Archive for May, 2012

Brendan O’Neill: High Priest of Prolier-Than-Thou

May 23, 2012

The UK’s white working classes have no greater champion than the Spiked Online journalist Brendan O’Neill. Day after day, year upon year, he’s plugging away at his Telegraph Blogs account, dedicated to defending the proletariat against the metropolitan liberal chattering classes, which seek to attack and belittle England’s honest workers with such predations as anti-racist activism, independent film, healthy eating, gay marriage, rap music, the Occupy movement, immigration and the Leveson Inquiry. It truly is, as his tagline says, ‘a culture war of words’.

Today O’Neill is talking about social mobility. There is a trendy North London consensus about social mobility – okay, there probably isn’t, but O’Neill needs to say there is so that he can denounce it, so let’s follow his argument.

Is there anyone the great and the good hate more than an upwardly mobile member of the working classes? A raft of abusive terminology has been created to diss these strange creatures. They’re seen as ‘yuppies’ or ‘Loadsamoneys’, waving their wads of cash around with a sneering look of self-satisfaction on their faces. They’re always described as ‘grasping’ and ‘ruthless’. They are treated like fish out of water, such as when The Guardian snottily said that wealthy working-class footballers labour under ‘the misapprehension that drinking champagne is a symbol of class’. And they are always depicted as soulless, as lacking in community spirit, as so selfish that they would rather escape the poor communities they grew up in rather than stay put and muck in […]

And so the Left sneers at these socially mobile workers, because it would prefer that they stayed put rather than unwittingly shining a light on the fact that the Labour Left’s historic talk of boosting everyone’s fortunes has been so much flimflam. Their ambition is slated because it is too much of an uncomfortable echo of the kind of life and drive that Labour once promised to deliver to all. These people should stop focusing on ‘getting out of somewhere’ and instead, in the embarrassing words of Leftist author Owen Jones, celebrate their ‘working classness’. That phrase suggests that being working class is an innate trait, like sex or hair colour. But it isn’t. It’s a social condition, or a social predicament if you like, and like all social conditions it can be overcome and transformed.

While expressed with his usual tinfoil-chewing abrasion, O’Neill’s argument has some sense to it. It’s interesting therefore to look back at his reaction to a piece by Lynsey Hanley, in which she discussed working class racism and conservatism. Hanley grew up on a Birmingham council estate and is now a London journalist. For O’Neill, this made her a ‘self-loathing prole’:

We often hear of self-loathing Jews, but what about self-loathing proles – working-class people who look back with contempt at the communities they had the misfortune to grow up in? There’s a very good example of it in today’s Guardian, in this column by Lynsey Hanley, a woman who has made a writing career on the back of the fact that she grew up on a council estate… Ms Hanley writes of the ‘terrible ignorance’ of the community she used to live in, prior to her moral and mental rescue by ‘metropolitan elite liberal values’.

Perhaps keen to assure her current employers that she is now one of them and has been scrubbed clean of any trace of working-class brutishness, Ms Hanley sneers at the ‘view of life’ that held strong in the community she was born into. These people were ‘paranoid, suspicious, mistrustful, misogynist and racist’, she says. She heaps disdain on the ‘social conservatism’ of white working-class communities, which are given to ‘silently or violently rejecting anyone who is different or who expresses a different opinion to that of the crowd’. Thankfully for her (and let’s face it, probably for the community she was born into), Ms Hanley escaped from this ‘crowd’ (in pre-PC times they called it ‘the mob’) by embracing what she refers to as metropolitan, liberal values.

So, Brendan O’Neill attacks opponents of social mobility for working class people, and at the same time condemns working class people who have the temerity to escape the ghetto.

Okay, these columns are a year apart, consistency is in some ways overrated and anyone can change their mind – still, most writers would allude to the contradiction and talk a little about how their views have evolved.

It cannot be that O’Neill is a chronic and compulsive attention seeker who will say more or less anything to get a few annoyed social media reactions?

Can it?

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Commencement Address

May 21, 2012

It’s not done to link to something without comment, but John Rentoul has highlighted Aaron Sorkin’s speech to Syracuse University graduands, which is too full of energy and hope not to share. These are the passages that make it for me.

There’s another story. Two newborn babies are lying side by side in the hospital and they glance at each other.  Ninety years later, through a remarkable coincidence, the two are back in the same hospital lying side by side in the same hospital room.  They look at each other and one of them says, ‘So what’d you think?’

You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people.  I was there.  We all were there.  You’re barely functional.  There are some screw-ups headed your way.  I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya.  It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.

I’ve made some bad decisions.  I lost a decade of my life to cocaine addiction.  You know how I got addicted to cocaine?  I tried it.  The problem with drugs is that they work, right up until the moment that they decimate your life.  Try cocaine, and you’ll become addicted to it.  Become addicted to cocaine, and you will either be dead, or you will wish you were dead, but it will only be one or the other.  My big fear was that I wasn’t going to be able to write without it.  There was no way I was going to be able to write without it.  Last year I celebrated my 11-year anniversary of not using coke.  (applause) Thank you.  In that 11 years, I’ve written three television series, three movies, a Broadway play, won the Academy Award and taught my daughter all the lyrics to ‘Pirates of Penzance.’  I have good friends.

