Monday, 30 December 2013

Why UKIP will win the European Elections in 2014

The elections to the European parliament couldn't come at a worse time for mainstream political parties. Whilst the Labour Party under Miliband are desperately trying to move the public debate to the 'cost of living', the coalition parties would like to glow about their economic track record as the first green shoots are beginning to spring.

Europe however is the white elephant in the room and neither Labour nor the Conservatives can hope to gain anything from the coming European elections in 2014. The only party that is bound to shine is UKIP, the strongly anti-European party that has consistently made the case about the drawbacks of European integration.

In the best of moods - Nigel Farage
Many pundits predict that UKIP will win most votes and emerge as the strongest party. As Europe is gripped in anti-European rhetoric from left to right, the next European parliament looks going to be an interesting one with anti-European parties making up a substantial minority.

The fascinating aspect of UKIP's rise however is the paradox that fuels its potential electoral success. UKIP's mantra has been that Europe has become the predominant (undemocratic) force in the lives of British people. The reason many Brits will vote for UKIP rests exactly on the opposite calculation. Many British feel that they are free to vote for the 'Kippers' exactly because their vote is so ineffectual. Few people in this country care (and I cannot blame them) who represents them in a Brussel's parliament that resembles more a talking shop than a properly legitimated legislature.

The main reason is that, contrary to life on the continent, Europe is far away from the British way of life, and seen more as a nuisance than a benefit. That's partly because Britain is an island but it is also because it is only partially integrated into the European treaties. Anybody who has gone recently through British immigration when coming off a plane can attest to the strange feeling, that Britain is somehow part but not quite inside the EU. What is missing is the 'lived experience' of Europe as it presents itself on the continent, from missing borders to integrated local services in the heart of Europe.

Paradoxically, that's the source of UKIP's electoral chances. Despite Farage's rhetoric, it is the irrelevance of Europe, its undemocratic institutions and its clownish 'president' Van Rompuy that makes the European Elections in 2014 the perfect target for voters who want to send a signal to all established political parties.

The dim lights of Europe - Van Rompuy and Ashton

So, I am convinced that UKIP will win the European Elections, just as it will sink without a trace again in the General Elections in 2015.

Friday, 20 December 2013

From Iraq to Syria and Woolwich

When the first tanks rolled into Iraq during the last military adventure of the Bush family, there was talk about a new coalition between those who favoured military intervention for political reasons, and those who did so for humanitarian reasons. A new creed seemed to be born, based on a supposed obligation of Western governments to protect and safeguard civilian populations from evil dictators or irresponsible governments.

This new doctrine was always shot through with loopholes and exemptions however for those states that happened to be allies of the West. Saudi Arabia could merrily continue to disenfranchise half its population without fearing Western bombers. North Korea had bought itself an insurance policy through nuclear armament. So in the end, Western governments intervened where political expediency and moral indignation converged.

There was little principled thinking in this doctrine and eventually, as the Syrian civil war broke out, hypocrisy reached extraordinary heights when Obama and Cameron prepared for military strikes against the Syrian government.

How ever you look at it, the doctrine lacked consistency and its shoddy application in practice roused the suspicion that it was just another tool to justify Western intervention wherever it pleased. Seumas Milne wrote in The Guardian today that the inability to draw an association between Western military intervention in the Middle East and the repercussions in the Muslim communities in Britain is at best naive.

What is needed now is a serious re-appraisal of this doctrine and the re-application of principled policy making in foreign policy. Western governments do have obligations. Yet taking sides in a civil war is not one of them. This is where Robin Cook, long time ago, started the reform of British foreign policy and we have to pick up where he left it.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Under the shadow of Iraq

As the barristers in the trial of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale prepare for sentencing, the full story behind this gruesome killing is still emerging. There can be no doubt that this is a case that will shock all decent people living in Britain. My main reaction however is one of confusion, confusion mainly about how two people could have concluded that murdering an innocent person would bring justice to those killed in Iraq.

The guilt of both defendants was never in doubt, yet what is less clear is how we should deal with people who have become fanatic followers of a religion. In a way, religious fanaticism has been with us for centuries, and blinding, at times murderous, loyalty to Christianity, Judaism or Islam has continuously challenged our belief in humanity. Yet, it seems to me that this is not just a question of religion.

There remains the nagging thought in the back of my head that the radicalisation of Adebolajo may not have happened without the disastrous adventure of Iraq which cost hundreds of thousands of lives. And it is not just that. When the Iraq war devastated lives, many didn't act and felt powerless. In a sense, Adebolajo was determined not to remain powerless, but ultimately only became a pawn in a larger game.

During the trial and in his police interviews, Adebowale instinctively put his finger on the nub of the problem when he tried to claim for himself the status of a combatant, a fighter for justice. If you wear a uniform and follow the misguided orders of deluded politicians, you are a hero. If you do not wear a uniform, any retaliation for the suffering we have caused in other countries is murder, plain and simple. As long as the balance of recognition for a just cause is so heavily weighted in favour of 'legitimate force', some may try to take justice into their own hands whilst creating only more sorrow and pain.

Friday, 15 November 2013

William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner

The novelist William Styron (Sophie’s Choice) once said that a good book should physically and mentally exhaust its reader. They should be covered in sweat when finishing it. Styron certainly put me through my paces recently when reading his second novel, The confessions of Nat Turner

Turner led the only successful slave rebellion in the US in the 19th century, killing about two dozens of local whites before he was caught and put on trial. The word trial is more than slightly ambiguous in this context given that neither Turner nor any of his compatriots were granted the status of human beings in the first place but considered chattel or property. In addition, more than 200 free and enslaved African Americans were subsequently slaughtered by roaming posses in the days after the brief rebellion. The word we have for this is lynching, killing without judicial process. 

Styron’s novel is of course fictional and although there are some contemporary documents about Nat Turner, Styron certainly takes his literary license. Reading his account makes one uncomfortable, not least because the reader is acutely aware of the constructed nature of the dialogue, written by a white (privileged) man and imputed to be spoken by a black man. The writing process thus mirrors, rather than subverts, the enormous power differential that Nat Turner must have felt himself all his life. 

Yet, Styron does succeed in creating a life size portrait of a human being, somebody who is slowly (and up to a point successfully) navigating the de-humanising environment in which he lived. The parallel between the Jewish Holocaust and the de-humanisation of African Americans is clear to see ( a topic Styron turned to in Sophie’s Choice). The differences are equally obvious. Whilst black Africans were treated as property and never gained any rights in the process, Jews in countries such as the Third Reich were discriminated and gradually excluded from a society they had been part of for decades. 

In a way, it is this refusal to grant black Africans any human qualities right from the start of the middle passage that made this racist de-humanisation so ingrained and difficult to erase. For them, emancipation was as much a fight to gain something they never had, as it was, for Jewish Germans, about something they had previously been granted but temporary lost with tragic consequences. For the Jewish Holocaust, the loss of humanity was an aberration from the accepted norm. For African Americans gaining freedom and civil rights was about constituting a norm that applied to everybody else but them. 

