The Man Who Will Say Anything

Ken Livingstone is British politics’ bad penny. One can only marvel that in 2015, after 4 decades in the public eye, he is still considered by many to be a welcome addition to the debate and to public life.

It would be the standard form here to throw out a quick list of his offences before I push onto the meat of this but with Ken the list is just too long. Though last week’s BBC Question Time will surely form a worthwhile addition to his canon.

While there he took the opportunity to undo the reputational credit which stemmed from what is generally considered to be his finest hour. Livingstone was Mayor in 2005 when suicide murderers took the lives of 52 of his fellow Londoners and his subsequent speech and conduct have been well regarded by many. He said:

That isn’t an ideology, it isn’t even a perverted faith – it is just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder and we know what the objective is. They seek to divide Londoners. They seek to turn Londoners against each other.

….I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others – that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail.

…They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don’t want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.

Commentators from across the spectrum lauded his remarks. However, 10 years on, Livingstone’s political station has changed and seemingly so has his analysis of that day. On Thursday he said:

…I remember when Tony Blair was told by the security services if you go into Iraq we will be a target for terrorism. He ignored that advice and it killed 52 Londoners.

…Well, you can go and look at what they put on their website. They did those killings because of our invasion of Iraq.

…No, they gave their lives. They said what they believed. They took Londoners’ lives in protest against our invasion of Iraq and we were lied to by Tony Blair about Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction.

…If we hadn’t invaded Iraq those 4 men would not have gone out and killed 52 Londoners

Back then their plan was to ‘divide us’, now it was to protest and convince us. If division is what they want then surely Livingstone, by directly and unequivocally blaming our then prime minister for 52 deaths, is disproving his assertion that they will fail in getting it. If they indeed wanted to destroy our free society then persuading the audience to accept the assassin’s veto on the policies of our elected government would be a good start.

The loudest noises following Livingstone’s comments surrounded his phrase “they gave their lives”. It no doubt grated because that formulation is one we tend to use about people we laud, soldiers for example. To that extent it was careless of him, impolitic, but to be fair to Livingstone, not only is this a statement of fact it is also nearly identical to what he said at the time: “you personally do not fear giving up your own life”.

However, being fair to the rest of what Livingstone said does not turn out well for him.

“He ignored that advice ”

The claim that Blair ignored the advice is without foundation. If the actions of the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq had been successful by the terms of their original intentions, there are compelling reasons to suggest that terrorism would be reduced in the long term. Furthermore, part of the reason for the intervention was to prevent terrorist organisations being able to strike with weapons of mass destruction. It is far more likely that Blair heard and understood the potential effects on terrorist motivations in the shorter term and factored that into the analysis preceding his decision.

“He ignored that advice and it killed 52 Londoners.”

This is about as clear a statement of causality as one could imagine. It’s also ludicrous. Ignoring the advice didn’t kill those Londoners, suicide murderers did. Charlie Hebdo’s staff were warned not to print cartoons of Mohammed, are they really to blame for their deaths or for the policeman’s outside their building?

A lad of Pakistani origin, from Leeds, travelling to London to blow himself up in a crowd of his fellow countrymen is not adequately explained by a sense of injustice about an invasion of Iraq by forces who killed far fewer people than the terrorist gangs there, which he was supporting. This is Islamic nationalism. It is religious extremism and the key factor in such a chain of events is not the 2003 invasion. [See my previous post, section titled: “Ummah-getting-outtahere”]

If a straight chain of causality is provided with no agency by the bomber assumed, why attribute agency and responsibility merely to the decisions made by Blair? If Blair is to blame for what the four bombers did then why is Saddam not to blame for what Blair did? Or indeed, why not blame Saddam’s parents?

In bringing up the ‘Blair lied’ angle Livingstone is presumably implying that malfeasance makes Blair’s link in the causal chain the significant and blameworthy factor. Norman Geras, in a tour de force of a piece, lays to waste the stupidity behind such apologia. On this he said:

…even when what someone else has contributed causally to the occurrence of the criminal or atrocious act is wrong, this won’t necessarily show they bear any of the blame for it. If Mabel borrows Zack’s bicycle without permission and Zack, being embittered about this, burns down Mabel’s house, Mabel doesn’t share the blame for her house being burned down. Though she may have behaved wrongly and her doing so is part of the causal chain leading to the conflagration, neither her act nor the wrongness of it justifies Zack in burning down her house.