Today is May 13th and today you graduate and the rules are about to change, and one of them is this: Decisions are made by those who show up. Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world.

Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character. You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance—and since you’re walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy. Unless they went to Georgetown, in which case, they can go to hell.  (Laughter)

Don’t ever forget that a small group of thoughtful people can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.

Rehearsal’s over. You’re going out there now, you’re going to do this thing. How you live matters. You’re going to fall down, but the world doesn’t care how many times you fall down, as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.

For the class of 2012, I wish you joy. I wish you health and happiness and success, I wish you a roof, four walls, a floor and someone in your life that you care about more than you care about yourself. Someone who makes you start saying ‘we’ where before you used to say ‘I’ and ‘us’ where you used to say ‘me.’ I wish you the quality of friends I have and the quality of colleagues I work with.  Baseball players say they don’t have to look to see if they hit a home run, they can feel it. So I wish for you a moment—a moment soon—when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it. When you aim high and hit your target, when just for a moment all else disappears, and you soar with wings as eagles. The moment will end as quickly as it came, and so you’ll have to have it back, and so you’ll get it back no matter what the obstacles.  A lofty prediction, to be sure, but I flat out guarantee it.

The Mist of Life

May 18, 2012

This short story of mine has just been published in The Curiosity Cabinet.

Leila Khaled and Manchester Blackwell’s

May 15, 2012

There has been a controversy this week around a little bookstore on Manchester’s Oxford Road.

Recently Blackwell’s Manchester organised a launch of Sarah Irving‘s biography of Leila Khaled, a terrorist and plane hijacker. This was how the event was announced:

On May 24, we will launch a biography of Leila Khaled, the young woman who hijacked a passenger jet in 1969.

Leila Khaled: Icon of Palestinian Liberation by Sarah Irving is a compelling account of Khaled’s turbulent life. At the book launch, Sarah will explore Leila Khaled’s involvement with a radical element of the PLO, the rise of Hamas, the role of women in a largely male movement and Khaled’s activism today.

Harry’s Place covered this story yesterday, commenting: ‘Sounds like a perfectly peace-loving, liberal girl from whom the Left and pacifists can enjoy and learn.’

Today, the Blackwell’s site says that ‘Our launch of the Leila Khaled biography on May 24th has been cancelled due to unforseen circumstances.’

On her blog, Irving expands on this:

I’m very sad to say that the Manchester launch of my Leila Khaled biography, which was due to take place a week on Thursday, has been cancelled. A very shaken staff member called me earlier to say that the shop had been subjected to a deluge of phone harassment since opening this morning, and that they simply could not cope… This is, of course, immensely disappointing, but I absolutely do not blame Blackwell’s for taking this decision, and they have been incredibly kind about it (I feel rather guilty about not foreseeing this and for putting their very sweet but rather literary staff through this!). It is, of course, a measure of the desperate rearguard action which apologists for the actions of the State of Israel are currently fighting that they feel the need to close down all debate and discussion of issues around Palestinian history, politics and culture. It’s also worth noting that some of the callers hadn’t even bothered to properly find out what the event was – they thought that Leila Khaled herself was planning to appear, something which is currently impossible because she is denied visas by the UK government. But it is revealing that Zionist campaigners are happy to close something down when they don’t even know what it is.

I know many of the people involved with Manchester Blackwell’s. It’s an amazing shop, just opposite a great cluster of Oxford Road bars, and its staff have done a hell of a lot for the litscene in this city. I remember Fat Roland telling me at the Manchester Blog Awards that ‘I employ half of Manchester’s blogging community.’ As Irving says, these are sweet and literary and decent people, good and imaginative writers, who have a sensible preference for fiction and creativity over politics.

Irving’s book may well be a sympathetic whitewash. From the blog, it seems that way. There are many people on the far left who declare non violent principles, but at the same time get a vicarious thrill from violent iconoclasts and terrorist movements – Che Guevara in the 1970s, the Islamist suicide bombers today. Like the man said: ‘All in all it is difficult not to feel that pacifism, as it appears among a section of the intelligentsia, is secretly inspired by an admiration for power and successful cruelty.’

My first reaction was that it was a bad decision for Blackwell’s to organise anything with the PSC, which represents some of the nastiest, most vicious people on the anti-Zionist left. Irving’s assertion about ‘Zionist campaigners’ trying to close down debate feeds into widespread, sometimes very dodgy assumptions about Israeli and Jewish power in this country. The whole concept of the night seemed to me kind of distasteful.

