The man who knows all about roads

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I nearly missed this, but there was a nice little story in this week’s Turbine that illustrates a thing or two about our political system.

First, I want to go back several years, when I was listening to one of our leading intellectuals giving off about the state of politics in the Banana Republic. His theme was what a scandal it was that successive governments had to keep appointing Martin Mansergh, the cleverest man in the southern political class, to the Seanad in order to give him a role in government, due to Mansergh’s perennial difficulties in getting the peasantry of South Tipperary to vote for him. The interesting thing was that our intellectual was quite clear why this was. Mansergh, he pointed out correctly, was just your man if you wanted an elegantly phrased letter written to the Irish Times, but he was as useful as a chocolate teapot if you were a pensioner looking a medical card. I agreed, but our intellectual said this as if it was a bad thing. As further proof of the Irish peasantry’s moral delinquence, he cited the way ignorant culchies kept re-electing Jackie Healy-Rae.

This came to mind when scanning the Turbine, which had a story on how An Bord Snip has affected the national road-building programme. In fact, under the new conditions of austerity no new roads are to be built in the coming year. With one exception – a lonely rural bypass. Guess whose constituency it’s in?

A spokesman for the National Roads Authority (NRA) has confirmed that contractors are on site to construct a 5km bypass in Castleisland, Co Kerry, which is expected to be completed by the first half of 2011.

It is the only new national road scheme to go to construction this year, after a government decision requiring all new projects to obtain ‘sign off’ from the Department of Finance.

By comparison, a number of other planned projects, including the upgrade of the N11 and the reconstruction of Newlands Cross on the N7 in south Dublin, have not been given the go-ahead to date by the department.

Healy-Rae, who has previously claimed credit for securing the bypass for his constituency, is one of two independent TDs still supporting Brian Cowen’s government.

Yes, Jackie the Cap does it again, and the reader may suspect that those Kerry culchies aren’t all that ignorant. Whoso findeth an independent TD with a flair for negotiation, findeth a good thing.

Popery, treason and plot in Glasgow North-East

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Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, I’m still being periodically annoyed by this Thought for the Day debate. I refer of course to this campaign to get atheist speakers onto TftD, which Polly Pot and her co-thinkers have been boring Guardian readers to death with for months. It came back to me a week or so ago, when some bozo, presumably representing the Ulster Humanist Association or some such outfit, appeared on Talk Back to flog the hobbyhorse a little more.

What annoyed me most was that the discussion centred around the specious claim that only 0.2% of programming was secular/humanist. This seems to be based on the idea that humanists get minority coverage in what is already a very small amount of religious programming. One could point out that, since there’s very little religious programming as it is, most programming is actually secular and atheists are well catered for by all the programming that isn’t religious. But I somehow doubt that would fly with the professional atheists.

As a matter of fact, what religious programming there is is little short of insulting. On the BBC, much of it is made up of Nicky Campbell’s Big Questions, which is really a Kilroy clone. The Beeb can count this towards their religious quota by having an occasional discussion about abortion, and putting a trendy vicar and Cristina Odone on the panel. Much as I like Cristina Odone, this really will not wash. But, for what it’s worth, The Big Questions is on for an hour on Sunday mornings. On weekdays, its role as forum for the discussion of ethical issues is taken up by The Wright Stuff, where you’re more likely to have Peter Andre giving his thoughts than Cristina Odone. I suggest that this is a secular discussion show, and is no less so for the fact that it doesn’t have Professor Dawkins bashing religion five days a week.

Anyway, this leads me back to the question of what secularism actually means. I’ve never been terribly impressed with the French concept of laïcitéCoatesy is your man for that – rather preferring the minimal definition of separation of church and state in the American First Amendment. On the other hand, there’s also been some good work done on this by thinkers in India, where religious strife is still a live issue. Regardless, I think there are cultural issues that are specific to, not England exactly, but certain northern European countries, that don’t translate very well elsewhere.

Allow me to explain. A basic working definition of secularism might be that no particular religious belief is privileged in the public sphere. A concomitant of that might be that neither is unbelief privileged in the public sphere. To say that the public sphere does not privilege religion is not to say that we therefore have an atheist public sphere. I believe Norman Geras would agree with me on that, when he isn’t preoccupied with trying to reconcile his universalist ethics with special pleading for Israel. But yes, minimally speaking, we’re talking about the absence of compulsion. That’s why it’s important that witnesses in court can affirm rather than swear, that parents can excuse their kids from religious assemblies in school and so on.

It’s a departure from that minimalist definition to set out to render religion an entirely personal matter, something for the home and the place of worship, that has absolutely no place in the public sphere. This, I think, is a cultural thing, and it’s perhaps best illustrated by the way the Brits deal with the sexual morality of public figures. It might be good for some curtain-twitching titillation in the News of the World, but there’s also a very strong sentiment that people shouldn’t be judged on their personal conduct. That’s not something that works very well in an Irish context, where (outside of our most Anglicised metrosexual milieux) it would be assumed that we would have a right to know if our TD was shagging all around him, and we would have a right to pass judgement.

It’s a bit like the different concepts of guilt, and how Catholic guilt differs from Calvinist guilt. Catholicism sets extremely high standards of personal conduct, but it also recognises that, as human beings, we will often fall short of these standards, hence the institutions of confession and penance. Calvinism sets impossibly high standards but, lacking the Catholic institutions for handling sin, the only recourse of the sinning Calvinist is to lie his head off – that’s why so many Presbyterians are shocking liars, compared to Catholics who just prefer to be economical with the actualité. On the other hand, liberal Protestantism deals with this problem by lowering the standard and declaring that passing judgement on sin isn’t really the business of the Church. That’s probably why, in certain trendy parts of Dublin, Church of Ireland membership is booming amongst ex-Catholics, who want a nice non-judgemental atmosphere to raise their kids in, and have concluded that you could do a lot worse that the good old C of I, half of whose members don’t even believe in God.

