Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 28: Lord John Marbury

Okay, Okay I know I'm only up to season 3 of The West Wing but I just can't believe that Lord John Marbury called Lagavulin an 'Izz-Lay' malt! I had the actor down as one of those US phoney-Brits until I realised it was Roger Rees. Well, I can forgive him for mispronouncing 'Eye-Lay' or 'Ee-Lay' (the name 'Islay' is from the Gaelic 'Ile') then because he's actually Welsh.

He's not the only Welsh actor to be doing well in the USA, by the way. How many people know that Agent Rigsby in The Mentalist is played by Welshman Owain Yeoman?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Diary of a glass-half-empty person 27: Harry Potter and the Voldemort Filibuster

Consuela (my Tejana maid) and I have lately been watching a great deal of television – the ‘haunted fish tank’ as I call it. My feet swell up in the summer and I don’t get out as much[1]. Last night Consuela conceded that we should switch off the Harry Potter film that was being screened on one of the terrestrial channels, but did so rather grudgingly. I was surprised by this because, firstly, she has the complete HP canon on blu-ray and, secondly, she has her own player. Thus she can watch them as and when she chooses. But no! Apparently she enjoys the serendipity of what she calls ‘the Harry Potter experience’[2] whenever it occurs.

“It’s amazing,” she opines. “No matter how many times I watch a HP film I always see something entirely new in it!”

Ye gods and little fishes! Breathes there a soul so dead?[3] I prefer the assessment of a friend who says that JKR’s work is like that other famous Scottish product, Tennant’s Lager, which once ran an advertising campaign with the catchphrase “It’s good but… uh… not that good!

I mean, it’s not as though the films are devoid of people who can act, given half a chance. Loads of really belting Brit actors are regularly in the cast. But apart from the compelling, chilling, utterly believable performance by Jason Isaacs and the undeniable charisma of Rupert Grint, all the big names ham it up dreadfully. Consuela and all the other o’ergrown wains who mistake this for entertainment must have their bullshit detectors unplugged at the mains. With pained, patronising smiles aimed at those of us who don’t ‘get it’ they say, “It’s for kids!”[4]

If you want to talk about really good acting, however, look no further than the US tv series The West Wing. Until a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t seen it at all. Another friend has been drip-feeding me the boxed sets of each series one-by-one. I’m currently on series 2 and I am hooked. The biggest surprise is the standard of acting – if it were not for the fact that it is clearly set in Washington DC and all the actors have the appropriate accents I would not have realized that they were a team of American actors. American actors tend to overact, but in The West Wing there is no hint of the “Oh my God, darling” school of soap-opera performance that dogged Dallas and Dynasty. I am glad to say that I have seen more ham at a bar-mitzvah. Outstanding (so far – remember I am about five series behind) are Richard Schiff (Toby), Allison Janney (CJ), Dulé Hill (Charlie), and Marlee Matlin (Joey). Growing on me is Janel Moloney (Donna). Utterly amazing is Martin Sheen (President Josiah Bartlet) who manages to combine the superficial dumbness of George W Bush with the underlying erudition of Herbert Hoover, the charm of Bill Clinton, the king-like quality of Ronald Reagan, the work-ethic of Harry S Truman, the folksiness of Jimmy Carter, the oratory of Barack Obama, the hidden infirmity of JFK, and the one-liner wit of… of… well damn it think of a US President who could deliver one-liners and insert his name. Plus he gets to sleep with Stockard Channing[5]. I am glad to say there is no hint in him of Bush Sr., Nixon, or LBJ[6].

John Spencer is in there too (Leo). Spencer is one of my favourite American tv actors, apart from the fact that he always plays himself. It’s enough that he is convincing when he does so. Irritating, however, is the character of Josh Lyman played by Bradley Whitford. Whitford plays it well but the character just gets up my nose. As does Emily Procter’s voice, I’m afraid. I’m ambivalent about Rob Lowe. A weak point came when series 1 ended in a hail of bullets for the sake of ‘drama’; the only reaction it got from me was disbelief that the Secret Service had allowed gunmen to take up positions overlooking a Presidential exit. D’oh!

It strikes me that actors must be queuing up[7] to come on the show as ‘guest stars’. Regular guests so far have included Tim Matheson (who was utterly cool in Animal House) and Lisa Edelstein, and I am sure I have spotted Rocky Carroll, Jorja Fox, Corbin Bernsen, Richard Dysart (very briefly, so correct me if I’m wrong), Ethan Phillips (ditto), Ed Begley Jr., and George Coe.

