Archive for February, 2010

Happy Manchester Day!

February 25, 2010

There is to be a big parade through Manchester city centre to celebrate ‘Manchester Day’ on June 20. The super soaraway Manchester Evening News has the exclusive:

The event – which it is claimed will rival New York’s world-famous Thanksgiving Day parade – will be the centrepiece of an event council chiefs reckon will give residents the chance to celebrate life in Britain’s second city.

Manchester Day, on June 20, is expected to see thousands of people flood on to the streets with floats, inflatables and colourful costumes.

Communities will be invited to work with professional artists to design their own costumes and floats.

They will be encouraged to highlight what Manchester means to its residents and the theme of the parade will be ‘out of this world’.

Council bosses want the event to celebrate Manchester’s ‘cultural diversity, history and vision for the future’.

I think by ‘vision’ they meant ‘hallucination’. To save time, why not just put loads of public money in a big hole and set fire to it?

Still, it’s easy to knock these things so instead I shall use some of Manchester’s famous ‘can-do’ spirit to generate some ideas for the parade.

1) March of the Puritans

Leading the procession, this float would celebrate Manchester’s spearheading of the smoking ban and our leaders’ enthusiasm for exclusionary and prohibitionist policies. It consists of Pat Karney slapping himself repeatedly in the forehead with a stone tablet on which is carved the ubiquitous no-smoking sign, while the Latin chant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail plays over the speakers.

2) The Urban Splash Northern Clearance

Long-standing Manchester residents who have been forced out of their homes by compulsory purchase order will be chained and yoked at the neck and made to pull a gigantic golden throne on which property boss Tom Bloxham reclines on a huge pile of money that he has made from expensive yuppie new-builds.

3) Saturday Night: The Printworks Experience

This float would celebrate the vibrancy of Manchester’s nightlife. Middle-class thugs in Primark and Ben Sherman stand at the bar and drink real booze at a gerrybuilt mock-up of one of the city centre’s many Yates’s, All Bar Ones, Hogsheads and Wetherspoon’s. Fun for all the family as fights break out, people get kicked off the float by security and drinkers occasionally throw half-full plastic pint glasses into the crowd.

4) ‘You’re Twisting My Melon, Man – Again!’

This float would salute the entrepreneurial ability of ageing cultural figures to shake more money out of a nostalgia franchise that has been plugged relentlessly for the last twenty years. Morrissey, Johnny Marr, Mark E Smith and the guys behind Factory Records stand over a dead horse and beat it with whips as ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ plays on a loop over the speakers. This float would follow a specially diverted route off the edge of Salford Quays.

5) The Hiya Dancers

No Manchester parade could possibly be complete without a celebration of the city’s ‘Shameless’ culture. Real-life social housing tenants, as a condition of their benefits, must dance for hours along the parade route. Ringmasters Paul Abbott, Jason Manford and Vernon Kay will be on hand with their cattle prods in case anyone starts to flag!

6) The XFM Stepping Stone

This float would take the form of a huge, stinking, carrion-infested landfill, made entirely of old records by indie bands like the Editors, Scouting for Girls, Bloc Party and other groups of pallid, V-necked arseholes who think the world owes them a fucking living. On top of the landfill there would be a big round piece of stone, on which XFM DJs could precariously balance, rehearsing their stand-up routines as a big neon arrow saying LONDON THIS WAY! flashes on and off in the background.

7) All Aboard: The Magic Bus Deregulation Waltz

Throughout the procession, the six or seven different bus companies that have bought up the profitable city centre routes could weave in and out of the parade, causing confusion and injury.

Unless otherwise specified all floats, bunting and ticker tape will be made from environmentally friendly papier-mache mulch made from unread copies of the Manchester Evening News and those glossy property supplements you find in Deansgate bars.

‘I’ll have my action plan on your desk first thing tomorrow!’

Inside the Church of Scientology

February 25, 2010

My review of Marc Headley’s Blown for Good: Behind the Iron Curtain of Scientology is now available at 3:AM.

Exaggerated Rumour

February 23, 2010

Mark Thwaite notes with surprise that the Metro freesheet features a fine piece of literary criticism – a guy called Ben Felsenburg on David Shields’s Reality Hunger. It’s a good review; it pisses on mine.

Whatever criticisms David Shields will attract for Reality Hunger – and he can expect plenty for a book as divisive as Marmite – no one’s going to accuse him of modesty.

This collection of 617 pensées is subtitled A Manifesto and sets out its stall in grandiose style: ‘Every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art.’

For some that line will be playfully provocative, for others ridiculous and infuriating; the same goes for all that follows.

