Thursday, December 25, 2008

"Nothing ever happened."

posted by k

Harold Pinter died on Christmas Eve. When the news was released on Christmas Day, poters on the BBC's Have Your Say site rushed to condemn him, as though there were a peculiar merit in being first to condemn a man after he has died.

I don't understand that attitude. When icons of the right - even dictators - die, I try not to rejoice. I may sometimes feel relieved that people are free from fear as a result but there's something disgusting in publicly rejoicing at a fellow-human's death. Those who have suffered abuse or worse may be allowed their celebrations but these come from so twisted a world and so bad an experience that we should offer sympathy and understanding rather than trying to outdo them in shrieking hurrahs.

Many people disliked Pinter. He wasn't afraid of controversy and, like all of us, was imperfect. But he was willing to speak for those in need of help and for those who were threatened by state power. I wouldn't always agree with him but I admired his willingness to be engaged and to speak out, when silence would have been easier. I wonder how much his sympathy with oppressed people grew out of his experience as a Jewish tailor's son at school in the East End of London. He must have been fourteen or fifteen when the newsreel film of Belsen was shown in cinemas. Yet he became a conscientious objector in the late 1940s and, more recently, associated himself with Jewish campaigners who called for justice for Palestinians as well as Jews in Israel. These weren't popular or easy positions to hold.

Many of the swift attacks on Pinter target his work as a playwright, calling him "talentless," "shallow" and, of course, "intellectual." There's a laziness in most of the criticism. As a playwright, Pinter continually experimented and took risks. He also, in his early plays, wrote about working-class people - not nice, cosy, working-class people but people who were complex, hopeful, dangerous, often at odds with their society and one another. I'm no expert on Pinter's plays but they make me think - and that's high praise.

As a writer, Pinter cared about language and its relation to truth. The lecture he gave after receiving the Nobel prize for literature has, as its title, "Art, Truth and Politics." it was deeply concerned with two subjects: the way in which language can be abused to conceal the truth and the way in which government and the media prevent us from knowing the acts of horror which are committed on our behalf. Pinter's speech, famously, attacked the United States' role in supporting military dictatorships, and the way in which the United States' conduct is widely ignored. With corruscating irony, Pinter said:

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn't happening. It didn't matter. It was of no interest."

And that's true of so many horrors, from bombing civilians to starvation and the destruction of the planet. It's easier not to know. It's certainly easier not to think about the grief, the corpses, the injuries, the sheer mess of wars and bombings conducted on our behalf. Again in his Nobel lecture, Pinter quoted Neruda (writing of Republican Spain):

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!"

Harold Pinter insisted that we see the reality, sure that if enough people saw what was really happening elsewhere, their common humanity and decency would ensure a gentler and more generous outcome.

Pinter's death came only four days after the death of another campaigning writer, the poet Adrian Mitchell. He too was concerned that people see and acknowledge the truth. His most famous poem, "To whom it may concern," was written about Vietnam but many of its words can be applied to all sorts of uncomfortable truths that we would prefer not to know. The economy is built on debt and injustice. We have prospered because other people starve. Our government sends its servants to lie, torture, maim and kill. Children born in this country are locked away because their parents are asylum-seekers. Even in Britain - even in peaceful suburbs - our fellow humans sleep in doorways and on pavements and don't have enough to eat. Lies are more comfortable. We can live in our cosy world where "Nothing ever happened" and choose the newspaper that tells us our lies of choice.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

"How can we be beggars with the ballot in our hand?"

posted by k

The Barclay brothers, millionaire owners of The Daily Telegraph, claimed that they were bringing democracy to Sark. In a series of court cases, they overturned Sark's rule of primogenture, which laid down the rule that property should pass from the father to the eldest son, and then gained a judgement that replaced Sark's feudal system with a general election.

It all sounded fine. Sark is one of the tiniest inhabited Channel Islands with a population of about 600. Its laws and customs have seemed quaint rather than dangerous and, to the outsider, this tiny island where transport is by bicycle, tractor or horse-drawn vehicle seems picturesquely old-fashioned. Until the Barclay brothers bought the neighbouring island of Brecqou, no-one really worried that the island was run by the absolute power of the Seigneur, who held the island in fief from the Queen. I'm a republican and a democrat so not in favour of the system and I'd worry that it might favour the rich and established families over the poor workers. If I'd been asked, I'd have said Sark should have free elections, just like the rest of Europe.

Sark had its first general election yesterday. I don't know the details of the campaign but there were fifty-seven candidates for the 28 seats in Chief Pleas, at the parliament is known. The Barclay brothers involved themselves in campaigning, using the Sark newspaper they own as well as The Daily Telegraph, which they also own. They warned the voters not to vote against the candidates they supported, using personal attacks and threats. The voters were warned that a vote against the Barclay brothers' candidates - for instance, in favour of income tax or against the introduction of motor vehicles - would risk the withdrawal of the Barclays' investment in Sark. Perhaps as many as a quarter of the inhabitants of Sark work for the Barclay brothers. Their employers were threatening them: "Vote as we say, or you'll be out of a job." There is no social security on Sark.