I argued this on Facebook and people said that it was against free speech to criticise the premise of the launch. But the principle of free speech does not oblige you to give a platform to every nut who walks through the door. As a commenter said on the Blackwell’s thread: ‘Is it helpful to hang debates on accounts that glorify the actions of violent extremists on one or other side? How does that clarify the I/P conflict for anybody?’

However, it is their bookshop, and they should be able to put on any night they want. Harassing bookshop staff for a decision they haven’t made is a tactic of Islamists and whacko BDSers. It is not acceptable for Manchester Blackwell’s booksellers (who are hardworking, literate, and not on high incomes) to be subject to threatening calls and emails.

Alec says on the thread that ‘the campaign against this event was conducted in precisely the wrong way.’

That Blackwell’s disinvited this group after such a short time shows they weren’t particularly involved in the politics Khalid represents.

A booking was made by promoters of a book they were stocking. The local store obliged. That’s all.

The event likely will go ahead at another location. All that’s happened is a bunch of grunts on the shop-floor have had a thoroughly rotten day.

It’s easy to see why smart people prefer literature to politics.

Update: The Manchester Evening News has the story.

Fat Roland from the bookshop says in the comments:

Today has been much calmer, although we are expecting much more publicity about the cancellation than we are about the event itself! Such is the way with these things.

(I should point out for factual accuracy that we never at any point organised anything with the PSC.)

(Image: National Poetry Month

First, Kill the Landlords

May 13, 2012

I found John Lanchester’s state of England novel, Capital, tedious and overrated. But it had moments of insight. Lanchester understands, for example, the central divide in Britain today, which is land more than wealth. From his prologue:

Having a house in Pepys Road was like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner. If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich. It was the first time in history this had ever been true. Britain had become a country of winners and losers, and all the people in the street, just by living there, had won.

This is it. If you own property you win. If you don’t you lose. We are approaching what conservatives call, with fondness, a ‘property-owning democracy’. You have to own property to have a say.

The Guardian this week carried a devastating piece from Amelia Gentleman, who takes on long, complex investigations on the lives of the poor and is probably the best argument for staying with the paper. Trekking around the streets of Newham with a housing enforcement team, Gentleman found people living in sheds and freezers, and three-storey HMOs that sleep fifteen. For me it’s refreshing to see the council trying to crack down on this problem – having dealt with local government so long, it’s great to see a team I’d be proud to serve – but the general impact of her piece is shocking and depressing.

Landlords are subdividing family homes into smaller and smaller units, haphazardly extending plumbing and electricity connections from the main properties into the garden sheds and garages, which they have no problem in renting out.

Newham’s mayor, Sir Robin Wales, is dismayed. ‘It’s big money. You get a few breeze blocks, sling up some crappy old shed in your back garden, and now you’re making hundreds and hundreds of pounds a week. It doesn’t take long for you to make a lot of money out of it, provided you are prepared to trade in human misery.

‘We found a walk-in freezer where people have been living, paying rent to live there,’ Wales says. ‘The record was one house with 38 people, of whom 16 were children.’

About a quarter of the borough’s landlords take cash rents. ‘They just take the money and they don’t give a toss about the conditions the people are living in. It is poor people who are being exploited by rogue landlords trying to trade on people’s misery.’

This is what happens when you have an unregulated market. The weak are enslaved by the strong. The strong make up reasons to justify it so that they can look in the mirror and sleep at night. But the situation remains the same. This is what capitalism looks like, when it’s not manipulated and controlled: the brute and pathetic economy of handwritten cards in newsagent windows and strips of bacon hanging from a sill in plastic bags.

The problem with the private rental sector is that it is dominated by middle-aged dimwits, people who are retired or maybe schoolteachers or people who work in NHS management or DWP clerical, people who have little talent or work ethic but want a lot of secondary passive income. Because practically anyone can become a landlord, the cowboy rental market attracts these people like iron filings to a magnet, with disastrous consequences for tenants. Disrepair is far worse than in the social sector because so many landlords don’t possess even the beginnings of the skills, experience and knowledge you need to manage a property, do not have contractors on standby, do not understand their obligations and quite often don’t give a fuck anyway.

What a deal these bastards get. Rents of up to a grand per room per month. A security deposit scheme that provides additional cashflow. A housing benefit system that acts as a direct subsidy. And – unlike almost any business or profession – no rules, no red tape, no formal regulation. Oh, there was a scary moment a couple of years back when the Labour government proposed a national landlords register. But – hooray! – the coalition government tore up this commitment just a month after taking office. Its housing minister Grant Shapps stood up in the Commons and promised ‘good landlords across the  country’ that ‘the Government has no plans to create any burdensome red tape and bureaucracy, so you are able to continue providing a service to your tenants.’ The National Landlords Association was delighted: its chairman David Salusbury responded that ‘We wholeheartedly welcome the reminder from Government that the vast majority of tenants are happy with the service they receive from landlords.’ I just bet you do.