So it’s my view that the concept of strictly privatised religion, like its close cousin privatised morality, is something that you really only get within the cultural realm of liberal Protestantism – there really isn’t a Catholic or Calvinist analogue, let alone a Muslim or Jewish one. Indeed, one might say that modern British humanism really is liberal Protestantism without the theology. Nietzsche, who used to have a lot of fun twitting humanists as essentially Christians without Christ, would appreciate that.

If I’m coming across as being dismissive, that’s not entirely true. There’s something quite attractive about the idea of the privatisation of religion, especially when taken in the context of the usual British array of ad hoc compromises. If people want to live that way, that’s fine by me – what I have a problem with is when there’s any move to enforce privatisation.

Sometimes it’s just irritating, like when those nudniks in America take cases to the Supreme Court trying to get “In God We Trust” removed from banknotes, or when their British analogues write letters to the papers demanding that Songs of Praise be taken off the air – I don’t often watch Songs of Praise, but I don’t remotely have a problem with it being broadcast, even in its truncated and dumbed-down format. But sometimes we enter into serious political territory, as with campaigns to abolish the conscience clause that allows doctors to refuse to carry out abortions on moral grounds. I’m in favour of abortion being both legal and accessible, but abolishing the conscience clause and attempting to force doctors to perform abortions against their will would not increase accessibility. Its main effect would be to force out of practice those doctors whose opinions do not conform, but then I suspect that’s a large part of the motivation.

There’s been a recent irruption of this sort of illiberal liberalism in respect of the upcoming by-election in Glasgow North-East. You see, Scottish Nationalist candidate David Kerr is a devout Catholic. In itself that’s worth remarking on, given the SNP’s history of Orangeism and how it’s only really in the last few years that it’s managed to make inroads amongst Glasgow Catholics. But it gets better than that:

It was reported that Richard Baker, Labour’s justice minister, said that Mr Kerr’s membership of Opus Dei would cause voters to question him. Murdo Fraser, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, was also quoted as saying that Mr Kerr’s affiliation with the group raised questions about whether it was appropriate to have a candidate who was a member of a “secretive” and “hardline” organisation.

However, spokesmen for the Labour and Conservatives parties told the Scottish Catholic Observer this week the politicians had been misquoted, their comments taken out of context, and that neither believed that membership of Opus Dei would bar a candidate from public office.

Quite so. I suspect the initial attack had come from political operatives who either thought The Da Vinci Code was a documentary, or who assumed there were lots of gullible punters who would do so. Opus Dei isn’t exactly my cup of tea, and it isn’t terribly popular even within the ranks of organised Catholicism, but it doesn’t have any esoteric beliefs, and Mr Kerr’s membership of Opus doesn’t prove anything except that he’s an observant Catholic. Labour by-election candidate Willie Bain, a practising Catholic himself, has said so, and Mr Bain will be keenly aware that this sort of sectarian dog-whistle politics may play well in Airdrie, but won’t do much good in the East End of Glasgow. To be honest, I would want to judge Mr Kerr on his membership of the SNP, and that party’s policies. He could belong to the Melchizedek Priesthood of the Mormon Church for all I care.

This, needless to say, is not the view of National Secular Society head honcho Terry Sanderson. Some of you may remember Terry from his previous incarnation as a homosexualist activist, who spent a lot of time drawing attention to homophobia in the media. (Parenthetically, there’s still a lot of homophobia in Private Eye. What a pity that the Eye staff doesn’t include any NSS members, or even honorary associates, who Terry could remonstrate with.) Yet, despite his sensitivity to stereotyping of his own community, mention Catholics in politics and Terry goes straight into the old Guy Fawkes rhetoric about sinister cabals seeking to dominate British life on the orders of Pope Benny, currently stroking a white cat in his secret bunker under the Vatican.

But then, this is Terry Sanderson, who quite seriously seems to believe that the late Enver Hoxha was a model of best practice in dealing with religion. What’s more interesting is that, in a somewhat milder form, you’re getting more and more of this in political discourse. It’s actually a little disconcerting to find the New Atheism rearing its head in the Labour Party. This is one of the less advertised cultural differences between New and Old Labour – Old Labour was largely informed by Methodist culture, with a certain admixture of Catholicism in Glasgow, Liverpool and Birmingham, plus a small but significant Jewish contingent, and well understood what most believing people want in a modern society, which is essentially to be respected for what they are and left to their own devices. The fudges and compromises that British public life erected around moral issues worked pretty well, as a rule.

Notwithstanding Mr Tony Blair’s ostentatious religiosity – and I still can’t understand why Pope Benny gave him house room – this is not very well understood by the denizens of New Labour. While I hate to shoot fish in a barrel – all right, that’s a lie – it’s hard to imagine Old Labour throwing up a character like London MEP Mary Honeyball. During last year’s debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, Ms Nutball saw fit to go into print calling for Catholic MPs to be debarred from ministerial office if there was the possibility of a conflict between their consciences and Labour Party policy. This looks to me very much like a reversion to the situation before the Catholic Relief Act 1829, only justified by progressive humanist rhetoric rather than Anglican sectarianism. Incidentally, Ms Moonbat is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society.

One of the great achievements of the nineteenth-century democratic movement was the removal of religious tests for office, which not only discriminated in various means against Catholics, Jews and Presbyterians but also against atheists. I think it is an absolute principle that they not be reinstated under the guise of a secularism test, or any other hurdle designed to keep people out of the democratic process who don’t subscribe to various right-on moral shibbolethim. Deciding on serious moral and ethical issues is part of democracy, and if the electorate want to be represented by a member of Opus Dei, or the Seventh-Day Adventists, or the Satmarer Hasidim… that’s really the prerogative of the electorate. Armed with this insight, perhaps we might come to the understanding that living and letting live is much more central to a proper secular order than the strictures of some self-appointed atheist ayatollahs.