Shields draws upon Ezra Pound, Eminem, Proust and Moulin Rouge as if they’re all knocking around one pick’n’mix bag. Wave after wave of quotes and Shields’s wearying pontification work that old saw about the way fiction and non-fiction are blurring into one.

Telly viewers know the concept – it’s called Big Brother. One surprise, though: Reality Hunger might be mistaken for the notebook of a naive undergraduate after a first encounter with Postmodernism 101. Shields is a middle-aged professor.

I also liked Mark’s addition in the comments, in which he calls Reality Hunger a ‘commonplace book’:

No more, no less. As such, it contains some lovely quotes about art and life, but the Metro reviewer is dead right to say that, overall, it is wearisome exercise in the banal. Shields, at tedious length, expounds (but doesn’t really investigate) his one idea: fiction and non-fiction aren’t always easy to distinguish clearly and absolutely. Yes, well done, they aren’t!

And Norm has written what could be a Twitter-style, two-line review:

Here’s a prediction not all that bold. The novel will survive despite David Shields’s manifesto.

Dead Letter Office

February 22, 2010

My review of Roy Mayall’s Dear Granny Smith: A Letter From Your Postman is now available at 3:AM.

The Paradox of Tolerance

February 22, 2010

Further to the Newman/Sahgal nonsense at the weekend, someone in the Harry’s Place comments (no, seriously) points me to a passage from Karl Popper that seems apt in this situation.

The so-called paradox of freedom is the argument that freedom in the sense of absence of any constraining control must lead to very great restraint, since it makes the bully free to enslave the meek. The idea is, in a slightly different form, and with very different tendency, clearly expressed in Plato.

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 1, Notes to the Chapters: Ch. 7, Note 4

Confronting far right terror

February 21, 2010

There’s a report just out by the Centre for Social Cohesion and the antifascist blog Nothing British about the BNP. Written by Edmund Standing and Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, two formidable investigators of the far right, the report argues that the phenomenon poses a terror threat that we should take seriously.

Contrary to what I’ve argued before, the danger from white UK militants is not equivalent to that presented from Al-Qaeda – there are, for example, no known neo-Nazi training camps. Yet there are people infused with apolocalyptic racial ideology, they have been known to make bombs, they have demonstrable associations with the BNP. They have been encouraged by the recession but their beliefs are self-sustaining. In his foreword, Denis MacShane highlights examples of far right terror activity from last year:

  • In July, Yorkshire police raided a neo-Nazi terror cell with international links. They seized the largest suspected terrorist arsenal since the IRA bombings of the early 1990s. Twenty properties were raided and over 300 weapons and 80 bombs were discovered by counter-terrorism detectives. The hardware included rocket launchers, grenades, pipe bombs and dozens of firearms. Several people were charged, and over 30 were questioned over the incident.
  • In September, Neil Lewington, a follower of [Nazi network Blood and Honour], was jailed indefinitely for attempting to launch a bombing campaign against non-white Britons. In his flat, police discovered a bomb-making factory and neo-Nazi literature. Court reports said that Lewington wanted to emulate his ‘heroes’ – David Copeland, the Soho bomber, and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber.
  • In May, Terence Gavan, a card-carrying member of the BNP, was arrested after police raided his home. In January 2010, he was convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to 11 years in prison, after a stockpile of nail and ball-bearing bombs, shotguns, improvised explosive devices and pistols was found at his house.

MacShane goes on to say this:

On the threat of far-right violence, a cautionary Sir Norman [Bettison, Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police] also said that Yorkshire police were not prepared to wait for it to ‘first emerge into the public eye out of a critical incident like an explosion’. He is right. And if there is one lesson to be learned from the rise of extremist UK Islamism, it is that we should not simply wait for people to die. Action is needed now.

Escape from the Straight World

February 20, 2010

My review of Katharine Hibbert’s Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society is now available at 3:AM.

Crawling Kingsnake

February 20, 2010

Moazzam Begg should not have spent a single hour in Guantanamo Bay. But nor should he have been toured around the country as a kind of embodiment of the noble victim. As Gita Sahgal said, it’s a basic point. Moazzam Begg is a Taliban enthusiast. He’s both a victim and a supporter of injustice and repression. This goes back to Bertrand Russell’s fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed. To quote Sahgal again: ‘a victim can also be a perpetrator’.

You know the story. Sahgal raised concerns with management about Amnesty’s association with Begg and his dodgy and nasty Islamist CagePrisoners group. Her memos were ignored and she went to the press. This is a big deal. Gita Saghal is a serious and experienced human rights professional. It is reasonable to raise questions about a human rights organisation that associates itself with people who believe the very concept of human rights to be a Zionist conspiracy. Saghal was suspended within hours of the Times article appearing.