The obvious answer is to build more houses, but the planning system is rigged against this. There is a housing development going up where I work. The development consists of affordable flats in a middle class surburban area. The middle class suburbanites have opposed the development at every stage. Among the reasons they give is that the development will create an overdemand for local schools. Many homeowners don’t care about poor people having somewhere to live. They don’t want working class children in their schools.

To give them credit, the coalition has tried to reform the planning system, proposing a ‘presumption of development’ (which sounds scary until you realise that most of England is not what you’d call ‘developed’) but this has been fought by various heritage and conservation groups, led by the idiotic Sir Simon Jenkins, and newspaper editors with second homes in the Cotswolds. What has emerged from the thrash of revision and debate is all over the place, a watered down framework that will probably do little for either housebuilding or the environment.

It comes back to the register. The register is the best, most immediate way of helping people. Landlords should have to study for a licence, undertake renewals, comply to national standards and co-operate with spot checks. The landlords will moan. They will say that red tape will destroy the market. But publicans, cab drivers and restauranteurs have to earn qualifications and comply with regulations. The NLA will say that honest landlords will be forced out of the business. No they won’t. The register will force out all the cowboys and part timers, who will just have to work for a living like the rest of us. The NLA will moan that ‘rogue landlords’ will be ‘driven underground’. Fine. We will go underground, we will find them, and we will put them in jail.

I think there could be more political support for this idea than people imagine. It would be great if everyone could afford a nice little house with a picket fence and two and half dogs, but come on, let’s flag down a cab and head for Real Street: the HMO market is not going away. A good HMO is full of laughter, friendship and fun. A bad HMO is a place of chaos, paranoia and despair, where no one can sleep for the sound of slamming doors. Whatever their experiences, middle class graduates will be doing the HMO thing for at least a few years of adulthood. Their parents will worry about the expense and the conditions. Their parents vote, and write letters. Labour should take advantage. Like the tuition fee hike, the coalition’s indifference to housing seems to make political sense in the here and now, but may carry a heavy comeback down the line.

(Image: Guardian)

The Rochdale Case

May 9, 2012

A depressing feature of the twenty-four hour news cycle is the speed with which events are politicised. Take the riots. Everyone had an explanation for the riots, and how fortunate that the explanations conformed exactly with their own view of the world. Left wing commentators said it was all about poverty/bankers/police brutality etc, and rightwing pundits countered with equally predictable rhetoric about family breakdown and Broken Britain. The riots were a political Rorschach, in which you see what you want to see. As Comrade Cohen remarked: ‘no change, however violent, can shake the cocksure out of their conditioned reflexes. Whatever coin you put into the machine, the response is always the same.‘ Who was it had that line about time-honoured disguise and borrowed language?

It is becoming the same with the Rochdale child exploitation ring. Yesterday there was a long piece on the case by Ella Cockbain and Helen Brayley of the Guardian CiF site. The big problem for Cockbain and Brayley is that the offenders were all Asian men. ‘The defendants in question are at most nominally Muslim,’ they complain. ‘Practising Muslims certainly aren’t supposed to have sex with children.’ The argument becomes about defending Islam rather than about the case. They also argue against racial profiling when – at least to my knowledge – the police and CPS have not called for this, and in fact have said explicitly that race was not an issue in the investigation.

There’s a reason for this line of argument, well worked out and kindly meant. Liberal anti racists have read all the old books. They know that this case feeds into all kinds of tropes and imagery, that we thought had gone but instead just lie dormant, pulsing with a tenebrous half-life. The case has attracted Britain’s unpopular far right parties, which have not been able to disguise their delight that such horrible events have taken place. So Sunny Hundal points to similar cases where every single perpetrator was white indigenous. Why is the left fighting on the BNP’s debased terms?

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Telegraph‘s Ed West, a kind of Spenglerian maniac for the digital age. It is all the fault of liberals, he says, and not just CiF liberals, but liberals over the last fifty years. He says straight out that the case has a racial element:

Yet if the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of a particular type of crime come from one ethnic group, we can say that this crime has a racial or cultural element; if the vast majority of their victims come from another group, definitely so. To deny this seems bizarre.

He writes: ‘That this has been allowed to happen can be partly explained by the victimisation of politics from the 1960s.’ He blames, in quick succession, the 1967 Abortion Act, the advent of need-based allocations policy in social housing, sex education, and of course immigration.

The theory behind free movement was that people around the world were interchangeable and that, once exposed to British air, people would adopt British attitudes and world views. But that doesn’t necessarily happen, especially when a society is in its decadent stage; and history tells us that where barbarism and decadence clash, women are going to get hurt.

The odd thing about West’s argument is that personal responsibility is thrown out of the window. The case is not discussed in terms of the specific individuals, who made these decisions and did these horrific things in cold blood and out of choice. Nor does West offer an analysis of the professional failures in this case, which have been admitted by the police, the CPS and the local authority, and which let the abuse continue for two years after it was first reported. A strange determinism creeps in. Criminals and victims are reduced to swirling ciphers in the great sweep of history.