It is the universal application of this norm that is still contested when it comes to racism against African Americans in all sort of contexts, which corrodes human relationships. This is where Styron’s novel makes you sweat and disturbs your moral compass. Styron was criticised for this by some commentators and they may be correct. It is difficult to forget that, when Styron lets Nat Turner muse about forcing himself on the white daughter of the neighbouring farm, he is rehearsing a racist stereotype of the black man raping the white girl which played a significant role in the lynching of African Americans in the South right into the middle of the 20th century. 

But what about that imagined rape? Nat Turner’s thoughts are just that, thoughts about violence between man and woman. True, it is impossible to dissociate them from its historical context. But Nat does not rape her. In fact, he regrets killing her. The only regret he has. In this way, his thoughts about violence against her become a reflection of the violence and power differential in which he lives and which he would fail to observe at his peril, not hers. Not meeting violence with (sexual) violence but regretting killing her may just reconstitute a humanity in him that the world denied him until his death. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Do we need the European Court of Human Rights?

The European Court of Human Rights has a talent for making decisions that rub against popular opinion. It recently decided that murderers and rapists who serve a prison sentence in Her Majesty's Prisons should be given the right to vote. Apart from the practical dilemma this poses to any electoral committee (how to grant prisoners the vote without skewing electoral balances in those constituencies where the prisons are), the main objection to the Court's decision has always been that it explicitly overruled a parliamentary vote. In other words, judges of the European Court did not take into consideration the existing and approved law of the land but decided to make law themselves.

Time to convert this into a secondary school? The ECHR at Strassbourg

This is when critics of the Court are often reminded that any type of 'international court' that is placed above national jurisdictions acts as a last resort for people who fail to get their right through the national judicial systems. The argument goes that without institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights or the International Court of Justice at Den Haag, there would be no right of redress for people who have been victims to persecutions, injustices at the hands of governments or systematic violations of human rights.

Yet, the analogy between the Court of Justice at Den Haag and the ECHR is flawed. The International Court of Justice only acts in those cases where national judicial systems cannot act. The main example would be the case of Liberia where the newly elected government granted the ICJ the right to try its former president Charles Taylor because the national judiciary was not in a position to organise an effective and fair trial following the upheaval of the civil war and the deep political polarisation in the country.

The European Court of Human Rights however receives its legitimacy from the Convention of Human Rights, which has become UK law only recently. It thus depends on an act of parliament and as such it must defer to that parliament's decision in its own work. The judges at the ECHR however seem to have scant regard to national law as its latest decision about the release of ETA prisoners in Spain demonstrates.

It may be time to call time on the legal vandalism of the ECHR. Europe can surely manage without it.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Doris Lessing's short stories

I recently stumbled over a collection of stories by Doris Lessing and started to read them. They hail from a different era, and unfortunately, I only had a German translation. Yet some of them made for fascinating reading. Lessing mostly wrote about the cultural conflicts between the indigenous population, the Afrikaans and British people who came to the South of Africa during the colonial period. This mix of colonialism, European settlement and racial oppression resulted in explosive relationships, with many of fault-lines criss-crossing each other.

Her story 'Little Tembi' is probably the best example of this unpredictable clash of cultures. In Lessing's stories it is never the casual violence against the indigenous population that is the centre piece (although it exists), it is more the conflict of expectations that is informed by ideas of racial and cultural superiority. Within the story, a white British couple help a black family to save their child from illness and certain death. As the child grows, the couple encourage a pseudo-familial relationship with the boy yet profoundly misunderstand the expectations this raises. In the context of significantly skewed political and economic power, this must eventually lead to disaster and it can only be one person who pays the price. However, it is the white couple's confusion and befuddlement over what has happened that makes it a great story. Lessing ends the story with the couple's irritation about the black boy's behaviour: 'What, on earth, did he actually want?'

Lessing is strongest when she writes about these triangulated dynamics between blacks, settlers and British colonisers and the differentiated expectations of honour, power and riches of the newcomers while harbouring a keen sense of misplacement. She is weakest however, when she tries to tell ordinary stories that move away from this explosive mix. Her story 'Old John's place' is supremely boring and pointless, and one of the reason is that Lessing's voice remains one of an outside observer, prone to make sweeping generalisations. In a sense, she never manages to get into the minds of her own protagonists. It seems that psychological character studies are simply not her strength whilst fast paced narratives suit her style of writing best.

Her writing is also a bit clunky at times and I am not sure whether this is a result of poor translation or whether it has something to do with the particular English spoken in the South of Africa during the 1950s. There is a stiffness to her dialogues sometimes that had largely disappeared from American literature by that time.

However, even after such a long time, her stories are worth a read, teaching us about a world that may have disappeared but still resonates in some people's memories.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The futility of writing prose under socialism

The New Yorker recently published a feature on the Cuban writer Leonardo Padura. His speciality are crime stories, a genre that gives him sufficient cover to explore some of the contortions of the socialist political and economic demise of Cuba without treading too forcefully on the Communist Party’s shoes. 

Reading the piece, I was reminded of the various writers in East Germany who equally managed to carve out a niche during the Socialist regime. Their writing resembled a constant balancing act between what they would like to say and what could be printed. The benchmarks and definitions of the permissible were also constantly shifting due to the latest fad of Communist Party dogma. 

The most striking resemblance between writing in the dying days of the Cuban communist regime and writing in East Germany of the latter years was however not the writer’s agility to find and define creative space for their prose to flourish but the extent to which their writing depended on the very restrictions they railed against. Much of the writing of East German novelists flourished in a climate of high politicisation, where every word took on a double meaning. Telling a story about a fishmonger was not just a story about a fishmonger (or a butcher, as Havel so memorably said), but a tale of moral rectitude or ethical failure clothed in events of a seemingly ordinary life. 

Under the conditions of censorship in socialist regimes (institutionalised through the writer’s guilt or through the ‘ministry of truth’, i.e. a government agency), every time a writer would break wind to the right side was taken as a sign of incredible intransigence or political opposition by the readers. Where the ordinary could not be said without adopting a hidden meaning, public discourse tended to create a double speak, which required considerable interpretative faculties to decipher. 

The fascinating result was a rhetorical dance on a highly strung rope. For the writers, this increased the stakes enormously. One misstep or literary miscalculation could mean literary exile. Whilst the ability to say the unspeakable through seemingly innocuous prose would lead to immeasurable reward: a communion with the readers who knew what the writer actually meant, and a license to be printed at home. 

This pas de deux of prose writing, one may have thought, created high art. But actually it was completely context dependent. The disappearance of practically all East German prose from the German literary canon is a testament to its conditionality. What remained of its highly crafted intentional duplicity was flat and stale prose, laughable at best to anybody who now reads again the books of Hermann Kant or Christa Wolf. Whereas East German prose writing had a duplicity may have been entertaining or even daring back then, now it simply strikes one as poor craftsmanship, or of embarrassing quality. 

In the end, socialism, in its desire to exert total control over any artistic expression, not only killed public discourse, it also ensured that it left no literary legacy that’s worthy of our attention. That may perhaps its gravest failure, to make its prose that was supposed to capture the experiences of its people a brittle product that disintegrated as soon as the air of freedom gushed in. 