To say the past week has been a difficult one for Sahgal would be an understatement. She fears for her own and her family’s safety. She has — temporarily at least — lost her job and found it almost impossible to find anyone to represent her in any potential employment case. She rang round the human rights lawyers she knows, all of whom have declined to help citing a conflict of interest. ‘Although it is said that we must defend everybody no matter what they’ve done, it appears that if you’re a secular, atheist, Asian British woman, you don’t deserve a defence from our civil right firms,’ she says wryly.

Andy Newman gets around the central issue by saying that Sahgal was suspended not for raising concerns but for going to the media rather than sorting the issues out internally. This doesn’t help Newman’s case as much as he thinks. If, say, the Metropolitan Police teamed up with the BNP to organise seminars on racist attacks, should a whistleblower speak out publicly or protest the association entirely within the Met? And what if Amnesty not only raised concerns about holocaust denial laws but actually promoted David Irving as a free speech martyr around the nation, organising events in Quaker meeting halls in which Irving could expound on his views on immigration and multiculturalism between lengthy readings of Hitler’s War?

Newman then goes on to identify a ‘greater problem’; that ‘in modern Britain the concept of ‘tolerance’ has become ‘a negative virtue – a means of diminishment and marginalisation’. Drawing on a speech given by the Archbishop of York, Newman expands: ‘the language of tolerance is actually used in a very intollerant way to silence and marginalise those with inconvenient religious views.’

Now, pro-faith writers and activists may be many things, but ‘silent’ is not one of them. They are given regular platforms in news and broadcast media. They are consulted by government. They are not marginalised but established and respected voices. The fact that Amnesty went this far in its association with Begg is testimony to the level of respect for faith – no matter how harmful and fanatical – that exists in our society.

Newman’s piece is fucking risible. He attributes to Sahgal views that she doesn’t necessarily hold. He claims that Sahgal is racially prejudiced and a supporter of illegal detention on the basis that she says she feels ‘profoundly unsafe’ talking to Begg and his Islamist pals. He agrees, without having the guts to spell it out, that liberalism and human rights are purely Western concepts that are being portrayed as ‘a superior set of values which if necessary must be allowed to overrule the rights of others.’

Andy is unhappy with the old securalist model that says: okay, you leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone. This is his alternative:

Human rights also has to include parity of esteem for people with religious views that are out of step with Western liberalism; and a recognition that we need to negotiate space for religious practice in our society, including in areas of morality and ethics where religious teaching contradicts the mainstream consensus.

This stuff has lost its capacity to surprise me. I should ignore it. I know I should ignore it. As Brett said: ‘I don’t believe it is possible for that section of the Left to disgrace itself any further.’

Still, don’t you just love it? The pro-faith faction always goes on about how it wants to be a part of public debate and public life, but it can’t take the principled criticism that will inevitably and rightly come its way.

‘What we cannot do as atheists is assume that the evolution of moral and ethical viewpoints within our own society can be regarded as a superior standard that other people must comply with.’ Yes we can. We can and we will. If you propogate the view that society should be run by priests, that a holy text should take precedence over democratic laws, that non-religious books should be censored or burned, that women should have little freedom and one or two limited uses, that people should be killed for having the wrong kind of sexuality or the wrong kind of nationality or for being the wrong kind of Muslim, if you argue for slaughter over compassion and death over life, then we will challenge you all the way and we will win. Call me a ‘secular fundamentalist’ or whatever – I don’t care. Watch out, gentlemen, because as Hitchens said, there are many more of us and we are both smarter and nicer.

Some Of My Best Friends Are

February 17, 2010

My review of Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England is now available at 3:AM.

Valentine’s Day

February 14, 2010

Ask me what has been my most fortunate experience of the past two decades, and I’d say it was gaining the selfless love of my wife, Liu Xia. She cannot be present in the courtroom today, but I still want to tell you, my sweetheart, that I’m confident that your love for me will be as always. Over the years, in my non-free life, our love has contained bitterness imposed by the external environment, but is boundless in afterthought. I am sentenced to a visible prison while you are waiting in an invisible one.

Your love is sunlight that transcends prison walls and bars, stroking every inch of my skin, warming my every cell, letting me maintain my inner calm, magnanimous and bright, so that every minute in prison is full of meaning. But my love for you is full of guilt and regret, sometimes heavy enough to hobble my steps. I am a hard stone in the wilderness, putting up with the pummeling of raging storms, and too cold for anyone to dare touch. But my love is hard, sharp, and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes.

– Extract from the statement given by Liu Xiaobo, Chinese human rights activist and co-author of the Charter 08 manifesto for constitutional reform, at his trial for subversion. He was given eleven years and the verdict was upheld on appeal.