Perhaps the absolute star of the show is the American Constitution. Granted that the show is fiction –  for a start, who could believe that a Democrat with a liberal agenda could actually function as President of the United States? – it is very educative with respect to how Constitutional matters are made to work in the USA. It has shored up my respect for the Constitution and the basis of politics in the USA. That may seem a strange thing for an anarchist to say, but I declared my respect and not my support. I remain an implacable opponent of a system which guarantees so much that is directly inimical to what I consider to be right, moral, and proper; however I respect it as a noble attempt, but one that failed.

That too might seem strange – how can it be said to have failed when the USA is the most powerful, wealthiest country in the world? Well, was power and wealth on that scale the goal of its ‘Founding Fathers’? I would imagine not. If we are to believe them then liberty was their goal. Do I think that it has achieved that? Well we could argue all night about that, but the philosophical question I would put (and then subject to Socratic process) is: can there be freedom where there are extremes of advantage and disadvantage or, to put it another way, freedom without equality? The central government system that the Founding Fathers gave to America was, in many ways, ‘Westminster Lite’. It was a reformed House of Commons (Congress), House of Lords (Senate), and Constitutional Monarchy (elective Presidency), and as such it fixed constitutionally the vices of the British system and gave them a veneer of democracy[8]. The proscriptions of the Constitution and the built-in ‘checks and balances’ gave rise to an inherently conservative political culture where almost nothing can truly progress. The Constitution did not prevent the culture of ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the imperialism of White America, it did not protect Native Americans from cultural genocide (actual genocide in the case of some now-extinct tribes). It did not of itself prevent slavery[9] which had to be eradicated after the costliest internecine war in history; and slavery having been abolished it never afforded equality to the races, such equality that now exists having been achieved by wresting it from the powerful, it could be argued, or at the mildest by pressure from those below who were prepared to suffer to bring it about. It protected the freedom to own guns long after the absolute need for them had diminished; the image we have of this freedom is that it is honoured more in excessive fetishism than in restraint, and that what was conceived as a freedom is seen now as a necessity for personal and civic protection (i.e. an armed police). It protects – nay, it can do bugger-all without the support of – the untouchable elite of corporate America, to the detriment of those who have little or nothing[10].


I’m looking over Consuela’s shoulder. She’s writing to JKR’s agents to suggest Harry Potter and the Voldemort Filibuster, a story in which HP is drafted into the White House staff to prevent He-who-must-not-be-named from wrecking something called ‘The National Brotherhood Act’[11].

I’m just away to get my wand, then I shall level it at Consuela and cry “Garnerus Exchangio!”, at which point it will become a proposal to the BBC for a serialization of The Moon of Gomrath. Clickety-click, job done!


[1] I’m sure you really wanted to know that.

[2] Put like that it sounds like a 1960s psychedelic band. Or a theme park (God forbid!)

[3] Sir Walter Scott. Well, almost.

[4] Quite. So why the hell are you watching it?

[5] Or ‘Channard Stocking’ as Consuela insists on calling her.

[6] Probably a nice guy in real life, but he creeps me out.

[7] ‘Standing in line’.

[8] Actually an interesting quote from Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing was to the effect that the USA “isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic”. That is in fact an incisive observation, and worth a whole book on its own.

[9] There is a very interesting book entitled Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America by Allen C Guelzo, which examines Lincoln’s legendary status as the Great Emancipator. That status had been brought into question by his letter to Horace Greeley in which he wrote that his “paramount object in [the Civil War] is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that”. The book reassesses both views of Lincoln. You can read a good review by Mackubin T Owens here.

[10] One day I hope that protesters from the Right who inveigh against ‘big government’ will actually wake up to the fact that what disadvantages them is in fact the whole concept of ‘statism’, and that their capitalist exploiters are hiding behind the smokescreen of their protests and smirking.

[11] A bit too ‘Tom Lehrer’ if you ask me!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Osborne and King versus Proudhon

The paragraph I am quoting below comes from the web site of Freedom the anarchist newspaper. Specifically it is from an article by Iain McKay dated 19th June 2011 entitled Crisis and Capitalism's Contradictions: How the Tories are benefiting from the economic slump. It reinforces what I have always said about capitalism: that in seeking to beggar its workforce it hacks at its own feet. One of these days we will look back on Capitalism as we now look back on human sacrifice, the slave trade, Bolshevism, and the Third Reich - as an evil we did well to rid ourselves of. I hope I live to see the day.

Osborne[1] attacked the trade unions as “the forces of stagnation” who “will try to stand in the way of the forces of enterprise.” Blaming the workers for capitalism’s contradictions is as old as that system. Proudhon[2] mockingly noted that, for economists, “Political economy — that is, proprietary despotism — can never be in the wrong: it must be the proletariat.” Presumably, given the downward trajectory of the economy (and King[3] confirmed it is flat-lining), Osborne considers creating stagnation his job and so objects (like all capitalists) to competition. In reality, as the impact of his policies show, by cutting benefits and pay he is the one promoting stagnation, not the unions. For as Proudhon argued in 1846 “though the workers cost you [the capitalist] something, they are your customers: what will you do with your products, when, driven away by you, they shall consume them no longer? . . . if production excludes consumption, it is soon obliged to stop itself.” Osborne seems keen to prove us right.