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The curious case of Glenn Greenwald

As the story about Edward Snowden and government snooping struggles to capture the imagination of ordinary people, the chattering classes are getting more agitated by the day. One person at the centre of the NSA scandal is Glenn Greenwald, an American journalist living in Rio.

Greenwald has been instrumental in ferrying some of the stolen material from Edward Snowden to media outlets in the West. He is on the payroll of the Guardian but does not live in the UK (he once remarked cryptically he is lucky not to have been to England).

Greenwald's pieces in the Guardian are published with some regularity which is probably due to the fact that he has a contract stipulating regular contributions, yet his writing bears little resemblance to balanced journalism or the search for truth. He is reported to easily take personal offense, to be quite thin-skinned and not very tolerant of opinions other than his own. Of late, his pieces have offered little data or information on the NSA programme, perhaps a result that the latest trawl of data was intercepted by the British border agency at Heathrow, an event which triggered a furious outburst from Greenwald saying that 'they [England] will be sorry for what they did [intercept and seize the stolen material]'.

His interview on Newsnight showed an highly opinionated person, who sometimes shoots down even compatriots in the cause with friendly fire.

Yet, apart from these character traits, what makes Greenwald a curious case in the journalistic landscape is his writing. For a journalist, his pieces are remarkably low in information and high in polemic. For his most recent piece in the Guardian, he extracted a single line from a colleague who wrote in the Independent, twisted the meaning of this line and tried to sully his colleague's reputation by calling him a 'career journalist' and member of the 'establishment' (you can read Blackhurst's piece here and Greenwald's recent piece here).

What emerges is a strange picture of an American journalist writing for a UK reputable daily newspaper in a tone that befits American ideological trench warfare rather than the intelligent, nuanced debate that is characteristic of much of the UK media landscape. In a sense, Greenwald's pieces are instances of advocacy or campaign journalism rather than journalism proper. The sad result of this is that the debate on the NSA is becoming ever more polarised with the moderate and reasonable voices being crowded out by those who prefer to shout.

Monday, 14 October 2013

On political capital

As the Labour party is desperately looking for a winning strategy in the 2015 general election, its leader recently purged the shadow cabinet of old Blairites, those former cabinet members who were in the reformist or Blair's camp as opposed to those (like Ed Miliband himself) who were in Gordon Brown's camp.

The viciousness of the internecine fights between the Blairites and Brownites under Tony Blair's government is hardly forgotten and the publication of the memoirs of Gordon Brown's right hand man for the dirty stuff is a recent reminder of how electorally toxic the former chancellor's influence was in British politics.

However, the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, is a protege of Brown and he has slowly yet ruthlessly ensured that Brown's minions have won the day. His latest reshuffle has catapulted Brownites into all leading cabinet positions, such as Rachel Reeves (dubbed 'boring snoring' by the press) into the welfare portfolio, whilst prominent Blairites such as Jim Murphy had to bite the dust.

The most interesting appointment however is Tristram Hunt replacing the Blairite Stephen Twigg. Twigg was the butt of many jokes in the press over the last couple of years, mainly because he struggled to define Labour policy in education, the department he covered as shadow education secretary. His was a difficult job since Michael Gove introduced radical 'ueber-Blairite' reforms in the first two years when becoming education secretary, by widening the academy programme which had started under Blair to primary schools and promoting so-called free schools.

The dilemma for Twigg was that Gove only put rocket boosters under what was in effect Blairite policy, and Twigg (and the Labour Party) had previously endorsed it. Being in opposition however changes the game and now Twigg found himself in a position to have to oppose something he originally advocated. Frustratingly, Twigg also found that the goal posts had shifted with Ed Miliband becoming party leader. Miliband had become leader with the votes of the trade unions and he now had to pay them back. This meant that education policy had to appease the teaching unions (who were steadfastly opposed to any reforms, Blairite or otherwise), and his leader bore down on him to comply.

Policy paralysis ensued for Twigg. He couldn't do as he wanted, and wouldn't have done as Miliband urged him to. He found is ignominious end two weeks ago. Being kicked out of his shadow job is one thing. However watching his successor to do exactly what he wanted but couldn't do is another.

The irony wont be lost on Twigg that only two days after his appointment to shadow education secretary, Twigg's successor, Tristram Hunt, a posh boy with a Cambridge PhD, executed a perfect policy u-turn. He announced that, henceforth, it would be Labour party policy to support free schools (independent of local authorities).

The morale of the story? To be radical in policy development, you cannot have the whiff of being a reformer. What you need to have is the reputation of a loyal supporter of your leader and somebody who always toes the party line. If that's the case, then you have political capital to burn.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The market failure of tar sands extraction

As fossil fuels are becoming rarer, some of the more controversial methods of extracting them from the earth are advancing. This move is driven by two factors. One is the rising need for fossil fuels in the developing world and the lag of alternative energy sources behind conventional fuels. The increase in energy prices is thus making is feasible to look for fossil fuels in ever more remote areas of the world. Deep sea extraction of oil is one of the consequences. One source of oil however is fairly close to the surface yet used to be prohibitively expensive due to its enormous amount of water and chemicals it needs, as well as its poor cost-benefit ratio: tar sands

The Canadian province of Alberta is rich in tar sands, so much so that it is estimated that there is more oil in the Canadian province than in Saudi Arabia. The problem is not that it is deep underground. In fact, tar sands are mined in open cast mines. The difficulty with tar sands is that the oil is not liquid but semi-solid and tied in with other minerals. To separate the oil from the sands is a costly and energy intensive process. So much so that the final tally of energy gained from tar sands is only 5 times to that put into extracting it. 

But tar sand extraction also incurs huge environmental costs since the sands are extracted in surface mining. The pictures of open cast tar sand mining are reminiscent of open cast coal mining which has contributed to the devastation of huge swathes of the Central European landscape. Yet there is an additional factor that makes tar sands problematic. Separating oil from the other elements requires a toxic cocktail of chemicals which are then slushed out into huge open air ‘lakes’. Presently, returning water from these lakes into natural water supplies takes about 40 years, process that is called 'tailing' and has only occurred once in Canada. 

Tar sand extraction in Alberta

Yet, as fossil fuel prices rise, tar sand extraction becomes ever more feasible, so much so that President Obama is considering a proposal for a pipeline from Alberta to the US refineries in the South to meet the energy needs of the US. 

Independent research has shown that tar sand extraction in Alberta has devastating costs for people living in the area (the area affected is currently about 485 sq km, the Alberta government plans to expand the extraction area to the size of France in the next couple of years). Cancer rates amongst native Canadian, the Inuit, are seven times higher as normal, and fish from the delta contain three times as high an amount of toxic chemical (mercury and cadmium). The Albertan government disputes these findings but refuses to appoint independent researchers to verify them. 

So, what’s the solution? Tar sand extraction is driven by rising energy prices which makes this type of extraction financially viable. High energy prices will stay with us for the foreseeable future, so hopes that the development of cheap alternative energy sources will put an end to this practice are motivated by wishful thinking at best. 

The only way out of this dilemma seems to be radical change of thinking about the costs of energy production. At present, energy companies engaged in tar sands extraction can claim huge subsidies. This makes tar sand extraction a highly profitable enterprise, almost twice as profitable as conventional oil drilling. But this is only part of the story. 