Is this a cultural thing? People outside Ed West’s alternate universe are saying yes. The former head of Barnardo’s said this morning that ‘For this particular type of crime, the street grooming of teenage girls in northern towns … there is very troubling evidence that Asians are overwhelmingly represented in the prosecutions for such offences.’

The liberal Asian writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown agreed with this:

I know how much physical abuse goes on behind the closed doors of such families, how many girls are married off too young, raped within marriage and treated as things… The appalling thing is that, in the enclaves where these men came from, families will be blaming the abused teenagers.

A childhood in the villages of rural Pakistan will not necessarily foster a respectful attitude to the opposite sex. Neither will a religion in which the hate and fear of women is entwined like a double helix. Weirdly, that’s an argument for more diversity and liberalisation, not less. White or Asian, if you hang around your own life in the same part of town with the same people who believe the things you do, and reinforce each other’s prejudices and delusions… then the unspeakable becomes doable, and darkness inevitably follows.

If culture feeds into this, it’s a cultural misogyny – for misogyny is the real issue here, and not just in Rochdale.

Update: I’d also recommend this article by David Aaronovitch (£).

Shatters the Crystal Spirit: Orwell on Faith

May 3, 2012

I have been on an Orwell jag recently, and have read again Orwell’s collected essays, plus Hitchens and D J Taylor’s biographies of Orwell. I’d like to concentrate on the Taylor bio, Orwell: The Life, as in it Taylor proposes a universal reading of Orwell that struck me as curious.

With care, lyricism and attention to detail, Taylor deconstructs the legends that have coalesced around Orwell, legends in part created by Orwell himself. The first duty of a biographer is to give a sense of subject as human, and it always amused me that people said Christopher Hitchens modelled himself on Orwell. Hitchens was a handsome and carefree liberal who enjoyed the best life had to offer and seemed at ease wherever he was. Orwell was a brave and decent man who never quite overcame the upper middle class prejudices of his background, and for all his good qualities always comes off as awkward, remote, marginalised and slightly sad. As Lionel Trilling said, Orwell’s greatness derived from an unblinking honesty and clarity about both himself and the world around him.

Shortly into the intro, Taylor makes a startling claim:

Broadly speaking he realised – and he did so a great deal earlier than most commentators of either Right or Left – that the single most important crisis of the twentieth century was the decline in mass religious belief and, its corollary, in personal immortality. God was dead and yet the secular substitutes put in His place, whether totalitarianism or western consumer capitalism, merely travestied human ideals and aspirations. The task facing modern man, as Orwell saw it, was to take control of that immense reservoir of essentially spiritual feeling – all that moral sensibility looking for a home – and use it to irrigate millions of ordinary and finite lives. The atrocities of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia – and this point is repeated endlessly in his later writings – could only have been designed by the godless because they presuppose a world in which there is no moral reckoning, and where the only power that matters is the ability to control not only your fellow men but the history of which they are a part and the knowledge on which that history rests.

This lament has rang in the courtyard of public opinion since the Bible was translated out of Latin. Priests, politicians and modish thinkers are forever telling us that the Enlightenment sucked the numinous out of our world: as if the Middle Ages were some benign sunny New Age retreat run by Quaker reflexologists. Taylor surprised me when he made that argument in this context.

Reading Orwell’s fiction, I was struck by how little God there was. When religion is discussed in his books, it appears in a critical light. The revolution in Animal Farm is initially hindered by Mr Jones’s ‘especial pet’, the chatty raven Moses, who beguils the animals with stories of a magical land called Sugarcandy Mountain:

It was situated somewhere up in the sky, a little distance beyond the clouds, Moses said. In Sugarcandy Mountain it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all the year round, and lump sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges. The animals hated Moses because he told tales and did no work, but some of them believed in Sugarcandy Mountain, and the pigs had to argue very hard to persuade them that there was no such place.

The Big Brother of Airstrip One is worshipped more or less as a god. A strapped and tortured Winston Smith asks O’Brien if Big Brother could ever die, to which O’Brien snorts: ‘How could he die?’ He goes on to say that: ‘God is power. We are the priests of power.’ Orwell wrote in ‘The Prevention of Literature’ that ‘A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible.’

Down and Out in Paris and London recorded Orwell’s dislike of Salvation Army shelters, which he avoided because of their ‘semi-military discipline’:

In some of them there is even a compulsory religious service once or twice a week, which the lodgers must attend or leave the house. The fact is that the Salvation Army are so in the habit of thinking themselves a charitable body that they cannot even run a lodging-house without making it stink of charity.

And in The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell included the believer in his ranting list of people holding back the working class movement: ‘If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!’