[1]George Gideon Oliver Osborne MP, Chancellor of the Exchequer, member of the Anglo-Irish  'Ascendency' (heir to the Baronetcies of Ballentaylor and Ballylemon), former member of the exclusive Bullingdon Club at Oxford University.

[2]Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 19c French political philosopher.

[3]Mervyn King, liberal economist, Governor of the Bank of England.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The story of Kate Sharpley

The following is an account written by Albert Meltzer in 1978, taken from the Kate Sharpley Library web site.

Sixty-five years ago Queen Mary was handing out medals in Greenwich, most of them for fallen heroes being presented to their womenfolk. One 22-year old girl, said by the local press to be under the influence of anarchist propaganda, having collected medals for her dead father, brother and boyfriend, then threw them in the Queen's face, saying, 'If you think so much of them, you can keep them.' The Queen's face was scratched and so was that of one of her attendant ladies. The police, not a little under the influence of patriotic propaganda, then grabbed the girl and beat her up. When she was released from the police station a few days later, no charges being brought, she was scarcely recognisable.
The girl was Kate Sharpley, who had been active in the Woolwich anarchist group and helped keep it going through the difficult years of World War 1. After her clash with the police she was sacked from her job 'on suspicion of dishonesty' (there was nothing missing but a policeman had called checking up on her…) and, selling libertarian pamphlets in the street, she was recognised by the police and warned that if she appeared there again she would be charged with 'soliciting as a prostitute' (which in those days would have been a calamity, and even today a disaster, if once convicted). Isolated from her family, and with the group broken up, she moved out of activity, away from the neighbourhood, and married.
I met her, by chance, last year in Lewisham. Twice widowed, she remembered the anarchist movement with nostalgia, and gave me a fascinating account of the local group in the years before World War 1. Unfortunately, she was already very ill, and a few weeks ago, she died, I was told by one of her neighbours.
I had, though, asked her for a message to the Anarchist movement today. Her answer: 'Tell the kids they're doing all right, they don't need any advice from me.' Especially she praised the young women of today: 'I wouldn't have had to take cover like I did if women of my day had any guts' she said. But she did have guts. A few only in 1917 dared take any action in bereaved England.


Note by MM: The Wikipedia entry for Kate Sharpley notes the possibility that her father, brother, and boyfriend had been shot for mutiny. If she had suspected that to be the case then no wonder she was angry.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Tom-toms in Treharris

I am aware that when I write about folk traditions and working-class traditions in the UK they may seem, to my American readers who are used to the highly-polished razzamatazz of majorettes, cheerleaders, and college marching bands, somewhat clodhopping and unsophisticated. This could well be due to the occasional synchronicity of the costumes adopted by each. Indeed I have speculated before that influence one way of the other is not impossible, although generally I come down on the side of seeing a mainly separate development. My American readers may tend to expect a different kind of élan from that which British traditional troupes and bands display.

If you have watched the film Get Carter* – and by the way if you haven’t watched it then make a point of doing so – you will have watched a scene where a juvenile band playing drums and kazoos march along a street. This band is known as the Pelaw Hussars and is typical of the juvenile marching bands, known perhaps confusingly as jazz bands, that flourished in the mining and industrial areas of the North and Midlands of England and the valleys of Wales.
* The original British movie from 1971, not the 2000 US remake.

 The Pelaw Hussars

Such bands were formed to give youngsters the opportunity to take part in urban parades, particularly those associated with Trades Unions and mineworkers. Typical instruments used were drums and kazoos, the latter probably influenced by children’s impromptu comb-and-paper bands, with the occasional addition of glockenspiel. The kazoos would be amplified by the addition of something like a trumpet bell so that the instrument would look like a miniature bugle. In some cases bands were formed with adult members who lacked formal musical training and therefore could not play in brass bands, but mainly bands were made up of youngsters or young women.