Companies can also offset many of the costs of oil extraction to the local communities by discounting so-called externalities. What does this mean? The immediate costs of production are part of the price of the final product, such as investment in machinery to extract and transport the product. The long term costs of extraction activities are however not calculated into the price. Increased health costs for cancer care amongst native Canadians in the area are shouldered by the state government. And the long term environmental costs are not even considered (beavers have virtually disappeared in the delta and water sources are contaminated). As long as extraction companies can disregard theses externalities, energy prices of oil from tar sands will not reflect the real costs of its production. 

In effect, tar sand extraction prices are a result of a distortion in the energy market. Production companies obtain huge subsidies from the government, discount the real costs and risks of tar sand extraction while the public foots the environmental costs and health care bill. Readjusting the market price for tar sands to properly reflect its externalities may be a first step to solve this environmental and moral dilemma. 

Labour's search for a winning formula

After the party conferences, political commentators in Britain have taken stock and assessed the fortunes of the political parties. Whilst most agree that all three main parties have had a good conference season (the UKIP conference quickly degenerated into a clown’s show), there has been a major shift in the tone of the public debate. And it is Labour that is at the heart of this shift. 

Labour’s leader Ed Miliband promised to ‘freeze energy bills’ for everyone for 20 months if Labour would come to power. What looks like a policy straight from the Communist Manifesto at first, indicates some major movement in the Labour Party itself, and not of the expected kind. 

At first glance, this may have heralded a move to the loony left, as some Conservatives would have it. I do believe a freeze in energy bills is non-sensical at best, but interestingly, it may mean much more for internal Labour party politics. What many observers overlook is that this may be Miliband’s desperate attempt to free himself from the suffocating embrace of Ed Ball’s formula. The shadow chancellor has banked Labour’s political future on one scenario, the failure of austerity (in fact, the difference between Labour’s and the Coalitions budget plans amounts to less than .6 percent). Balls thought that as the economic recovery was nowhere in sight by the next election, voters would punish the Coalition government for budget cuts. 

This was always a highly risky strategy. In effect, it meant that Labour had few policies and chanced everything on a particular turn of events. If things went differently, it was left without convincing arguments. And this is exactly what appears to come true. The IMF has upgraded its growth forecast for Britain to 1.4% this year which means that Britain is now the fastest growing economy of the G7. 

Cue Ed Miliband who has now (sensibly) tried to shift the main emphasis of Labour’s policies from resistance to austerity to the ‘cost of living’. This resonates with voters much more than the slightly arcane discussions about austerity and is something that might still continue well into the next parliament. 

So, in the end, Miliband’s change of topic is a smart move. It opens up new territory for Labour strategies, and releases its leader from the deadly embrace of a fatal misjudgment by his shadow chancellor. Soon, Miliband may be strong enough to put his new authority to the test and send Balls packing. Until he does so, the Labour party is hamstrung by Balls’ failed economic analysis and his history as Gordon Brown’s underling. To win elections, Miliband knows he has to change this. 

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Child poverty - why solutions are so hard to find

The Observer has highlighted some truly concerning numbers about the growing child poverty in Britain today. The figures come from a report of the National Children's Bureau that tracked child poverty over the last decades. In essence, it shows that child poverty has not been declining in the UK but instead, steadily growing. This despite the enormous amount of policy attention and cash that was spent under the last Labour government. Billions of pounds were made available through tax credits for families with little palpable impact on child poverty.

Why is it so hard to reduce child poverty, let alone to eradicate it as the previous Labour government grandly announced?

For a start, there are some statistical issue with how to measure child poverty. Currently, child poverty is a relative measure which means that every household with a combined income of below 60% of the median UK household income counts as poor. Every child in such a household is then automatically categorised as growing up in poverty. This is clearly a very blunt way of measuring poverty. If everyone was a millionaire in the UK and drove two SUVs, there would still by definition be some people who fall below 60% of the median household income, no matter how well off they are.

The government recognised this and suggested recently to re-define poverty capture real poverty and its effects on children. The left leaning media uttered a howl of disapproval but it would do them good to consider the government's argument. The current way of measuring child poverty in the UK would allow the coalition government to demonstrate significant progress in reducing it, since median household income has actually decreased in the UK, hence fewer children live in the lowest income group.

This is a statistical anomalie and one that can be fixed. However the actual problem with child poverty may lie elsewhere. Effectively, children are not the object of poverty reduction programmes or policies. They cannot be since they are not recipient of state funding. Parents are. So, when we talk about child poverty and how to reduce it, we actually talk about poverty of parents and household income.

This means that any programme or re-distributive policy is not targeted at children but at their parents. It is the parents who are the determining factor that make or break poverty reduction. This makes child poverty a tricky business indeed since it assumes that any additional resources spent on children are actually consumed by them. That's usually not true. Tax credits boost the income of families, but whether or not parents then spend this money on their children is beyond government's control.

So, reducing child poverty is actually a business with many known unknowns. Re-distributive programmes aimed at reducing child poverty banks on the compliance and co-operation of parents to spend the additional family resources on their children. That often requires a fundamental shift in parental behaviour.

So, perhaps we have simply too blunt instruments for the task. It may be far more effective to target our resources at those domains over which parents have no or little influence such as schools, pre-schools and nurseries. It may be sad, but perhaps, some kids may just have to be saved from their parents.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Miranda saga

The airwaves are abuzz with indignation about the questioning of David Miranda, a Brazilian national, who travelled to Moscow and Berlin on behalf of the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald.

Newspaper editors and journalists across the globe are angry about his questioning by officials at Heathrow airport and the fact that some electronic equipment he carried was seized under Terrorism legislation. The hyperbole in foreign newspapers reached new heights with some journalists claiming that Miranda was 'tortured by giving him water to drink while refusing him the right to use a toilet' or that he 'was refused legal representation'.

At second glance, the story looks a bit different. It turns out that Miranda was indeed offered a lawyer but refused to have one present because he wanted his own personal lawyer. This lawyer took his time to arrive (8 hours to be exact) and so Miranda did not say anything for 8 hours during his questioning.

It also transpires now that Miranda was used as a courier by the Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald (who lives in Rio and is his partner) to transport illegally obtained data from Moscow to Rio.

So the nub of the issue is whether the British authorities have been acting within the law to question Miranda at Heathrow and seize some of his computer equipment (to be returned within 7 days). I think they were. More than this, I think they would have abdicated their duty to British citizens if they had not done so.

You may argue whether Section 7 of the terrorism legislation is particularly heavy handed (it is currently being reviewed) but there is no doubt in my mind that British authorities have the right to prevent the transfer of illegally obtained information about UK intelligence activities through its own airports.

Miranda's partner, the Guardian journalist Greenwald has now threatened the British authorities that he will reveal classified information as a revenge for his partner's questioning at the airport. It may be time that Guardian editor Rusbridger asks himself if Greenwald is motivated by the noble values of investigative journalism or more ulterior motifs when he submits his next piece for the Guardian.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The West's dilemma with Robert Mugabe

There is little love lost between Robert Mugabe and the West. Most Western governments have condemned the outcome of the recent parliamentary and presidential elections in Zimbabwe, if not outright claimed electoral fraud.