The relative paucity of religion in Orwell’s work is reflected in Taylor’s index. For ‘Religion, interest in’ there are only two page references. Several times, Taylor makes assertions without quotation or analysis to back them up, or when he does, he uses passages from Orwell that can be interpreted in other ways. For example: ‘Human beings had lost their souls, runs the argument of half a dozen of [Orwell’s] essays, without finding anything to put in their place.’ Which essays? Presumably not ‘Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool’ in which Orwell recasts Tolstoy’s attacks on Shakespeare as ‘the quarrel between the religious and the humanist attitudes towards life’ and comes down on the humanist side.

Taylor has another go at this when discussing Orwell’s reflections on the Spanish Civil War. He begins with the observation that Orwell’s experiences in Catalonia made Nineteen-Eighty Four inevitable. ‘It was in Spain that, for the first time in his life, Orwell saw newspaper articles that bore no relation to the known facts,’ Taylor writes. Orwell’s war ‘provided the first intimation that the concept of objective truth was ‘falling out of the world’. Its future history books would be written according to the prescriptions of whoever was in power.’

Then, Taylor makes his deductive leap:

Significantly – for it marks his first attempt to connect his earlier thoughts about religion with the shadow of totalitarianism – Orwell linked this abandonment to the decay of belief in an afterlife. ‘The major problem of our time is the decay of belief in personal immortality,’ he wrote. In the absence of any hope of divine judgement, or even the assumption that what happened on earth after one was dead mattered, autocrats could do what they liked. The challenge was to harness the displaced religious sensibility of a world without God to some common purpose.

It’s worth looking at the long penultimate para in which Orwell’s line on personal immortality is buried. Here it is:

When one thinks of all the people who support or have supported Fascism, one stands amazed at their diversity. What a crew! Think of a programme which at any rate for a while could bring Hitler, Petain, Montagu Norman, Pavelitch, William Randolph Hearst, Streicher, Buchman, Ezra Pound, Juan March, Cocteau, Thyssen, Father Coughlin, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Arnold Lunn, Antonescu, Spengler, Beverley Nichols, Lady Houston, and Marinetti all into the same boat! But the clue is really very simple. They are all people with something to lose, or people who long for a hierarchical society and dread the prospect of a world of free and equal human beings. Behind all the ballyhoo that is talked about ‘godless’ Russia and the ‘materialism’ of the working class lies the simple intention of those with money or privileges to cling to them. Ditto, though it contains a partial truth, with all the talk about the worthlessness of social reconstruction not accompanied by a ‘change of heart’. The pious ones, from the Pope to the yogis of California, are great on the’ change of heart’, much more reassuring from their point of view than a change in the economic system. Petain attributes the fall of France to the common people’s ‘love of pleasure’. One sees this in its right perspective if one stops to wonder how much pleasure the ordinary French peasant’s or working-man’s life would contain compared with Petain’s own. The damned impertinence of these politicians, priests, literary men, and what-not who lecture the working-class socialist for his ‘materialism’! All that the working man demands is what these others would consider the indispensable minimum without which human life cannot be lived at all. Enough to eat, freedom from the haunting terror of unemployment, the knowledge that your children will get a fair chance, a bath once a day, clean linen reasonably often, a roof that doesn’t leak, and short enough working hours to leave you with a little energy when the day is done. Not one of those who preach against ‘materialism’ would consider life livable without these things. And how easily that minimum could be attained if we chose to set our minds to it for only twenty years! To raise the standard of living of the whole world to that of Britain would not be a greater undertaking than the war we have just fought. I don’t claim, and I don’t know who does, that that wouldn’t solve anything in itself. It is merely that privation and brute labour have to be abolished before the real problems of humanity can be tackled. The major problem of our time is the decay of the belief in personal immortality, and it cannot be dealt with while the average human being is either drudging like an ox or shivering in fear of the secret police. How right the working classes are in their ‘materialism’! How right they are to realize that the belly comes before the soul, not in the scale of values but in point of time! Understand that, and the long horror that we are enduring becomes at least intelligible. All the considerations are likely to make one falter — the siren voices of a Petain or of a Gandhi, the inescapable fact that in order to fight one has to degrade oneself, the equivocal moral position of Britain, with its democratic phrases and its coolie empire, the sinister development of Soviet Russia, the squalid farce of left-wing politics — all this fades away and one sees only the struggle of the gradually awakening common people against the lords of property and their hired liars and bumsuckers. The question is very simple. Shall people like that Italian soldier be allowed to live the decent, fully human life which is now technically achievable, or shan’t they? Shall the common man be pushed back into the mud, or shall he not? I myself believe, perhaps on insufficient grounds, that the common man will win his fight sooner or later, but I want it to be sooner and not later — some time within the next hundred years, say, and not some time within the next ten thousand years. That was the real issue of the Spanish war, and of the last war, and perhaps of other wars yet to come.

For me the standout line of this passionate conclusion is: ‘How right the working classes are in their ‘materialism’!’ Orwell does not discount the spiritual questions; he is saying that, look, we live in a world where people cannot afford to eat, and that is going to have to be sorted before we can begin to pontificate on the alienation of the secular world. Could the elites please stop lecturing us on our spiritual bankruptcy, until then at least?