Gresham Viennese Officers Jazz Band

Originally costumes were fancy dress of any themed style. Bands tended – mainly in the North of England – to adopt a rather Ruritanian military uniform with frogging and some sort of busby or shako (costumes which might lead to the comparison with majorettes). The Pelaw Hussars from Gateshead in N E England were one such, as were the bands from Stourport and Sandwell both in the Midlands, and the Gresham Viennese Officers from Treharris in Wales. There are some fascinating pictures from Carmarthen in Wales but they are all watermarked so I haven’t copied them in this entry; if you follow this link you will see for yourself. I particularly like the band dressed as Toreros.

a jazz band from Stourport, Worcestershire

Friar Park Supremes, Sandwell, West Midlands

Interestingly (and here we return to our old favourite topic – blackface) juvenile jazz bands that wore ‘fancy dress’ would deliberately dress as members of another race and culture. Take the gleeful Indians…

… and the stoic Zulus, both from Treharris…

… and both posing with hardly a kazoo or drum in sight. In the latter case I will grant you that the blackness is a deliberate depiction of another race. There is always an exception to test the rule!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

PRO & CON: Ban Girls from Engaging in Drunken Displays of Faux-Bisexuality

I am giving the whole of this entry over to Hannah Levin and Josh Feit, whose article I quote below (it's good for a chuckle in the many-a-truth-spoken-in-jest department):


The all-too-common scene of drunk girls in bars making out with each other for the amusement of a male audience must be curtailed. This proposed law will not restrict bona fide PDAs between girls who are honestly enamored with each other (even if it's only for the night). Only faux-lesbo behavior will be prohibited.

A ban is an extreme step, but must be taken for these reasons:

1. Girls making out with other girls to garner the attention of guys is just plain lazy. Open your mouth and say something intelligent. Don't be an indolent twit, young lady—you have more on tap than an ability to swap lip-gloss with your best friend.

2. A guy watching a girl make out with another girl is enjoying a gratis, real-life version of porn that he would otherwise have to pay for. It gives straight guys exactly what they want without having to lift a finger or contribute anything meaningful to the mix. (References to becoming "the meat in that sandwich" do not qualify.)

3. Lastly, faux-lesbo behavior makes those of us who really love the ladies want to punch you in the face or dump drinks in your lap. This can result in unnecessary injuries, shameful wastes of liquor, or, in the worst-case scenario, exclamations of "catfight!" from the already undeserving audience—a situation that can ruin a Saturday night for everyone involved.



Most guys I know get dizzy if they see two girls bump into each other in line at the movies. Not me. Girl-on-girl action does nothing for me, which makes me the perfect spokesperson against the proposed crackdown on drunken sorority-girl-on-sorority-girl action. I enter the debate not as a lecherous ogre, but as an impartial observer of hot girls socking their tongues into each other's lip-glossed mouths. And here's why banning girls from socking their tongues into each other's mouths is dumb public policy: It would set a precedent for banning other hot-young-girl clichés that, quite frankly, are good things.

1. Ban straight girls from making out with each other and soon they'll ban them from dancing with each other. If straight girls aren't dancing together, there's not going to be anyone on the dance floor at all.

2. Ban girls from faux-lesbian make-out sessions and it follows that you could ban them from the faux-lesbian "dressing for each other" thing. Girls are harsher critics of girls, and when they dress to impress each other, they look slammin'.

3. Ban straight girls from making out with each other and soon they'll ban them from going to the bathroom together. Bad. If they didn't head off to the bathroom together, guys wouldn't get their 10 minutes of last-chance strategy time.

4. Finally, if they ban girls from pretending to be interested in each other, soon they'll ban them from pretending to be interested in us.


Saturday, 11 June 2011

Tre Momenti Distinti

Marcello Minnia - Tre Momenti Distinti
(c) Marcello Minnia. No further reproduction permitted

Friday, 10 June 2011

Death by lethal injection

There was once a flood-warning. The man who lived by the river heard it first on his local radio station. He said to himself, “I’m a man of faith, I shall pray to God and He will save me.”

The water rose and lapped at the front door of the man’s house. A man in a rowing boat pulled alongside and shouted to him to get in and be rowed to safety. The man said, “I’m a man of faith, I shall pray to God. I believe He will save me. Go away!”

The water continued to rise and eventually the man had to sit on his roof. A helicopter flew by, hovered over him, and the pilot shouted through a loudhailer, “I’m going to lower a rope ladder for you – we’ll have you in safety in no time!”

“Go away!” the man shouted back. “I’m a man of faith. I shall pray to God and I believe He will save me!”

Eventually he drowned, and when he presented himself at the doors of heaven he angrily demanded that St Peter should arrange an audience with the Almighty. Once before the Throne of Majesty he said, “Lord, I have always had faith in You, and I prayed to You when the flood was rising, believing You would save me, and yet You didn’t!”

God looked at him sternly and said, “I sent you a warning by radio, I sent you a boat, and a helicopter…”

The above is a paraphrase of a story told in one of the early episodes of the popular American TV show The West Wing. It is told to the fictional President of the USA by the man who was his parish priest when he was young. It is told to him as time runs out to order a stay of execution on a man whose death sentence the Supreme Court has upheld. The priest points out to him that God had sent him a Priest, a Rabbi, and a deaf Quaker. As the President ruefully considers these words and realizes their wisdom, his Press Secretary hands him a note advising him of the condemned man’s death.