More on this from Red Maria.

The end of academic selection, and Catholic acquiescence thereat

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If there’s one thing about the north of Ireland that has continually disappointed leftists, it’s the non-emergence of class politics. To be more precise, it’s the failure of reality to match up to a schema whereby a big class struggle will emerge and in short order dissolve sectarian politics.

But that isn’t to say that socio-economic divisions don’t manifest themselves. Rather, it’s that they don’t manifest themselves in a cross-sectarian way, but rather within the communal blocs. This fits with the federal structure of our politics, and is more or less what you’d expect under the New Dispensation. There’s been something of that lately around the issue of the reform of post-primary education. I therefore direct readers to Fionnuala O’Connor’s last column in the Irish News – it isn’t vintage Fionnuala in that she skirts around the issue without saying what she thinks, but does highlight a few interesting points. As indeed does the issue as a whole.

One thing that’s been sort of perplexing is that virtually the only opposition to Caitríona Ruane’s grand plans has come from unionists in the Assembly and their outriders in our press. At Stormont, all the unionist MLAs with the exception of the PUP’s Dawn Purvis have been pro-grammar, and all the nationalists without exception have supported a non-selective system. This is strange, not least because of recent figures showing that, in terms of exam results, nine of the top ten schools were in the Catholic maintained sector. Meanwhile, prestigious Protestant schools like Campbell and Methody are not performing as one might expect.

There’s a backstory here in terms of demographics. First you have to realise that the majority of the school-age population is Catholic, while the Protestant school-age population is gradually declining against the capacity in the controlled sector. This means that Protestant secondaries have been facing closure, while Protestant grammars have kept up their headcount by diversifying their intake. Looking at Methody as an example, which has had to deal with the Protestant exodus from south Belfast, it hasn’t really diversified much in class terms – its geographical catchment area includes Sandy Row, and you have to draw the line somewhere – but it has taken in quite a number of kids from upwardly mobile Catholic families as well as the ethnic communities. Other Protestant grammars have quietly become less selective, so that instead of taking in the top twenty percent in their area they may be taking in the top thirty to forty percent. Not a comprehensive system, but not exactly grammars as we used to know them.

What is difficult to figure out is why the unionists are so hellbent on retaining the grammars when organic factors have been transforming their character like this. I can only conclude that it’s part of unionism’s general reverence for the status quo. And the broadening of the grammars’ intake actually lessens pressure for reform. As I say, the PUP is the exception, but their heavily underclass vote has different priorities from the more respectable end of the working class.

On the Catholic side, things are even odder. Coming back to Fionnuala’s column, she mentions Derry-based educator Fr Ignatius McQuillan, who has been sounding off in the media about this. When I heard him on the radio the other day, Fr Iggy was condemning the Catholic bishops for bowing the knee to the agenda of Sinn Féin and the trade unions. It’s unusual enough to hear this sort of dissent from within the northern Church – during the Troubles, a grand total of three priests aired political disagreements with the hierarchy, and one of those was Pat Buckley, who doesn’t count – but the points of interest go well beyond that. Why, Fr Iggy is asking in essence, is there no opposition?

One may well ask why there is no opposition even within the unions. Whenever you have a teaching union official on Talk Back – whether they’re from INTO, the NAS/UWT or the Protestant Association of Teachers UTU – they all seem to be very happy with supporting whatever Caitríona wants to do. And yet, given that lots of their members actually work in the grammars, their anti-selective stance can’t be universally popular within the unions. And yet, you don’t ever hear a hint of this. Puzzling.

But more puzzling yet is the position of the Catholic bishops, who have acted as enforcers for the Department of Education in ordering schools within the maintained sector not to proceed with transfer tests beyond next year. That in itself poses problems for those right-on activists who would like to believe that the hierarchy are hidebound reactionaries bent on spoiling our shiny new comprehensive future.

And then we turn to the Patriotic Catholic Association SDLP, who continually make me scratch my head. Listen, I can understand why the Shinners want to abolish selection. It’s a policy that would appeal to their traditional base. It would be less appealing to the layer of former SDLP supporters they would like to cannibalise, but it could only be a potential deal-breaker if the SDLP put up a fight on the issue. Yet they won’t.

I’m not certain, but there may be an ideological element to this, to the extent that the SDLP has an ideology. When they had their split with the big Belfast personalities thirty years ago, Gerry and Paddy’s main charge was that the party had abandoned its socialism in favour of Catholic conservatism. Granted that there are people in the party like Eddie McGrady who really are Catholic conservatives (and where is Eddie on this issue?), it depends what you mean by socialism. The gas-and-water NILPism favoured by Gerry and Paddy never had much traction in the post-1979 SDLP, but from the dominant Derry faction you had the esoteric ideological blend known as Humespeak, which amongst other elements, like a thoroughgoing bureaucratism and a bizarre attachment to the European Union, also had a sort of lukewarm egalitarianism that meant St John Hume or Séamus Mallon were never that far out of place when taking their places on the green benches beside Neil Kinnock.

Humespeak as an ideology never really meant much to your average SDLP voter, who is a respectable codger simply looking for a Catholic party to vote for that isn’t called Sinn Féin. I like Joe Hendron a lot personally, but as a politician he understood that he didn’t need any social or economic policies – he just needed not to be Gerry Adams. Where Humespeak came into its own, though, was as the ideology of the young Turks who for twenty years ran Queens Students Union (for British readers, this is a bit like UKIP running a students union, only that doesn’t quite capture how ghastly it was), the training ground for the party’s meagre cadre. Durkan and Attwood, the original young Turks, were the best of the bunch – when it came to the bozos who succeeded them, they had to be seen to be believed.