It sounds like a lively election campaign - a difficult one, too, with major disagreements. Almost 90% of the electorate turned out and the result went to a recount. The voters didn't respond to the Barclays' attempt to win the election - they resisted methods which look like bribery or blackmail to me (but I suppose the Barclays had expensive legal advice to tell them how far they could go). The methods of the Barclay brothers don't sound democratic to me - they sound like an attempt to purchase power.

It turned out that the voters of Sark were brave enough to defy the two men who thought they had a right to say who sat in Sark's parliament. The Barclay brothers don't have control of Chief Pleas because Sark voters chose not to be intimidated. But now the Barclay brothers are carrying out their threat.

The businesses owned by the Barclay brothers - hotels, restaurants, building firms, estate agents, shops - are being closed down
. People are thrown into unemployment and poverty just in time for Christmas. It's a more brutally feudal attitude than Sark is used to. The servants didn't do what the bosses wanted and now they're being punished.

The Barclay brothers are the owners of a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Daily Telegraph. I don't think that people who use threats to try influence the outcome of an election are proper people to own a newspaper. I'm going to boycott The Daily Telegraph, which I've bought on occasion, for as long as the Barclay brothers own it. How about you?

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Milton's Birthday

John Milton was born 400 years ago today.
"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to my conscience, above all liberties."
"No man who know aught can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free."

The world of words-on-the-page, the world of ideas, of the free expression and exchange of ideas is being perverted and stifled perhaps as never before. The increasingly less subtle domination of reports by an official line, by the apparatchiks of the new-establishments whether in the UK or the USA, is becoming more effective and extensive with access to tools beyond the dreams of the more primitively effective practices of a Third Reich or a Soviet system.

We live in a sound-bite culture in which shortened attention spans and a reduced capacity for recollection and linkage has its effect. Shifts in the priorities of a profit-led education sector have reinforced the roll-back of the development of a free mind. By way of one example, I suggest a brief reference from which I quote: "The nation’s elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive." This from the USA rather than the UK , but there are UK commentaries on the perversion and erosion of our Education system from Gold Stars in the Nursery to the award of a Master's. And now, as a part of the “Every Child Matters” programme, the Common Assessment Framework begins with the unborn (Contact Point, the associated widely accessible database on our children, goes live in January). Supposed to be selectively applied , the practice of this Social Policing will become commonplace. Even Thatcher would be spinning in her grave (whaddya mean she's not dead yet?).

The dilution of a rooting of human understanding of the world we occupy, its histories, its context, is a part of the "empowerment" of Authority as the source of wisdom and a reduction of the capacity to challenge. We have for many years had a range of observations on what is going on. Suddenly, the integration of what is going on is accelerating. And it is beginning to be evident that these people are now so certain of their rectitude and power that they no longer much care that we know it - they have enough people who are sufficiently ignorant, self-obsessed and with the attention-span of a jellyfish for then to get away with it.

We yet retain the liberty to speak and write, although that is under threat. We no longer have the liberties of public demonstration. Parliament itself is at risk and might be seen by some as on the brink of becoming defunct; the nu-Labour Members are willing to sacrifice the authority of their House and Constitutional protections on Parliament to the Party and its Government. But it is not just through political action that ideas which change a world view can come to influence.

My view that the fifth world war progresses might come to a conclusion without hope - that the play upon the greater stage will dictate the shape of the future and that the performance precludes other than tinkering with the script. Yet I would retain hope while we have the power of expression. We must needs use that in what way we can be that direct politics, life example, creative expression or the (reducing) capacity for conversation in the local pub. We can write our own small scripts. The Fringe Performers. Else “The truth is replaced by silence, and the silence is a lie.” - Yevgeny Yevtushenko. But be aware of the utter ruthlessness of the censors, the critics, the audience. To resist the established, to challenge the zeitgeist requires that you cease to value your position, your job, your comforts, your preconceptions, your physical liberty, your reputation, your home, all that represents your material welfare. This is not that you necessarily relinquish them. It is that you cannot value them for it might be necessary that they are relinquished. To give value to them other than as any more than passing tools precludes the logic of resistance. I might prefer to echo Blake: “What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song? Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price of all the man hath, his house, his wife, his children. Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy ...”

To return to Milton, whose conception of freedom of expression was rooted in freedom for the exercise of God's Will and might be tainted by that for the modern reader. Many of his arguments in Areopagitica stand beyond that limitation."I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." And who, then, might we be to refuse to accept "God's Will" (alternatively faith in the power of reason and conscience) for ourselves and in our applications of wit? To refuse the courage to articulate our visions of the world? For there is always another way of looking at that world. If we seek to silence that, whether in others or in ourselves, we are diminished.

"What did 'Liberty' mean, grandad?"