In the episode nothing much is known about the condemned man. I do not believe we see his face or hear his voice. We are given sketchy details about the offence, to the effect that he murdered two members of a drugs cartel. The circumstances of execution by lethal injection are explained but not dwelt upon. This is all part of a dramatic device to focus us away from any sympathy towards the victims or the perpetrator and help us to focus on the actual issue of the morality of the death penalty. We hear from the three representatives of religion whose opposition is cogent, rational, and compassionate. We hear from people who frankly admit that they have not been moved either way. We hear from a young man who would have happily taken personal revenge on someone who murdered a family member, let alone supported the State’s role in execution. We hear all this without any overblown didacticism from the programme-makers, although at the end the President is left silently contemplating the inevitability of the justice system and his own failure to take moral responsibility. Maybe justice has been served but not mercy.

In 1960 the number of murders committed in the United States was 9,110. In 2009 it was 15,241. That’s an increase of 67%. In fact there was a peak of 24,700 in 1991 (171% of the 1960 figure) after which the trend has been generally downward. Setting that against population, just over 179 million in 1960 compared to just over 307 million in 2009, with 252 million in 1991, the numbers of murders per head of population appears to be comparable at either end of the period under review (if my maths is correct, and disregarding the blip in the middle).

Murder rates per hundred thousand people for 2009. The highest from a state which has the death penalty is 17.5 in Louisiana, the lowest is 0.8 in New Hampshire. In the states which do not have the death penalty the highest was Michigan with 6.3 and the lowest were Iowa and Vermont each with 1.1.

Thirty-four states currently have the death penalty, along with the U.S. Government and the U.S. Military (both of which are, I guess, treated as being in Federal rather than State jurisdiction); sixteen states plus the District of Columbia do not have the death penalty. Those that abolished the death penalty between 1960 and 2009 were Iowa (1965), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), New York (2007), North Dakota (1973), Rhode Island (1984), and Vermont (1964), along with DC in 1981.

The highest level of public support for the death penalty in the USA, as indicated in polls which only mentioned the death penalty, was 80% in 1994. The lowest recorded was 42% in 1966. The proportion is usually much lower when a poll gives a choice between death and life imprisonment without parole.

I do not know whether these statistics are of any use to either side of the abolition argument, except perhaps to highlight that the human propensity for violence is present no matter what the consequences might be.

I live in a country which has no death penalty, and perhaps I could afford to take the ‘moral high ground’. I could look at the USA and say “This is not my call – it is up to the citizens of the USA to support or reject change within their own country and to take moral responsibility for whichever way it goes”. That is not a weak argument. However the trouble with moral high ground is that it is just that – high – and one can easily fall from a height. Detachment can be an arrogation of one’s duty as a member of common humanity. No one is an island, as John Donne reminds us. The world is becoming smaller and what happens in the world’s most powerful nation affects all of us outside it almost as much as it affects US citizens.

Perhaps it is time for me to sit down and sort out the various trains of thought in my head.

If a murderer harmed someone I loved, I can imagine how I would feel. Death penalty? I’m sure I would feel like doing it myself and making it as slow, painful, and terrifying as it could be! Rationally, however, I would know I was wrong. Communities and countries take such decisions out of the hands of aggrieved individuals. Omertà, despite its cultural strength in some quarters, is not a civilized practice and can only lead to endless blood-feuds. If the community’s decision does not satisfy my own feelings I have to bear that. The question is not whether the perpetrators of crime deserves to die – it is pointless to argue that they do not – but whether that gives us the right to kill them in return, whether what I might do in hot blood I should expect my peers to do in cold.

Rationally I tend towards opposing the death penalty. I feel that I would be more prepared to shoot someone dead to prevent harm to someone I held dear than I would, once the white heat of my anger had cooled, to push the button to start the process of execution. That would be the point at which I would see the murderer’s humanity and wonder about my own. I do not, however, expect my own balance of reason and emotion necessarily to be other people’s.

But this is not the end of the moral argument. There are many other trains of thought.

In 2005 the BBC quoted Lucie Russell, Director of the campaign group Smart Justice, as saying: “Prisons are a university of crime. People go in knowing how to do one crime and come out knowing how to do four others." I do not know if she realized she was herself quoting Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin: "Prisons are universities of crime, maintained by the state." They are. They are supposed to be institutions where people are simply deprived of liberty; they are in fact places where people are stripped of dignity. Even in the most civilized country, even in the rich, liberal, industrialized democracies this is the case. To commit a human being to such a place is to say, “You are worthless”. The only purpose they serve is to perpetuate crime, to give those with a tendency to cruelty licence to be cruel in a microcosm, to destroy the weak, and to do all this without the constraints of a ‘normal’ environment, without the mutual aid of a community whose influence might be to mitigate the worst of cruelty and weakness. The fact that we send to prison those people with whom we are likely to feel the least sympathy is neither here nor there. Prison is not only the University of Crime but a place which is degrading, debasing, and if not downright dehumanising then at best reduces humanity to its worst components.