So you have Caitríona announcing a really progressive-sounding Grand Plan culled from reports by Queens education department, and the SDLP have nothing critical to say about it. Perhaps it’s that their ideology – the fact that they like to think of themselves as social democrats – disarms them. Perhaps it’s a general caution. Yet, there is populist hay to be made there amongst the Catholic middle class. It’s not as if the grammars are unpopular – those ambitious Derry parents practically battering down the doors of Lumen Christi are surely Durko’s natural electorate. And, even if you’re nervous about taking on the Catholic hierarchy, Fr Iggy has shown the way.

Maybe it’s my cynical nature, but I suspect there might be an element here of the Durkan-Attwood brains trust being too clever for their own good. They may have calculated that the unionists at Stormont would use the weighted voting system in the Assembly to torpedo Caitríona’s plans, and then they could posture a little without actually having had to take a serious stand that might have alienated some potential voters. That would certainly fit their track record.

But it’s all terribly weak, isn’t it? To be brutally honest, a party that won’t fight for the interests of its base is a party that doesn’t deserve to exist. And if the South Down and Londonderry Party is going to go extinct, with this sort of performance, it only has itself to blame.

Toby Young on the Bullingdon Club and the fine art of bullshit

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Toby Young on Oxford’s notorious Bullingon drinking club, with particular reference to club alumni Dave Cameron, Gideon “George” Osborne and Boris Johnson. The whole thing is worth a read, but hark at Toby’s conclusion:

The lesson each generation of Bright Young Things is taught at Oxford, thanks to their membership of these organisations, is that you don’t have to be to the manor born to become a member of Britain’s ruling class – or even particularly clever.

You don’t need charisma or sexual confidence or a sense of entitlement. All you need is the wherewithal to pretend to be someone who has these qualities. Provided you can do a reasonable impression of a person with the right stuff – and provided you wear the right uniform – that’s enough to propel you to the top.

I sometimes wonder what these contemporaries of mine must be thinking as they sit in their glasswalled corner offices, surveying the world beneath them through their picture windows.

Do they congratulate themselves on having fooled people into taking them seriously? Does it strike them as miraculous that they’ve made it, despite having indulged in behaviour at Oxford that would have seen them sent to jail if they were from less privileged backgrounds?

I doubt it. The discovery that all these young pretenders make when they take their seats at the Cabinet table, or become QCs, or pocket £100million on a complicated land deal, is that the people at the very pinnacle of British society – the people pulling the levers of power – are exactly like them.

There is no such thing as the real McCoy, just a bunch of schoolboys parading around in the contents of the dressing-up box. They don’t feel like frauds, because everyone else in this elite little club is as fraudulent as they are.

But then that’s the dirty little secret at the heart of British public life – and for the lucky few who are invited to become members of the Bullingdon, it’s a secret they discover much sooner than the rest of us.

That pretty much sums up Lord Snooty and his chums’ whole approach to politics, doesn’t it?

Rud eile: It wasn’t in the print edition of the Mail, but you have to give them credit on the web version for running a pic of the fruity Nigella Lawson with this article, on the general grounds that she was a contemporary gilded youth and that you can’t go wrong running pics of Nigella. But why a present-day one? The text helpfully gives you an excuse to run the (in)famous croquet pic:

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Hi-ya! Bruce Lee biopics unveiled

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If you want a movie icon, you don’t have to look much further than Bruce Lee. The films, to be honest, were variable – although I’ve always loved Fist of Fury – but Bruce himself, in the true manner of the star, rose above the material. There’s something about his physicality – that almost balletic mixture of grace and intensity – that made it impossible to take your eyes off him. After A Fistful of Yen, I thought I would be unable to ever watch Enter the Dragon with a straight face again, but oddly, once I did, it sucked me in once again.

So I’m glad to see, on the 36th anniversary of his death, that Bruce’s siblings have given their blessing to a series of biopics, which they hope will give us an insight into what he was really like:

Producer Manfred Wong said at least three films were planned, with the first focusing on Lee’s teenage years.

Wong added he wanted to focus on the late actor’s personality in the trilogy.

“There will be kung fu, but more importantly, we want to portray the real Bruce Lee. What is the real Bruce Lee like? He was very humorous. He was very obedient to his parents. He was very kind to his family,” he said.

Robert Lee said he wanted to give an authoritative account of his brother’s life saying: “We’ve read many books and seen many movies about Bruce Lee, but there are many inaccuracies in them.”

Phoebe Lee added: “I’m more than 70 years old. I want do something for my younger brother – to promote Bruce Lee’s life story.”

And good luck to them. Bruce the icon is familiar to us all, Bruce the person is more of an enigma. I just hope the movies have the execution they deserve.

And, just to end on a whimsical note, this provides me with a legitimate excuse to use a pic of one of my favourite public monuments, the statue of Bruce Lee in Mostar, Bosnia. The gold-plated bronze statue was unveiled in 2005 as a gesture of reconciliation, after some local artists had been searching for a cultural figure who both the Croats and the Muslims could unite around, and figured that everybody loves Bruce Lee. Now why can’t DCAL splash the cash to get us something like that?

Of swine flu and xenophobia

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Let’s return to China, and today we’ve been hearing about the British schoolkids in Beijing who’ve been quarantined after some of their number tested positive for swine flu. Obviously it isn’t the trip they had expected, but it looks like they’re having a reasonably good time of it – the hotel they’ve been quarantined in isn’t exactly Stalag 17. And, after discussing failures of Chinese administration in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Chinese government’s tough response to swine flu, including checks on all those entering the country and week-long quarantines for those in close proximity to people with the virus, seems to be working reasonably well in limiting the spread of swine flu. Remember that China got hit very hard by the Sars epidemic in 2003, and in terms of public health at least the PRC is capable of learning lessons. The result is a proactive policy that European governments might care to study.