And for me this feeds into Orwell’s essay on Tolstoy, which I’ll quote again:

Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life. ‘Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all’ — which is an un-Christian sentiment. Often there is a seeming truce between the humanist and the religious believer, but in fact their attitudes cannot be reconciled: one must choose between this world and the next. And the enormous majority of human beings, if they understood the issue, would choose this world. They do make that choice when they continue working, breeding and dying instead of crippling their faculties in the hope of obtaining a new lease of existence elsewhere.

In that essay, he also draws a distinction between mere selfish gratification and the desire to live life to its fullest.

Shakespeare was not a philosopher or a scientist, but he did have curiosity, he loved the surface of the earth and the process of life — which, it should be repeated, is not the same thing as wanting to have a good time and stay alive as long as possible.

Orwell did not manage to live a full life, but he understood its importance, and gave it his best, and that is also a part of his greatness.

I don’t say that Taylor’s reading of Orwell is invalid – after all, he’s a serious Orwell scholar and I am a guy in Levenshulme with a blog. But I think that Taylor does not support his case as well as he could have, and that it would have been an interesting experience for him to explore the other readings of Orwell that I have discussed here.

I don’t mean to detract from his biography, which is a fine piece of work and well worth reading. It’s just to say that Orwell, like all the best writers, is someone you never quite finish. You could read him for the rest of your life and there would still be more to find.

Stuck In Chickentown: Why Localism Doesn’t Work

May 2, 2012

Political junkies like me are sometimes troubled by an old question.

How come we are in a minority?

Why are most people not members of political parties?

Why do fewer and fewer people vote?

Why, when you even raise a political issue, do so many people back away or change the subject?

In short: our world is so interesting, so why aren’t people interested?

The Hansard Society recently published a report claiming that public attitudes to political engagement are now worse than at any time in the last ten years. Only 42% of its respondents said they were interested in politics, down 16 points and a nine-year low; all political parties have lost support and less than half the respondents said they would vote in the event of an immediate general election.

The Society’s Dr Ruth Fox concluded:

2011 was one of the most turbulent and momentous years in recent history. But it appears that the economic crisis, the summer riots and phone hacking did not lead to any greater interest in or knowledge of politics. The public seem to be disgruntled, disillusioned and disengaged. Thus far, coalition politics does not appear to have been good for public engagement. Worryingly, only a quarter of the population are satisfied with our system of governing, which must raise questions about the long-term capacity of that system to command public support and confidence in the future.

The Telegraph’s Daniel Knowles had a similarly gloomy prognosis, and another gloomy study to support it:

But what’s struck me recently is that it’s not just these politicians that the public is disillusioned with – it’s politics generally. Asking around in Birmingham last week, it was remarkable how many people said: ‘I don’t care about politics’. That’s now not just acceptable, but common. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, only 56 per cent of people think that it’s a duty to vote, while the number of people who think it’s not worth voting has more than doubled since 1991, from 8 per cent to 18 per cent – reflecting the fact that turnout has collapsed since 1992.

Political apathy is a question to which everyone knows the answer. If you’re on the contemporary left, you know that politicians of all parties are part of the same neoliberal capitalist consensus. If you’re on the contemporary right, you know that politicians of all parties are part of the same liberal politically correct elite. If you’re in the BNP or PSC, you know that politicians of all parties are secretly controlled by Mossad.

Because of this, the public, who all truly want a socialist revolution/1950s communitarian monocultural utopia (delete according to ideological preference) have figured out that they are never going to be truly represented by any politician of The System, and have sunk into a paralysis of despair.

There are genuine reasons to blame national politicians. While tame compared to the intricate tax dodging strategies of Knightsbridge oligarchs and newspaper barons, the expenses scandal hit hard. People didn’t understand why MPs couldn’t just live on their salaries, which are far above the average wage of people in their constituencies. What’s coming out now about the complicity between News International, the Met and governments of both main parties just reinforces the impression that they are all in this together. The impression has an immediate visual image in David Cameron riding a horse given to Rebekah Brooks by the Metropolitan Police. It comes to something when Number Ten aides have to brief newspapers that it was ‘highly possible that he was on that horse’.

No doubt all of this carries weight in the Hansard Society’s bleak findings.

But I think there is a factor in the causes of political apathy that analysts may have overlooked.

If people want to get involved in politics, the next step beyond voting is to join a local branch of your political party and get involved with your local council.

And, if you think national politicians are bad, you can’t underestimate the arrogance, incompetence and stupidity of the local politician.

Local councillors and party bosses are, quite often, not very nice people. They are old hands with a colossal sense of entitlement and a truly inexplicable amount of free time. Unlike national politicians, they get into politics not to pursue ideals or help the local community, but to build up power bases and private fiefdoms. They take both voters and colleagues for granted, and pull campaign stunts that would disgrace a school playground. People do not turn to them for help. The Hansard Society found that many problems that could be resolved by local representatives are handled by MPs. There are some great councillors out there – but, in my opinion, they are in the minority.