“you can go and look at what they put on their website”

You can’t actually but two of the bombers left videos and I think we can presume that these are what Livingstone was referring to.

Mohammad Sidique Khan, the apparent leader of the cell, said:

Our driving motivation doesn’t come from tangible commodities that this world has to offer.

This is a claim that he is doing it for commodities in another world. Seeing as Blair only had power to affect things in this one I suggest that this is hard to appease.

Your democratically-elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world.

It seems here that the tangible stuff, you know, in this world, extends to more than just Iraq.

until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight.

The only person gassing people in Iraq was Saddam. When people provide nonsense and untruths in their statement do we also have to react to it? This is an unreasonable expectation.

I myself, I make dua (pray) to Allah… to raise me amongst those whom I love like the prophets, the messengers, the martyrs and today’s heroes like our beloved Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, Dr Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and all the other brothers and sisters that are fighting…

Are we to earnestly expect Blair to behave in ways that don’t upset the likes of Bin Laden, Zawahri and Zarqawi?

Shehzad Tanweer’s  efforts were similar:

To the non-Muslims of Britain, you might wonder what you have done to deserve this. You are those who have voted in your government who in turn have… continued to oppress our mothers, children, brothers and sisters from the East to the West. In Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya.

…until you stop all financial and military support to the U.S. and Israel, and until you release all Muslim prisoners from Belmarsh and your other concentration camps.

So Blair wouldn’t just have to had not been involved in Iraq but also have had to cut off Israel, stopped trade with America, and left Al-Qaeda and the Taliban free to operate in Afghanistan. This is not to mention somehow doing something about Chechnya. Even if you think that is a reasonable request, it somewhat contradicts Livingstone’s assertion.

You have openly declared war on Islam.

We hadn’t. This is nonsense.

Your government has openly supported the genocide of over 150,000 innocent Muslims in Fallujah

Again, this is total fantasy. How are we supposed to adapt our behaviour to appease the anger of somebody willing to claim said anger over something that not only didn’t happen but which would require startling levels of stupidity, gullibility or insanity to believe it had?

Yet somehow this is good enough for Livingstone to recommend as evidence. One can only assume that either he hasn’t seen the videos, or more likely, he didn’t expect his audience on Thursday night to bother to do so themselves.

As much as a cursory glance at these videos shows that Livingstone will say anything to sell his point, the real kicker is this: Both of these terrorists were receiving training as jihadists before September 11th 2001. For what Livingstone said to be credible we must believe that they trained as terrorists 2 years before the invasion of Iraq but would have remained passive had that event not taken place.

Assigning clear, singular and fixable motivations to the endeavours of jihadists is either a fool’s errand or a charlatan’s tactic. As George W Bush so perfectly put it “if it’s not the crusades then it’s the cartoons”.

When the media reports a suicide, they are expected not to attribute it to a single cause. It is tempting though. When we hear of a case in the news and the deceased was a victim of something we disapprove of, be it austerity or bullying or whatever it is that we dislike, the temptation to use it as ammunition and declare its simplicity is very strong indeed. It is however both dangerous and often shamelessly opportunistic. I suggest this what has happened here and is a good principle to adopt with an event like the 7/7 bombings.

However, Livingstone hasn’t just been imprudent or opportunistic, he has directly lied. The very videos he cites as evidence for his case clearly disprove its validity. There isn’t even room for an understandable misinterpretation.

In a matter of war and peace, and in using an example of the multiple deaths of his then constituents, he has decided that dishonesty is a valid method to make his point. He will say anything.

When fellow panelist, the comedian Matt Forde, explained to Livingstone that he couldn’t absolve the terrorists merely by blaming Tony Blair, his first words in reply were “Well, you can because…”. Consider that for a moment. 52 of his constituents were murdered by people who had the vote and Livingstone is willing to not just blame Blair for the deaths but to exclusively blame him to the point of absolving the people who planned it and carried it out. This is the racism of low expectations taken to the stars. The fact that it is in direct contradiction of his speech of 2005 suggests either an incredible volte-face with no explanation or the most craven willingness to debase himself to win a debate.

If Labour were not in such raptures of insanity, the likes of this and John McDonnell’s advocating of terrorism, also against his own constituents, would be cause for resignations and soul-searching. That this is apparently the new normal is all you need to know about Labour’s current moral malaise.