But there have been some voices more recently who have quietly sought to introduce more nuanced narratives into the picture. Some of these have been the pieces in the Guardian by Know Chitiyo and  Blessing-Miles Tendi.

The main dilemma for the West is one of values and principles (as always, you may say). Here is a guy who has nearly singlehandedly ruined the economy of his country through his disastrous land reforms, enriched his family members and cronies along the way, and yet, receives most of the votes of the long suffering Zimbabwean electorate. Democracy in action, but with the wrong outcome.

But if you look more closely, the story adopts different shades of grey, rather than the deep black it assumes in the reports of many Western observers. First, there is Morgan Tsvangirai, who suffered from brutal physical attacks and has shown immense courage since 2008, yet has also made significant miscalculations along the way.

Then, there is the liberation narrative that uniquely favours the incumbent Zanu-PF party and Mugabe, who does not hesitate to exploit it ruthlessly to his and his party's advantage. And last, but not least, there is a large expatriate community, contributing enormously to the economic conditions at home. Zimbabweans now constitute the largest expatriate community of all Africans. This must have a deleterious effect on the strength of the opposition, essentially exporting dissent.

The West struggles to maintain a consistent position in this story. Its insistence on democracy and free and fair elections is simply conceptually too weak to make a difference. A democratic ballot may not yield the results that ensure a free society or a well run economy. So, perhaps there is little the West can do but to insist on compliance with basic human rights and hoping for a better future. This may sound precious little, but it may be better than meddle in Zimbabwean politics.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

What's wrong with Liverpool?

As I mentioned before I moved to Liverpool in April and now live in Kirkdale (North Liverpool). Whilst this may not be the poshest place to be, people are usually (or should that be: unusually) friendly here. Yes, prostitution and drugs are a problem here and so is the occasional murder or stabbing. The biggest problem however for everyone living here seems to be that the Liverpool Council appears to be asleep on the job.

Just one example: Liverpool is very untypical for British cities in that is has broad avenues and enormous huge circle roads with wide sidewalks. Plenty of space for creating a network of segregated bike paths through the city, similar to the bike super highways in London (of all places)! You would think!

Liverpool could have plenty of this! If the council knew what a bike is!

In fact, Liverpool has not a single mile of bike path anywhere! Bikers are practically non existent and where they dare to step out on the road they are usually met with honking horns.

It doesn't stop there though. As other councils have made huge strides towards instituting recycling collections (often against a lot of understandable opposition) the Labour Council in Liverpool has not even started establishing food collections. And recycling collections themselves are still only fortnightly.

So, when is Liverpool going to arrive in the 21st century? How long can it take for a large council like Liverpool's to catch up with the rest of the country?

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Pessoa's national poems

I have previously made some unflattering comments on Pessoa's writing on this blog, in particular on his 'Book of Disquiet'. After a pause for reflection (and to revive my will to live after his depressing prose), I have embarked on another dangerous liaison with Pessoa's output, this time his Mensagem (Messages).

The poems in Mensagem are the only ones he ever published himself, so they surely reflect to some degree how he wanted to see himself and his work. They are mainly a collection of short pieces on historical figures or critical historical moments of Portugal. Mostly written around the mid to end 1920s, they represent a curious seriousness and lack of healthy distance to the Portuguese national project.

This is the more remarkable for the fact that at this time, Portugal was firmly in the grip of Salazar, who installed a right-wing authoritarian regime with all the trappings of fascist imagery (although Salazar's regime was certainly not fascist, old newsreel clearly documents how much it adopted proto-fascist symbols).

This lack of critical distance to the nationalistic imagery is odd given that at the time of writing, Pessoa must have been well aware of the (short and violent) pedigree of the nation as a unifying project. He must also have been familiar with alternative ideological trajectories, such as the internationalistic rhetoric of communism and socialism. Given that he wrote plenty of prose and poetry for the drawer, there also appears to be no need to write for the censor.

So, why this strange unquestioning proximity to Portuguese 'nationalism'?

I think one reason lies in his lack of humour. There is not a single instance in his 'Book of Disquiet' or in Mensagem where Pessoa uses irony or humour as a rhetorical device. This creates the impression of an overly serious (if not slightly depressed) author.

The second reason may be his mistrust of human behaviour as a trope for realism. Pessoa's world is populated with unreal heros, mainly historical and distant, who cross the dangerous seas or plant the Portuguese banner in hostile places of the world. Whilst they explore the universe, their inner world of feelings and motivations remains hidden. There is a strange contrast here between the excessively introspective character in the mainly auto-biographical 'Book of Disquiet' and the heroic world of explorers in his Mensagem poems.

In a sense, Pessoa may not have trusted his own poetic devices to portray the world as a representation of this inner world of feelings of his heros. So, all he is left with is either the recounting of glorious adventures or his own emotional universe.

But a poetry of human heroism and unbending will is of little interest to others. Where Pessoa stopped short of exploring the meaning of human actions as a reflection of their visions, art begins to flourish. That's why his poetry has a strange shallowness, despite some wonderful turns of phrases.

Monday, 29 July 2013

The puritans are coming!

Britain has long enjoyed a relatively liberal attitude to sex and nudity but this is under attack from two fronts. On one side, Muslim campaign groups are mounting serious pressure on women to 'cover up' in many communities in the UK, while on the other front, some puritan groups are currently running a campaign to prohibit the display of 'too much flesh' in public.

There is little that can be said about the Muslim threat to a sexually liberal Britain. Where religion comes into the equation, the struggle for personal freedoms and rights usually lose out to bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

The other campaign is more interesting since it is allegedly run by feminists who object to the display of scantily clad female bodies on magazine covers. This campaign is odd in many respects. First, because it undermines the feminists' own cause to battle bigotry and sexual violence by arguing consistently that nudity is not an invitation to rape. There have been famous marches and demonstrations in some cities in the UK and the US and I certainly sympathise with their cause.

The object of debate: porn for some, sexual freedom for others

Yet, this contradicts the recent campaign to prohibit any displays of women's bodies in bikinis or underwear in public places. The campaigners argue that this 'objectifies' the female body for sex. My response is: so what? I would hope very much that every human body is an object of sexual desire for at least one other person. We are by nature an object of other people's desires. But the fact that we are so much more than this, does not mean that objectification should be banished. It would be a pretty boring world to live in.

So, this latest campaign appears more in tune with the old puritan desires to de-legitimise bodily functions and may be animated by a deep discomfort with sexual instincts. Neither of which leads to a happy life I suspect.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

How charitable is the Church of England?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has recently been embarrassed by the financial investments of his own church. While he was ranting against Wonga, the high interest pay day lender, it was revealed that his own church had invested in Wonga for a handsome return.

The church claims to have a charitable function in society and as its religious purpose recedes increasingly into the background, it is the church’s work for the poor that becomes the bedrock of its moral impetus. But what about its charitable purpose? How effective is it? 

Hypocrite or saviour of the poor?

The short answer is: we dont know. Neither the Anglican Church nor the Catholic Church ever open their books to public scrutiny to allow us to test their claim to help the poor. Whilst every other charitable organisation in the country is obligated to detail exactly how much they spend on fund raising, staff, and core charitable programmes, the churches refuse to publish these data. 