I mention this because earlier today I was reading the coverage in the Daily Mail, and the article itself is not too bad, providing some context for the quarantine policy. And, from the comments box, there’s a lot of sympathy for China on this score – Mail readers love the smack of firm government, and may be particularly taken with the idea of strict health checks on foreigners entering the country. But all the same, some old tropes still emerge:

More than 50 British schoolchildren and teachers are being held in a Beijing hotel after four pupils from their group developed swine flu.

Apart from the weasel usage of “held”, which implies something arbitrary and unreasonable, you’ll not that this chimes with the Mail‘s reliance on the politics of resentment. Four tested positive and 52 are quarantined? It’s outrageous! At least when it’s Brits abroad – were it foreigners in Britain, the attitude might be different.

The authorities have stationed guards and police around the building and no one is allowed in or out, apart from doctors in white coats and face masks.

What part of “quarantine” do you not understand?

Lucy Van Amerongen, 15, from Cheltenham Ladies’ College, is one of the quarantined students.

Her sister Amii, from London, said yesterday: ‘She called me this morning telling me that she is confined in a hotel.

‘She said it was quite intimidating. They have these “guns” they point at your head which measure your temperature.’

So, they aren’t actual guns then. Thermometers. Not guns.

This is the sort of morass you enter into when your politics are determined by a) a desire for firm government action in the face of any crisis, or anything the papers deem to be a crisis, and b) a desire to keep the government off the backs of decent, respectable folks. When the people taking the firm action are foreigners, and moreover foreigners who call themselves communists… well, you need to get in some digs at Johnny Foreigner, even if Johnny Foreigner is doing a good job. You know those endless stories filed by Paris correspondents about how mad the French are? This sort of writing thrives because there’s a market for it. Unfortunately, it means if you’re reliant on the British press you’ll have a hard job understanding anything that’s going on in the world, and just be left with a vague sense that the rest of the world is unreasonably trying to do Britain down.

Then again, it could have been much worse. Seeing as this is the Mail, one might have expected it to go into full Iran Hostage Crisis mode. We may be thankful for small mercies.

More on this from Madam Miaow.

Israeli police continue to battle uppity Jews

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The secular municipal authorities in Jerusalem must be tearing their hair out at the behaviour of the city’s religious minority. For one thing, there’s the standoff with the Edah HaChareidis movement over the opening of a car park on Shabbes, apparently violating the sanctity of an eruv, which shows few signs of being resolved. Until it is, we can look forward to weeks more of violent clashes between police and frummers.

In this situation, the last thing they needed was for a second front to be opened up by a different haredi sect, but that’s exactly what they’ve got. This is the militant frum group Toldot Aharon, who have been responsible for several days of rioting in the holy city. What this clash derives from is the arrest of a woman belonging to the group after her emaciated three-year-old child was hospitalised. Apparently the mother is suspected of suffering from mental health problems, which had led to the neglect of the child.

It looks, on the face of it, like a straightforward case of child welfare. But that’s not how it’s been perceived by the haredim, who like to handle these things internally and don’t appreciate interference from the secular state. Indeed, there is a particular paranoid haredi cast of mind that will say that the secular state is trying to criminalise their entire community. I wouldn’t go that far, but secular dislike of the frummers is deep-rooted in Israel, and there are quite a lot of New Atheist types around Tel Aviv and Haifa who would be positively enthusiastic about the cops interfering even more heavy-handedly in haredi life.

Which is the background to a situation where haredim are going out at night to stone cars, set rubbish bins on fire and vandalise traffic lights. Meanwhile the Israeli police, who are more used to cracking Arab heads, are having to strong-arm religious Jews. Well, at least the IDF isn’t proposing to build a separation wall around Mea She’arim and bomb it from the air.

The Ayn Rand Dating Agency

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Maybe, like me, you’ll have fond memories of the fine film Reds, focussing on the relationship between John Reed and Louise Bryant, or the even better take on love and revolution in Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg. Some critics, including myself when in a dyspeptic mood, will charge that these movies sacrifice hard politics on the altar of the romantic story. This is probably unjust, because I certainly wouldn’t go to see a film consisting of three hours of Warren Beatty speechifying – there has to be some drama, after all. And there’s an essential emotional truth in the way that people thrown together in a great cause will often form intense attachments to each other, the personal and the political reinforcing each other.

Mind you, there’s probably a lot less of this on today’s left than there used to be. This would be thanks to the pervasive influence of political correctness, which means your right-on socialist has to negotiate a minefield of complicated etiquette, if he wants to signal his interest in a female comrade without appearing to be a sexist git. And even the initial challenge of getting one’s leg over pales into insignificance compared with the ideological demands of sustaining the relationship. How, for instance, is a right-on socialist supposed to ask his partner if she fancies doing it doggie style?

You: You know, we’ve been doing it in the missionary position for months, and it might be nice to try something different. Would you mind awfully turning over?

Her: Whaaat?! I’m reporting you to the Central Committee, you misogynistic pervert!

But while the hip and happening left provides comedy fodder, the Old Right provides a heart-warming story of couples brought together by their devotion to an ideological crusade. And, in the annals of matchmaking, there can be no matchmaker more unlikely than US Representative Ron Paul (R-TX). According to the Washington Post, many of those who rallied to the veteran libertarian’s presidential campaign last year are now pairing off:

For anyone who doubted it, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the libertarian phenom of the 2008 presidential campaign, is a lover, not a fighter.

And he’s spreading love far and wide across the Internet, albeit unwittingly.

Paul is the inspiration behind a new online dating site called Ron Paul Singles. “We put the LOVE in Revolution,” the Web site proclaims.

It works just like any other online dating service. Plug in “man seeking woman,” “woman seeking man,” “woman seeking woman,” “man seeking man” or even “couple seeking (fill in the blank)” and you’re instantly shown the potential opportunities out there in the land of Ron Paul Love.

We asked Rep. Paul a few questions about the site via e-mail, including whether he ever imagined that he’d spur an entire online dating community built around… well, himself.