The local apparatchik is not, by and large, ambitious for national office. For one thing, most people who hold local office would have no chance of getting past a PPC selection committee. The local politician doesn’t care about national politics. His one aspiration is to be the big fish in a small pond.

The local politician does not actually need that much public support to maintain this power base. Unlike in general elections – when despite all their cynicism most people realise deep down that this shit matters – local election turnouts tend to be low. Looking at last year’s Manchester results by ward, I’m seeing percentages of 22%, 30.7%, 21.54%. The local politician only really needs to get out his base, and he only needs a vote share of the low thousands – sometimes mere hundreds.

Given all this, does the local politician want all those non-voters out there to awake from their apathy and engage? Hell, no! A civilian represents at best an unpaid servant and at worst a political threat. The political outsider who walks into their first CLP meeting is apt to feel isolated and uncomfortable – especially if they are young or a woman or both. (Throughout this long analogy I’m using the male pronoun for a reason.)

This week Manchester votes on whether to have an elected mayor. The mayoral idea could potentially wrest power away from local big names. But the signs are not good. The Salford race is dominated by the same old local government faces, plus a number of joke extremists, one of whom is being investigated over allegations of money laundering. The process is further compromised by the fact that our own mayor would only represent central Manchester, not Greater Manchester, and that no one really knows what powers a Manchester mayor would have if elected.

Down in the capital, things are even worse. Of everyone in the party it could have picked to fight Boris, Labour picked Ken Livingstone, a machine politician of the authoritarian left who is unfit to be in our party, but is because no one has the guts to tell him to leave. Livingstone has been implicated in tax avoidance, he has obliterated London’s skyline for the City; he has endorsed an Islamic cleric who supports FGM, the killing of Israelis, gay people and ‘apostate’ Muslims, and the rehabilitation of Hitler; he has taken money from a hostile foreign power, which kills gay people, trade unionists and anyone else that gets in its way. He is no way fit to run a secular cosmopolitan city and this has been noticed.

Nationally, Labour lead the Tories in opinion polls; in London, we’re way behind. Many Labour voters say flat out that they will not vote for him. The response has been a last-minute drive from the far left. Labour left commentators Mehdi Hasan and Owen Jones have both written long pieces moaning about the ungrateful rank and file who won’t support the official Labour candidate just because of some Decentist stuff about him being a fascist sympathiser. Keep the Tories out, they bleat. Hold your nose and deliver the leaflets: bite the pillow and think of Venezuela. It is pathetic, and the reason why most people are not members of political parties.

Livingstone is the local government mentality personified. There has been no contrition, no reflection from him, even in the face of mounting criticism and dropping prospects. From his point of view, he’s been in the party since 1968, in local government since ’73, he’s done his time, he has earned the right to run the city and that’s all there is to it. I genuinely believe that is how Ken sees the race. The worst moment of a bad campaign was when Livingstone broke down while watching a party political broadcast, featuring endorsements from ordinary Londoners, who turned out to be actors hired by his campaign team. I have cried in public before. But then, I have a history of mental health problems. If I burst into tears while watching a broadcast, featuring people hired by my staff, saying things like ‘Max, we love you, we wish you were the king of the universe’ you would find the whole spectacle a little creepy, no?

Apart from the London mayoral race, no one is really scrutinising local politicians apart from a few independent regional journalists plus the Private Eye ‘Rotten Boroughs’ column. This is a shame, because local politicians matter. They set budgets, make decisions, and change our lives.

So, here is where I unleash my Great Public Service Reform, which will make conventional politics more accessible to civilians.

On the regional newspaper forums I sometimes read you often hear the proposition to cut the number of ward councillors from three to two. I’d go further – I’d slash them to one per ward, and I’d make the one councillorship a paid position, set at the national average wage. I would introduce a rigorous selection process, on a job interview format, that would select on merit, not on local connection and time served.

I predict that my Great Reform would attract serious, capable people from all sections of the community, and filter out the golf-club bores that so often gravitate towards local office.

Believe it or not, most MPs are good people. They get into politics for the right reasons, and if you have a problem they will do their best to help. People say ‘they’re all the same’. Bullshit. The next election will present voters with the clearest choice they have had for many years. Ed Miliband has taken over a divided, exhausted and clapped-out party and turned it around. He’ll be up against a Tory-led coalition government that offers nothing but worthless communitarian rhetoric and disastrous, ideologically motivated austerity economics. There has never been a more exciting time to get involved. Occupy’s success proves the problem isn’t lack of will and interest.

But all politics is local.

And that’s the problem.

The bloody cops are bloody keen/To bloody keep it bloody clean/The bloody chief’s a bloody swine/Who bloody draws a bloody line/At bloody fun and bloody games/The bloody kids he bloody blames/Are nowehere to be bloody found/Anywhere in chicken town

– John Cooper Clarke

‘Evidently Chickentown’