So, strictly speaking we have actually no evidence whatsoever where the money goes that we drop into the collection box at the church's exit. For all we know, they may just as well use it to pay for their gold-embroidered frocks and man-servants at the Bishop’s Palace. 

So, besides its important role to provide pastoral care, we dont know much about how effective the church is as a charitable organisation. Their charitable status hails from a time when we granted any religious organisation a charitable motivation per se, but those times are over. In fact, it has been these very established churches that have fought tooth and nail against other religious organisations to be granted the same privileges (think of Anglican Bishops sitting in the House of Lords for no apparent reason or justification but that it is an 'established church'). 

It is about time we know more about how effective the Anglican and the Catholic Church are in dispensing aid to the poor. The first step would be to open their books to public scrutiny. By becoming more transparent in financial affairs, the Archbishop Welby may just make the transformation from hypocrite to moral crusader. Perhaps. 

Saturday, 27 July 2013

On the elusiveness of the common good

It always seemed to me that the interwar period in the 20th century is one of the most fascinating historical periods in contemporary history. Whilst some countries veered to the extreme left to state communism, others turned to fascism and right wing authoritarianism. 

The tendency of Marxist historians to lump the latter two together under one category is now widely discredited. However, there are still many white spots in our knowledge about Pilsudski’s Poland or Franco’s Spain despite the more nuanced approach towards these regimes nowadays. 

It would be deeply flawed to term this renewed interests in some of the right wing authoritarian regimes of the interwar period as historical revisionism, which would somehow suggest a more positive appraisal of their past. Spain under Franco was a brutal dictatorship which extracted enormous human costs from its population over the decades. 

Yet, there are some aspects of these regimes that make interesting reading. Pilsudski’s attempt to navigate the country through turbulent times and defending its territory against two murderous neighbours is probably one of these fascinating examples of history that defy easy description. 

Salazar’s Portugal may be another. I have always been fascinated by the strange melancholy that suffuses Pessoa’s writings which somehow seemed to reflect a pessimism bordering on apathy. Whatever the greatness of his poetry, the time in which he lived must have contributed somehow to his despondency and hopelessness. Salazar’s Portugal (he gained power in 1926 and governed until 1968 when he suffered a stroke) strikes a distant observer as a country preserved in aspic. Although Portugal made some progress towards modernisation in the fifties and sixties, it remained far behind most of its Western European allies in terms of economic and social development. 

There is little written in English on Salazar. A search on Amazon produces fewer than half a dozen books but I stumbled over a contemporary account of the man and his country by a British writer. Michael Derrick must have had some Catholic sympathies since his book, written in 1936, is full of praise for the Catholic (yet non-clerical) undertones of Salazar’s regime. 

There can be no doubt that Derrick was a fan of Salazar’s political vision, a corporatist state without political parties or full democratic representation. There is little doubt that Salazar's corporatism is more of a smokescreen for an at times merciless dictatorial regime. 

Yet, Derrick contrasts Salazar’s politics with those of the previous ‘liberal’ government which he describes as a series of ‘squabbles and inter-factional struggles’. And this is where it gets fascinating, since Derrick’s account may just reflect a widely held belief at that time about the shortcomings of democracy. 

First and foremost, there is the notion of the common good as something that is opposed to factional interests. Salazar’s (and Derrick’s) answer to the dilemma of factional strife in society is to invest the idea of the common good in one person, and perceive of it as an immutable entity closely aligned with a set of traditional values and ‘ever-lasting’ social practices. 

It is this hope that there is a fixture in the ever moving universe on which people can peg their life that appears oddly moving today. It was of course a forlorn hope and one that had to disappoint as Salazar’s regime became ever more oppressive. And it is the belief that a notion of the common good could somehow be defined beyond the the clash of interests that is instructive. As Salazar’s regime became increasingly an apparatus to secure the positions of a small social and economic elite, it revealed the hope for a predefined common good as a mirage. 

This leads us to the most instructive parallel between those authoritarian regimes and our own politics. It is was not so much the lack of any separation of powers, or any checks and balances, but the deep belief that there was to be an idea of the common good that ought to be shared by all which animated those regimes and provided some semblance of legitimacy. This belief can be detected in many other ideologies as well, be it Marxism (think of the ‘right consciousness’) or Rousseau’s armour propre (in small communities). 

Neither Salazar’s nor Franco’s regime of course today passes the test that probes the relationship between their declared aspirations and the realities of brutal oppression and persecution of political oppositions. But their avowed belief that there must be something else beyond a common good emerging out of a political 'squabble' or conflict of interests in society reminds us of the weakness of liberal democracy. It is a weakness that we should celebrate as it gives voice to the lack of alternatives to public debate and open discussion. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Should we be quiet about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

There are plenty of things we may get agitated or angry about, but there are few things that concern us directly. This is probably more true in politics than in any other part of life. We hold strong opinions and voice these unhesitantly when it comes to political issues, often without asking whether this matters to us imminently. 

The internet may have accelerated this phenonmenon not least by widening the realm of those able to contribute. But does this make for better debates and, perhaps even more importantly, for better solutions to problems? 

One element of any debate is how we remain emotionally engaged to any issue at hand and, at the same time, retain a critical distance to those very emotions that seem to guide us for better or worse in forming our opinions. So the question arises: what does the expression of our opinion contribute exactly to any given issue? And if we conclude that it does little to further the debate, should we just shut up? 

Philosophers tell us that the biggest stumbling bloc on the road to a balanced debate is our lack of knowledge. That does not just include factual knowledge, but experiential knowledge as well. We are simply not party to all things human in this world, and hence rely on third party reports. Why should this distance to experience matter? Let's take an example. 

We all have strong opinions on what the root causes are of the Isreali-Palestinian conflict, as well as on how to solve it. Many of these opinions may be formed after onerous and honest research into the facts of the issue. Yet, few of those who have strong opinions on the matter have probably visited either Isreal or Palestine, and probably even fewer have lived there for a sustained period of time. 

So, where does this leave our debate on the issue? I believe that, given that human understanding always operates with limited knowledge, we need to look at other principles that may guide us what we ought to do in highly controversial issues that have no immediate relevance to our own lives. 

One such principle is perhaps about how to prevent bringing our emotions to bear on a situation that have less to do with the parties involved than with our own circumstances. It seems that no one is helped if we articulate our own opinions in a way that reflect mainly our own perspective rather than that of the parties involved. Consequently, perhaps the best we can hope for is to be conscious of how anger at perceived injustices mainly answer to the needs of our own psyche. Consequently, if our anger does little to contribute to solutions, perhaps we should refrain from anything that may inflame the conflict between those involved in a dispute. 

Does this mean that we should never voice our views on any issues unless we are directly involved? Certainly not. Parties to disputes are often just as guilty to widening the parameters of the debate as we are by looking for support in the most unlikely corners of the world. What the world thinks matters in searching for solutions to local problems. 

However, overall, I suspect, there is little to be gained from weighing into a debate that matters to us only through our emotive responses. In a sense, all we do then is to speak to our own emotional needs. That does not sound like a good guide in navigating the complexities of political problems. 