“Well, I never thought I’d speak to crowds of 5,000 college kids chanting ‘End the Fed’ and burning Federal Reserve notes, so I guess nothing surprises me that much anymore,” Paul wrote back.

The neophyte yenta said he didn’t know who was responsible for creating the Web site but “I suppose it’s all about Freedom bringing people together — spiritually, politically, and now, romantically.” And he encouraged any of his single friends who “want to meet a great lover of liberty” to sign up for the Ron Paul Singles dating services and give him some feedback on their experiences.

Roll Call newspaper reported on the Ron Paul love site in its print edition today, dubbing the congressman, who is an obstetrician and gynecologist, “Doctor of Love.”

Paul’s office declined to speak to Roll Call about the dating site, but he told the Sleuth he kind of likes the new nickname. “It’s got a nice ring to it — I’ll bet my wife will like it better than ‘Dr. No.’ And, I’ve always been sympathetic to the slogan ‘make love, not war.’”

The Web site gurus say they’re still waiting for their first real success story. But one customer has had a promising experience thus far, writing: “What initially started out as something to relieve a little boredom and to have some fun turned into one of the most beautiful experiences… I met the most amazing man on your site, it’s still fairly new but I knew from the moment I saw his eyes, (the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen) that he would take me to a place I’ve longed to be and bring back my smile forgotten.”

Rep. Paul is even responsible for making love happen offline.

Just last weekend in Las Vegas, at a regional conference of the grassroots lobby group Campaign for Liberty, of which Paul serves as honorary chairman, two young activists who went to hear Paul speak met and fell in love. And then some.

According to Jesse Benton, the senior vice president of Campaign for Liberty, the lovebirds, Brooke Kelley and Chris Kopack, met at 2 p.m. on Friday and went to a Vegas chapel at 4 a.m. on Saturday and tied the knot. “We wish the happy couple all the best,” Benton said.

If he runs for president again in 2012, seems Ron Paul has a ready-made campaign slogan: Got Love?

Regular readers will know that I’ve long had a soft spot for Dr Paul’s quirky mix of Austrian economics, strict constitutionalism and anti-imperialism. Even when I disagree with him, which is often, he always has something interesting to say. And he is also accomplished at putting the heebie-jeebies up the GOP establishment, to the extent that they are having to turn to the wingnuttery of Sarah Palin as a bulwark against the libertarian menace.

But this has thrown me a little. Ron Paul the politician of iron principle, we know. Ron Paul the scourge of the Federal Reserve, we know. Ron Paul the medical practitioner, we know. But Ron Paul, the doctor of love? A dating site being inspired by a man who at present is most prominent for his unwillingness to date a certain Austrian fashionista?

But why not? There’s a certain off-the-wall charm to the idea. I would certainly say that a resourceful writer could turn this into a pretty good comic novel.

The Holy Stone of Clonrichert, redux

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It’s not that long ago that the Vatican announced a rigorous new procedure for assessing the veracity of miracles, with specific reference to Marian visions, after the miracle boom of the JP2 regime. And yet, it seems that the miraculous tree stump down in Limerick – the one apparently bearing the image of Our Lady – is still drawing in the crowds:

Local businessman Seamus Hogan said visitors to the area were not worshipping the willow tree stump, but Our Lady.

“There are huge crowds still coming. We are not venerating the tree; we are venerating Our Lady, whose image we receive from it. It is the same as a marble statue inside the church,” Mr Hogan said…

“There is a rosary each night and looking around me now, I can see English registered cars and Northern Ireland registered cars also.

“We had Pakistanis and people from India here today. It is drawing huge crowds,” Mr Hogan said.

Some enthusiastic visitors have even removed bits of wood from the tree stump.

“We want to get a glass or Perspex cover put over it as people are taking pieces off it.

“They believe they will get a cure from it or want to keep something as a memento from it,” Mr Hogan added.

Local Catholic clergy could be forgiven for being a bit sniffy. I mean, the Clonard Novena is one thing – folk religion on that level can be accommodated – but holy tree stumps are pushing it a bit. It calls to mind the excesses of the 1980s, when the Limerick countryside was coming down with moving statues. I don’t know if Pope Benny has been informed, but for someone who was trained in the school of German rationalism, this sort of thing could only serve to confirm the deeply weird nature of Irish Catholicism.

Personally, I can’t help thinking of the classic (and possibly apocryphal) example of these apparitions:

For example, an image of the face of Christ on the wall of a church in Guatemala City inspired miraculous healing for two weeks in the 80s, before it was revealed to be a whitewashed poster of Willie Nelson.

Which suggests to me that the apparition in itself is not nearly as important as the belief the punters have in it. A goldmine for social psychologists, this.

Puzzling round Tibet and Xinjiang

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Things are looking pretty rough in Xinjiang, or Uighurstan if you prefer, at the minute. In fact, Urumqi looks worse than Ardoyne. Joking aside, though, it’s a major story and, though I can’t really claim any specialist knowledge, there are some aspects that have grabbed my attention.

Firstly, Dave speculates that “the left” will, in its majority, come out in defence of whatever the Chinese government does. I suspect that Dave may be confusing the Spartacist League with “the left”, or else he’s been paying too much attention to the kitsch leftists of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, who can use an idiosyncratic version of Stalinist geopolitics to justify supporting all sorts of rum characters. (To take just one recent example, the Lebanese Phalange, who can be decontaminated by the simple expedient of labelling them “The Cedar Revolution”.) But at the less eccentric end of the left, we have a strongly pro-Uighur article in Socialist Worker, which I would have expected given the SWP’s long-term support for Tibetan independence.

