough the policeman, whose presentation was actually much more propagandistic, didn't take offence at all, and happily carried on chatting through the coffee break and the rest of the day. And the Rear Admiral's presentation (apart from a marketing pitch for navies as agencies of emergency relief) actually contained some very acute observations – notably that the agencies which are supposed to prepare for disasters make a very poor job of it because they plan for not-worst cases, and that gangsters almost always seem to make a very good job of responding. One can't help thinking that this deserves some further analysis; what is about these kinds of informal economic organisations that makes them such flexible organisations? After all, they tend to be hierarchical just like formal organisations – perhaps it's just the absence of paperwork...
The seminar ended with some much more acutely academic presentations on urban planning, which were less interesting for me, and a panel session, which was very stimulating.
Key take-aways for me were: a better understanding of how likely extreme events are; a sobering realisation that communities are more likely to collapse than rally round under this kind of pressure (though there are creditable exceptions); and a reluctant acceptance that the state probably doesn't care that much about maintaining my security, but is nevertheless may represent a better bet than organised crime.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Thursday, July 02, 2009
Even though the author doesn't say so, I think this article in The Guardian leads to some interesting thoughts about enterprise IT and UC in particular. Watching my teenagers play games and interact with their (sometimes very distant) friends I am aware that they will bring very different expectations to the working environment; I'm surprised that no-one working in enterprise communications seems to have even heard of Ventrilo, for example
Monday, June 29, 2009
For some sustainability optimists, the simultaneous crises of climate change and peak oil (to which we must now add the economic slump and debt crisis) is also a great opportunity. The need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and to live within our planet's needs is, they hope, a wake-up call for our civilisation, and the chance to move towards a different way of living.
This new way would be based on a deliberate, conscious decision to reduce the complexity and inter-dependence of our civilisation. It would involve re-localisation, a reduction in consumption of many unnecessary goods and services, a degree of de-industrialisation and re-engagement with more fundamental aspects of life such as food growing. We'd have less stuff, and our 'standard of living' as measured by conventional indices like GDP would reduce, but our quality of life would improve.
This kind of vision is sometimes accompanied with an evocation of the wartime spirit, with fond memories of digging for victory. The Slow Food movement, and even more the Transition Towns movement, are good examples of this kind of thinking. In essence, this view says Loose rather than Tight is the key to resilience, which in turn is the key to sustainability.
But there is another vision of a low-carbon, more sustainable society, which is more or less the polar opposite – even though it is also a plan for sustainability. It argues that we need less Loose – that Tight, and efficiency, are the only route to a sustainable society.
Here, sustainability depends on more technology and more centralisation to deliver efficiency gains; it's these that make it possible to reduce energy consumption and emissions without reducing the quality of life. So energy efficiency based on “smart grids” that link generation more closely to consumption – real-time monitoring of your electricity meter is a must. High-tech communications equipment in our homes substituting for travel – both for work and for leisure. We'd be less likely to have our cars, and we'd be more urbanised and densely packed, not less – especially since high-energy modes of transport would be less affordable.
This second vision is the one implicit in some of the plans for a sustainable future drawn up by business, by the big consulting firms and the technology industries, like the “SMART 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age” drawn up by the “Global e-sustainability Initiative”and The Climate Group.
Most of the time there is little contact between the two different visions. For the most part, the Green movement simply pretends that the high-technology model of sustainability doesn't exist; there are a few exceptions. Simon Fairlie at least confronts the issue head-on in his revisit to 'Can Britian Feed Itself?', in which he attributed to James Lovelock a plan whereby “a third of the land is given over to wilderness, and a third to agribusiness, while the majority of the population is crammed into the remaining third and fed on junk food”.
Mainly, though, Greens prefer to think that when business talks about the transition to a low-carbon economy as an opportunity, they are only interested in a bit of greenwash and marketing spin, and to sell us more stuff with a green label on it. And of course, business doesn't think much about the Loose model either – except to caricature anyone who has doubts about the possibility of growth without end as a know-nothing who wants to return us to the Middle Ages if not to the Stone Age.
As a Green, my heart, and my sympathies, are with the proponents of Loose, but increasingly my head is with a version of Tight. A more sustainable society will de-centralise some things, but it almost certainly will need to centralise others. It's fun to play around with local currencies, but funding social services and health requires a proper tax system. The Transition Town vision of re-localisation is great for Totnes and Lewes, but we need a different vision for the great urban conurbations that have arisen because of the existence of a global economy and don't make sense without it – this is true not only of the City of London, but also for Haringey and Brixton.