But what alternative could there be?

In the Russian Civil War the anarchist leader* Nestor Makhno practiced summary execution. The Officers of captured White Army troops were killed immediately by a bullet to the head, the rankers were given the choice of joining the Black Army or going home disarmed. The Black Army had no facilities for prisoners, and I speculate that Makhno felt that instant death was cleaner, more dignified than imprisonment anyway. There is an apocryphal story of his responding to a simple statement of “But I don’t want to die” by simply not executing the man in question. When asked why, Makhno said “Because he doesn’t want to die”.

Could I support this: could I support a communal reaction to crime which says on the first occasion of a crime, no matter how petty or serious, we give you the choice of either reform and recompense as far as possible or a bullet in the head right now, and on the next occasion simply administers the bullet? Could I condone this as an alternative to the brutality of prison? Could I say to the criminal that instant death is a more dignified fate? After all, I have said that I could easily imagine myself preventing by lethal force the harming of someone I loved.

I am a poor excuse for a pacifist, but then as a rational position pacifism cannot stand up to the force majeur of other arguments, it never has been able to**.

The question of taking or not taking life has never been a simple one. The matter of abortion has always vexed me***, for example, and the polarized arguments have too. It suggests to me that people on either side have not truly examined their own positions but have started with a supposition and then constructed arguments and selected evidence to fit that supposition. I mention this only to stress the difficulty inherent in considering such matters.

Therefore I leave the question(s) open.


* I know this concept seems oxymoronic. Maybe I should return at some time to the question of the role of leadership within anarchism. Remind me.

** Acting out of faith rather than reason is another matter entirely. It is an act of prophecy and altruism against which reason dashes itself impotently to pieces.

*** The matter, for example, of when life begins. At birth? At conception? I recognise the various arguments. If forced to state a position I would say that life begins when individual consciousness begins, but I would offer the following caveats to that. Firstly I would find it impossible to identify the stage in pregnancy when that actually happens. Secondly that even though it can be argued that ‘life’ might not have begun at conception, the process of bringing about life definitely has, and that it cannot be reversed or interrupted but only stopped. Thirdly I might be entirely wrong.


Sources of information:

BBC News
Death Penalty Information Center  
The Disaster Center 

Monday, 6 June 2011

Marie's Jukebox, 6

More random-play madness, and this time I’m making it easy for you.

  1. Original Broadway Cast – Lovely (from Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum) [video clip is a bootleg from the 1996 revival]
  2. Sum 41In Too Deep
  3. Otis ReddingFa Fa Fa Fa Fa
  4. Linkin ParkKyur4 th Ich
  5. Captain BeefheartBig-Eyed Beans From Venus… “Mister Zoot Horn Rollo, hit that long, lunar note and let it float!”
  6. The Burning BushDoina
  7. Bunny WailerDreamland (original and dub mix)
  8. Walking With Ghosts featuring A L Lloyd – Bonny Ship The Diamond / Egyptian Reggae [no YouTube clip available, but this is a modern interpretation of the old Scottish song sampling the voice of the late Bert Lloyd and including the Jonathan Richman tune - get it on iTunes]
  9. John ColtraneLocomotion
  10. Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain BoysAmazing Grace
  11. Karl BartosThe Message
  12. FunkadelicOne Nation Under A Groove
  13. Andrea GibsonI do
  14. Liquefaction ft. KossaeBeyond The Horizon
  15. Leonard CohenIn My Secret Life
  16. Bob DylanMan Of Constant Sorrow
  17. DanAsboInner Light
  18. The CultsGo Outside [thanks, Beedie]
  19. Nora DeanBarbwire
  20. FreezepopThe Swimming Pool [thanks, Beedie]

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Turquoise Mountain Project

I have just been listening to a BBC Radio programme, only fifteen minutes long, in which Rory Stewart's account of his experience working with the Turquoise Mountain Project in Kabul was read to the listeners. The fact that project has the sponsorship of the Prince of Wales and that Rory Stewart is now an MP for the Conservative Party could not hide the fact that the project was built from the ground up by people themselves, and that it was built despite bureaucratic and commercial pressure, despite police with AK47s, and across many cultural and ethnic divides. That a member of the British royal family and a Tory could lend their support to something which, in its impetus and development, was such an example of mutual aid in action, indicates to me that the principle is not dependent on ideology - again see Meir Turniansky's article quoted in yesterday's blog. Certainly there is a commercial (and therefore capitalist) aspect to the project, but that was not what seemed important to me as I listened. Another of my 'imperfect examples' to add to the list.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Wilfred Owen, the Ram of Pride, and the Kibbutz.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
poet, patriot, soldier, pacifist.

Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat for a white person (okay she wasn’t the first but she’s the one whom people think of as the first), some un-named person was the first to take a hammer and knock a chunk off the Berlin Wall, someone else in Chiapas was the first to think “You know, Zapata was right…”, another person was the first to set foot in Tahrir Square with the intent of standing against President Mubarak’s dictatorship. In all cases what comes through to me when I think about these things is less the event itself more the impact, the emotion, the release of energy. It is the old tension between transience and permanence; the event passes but is recorded in history – the emotional response is universal and universally recognised even though it is momentary.

I am contemplating this because, in a recent discussion, it was suggested to me that one way I might keep my ‘art’ fresh is to write about current events. I am not resisting this idea, but I am kicking it around. Okay I’ll confess my gut reaction is to resist it, because I know that a work of art can become horribly dated very quickly and that we artists, no matter what our medium, strive for immortality!

Yet that is what some of us achieve even though we hang our hat on something that is time-specific. Who can deny the living, constant power of Wilfred Owen’s lines What passing-bells for those who die like cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns. / Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle… notwithstanding it is specific to the Great War.

I found the following poem by Owen. It is time specific, but the release of emotional energy when one reads it never goes away. Its time is the time of the Great War of course. However Owen calls up the more ancient image of the Patriarch Abram (Abraham) to use as an analogy, and with it the idea of the horrid blasphemy in the act of refusing to heed a loving Creator. The final two lines – their closeness in form to a rhyming couplet lending them a quiet but awful impact – sum up with great, almost gentle simplicity Owen’s disgust at the stubborn, prideful cruelty which he saw behind the sacrificing of so many young lives.

          The Parable of the Young Man and the Old

          So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
          And took the fire with him, and a knife.
          And as they sojourned, both of them together,
          Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
          Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
          But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
          Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
          And builded parapets the trenches there,
          And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
          When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
          Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
          Neither do anything to him. Behold,
          A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
          Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
          But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
          And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

The desolation of what was the tree-lined road to Guillemont.
This image of The Somme will remain with me and may colour my poetry for a while.


When I write, as I have done many times, in support of mutuality as an alternative to capitalism, statism, and political oligarchy, I give examples of experiments in the area of co-operative and communal living. What I do not do is hold them out as examples of perfection. They are only experiments after all. One of my examples is the kibbutz system in Israel.

I have been thinking about what divides people from each other. I have been thinking of my principle of No Bosses, No Borders (the anarchist’s No Cross, No Crown?). Specifically I have been thinking about the wall built between the Gaza Strip and Israel. To me its importance is not that it pens Palestinians into an effective ghetto, nor that it may well protect Israeli citizens from terrorist attack. To me its significance is that it divides people from each other who may well have much more in common than those things which appear to divide them. It forces them not to consider mutuality. Again to me this is where its true evil lies, irrespective of what other good-or-evil purpose or function it may have.

In an article in Freedom in 1997 Meir Turniansky wrote about the kibbutz where he lived – Kibbutz Samar. He reminded us of certain facts about the kibbutz philosophy: “First of all the Kibbutz movement was never Jewish-Arab but based purely, like the rest of the Zionist movement, from it’s beginning in the turn of the century, on Jewish immigrants from east Europe who were influenced by Marxist ideas…” (my emphasis, to show which side of a virtual wall they were). In the same early paragraph he goes on to say how the death of Stalin was reported in the kibbutzim newspaper with the words “… the sun of nationalities has turned off”! The article went on to explain how the kibbutz system changed in step with the development of the state of Israel as a whole.

I would like to quote a large passage from Turniansky’s article:

…many Kibbutzim are not a utopistic society anymore but a society in transit towards a rural town on the scale of a small village. Still the Kibbutzim were never “pioneers of anarchism” except a few rare examples which I feel one of them is the kibbutz I live in which like some others still maintains it’s revolutionary way of life but in a different way than the original kibbutz.

The kibbutz in which I live… has an ideology of non intervention with the members life which remarkably reminds anarchist theories. The main points of social “order” here are:

  1. Everybody decides for himself where and how much he works.
  2. There is no budget, everyone draws cash as he wishes.
  3. decisions are reached only by dialogue or the assembly.
  4. There are hardly any committees to monitor internal affairs as in other Kibbutzim.
  5. All facilities e.g. kitchen, office etc. are open all the times — there are no locks anywhere.