The slow death of the NHS

Since I came to this country in 1992, the NHS has been in perpetual crisis. First, it was long waiting times, then poor cancer care and treatment outcomes with unusually high death rates, and finally, it was people unnecessarily dying in hospitals.

The answer of politicians is to throw more money at the NHS in a desperate attempt to shore up its capacities to deal with chronic diseases, long term illnesses and complex health problems of an aging population. But the real culprit in the demise of the NHS is a fundamental change in the health care needs of people and the huge financial burdens of medicine developments.

As the body for vaccine licensing in the UK published its latest shocking report, it has become clear that a tax based health care sector is creaking at the seams and is becoming untenable fast. The development of medicines has traditionally been the domain of the pharmaceutical industry, but something significant has happened over the last decade. As diseases became ever more difficult to analyse and combat, medicine development has become ever more costly. Developing an effective vaccine can easily take 20 years and cost 100 million pounds as the various substances are tested and go through a plethora of trials to improve their composition and ensure their safety.

These are enormous entrepreneurial risks and practically no company can take these risks on their own today. So, governments have stepped in and underwritten some of the financing risks of some vaccine developments. While that means broader shoulders for the risks, the costs can be devastating for the health sector as not all vaccine developments are successful.

What does that have to do with the NHS? Spiraling costs in medicine development and care delivery mean that the NHS will always fall short of caring adequately for everyone. And that has been the principle of the NHS since its inception: ration the care to those most at need. Yet, the latest decision of the Department of Health clearly shows it is not the most vulnerable who benefit from the rationing principle. What guides bureaucrats in Whitehall is a lifeless formula which decides who lives and who dies in the NHS.

This problem wont go away. In fact, it will get worse unless the government will find new sources for significant investment in the health sector. There seems to be only one answer. Open the NHS up to insurance based services. It would provide a new income for the NHS and would allow patients to decide how much they want to pay for the care they think they need.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The BlackBerry Q5

Until yesterday, I had a Blackberry Curve (yes, people like me are still around) and when I asked my IT person at work if there is some guidance on how to hook my email account up to my Blackberry he just quipped: 'We dont have that info anymore, Blackberry kind of been dying lately.'

That may be true but the new Q10 and Q5 were supposed to turn the fortunes of the best Canadian export around. And as a die-hard BlackBerry fan I made the jump and bought the Q5 a couple of days ago before my old Curve got stuck in the same for good.

A larger keyboard, but plenty of mysterious 'gestures' needed to operate it

So, what's the verdict after two days of the new Q5? Sadly, I have to say that I doubt that RIM will revive its luck with this one. The Q5 is certainly bigger and flashier. In fact, it is so big, it feels a bit like a brick in the hand. That may be a plus for people who prefer large screens, but Blackberry users often stuck to the RIM products because of the email and the BBM. If you wanted a large screen, you would chose Samsung. And if you preferred touchscreen, you got an iPhone.

The Q5 retained the (physical) keyboard but made it bigger. That may suit some people, but it takes getting used to. Coming from Curve, typing on the Q5 is a bit like changing from a three quarter Cello to a full sized one: you have to stretch your fingers. The keys are now spaced far wider and after a while you realise, that some keys are gone completely. The Q5 has no 'back' option, nor can you close a webpage. Once on it, they will stay open until you clear the history.

The biggest problem however is a whole plethora of new fangled 'gestures' which allow you to navigate the system. I say 'allow' but the impression is more one of the device granting you what it wants. Time and time again, I got stuck on pages and applications until I accurately performed those 'gestures'. And the Q5 is a strict teacher, believe me! It can take a while and more often than not, your 'gestures' are not instantly understood by the Q5 which means it does what it wants, more or less. Talking of the ambiguity of 'gestures'!

So, overall, the Q5 takes some getting used to and I have to say, I lack the time and patience to learn it. So, back it is to my old Curve. It might just make another two months. Perhaps I just have to bite the bullet and get an iPhone then.

Monday, 15 July 2013

On burglary, manslaughter and the Trayvon Martin case

The acquittal of Zimmerman in the murder trial of Trayvon Martin has aroused the suspicion that racial profiling is at the core of the death of the teenager. The jury also acquitted the neighbourhood watchman of manslaughter and it is this part of the verdict that is hard to understand from a European perspective.

The UK courts have encountered similar cases over the last couple of years, where people have defended their homes against burglars (which Martin was not, although he was trespassing on private property) with unusual force, sometimes leading to the death of trespassers. Yet, in contradistinction to the recent verdict in the Zimmerman case, justices in the UK have been guided by the notion of appropriate force in reaching their conclusions and convicted property owners who shot intruders.

It seems to me that the UK legal system has got things right in formulating a degree of proportionality which is to be found at the base of every retaliatory action. In other words, if somebody attacks you, you may defend yourself to prevent harm coming to you or your property but only to the extent that unnecessary harm to you and the other person is avoided. Incapacitating or even killing the other person cannot and should not be a legitimate goal of preventative action.

The circumstances of Martin's death have not been resolved as the trial unfolded. It is still unclear who attacked whom, which would be a critical piece of information to build a case of self-defence for Zimmerman. Yet, even so, the outcome strikes me as implausible even if Zimmerman had been attacked first. The use of deadly force is something that should be left to police authorities in extreme cases. Something that is hardly applicable to a neighbourhood watchman challenging a teenager with an ice tea and some sweets in his hands trespassing on a gated community.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Why the Tahrir Square protests are a danger to democracy

Egypt is once again engulfed in political upheaval. This time it is the democratically elected president Morsi who is under attack from street protesters. This morning, on the Today show, the BBC correspondent quoted a protester saying that the army is their friend, as long as it would support the protests.

The irony of the current situation does not escape anyone's notice. Whilst only a year and a half ago, the Tahrir square was filled with protests against the army and its grip on society, now the 'democracy' camp is hoping that the army will impose 'democracy from above'. What is going on?

In essence, Egypt is transitioning slowly from a politics of protests to a system of negotiated politics. Neither side is good at this newly won freedom. And whatever would emerge through negotiations, a sizable minority will not like the outcome. At the heart of it stands a misguided view of what democracy is all about. Those protesting on Tahrir Square presume that they own politics, that their vision of Egypt society is the only legitimate one. They also believe (wrongly, I think) that protesting legitimises their demands in a similar way as it has happened previously as they gained the favour of the world opinion in their fight against the Mubarak regime. Back then, however, street protests were a legitimate way to change things since the political space for free argument and debate had not been created yet. Things are different now.

Democracy is not a shouting match. It is based on a willingness to compromise and to accommodate conflicting viewpoints. Tahrir Square can never be a birthplace for democratic institutions. Street protests are not a suitable arena for a meaningful dialogue between different factions of society. In a sense, then, the protesters on Tahrir Square are mistaken when they think that their demands are resembling those two years ago. Morsi's presidency is not the same as Mubarak's.

Morsi has a democratic mandate, and the willingness of the protesters to make a pact with the army will only serve the old regime. As so often with democratic transitions, some people who have been emboldened by direct democracy will have to be frustrated for true democracy to develop. It is time for Morsi to become the champion of Egypt's democracy the country needs. And it is time for the protesters on Tahrir Square to go home.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

About the courage of Spanish politicians (and the timidity of Welsh ones)

I previously wrote nice things about the tram network in Valencia and I had the opportunity to visit the southern part of the region a couple of weeks ago. Alicante is a sea side town with a lovely old city centre and sprawling modern outskirts. If Spain is in a recession, the more touristic cities along the coast  do not show it, which does not mean that the people there don't hurt.