"Bliss was it in that dawn"

posted by k

John Milton was born 400 years ago today. In his pamphlet, Areopagitica, after which this blog is named, he argued for the free exchange of ideas and knowledge. There were limits to his ideas of freedom of the press but he sketched out, in ringing tones, his belief that liberty and progress were dependent on the search for knowledge, truth and understanding.

Milton's ideas came out of that anxious and hopeful period in English history when parliament was at war with the king. He wrote this pamphlet three years before the Putney Debates in which, for the first time, the idea of one man one vote was advanced, and five years before the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the English Commonwealth. It was a period of immense danger, of grief and the separation of families. It was also a time when individuals questioned authority and took responsibility for debating the future of the country.

Areopagitica shows the excitement of debate at the time, when so many people were willing to look outwards and think questioningly about the world, risking their own safety to enter in a debate about the government of their country. Key questions hinged on liberty and what we would now call "human rights":

"Behold now this vast City: a City of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompast and surrounded with his protection; the shop of warre hath not there more anvils and hammers waking, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed Justice in defence of beleaguer'd Truth, then there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. What could a man require more from a Nation so pliant and so prone to seek after knowledge. What wants there to such a towardly and pregnant soile, but wise and faithfull labourers, to make a knowing people, a Nation of Prophets, of Sages, and of Worthies. We reck'n more then five months yet to harvest; there need not be five weeks, had we but eyes to lift up, the fields are white already. Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making."

Milton lost and the cause he loved - the Commonwealth - faded. After eleven years, Charles II was invited back by parliament. The leaders of the Commonwealth were hanged, drawn and quartered for their part in the execution of the king. Milton was lucky to survive.

But the ideas of Milton and his contemporaries lived on. In the nineteenth century, working-class radicals were among the most enthusiastic readers of Milton. Thomas Cooper, the self-taught Leicester Chartist, set out to learn the whole of Paradise Lost by heart before he was twenty. He managed only the first three books but Milton's ideas - and other ideas of the 1640s - influenced his writings and popular public lectures.

Milton was in the mainstream too. When English literature became part of formal education in the 19th century, Milton was taught as one of England's great authors. He turned up in classrooms and on the curriculum for A-level English. I remember being shocked when, in 1988, Conservative Education Secretary Kenneth Baker pioneered a National Curriculum in English - and left John Milton out. The mid-17th century was represented instead by a smattering of minor poetry. The great English-language epic - not to mention the plays and essays - was omitted.

Tony Blair's government didn't reinstate Milton. They were more concerned with the appearance of improvement than offering teenagers challenge and excitement. I don't suppose Milton's willingness to question authority suited either Conservative or New Labour governments. I haven't noticed much teaching about the 17th century in school history lessons. It's certainly possible to leave school without knowing that England was ever a republic. I suspect it's possible to leave university with a degree in English without reading a word of Milton. It's certainly rare for students to read the pamphlets.

Reading Milton was my introduction to Britain's radical past. I read most of Milton for pleasure - I loved the exhilaration of his language as well as his engagement with the ideas of his time. It didn't matter that some was difficult. I took what I could from a first reading and returned later, for more. Milton may have slipped from the public consciousness but I don't think he'll be forgotten for ever.

Happy 400th birthday, John Milton - and thank you.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

"First they came ..."

posted by k

Thomas Cochrane would make a great hero for a historical novel. It's arguable that he already is the hero of several, since he may be the model for Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey.

Somehow I'd never heard of Thomas Cochrane until I read Craig Murray's blogpost about him yesterday. Evidently he's not just an important figure in the naval history of Britain but also part of Britain's frequently forgotten radical past. As Craig Murray points out, Cochrane was a radical MP who believed in one man one vote and the abolition of the "tax of knowledge" which priced newspapers so that they were beyond the budget of working people. In 1815 he was arrested in the Houses of Parliament and the precedent has been cited approvingly by New Labour as the government attempts to justify the treatment of Damien Green, shadow immigration secretary.

Craig Murray rightly points out the irony of New Labour, which has laid claim to radical roots, finding its only precedent in actions taken under Lord Liverpool's government, one of the most oppressive administrations of the 19th century.

I don't think there's much need to spell out what was wrong with the arrest of Damien Green or the search of his office, home, computers and emails. Governments who authorise - even at arm's length - the detention of members of the opposition endanger democracy.

But I wish, in all the fuss about the treatment of Damien Green, there had been more mention of the routine use of dawn raids, house searches and detention without trial in Britain - or of the way people legally in this country are required by law to supply detailed biometric data and to pay hundreds of pounds for this privilege.

Asylum seekers in particular are subject to dawn raids. And foreigners, such as students, who are in the country legally, are expected to pay hundreds of pounds for new, biometric ID cards. It's true they won't be taken to the police station to provide the necessary data. Instead they have to travel to one of six centres and wait in line until someone is free to see them. Failure to possess or update a card will be a criminal offence. This is the beginning of ID cards for all of us.

First they came for the asylum seekers. Then they came for the foreigners. Then they came for an Opposition MP. Where will it end?

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