Those who invoke the wartime spirit tend to forget that 'dig for victory' was part of a bigger picture that included rationing and the massive bureaucracy that went with it. Running an integrated transport system will need lots of real-time information processing about the whereabouts of vehicles and passengers.
Personal carbon quotas will require massive databases and data collection systems; Enforcing rationing and preventing 'off-ration' carbon consumption will require an extension of state surveillance and powers; anyone who tells you otherwise hasn't thought much about the huge infrastructure that organised crime has built up around the transhipment of narcotic drugs, a commodity with much more minority appeal than energy.
It seems unlikely that carbon rationing will be based on little paper books and cardboard coupons; I am not at all sure that we can simultaneously oppose ID cards on civil liberties grounds while calling for the introduction of any kind of carbon rationing or quotas, and perhaps it's time to stop automatically resisting any initiative like this. Otherwise, we end up sounding like the nutters who oppose speed cameras on civil liberties grounds.
And the later we leave preparing for transition, the bigger the shock is going to be. When the lights start to go out and the food stops arriving in the supermarkets, many people will be grateful for the smack of firm government, and not too fussed about who gets hurt or what gets taken away in the process.
What's important, then, is not to reject Tight versions of sustainability out of hand, but to start a proper political engagement with them. Who is going to be in control? What safeguards will there be on surveillance? Who decides what the ration allocations are going to be? It's fun to brew our own beer and grow our own vegetables, and it helps to rebuild communities and help think about priorities. But it's no substitute for a proper plan to save civilisation that starts from where we are now, not where we'd like to be.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
My first reaction on hearing of the death of MJ was one of sadness - yet another case of someone who seemed to have it all but found no happiness as a result. One day on and I'm already fed up with all the coverage.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Friday, June 12, 2009
A couple of weeks ago I watched the Storyville programme about Kastner (entitled “The Jew who talked to the Nazis”), and it stirred me up a lot. Few people who read the broadsheet newspapers (or the Jewish Chronicle) can have missed the row over Joe Allen’s play “Perdition” a few years ago; so the suggestion that some Zionists were involved in some dealings with the Nazis is not exactly news. And though everyone who writes about this feels compelled to act as if they are personally revealing something that has long been hidden, in fact there is a long and detailed account of Kastner and others’ roles in Hannah Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial.
For years the subject was also used as a stick by the Zionist right to beat Labour Zionists – as represented, for example, in Ben Hecht’s book “Perfidy”; more recently Lenni Brenner has written several books which meticulously document the involvements of the Zionist Right (especially Lehi) with attempts to do a deal with the Nazis. Proper historians, including Jewish and Zionists ones, know all about what happened, and the indignation of the Jewish community about the Allen play was either fake or ignorant. There is a debate to be had about how we should interpret and even judge these episodes, and what we can learn from the; but it shouldn’t be based on denial of the facts.
Nevertheless, the Storyville film not only told the story rather well, but did manage to tell me a lot that I didn’t know. I knew that Kastner had been assassinated after a Pyrhrric victory in his libel action, but had always assumed it was the work of crazed individual. The film not only show that the assassin had been part of an underground rightwing group (which had also attempted to blow up the Soviet embassy in Israel) but also that the group had been penetrated by the Shin Bet, and that there seems good reason to suspect that the Israeli authorities knew about the planned assassination but chose not to prevent it.
Why? Perhaps because Kastner had been giving witness statements on behalf of Nazis at their trials after the war – and that he had been doing this so that they would reveal the whereabouts of money looted from holocaust victims. The money was then transferred to the Israeli state, though not to descendants of the victims or other survivors. Evidence of Kastner’s statements for the various Nazis had emerged at the libel trial and had very much influenced the judge’s attitude towards him, yet Kastner had not given an explanation as to why he appeared to be helping these odious men when there were no longer any Jews to save. The film suggests that the assassins were allowed to go ahead with their plans because Kastner knew too much; it also shows that the murderers served relatively short sentences. Curiously, the actual assassin, who is still alive and was interviewed for the film, is one of the most sympathetic characters in it.
Also interesting in the film is the close collaboration between Uri Avnery and the right-wing lawyer (a Herut leader) for the defendant in the libel trial. We’re used to seeing Avnery as a peacenik, but his political career is much more chequered than that. He started out on the right, and obviously maintained links there in the muck-raking days of Haolam Hazeh.