However, coming from Wales, it was interesting to me how the region solved its public transport problem. The coast line has long been connected via an old diesel train all the way to Valencia. The track was narrow gauge and single file. In a sense this was all that is needed and the region decided in 2003 to update the network. What they did was smart and on the cheaper side of the usually grandiose transport investments in Spain that contributed so much to ruining the Spanish regions' finances.

In effect, they kept the single file tracks, electrified the network and replaced the rolling stock with trams. No guessing where those trams come from: only the finest from Bombardier (Canada). The result is a reliable regional transport network that connects Alicante with Benidorm, and two underground city stops in Alicante itself which allow future lines to be built.

A product of political courage - Alicante tram

Now for the politics of it. The investment in public transport in Spain was made mainly by the regions and it crippled many of them. Some even had to mothball their rolling stock or lease it to other countries. Yet, some regions have maintained their new transport networks and the improvements will give them an additional advantage once Spain's economy recovers. In a sense, it took guts to make those investment decisions, and you may say that it ruined a few political careers of regional politicians along the way.

Yet, then again, look at the dithering of the Welsh politicians when it comes to the modernisation of the valley lines. There is nothing they could not do what Spanish regional politicians did. But Carwin Jones and his bumbling cabinet will always lack the guts to spend political capital on large transport infrastructure projects. Instead, they look to London whilst accusing London at the same time for meddling in Welsh affairs.

I guess a country gets the politicians it deserves. And sometimes it takes a politician to put his political career on the line for a project he believes in. We know political courage is not Carwin Jones' strength. But if not for improving the lives of the people in Wales, what was his political life for?

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

From myth to history and back - Marie Arana's Bolivar

Historical biography is probably the most difficult of historiographical genres. The early examples of (auto-) biography were little more than defensive treatises, rebutting accusations by real or perceived enemies of progress. Augustus' Res Gestae falls into this category and historians have sharpened their critical tools on the interpretation of it. 

As the religious wars kicked off in Europe and printing opened up new possibilities of publicising opinions, history often melted into something akin to propaganda and, again, it was the difficult job of historians to subsequently distil fact from fiction. Biography suffers from a heightened sense of all these ills. 

At the centre of the biography stands the person, and the outward line of events often casts little light on the inner life of the subject in question. The main preoccupation of readers however is not the event. We are not so much interested in knowing that Caesar crossed the Rubicon but what he thought when he saw Cleopatra. On top of that, people have a strong urge to cast themselves in a good light and few biographers can resist the pressure to write with critical distance about somebody they have likely chosen because they liked them in the first place. 

In constructing any narrative historians usually have two options. They either stick to the line of events which commonly delivers taut and paced accounts of what happened or they exhaust the subject matter in minute details, immersing and potentially drowning the account in quotes. The former produces annals rather than history, the latter usually produces boredom. 

Peter Longerich's Heinrich Himmler biography is rich in detail, so rich in fact that it swells to more than a thousand pages and whilst the reader gets a good understanding of every nook and cranny of Himmler's warped thinking through plenty of quotes, the overall picture is lost and the narrative resembles more a zig-zag path to historical oblivion. 

The trick of course is to use the material in the particular context in the most appropriate way. Quoting Himmler's deluded ruminations about races only confirm in the reader's mind that he had a fairly tenuous grip on reality, but insights into deluded minds rarely tell us much about what happened and why. 

Marie Arana's biography of Bolivar is of the other category. Arana does not like to busy the reader with the exhaustive interpretative turns of previous scholarship and she delivers a fast paced narrative of the events. Quickly, however the reader loses sight of Bolivar the person and Arana's partiality becomes a problem. 

Much of this is due to a creeping sense that Arana uses different terminology when describing the warring factions because she preconceives a righteousness in the liberating cause. As the narrative proceeds and Bolivar's early attempts to liberate Venezuela falter, everyone who opposes him becomes a traitor in Arana's account. 

Those who dare argue a different course are 'scheming' while Bolivar himself simply 'lacks genuine friends'. By page 170, Bolivar's righteousness is a function of the end he wants to achieve, and everything that may tempt other historians into a stance of critical distance (for example Bolivar's sexual preference for extremely young girls which he cast aside as soon as he 'conquered' them) is passed over. 

The result is a one dimensional account of the hero himself and Arana's narrative, though fast-paced, becomes difficult to trust. As the slave rebellion enters the picture this lack of critical distance becomes deeply troubling. Bolivar is by now more of a cut-out frame rather than a real person and the language Arana uses to describe the atrocities on all sides is more disturbing. Bove and his men 'revel' in the killings, while Bolivar is 'bewildered' by the storm of violence. 

Arana of course has a problem here given that it was Bolivar who unleashed the forces he could not control with his uncompromising call for the murder of all Spaniards. The proclamation still produces heated discussions amongst historians but Arana 'neutralises' it by attributing it to Bolivar's political 'naivite'. 

The section on Bove's rebellion also makes uncomfortable reading for the racial undertones that creep into Arana's writing. Bove and his men (mainly black and mixed raced) are blood thirsty and cruel by nature, whereas Bolivar and his men are civilised heros fighting for a righteous cause. 

What is lost in this teleological writing is an appreciation for the complexity of the civil war and the difficult position of those caught in it. At some point, Arana gives a glimpse of it when she mentions that some of the fighters easily changed sides up to ten times during the struggle, usually aligning themselves with the party of power. 

In short, the reader gradually grows suspicious of Arana's lack of nuance and critical distance. Most importantly, what is often lost in this sympathetic historical writing is Bolivar the person. Starting with his 'vow to rid Venezuela' of the Spaniards on Monte Sacro in Italy, Arana never manages to lift the mythical veil to glimpse the real person behind. Beginning with his pledge in Italy, Bolivar's life is a path of glory walked by a living saint while virgins are voluntarily throwing themselves in his way (or their fathers trying to throw them in his way to get Bolivar's attention), only temporarily frustrated by evil traitors and agents of Spain. 

Crafting certainty out of doubt - Golo Mann in 1990

The master of biographical writing was of course Golo Mann, who delivered an unsurpassed account of a real person in 'Wallenstein' that had all signs of human frailty and self-doubt. Mann's prose oscillates between historiographical certainty and questioning distance which is curiously mirrored in the actions of Wallenstein himself. Through this historiographical device, Mann made a virtue of the biggest shortcoming of biographical writing, that we can never know the mind of the other. His writing circles the subject matter ever more closely until the established facts are just about holding on to the human perceptions of them. 

Mann was of course aware that this was a historiographical trick. In a sense, he may have been simply lucky in his choice of subject matter. Wallenstein may have been a more tortured personality than Bolivar. But then again perhaps not. Arana's biography cannot tell us either way. What we do know is that writing a biography that turns people into one dimensional canvasses for our projections approximates myth rather than history. In other words, Arana's work gives us 'Res Gestae' rather than the man himself.