On a journalistic level, that’s fine. But I think we should be careful before demanding that Trot ideologues produce detailed programmatic positions. The thing about your Marxists is that an ideologue, at least an experienced one like Chris Harman or Sean Matgamna, can produce a 60-page blueprint for the Uighur revolution at the drop of a hat, with no more research involved than reading this morning’s Guardian and maybe spending half an hour on Wikipedia to fill in the gaps. This is because your Marxist ideologue is a master of such theoretical tools as the Dogmatic Schema, the Rhetorical Overstatement and the Tenuous Historical Analogy. If all else fails, you can fall back on such formulae as “We support the demands of the masses”, which worked really well for the Iranian left in 1979. Alternatively, you could try to put some knowledge to work alongside your formulae, which is why I quite liked this from the CWI, but it’s well known that nobody ever profited from trying to determine the facts.

My view is that you can sensibly talk about what demands you would raise if you were on the ground, and make those demands a bit sharper by strengthening your empirical knowledge, but beyond that I’m cautious. I’m cautious about pledging up-front support to a movement whose complexion and dynamics I’m deeply unsure about. I’m also cautious about sources – I know plenty of people on the Iranian exile left who are good and decent individuals, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily trust their judgement in all things, especially when they contradict each other or come out with sweeping statements about how the Iranian population is opposed to the Islamic Republic. I mean to say, I’ve heard Goretti Horgan say in public fora that there’s a pro-choice majority in the north of Ireland, and I’m reasonably sure that isn’t true, so it doesn’t hurt to be a little bit careful in areas that you know much less well.

That lengthy caveat out of the way, I hope you’ll excuse me for not presuming to pull a detailed blueprint out of my left ear. What I want to do, in the same spirit as Madam Miaow, is to offer a few impressions and what I think are some points worth thinking over.

The first thing that strikes me is that, compared to the similar events in Tibet last March, the international media have been remarkably understanding of the Chinese government. Partly this is because Beijing has been much cannier in its handling of the media – where last March Tibet was effectively closed to foreigners, and you could take your choice between editorials in the People’s Daily or emotive appeals from the Free Tibet movement, in this case there’s been plenty of access to Xinjiang. That has meant, inter alia, coverage of the Han workers attacked by Uighurs in the race riot, something that was effaced almost entirely during the Tibet events.

It also must be said that the Tibetans have PR advantages denied to the Uighurs. There is a large Tibetan diaspora in Europe and North America, many of whom speak fluent English. There is a large Uighur diaspora in the Stans, many of whom speak fluent Russian or Uzbek. The Tibetans have an internationally famous rock ‘n’ roll spiritual leader; the Uighurs have no recognisable leader. The Tibetans have been supported for decades by a highly committed solidarity movement that’s been very effective in promoting a romanticised image of Tibet; the Uighurs have had no such solidarity movement. The Tibetans are backed by Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Bono and Joanna Lumley; the Uighurs are supported by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who aren’t exactly media darlings themselves, and by some pan-Turkic wingnuts in Istanbul, who are the sort of people you would invite on Newsnight if you actively wanted to discredit the Uighur cause. The Tibetans benefit from a 1960s view of Buddhism as a religion of peace and tolerance, which is only sustainable if you aren’t paying much attention to Burma or Sri Lanka. The Uighurs have the disadvantage of being of the Muslim persuasion, and it’s not all that easy to get idealistic Western reporters to swing behind uppity Muslims.

Beijing has been keenly aware of the last element at least, and has been keen to flag up the terrorist activities of some Uighur separatist groups, and tenuous links they claim to have uncovered to Osama. There appear to be much stronger links with the CIA and the Turkish Deep State, but the Chinese authorities are less keen to stress those. All this means that, while the Cold War tropes of anticommunism and Sinophobia have not been absent, Beijing has done rather better out of this than it might have expected.

So we now move to what has actually been going on. There has been some grandiose talk about the movement for democracy and self-determination, but the Urumqi events look to me at first glance like a race riot. The question is, whether it is just a race riot, and what are the underlying causes. After all, the Kosovo events of 1981 were essentially a race riot, but there was more to them than that, and the cack-handed response of the Yugoslav authorities helped to stoke up trouble for the future. And, as we know, race riots don’t happen for no reason.

Firstly, I think there’s a certain amount of guff to be cut through. There is an obvious and close parallel between Xinjiang and Tibet, which is why this blog recommends the following products: the Gongmeng report into the March 2008 events in Tibet, a complex and convincingly argued analysis from within China, and anything by Tsering Shakya, who’s been a consistent source of good writing on Tibetan politics.

To dispense with some mythology, it’s common to hear Tibetan advocates in the west talk in emotionally-charged terms about “cultural genocide”, which consists of two interlinked arguments: the first is that Tibetans are banned from expressing their identity, even in terms of freedom to speak their language or practice their religion; the second is that Beijing is following a deliberate policy of sending millions of Han colonists into ethnic minority areas so as to swamp the native population. The second I think is dubious, at least in the terms that it is usually framed, although large-scale immigration there certainly has been. I don’t think, anyway, that we have an analogue to the way that, during the Cultural Revolution, millions of Red Guards were sent to the furthest-flung parts of China to smash regionalism. The first charge is simply untrue. Chinese nationalities policy is closely modelled after Soviet nationalities policy, which means (Stalin’s wartime deportations notwithstanding) a policy of supporting, even celebrating, local identities and cultures while cracking down very hard on anything that looks like political separatism. Some nationalities – like the largest minority in China, the Zhuang – have done quite well out of this. It’s worked less well in practice for the Tibetans and the Uighurs.