These features or customs of our life style are possible because here lives a small group of people which decided it wants to live this way. Of course this requires much self control from the member since this whole system is based on the fact that people will consider the communal property, money and works to be done as their own and therefore will work well and spend the money sparingly, but all is done according to their decision. The belief is that this freedom will lead to better results than the usual systems of control and coercion societies usually use. Up to today things are working fine, this place is prospering and has a strong social spine. There are about 150 residents living here including 80 members. We grow dates and vegetables and have a dairy farm and some tiny factories. Maybe the most interesting thing... about this place is the fact that you will not find here more than five people who know who Kropotkin was. The word “anarchy” is hardly ever mentioned, and is sometimes even abused in it’s negative misleading conception (equal to just one big mess where nobody cares about anything). This place emerged as an anarchistic society without people planning it ideologically. The healthy society here is more a result of people from well-to-do houses being fed up of the rotten systems they grew up in (many of them were raised in old and stagnated kibbutzim) having an opportunity to act freely and manage their own lives from A to Z as a small desolate rural place like Samar makes possible.

I feel that in Samar it is proven that true anarchy can exist and benefit the people who practice it. People here are always willing to defend the way of life we live even if it means restraining themselves since eventually they do prosper and enjoy a good deal of freedom…

I came across all the above when I was looking for any information I could find about the inclusion of Arab people within the kibbutz system. I found none, which saddened me. That is the erection of a fence which should never have been erected, a chance lost in the drive for an ethnic homeland, Isaac slaughtered on the altar of nationalism.

I say I found none, but that is not quite true. There was an article by Simon Griver in The Jewish Chronicle Online dated 13th June 2008:

A kibbutz has accepted an Arab citizen’s request to become a member for what is claimed to be the first time.

Amal Karmia, a divorcee from the Arab town of Kalanswa, north-east of Tel Aviv, officially became a member of Kibbutz Nir Eliahu, near Kfar Saba, where she lives with her teenage daughter Aya and son Adam.

Israeli magazine The Kibbutz reported that this was the first time in the history of the kibbutz movement that an Arab had been accepted as a member. Ms Karmia, a nurse, has a long association with Kibbutz Nir Eliahu. Both her children attended the kibbutz kindergarten and she became the nurse in the kibbutz clinic in 1997. In recent years, she has lived on the kibbutz.

“This is the place and these are the people and this is the lifestyle which suits me,” said Ms Karmia. “Even so, we are Muslims. We fast on Ramadan and keep all the festivals. My children enjoy the best of both worlds and have a universal outlook.”

As for the future, she said, “people on the kibbutz ask me if the children will go back to Kalanswa to find a spouse when they are older. I tell them it will be up to Aya and Adam to decide what kind of life they want to lead.”

Neta Beeri, who is in charge of new members for the kibbutz, said: “This was not a symbolic act. We have known Amal for years and love her. She is a person that we wanted as a member. Even so perhaps others will realise that Arabs do not have horns and there will be more Arab members of kibbutzim.”

I’m tempted to say: a nice thought but don’t hold your breath. The fact that the event is trumpeted sixty years after the foundation of the state of Israel says something!

When you get to my age (oh my Lord – I said ‘when you get to my age’!) you will however realise that culture is not immutable. I have seen the culture of the country where I live change many times due to a multitude of pressures. What that teaches me is that maybe cultural conservatism and multiculturalism should after all be given up, thrown away, in favour of a natural mutuality such as was reported from Kibbutz Samar in 1997, but on a larger scale. Maybe if we bind our treasured cultures to the altar and raise the knife then a ram will be provided. Is it not worth having faith?

Meir Turniansky 
Simon Griver  

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Wedding Small Stones

Kaspa & Fiona have taken over my blog for today, because they need our help. 

They are both on a mission to help the world connect with the world through writing. They are also getting married on Saturday the 18th of June.

For their fantasy wedding present, they are asking people across the world to write them a ‘small stone’ and post it on their blogs or on Facebook or Twitter. 

A small stone is a short piece of observational writing – simply pay attention to something properly and then write it down. Find out more about small stones here. 

If you’re willing to help, we’d love you to do things: 

1) Re-post this blog on your own blog any time before June the 18th and give your readers a chance to hear about what we’re doing. You can simply copy and paste the text, or you can find the html here. 

2) Write us a small stone on our wedding day whilst we’re saying our vows and eating cake, post it on your blog, and send it to us.

You can find out more about our project at our website, Wedding Small Stones, and you can also read our blog at A River of Stones. 

We also have a July challenge coming soon, when we’ll be challenging you to notice one thing every day during July and write it down. 

Thank you for listening, and we hope we’ll be returning from our honeymoon to an inbox crammed with small stones, including yours. 

Kaspa & Fiona