The film also shows the way that the Jews rescued by Kastner were made to feel like they were the wrong sort of survivor. I suspect many survivors in Israel felt like that. The fact that the Kastner episode happened in Hungary, and that at least some Zionists seem to have had scant regard for the assimilated Hungarian Jews, may also have played a part.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Writing in the latest issue of Standpoint, a magazine produced by the right wing Social Affairs Unit, Howard Jacobson says "...those who want to speak in those terms accuse the Jews of employing the Holocaust for pity. I don't know a single Jew who does that..."
Funnily enough, the day before I received an email from a nice Israeli friend, who seems to have civilised opinions, with a link to what she described as a 'terrific video'. I clicked through to the video, and it turns out to be series of images of anti-semitism with a backing track of someone reading a diatribe by "Rabbi" Meir Kahane. The message is that we don't have to care what anyone thinks about us, because they've always hated us anyway.
The vileness of this argument takes some beating; it is precisely a claim that anti-semitism gives Jews a 'get out of jail free' card that means they can do whatever they like to anyone and everyone. This is the most flagrant exploitation of the holocaust for political purposes. How can Howard Jacobson (or anyone else) get all huffy when accusations are leveled against Israel but look the other way when this sort of thing goes on?
More to the point, how can apparently nice Israelis think that this sort of thing is acceptable to send out as a contribution to understanding? Or complain about how cruel Hamas was, to force them to such terrible things in Gaza against their own better judgement? It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a different moral universe here.
Sunday, April 05, 2009
So having schlepped across London, I thought I'd at least take in the Agriculture gallery. I am reading the Fontana Economic History of Europe, and am in the middle of the brilliant chapter about technology. Although it's very well written it has no diagrams, so I don't really appreciate some of the points it makes about ploughshares, mouldboards, and whipple shafts. I rather hoped that the Science Museum gallery would help.
But it was a real disappointment. None of the exhibits look like they have been touched since the 1950s. There are some shabby dioramas of tractors and harrows, with yellowing caption boards. There are a few little models of tractors and 'native' ploughs, though not much by way of explanation. And the overall story, in so far as there is one, is about the 'agricultural revolution' of the eighteenth century in England, and then the advent of diesel and petrol tractors in the twentieth century. Nothing about the neolithic revolution, irrigation and hydraulic civilisations, or medieval agriculture.
So why isn't there a decent museum of agriculture and food? There's enough to put in it, and it's clear that people are interested in that sort of thing right now - look at the food programmes on telly, the Victorian Farm programme, the interest in home growing. And until there is one, perhaps it would be worth starting a virtual museum of agriculture?
Friday, February 27, 2009
I must have missed that bit...obviously it's happened after they stopped burning heretics and making non-attendance in church a crime. Or maybe it's only a good thing in certain places, where catholicism is not the established religion. I think we should be told.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
It's made more amusing by the fact that "Lark Rise" is so very English.
Monday, February 09, 2009
As the Carol Thatcher row got started, and the predictable right-wing response about how this was yet another case of "political correctness gone mad" began to gather steam, I reflected on how the mainstream commentariat would react to anti-semitic caricatures turned into dolls. After all, post-holocaust, anti-semitism is supposed to be even more taboo than anti-black racism. I remembered hearing someone - (Howard Jacobson, in the "Roots Schmoots", maybe?) mention that such dolls actually did exist and were sold in Poland. So I thought I'd look for a picture of them, post it, and see if it shamed any defenders of the Gollywog. (I found these Jewish dolls, delightfully depicted with their money bags and boxes).
My mistake was to search for "Jewish Puppet" rather than "Jewish Doll". I was unprepared for the volume and rancour of the images and words that this search uncovered. There's a little bit of me that thinks that we Jews sometimes make too much fuss about contemporary anti-semitism, because in my liberal professional life I rarely encounter it. But my "Jewish Puppet" search revealed to me the extent to which the Jewish conspiracy theory is alive and well on the web. Try it yourself.
It also made me think about the limits of liberal anti-racism, which focuses on terms like discrimination and prejudice. Gollywogs physically embody a racist caricature. The toy and the depiction mean that white people don't meet real black people in an unmediated way -- they bring to the meeting all sorts of ideas and reactions derived from the caricature.
But the stereotype of the Jew is not for the most part about 'prejudice'. The content of anti-semitism is not about beards or long noses, it's about the idea that Jews are clever, powerful and greedy for more power. That's why 'discrimination' seems like an appropriate response to the 'gollywog-like' black people, but genocide is the appropriate response to conspiratorial world-dominating Jews.