What the nationalities policy means in Xinjiang is that Uighur and Kazakh are official languages (in the traditional Arabic script, rather than the Latin imposed in the 1950s), it means that Uighurs as a non-Han nationality are exempt from the one-child policy, that there is a special dispensation in Xinjiang allowing Muslims to become members of the Communist Party (as there is for Buddhists in Tibet) and the Party has followed an affirmative action programme to put Uighurs into top positions. Religion is a slightly different matter, and it does make Beijing nervous. As I’ve mentioned previously, the Catholic Church can’t operate legally in mainland China, and its adherents have to operate via the Patriotic Catholic Association, a body which agrees with all government policies and whose bishops are appointed by the Communist Party. (Actually, that sounds a bit like the SDLP.) Similiar arrangements prevail for Muslims and Buddhists. So even if minorities’ constitutional rights were fully implemented in practice – and I’m fairly sure they aren’t – there would be plenty to chafe against.

All this is not to say that the Uighurs or Tibetans do not have serious grievances, just that you have to try harder to discover what they are rather than just relying on hasbara from exile groups, which will, as is the way with exile groups, be geared towards evoking a particular reaction.

This is where I think the Gongmeng report is extremely important in terms of the answers the team retrieved from their fieldwork. Much of it makes sense to me, whether the authors are exploring generational shifts in identity, or whether they’re discussing the way corrupt bureaucrats sustain themselves in power by the bogey of “separatism” and the splittist Dalai clique. But what’s most important is how they concretely situate last year’s outburst of Tibetan nationalism in terms of China’s development strategy. Here’s a brief sample:

In the process of modernization, economic structures and political structures in Han areas and Tibetan areas have been made uniform. As “backward” areas, Tibetan areas had to catch up with “progressive” areas and keep up with the “modern”. But the Tibetan people have not had adequate opportunity or skills to respond. Large numbers of incomers and rapid social changes have brought conflicts to culture, lifestyles and even to values. In the past, contacts between Tibetan areas and the interior were often very limited, but the specially formulated development process opened up Tibetan areas in an instant, opening up for attack every single key area of nationalities’ life from the economy, power structure, religious life, lifestyle and population structures. When the Tibetan people have a sense of unfairness and loss in the economic and social changes resulting from the modernization process led by Han and by the state, this can strengthen yet further their ethnic identity and how they identify with their traditions, giving rise to conflict between the traditional and the modern, and conflict between the ethnicities.

In sum, to understand the 3.14 incident, the present in Tibetan areas must be understood, and close attention must be paid to the core question of the process of modernization in Tibetan areas. If it’s said that the modernization process of the Tibetan people is an irreversible historical trend, then how the Tibetan people and Tibetan areas progress toward modernization is worthy of in-depth consideration. The prominent contradictions and conflicts in Tibetan areas are not solely the remnants of history, they are also problems arising from the current situation in the path of modernization and the strength and manner of its implementation. From the 1989 incident until the 3.14 incident this year, an important dimension to social structures has been the adverse effects of the modernization process the core of which is the marginalization of the Tibetan people and the discontent this has brought.

It’s a long document, but well worth digesting in full. To simplify greatly, and here we’re passing over a wealth of empirical detail and historical context, the immediate locus of discontent is the central government’s Go West development strategy and the attendant dislocations. Cutting a long story short, the centre is basically putting forward modernisation as a panacea for the west’s underdevelopment, but this modernisation is being carried out with scant regard for the wishes of the nationalities in the west, and it further meshes with the explosive issue of immigration. You have all these enormous infrastructure projects being carried out in the west which bring in their wake an army of Han migrant workers. At the same time, rural poverty and economic growth in the urban centres is drawing Tibetan peasants into the towns looking for work. But once there, they find themselves at the bottom of the pile, having few marketable skills, often lacking fluency in Mandarin, often even illiterate in Tibetan. In towns with burgeoning Han populations, the Tibetan workers are unable to compete in the job market, and equally unable to return to a backward agricultural sector. So you have the same material conditions as in interior China, with peasants in places like Anhui becoming unskilled labourers in the towns, but with an added layer of national grievance.

Put all this together, and you have all the ingredients for an explosion of ethnic tensions, without even factoring in Han racism against minorities, which undoubtedly exists. This seems to me a plausible account of the underlying situation in Tibet, and I can’t imagine that Xinjiang is all that different.

So, to return to the start, where does that leave us? There isn’t really a solidarity movement to hand, and I’m not yet persuaded that there’s a movement on the ground that’s supportable. If the left press raises slogans about democracy, freedom of speech, religious freedom, self-determination for national groups – that’s all well and good, reiterating your basic ideas, as long as you understand what that means – that you’re raising the slogans you would raise if you were on the ground, and you hope there are some people on the ground saying similar things. Because when West European or North American leftists come out with lists of great-sounding “demands” in respect of Country X, I always wonder whether anybody in Country X is saying anything similar, although it would be nice if they were.

Other than that, I would again stress the danger of schematism. There are a whole lot of bad habits leftists tend to fall into on this sort of issue. One is the nineteenth-century Colonial Office reflex that says, “Ethnic tensions in Herzoslovakia? Let’s draw a line on a map!” I don’t know if there is a majority in Xinjiang for independence, as opposed to proper autonomy, but we don’t need to speculate very much to see what an independent Uighur state would look like – just look over the border at the Stans, a rotten bunch of despotates ruled by very much the same people who were in power under the Soviet Union, only without the Kremlin to restrain them.

The other danger is grandiosity, as when a race riot gets rhetorically transformed into a national liberation movement. It rings alarm bells with me if disgruntled Uighurs, rather than aiming their fire at the Chinese authorities, are attacking Han or Hui migrant workers who are just trying to earn a living. Apparently it doesn’t ring alarm bells with some on the left, either because they accept the Stalinist concept of the “oppressor nation” and the concomitant blurring of class lines, or because they belong to the spontaneist school of thought that says a race riot is an example of deflected class struggle. We would, I would suggest, get a different response if we were talking about Ukrainian attacks on Jews in 1920.

That will do for the time being. If you’re looking for definitive answers, I’m sorry I couldn’t provide any. But I hope I’ve raised some worthwhile questions.

Much more, as always, at Blood and Treasure.

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