In Support of a Flat-Earther

I also don’t have to prove to you the world is round

Magistrate Bjoern Joensson

The nuisance with writing pieces about free speech and enjoying the esteem, if not self-importance, of adherence to such lofty ideals, comes when faced with cases of vile speech you wish people wouldn’t utter.

Earlier this month a magistrate in Hamburg sentenced 87 year old Ursula Haverbeck to 10 months in jail for the crime of Holocaust denial.

She had made her offending comments in an interview outside the trial of ex-SS Sgt. Oskar Groening who, at 94, was sentenced to 4 years in jail after being found guilty of facilitating mass murder.

I mention the circumstances because upon hearing the news of Haverbeck’s verdict I was tempted to focus on the fact that an old woman was being sentenced to prison and thus avoid the difficultly of speaking up for her right to free expression. However, as I didn’t object to his going to prison due to age, and I did think about it at the time, I am not sure how strongly I can object to hers.

This is to say that the sentence concerns me less than the charge. Merely being unhappy with an old woman being in jail isn’t enough.

The crime of Holocaust denial came back into focus after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January when several apologists for the killers chose to bring it up as an example of double standards. The cry of “look how you protect the Jew’s feelings but seek to trample on those of the poor Muslims” (I paraphrase), was heard many times. This complaint misses an obvious point, that the laws against denial of the Holocaust are not to spare Jewish feelings but to assist in the prevention of the growth in Fascist groups and to function as image-restoration and atonement from those countries, which understandably after WW2, could do with upping their virtue quotient. Regardless, it does serve as a good test of what advocates of free speech mean when they say ‘free’. I am yet to be convinced by anybody suggesting we should be free to express all opinions with the exception of that one.

The ‘world is round’ quote from the magistrate was given after he was challenged by the defendant to prove that what she denied had in fact occurred. His response, with its deliberate invocation of apparently the most obvious of all facts – that the Earth is round,  is perfect for highlighting exactly what is wrong with Holocaust denial laws. Are you comfortable with a person declaring that something is so obvious he has no need to prove it before he then incarcerates a person for expressing the opposite opinion? In fact, a historic event is lower down the list of certainties than something which is currently observable which makes it even more obnoxious.

My objections to Holocaust denial laws are much the same as most people’s, they are:

1: Rather than hinder the rise of Fascist groups, the prohibition of opinion makes that opinion more tantalising to those who might be tempted to become a member of one. Statistical evidence of the ineffectiveness of these laws are discussed here.

2: Nazi power is long dead and the virtues signaled by these laws are less powerful than the virtues signaled from the consistent protection of the right to free speech.

3: I wish to deny murder-apologists their cheap equivalence and grievance which they profess at the expense of Jews who are cast as expecters special privileges.

4: Most of all, I won’t have anybody in a position of power, especially in a court where they command the coercive power of the state, claiming they don’t need to prove an assertion which is contingent to their justification for the use of that power.

Ursula Haverbeck is a victim of a bad law. She is somebody who requires the support of those advocating the right to have the free expression of opinion remain unmolested.

I’m not the hashtagging type, they’ll be no #JeSuisUsula or #IStandWithHaverbeck from me and I don’t expect to see it trending much from others. But I would expect to see this case brought up by somebody advocating a de facto blasphemy law at some point soon. If for no other reason, it is worth getting your support for Haverbeck out there before this occurs.

Reflections on Paris

By Matt Corden

The immediate response to any tragedy of this sort should be a profound sense of grief for the fallen. Despite the ferocity of the attack and the agonisingly innocent victims, inspirational resilience has been shown by the citizens of Paris.

After President Hollande declared war on radical Islamism, it didn’t take long before we were lectured about the dangers of “escalating the conflict,” “giving them what they want” or “the narrative of us and them.” But the conflict has been going on for over two decades now, they already have what they want and they’ve already made it about us and them. Throughout the 1990s, the Armed Islamic Group were attempting to set up an Islamic State in Algeria; al-Qaeda were still running their global network of jihad from a safe haven in Afghanistan; and regular attacks were happening not just on American and European targets, but as far away as India, Indonesia and the Philippines. Islamic jihad – that has absolutism, supremacism and a cult of death at its core – had already succeeded in making coexistence with it impossible a long time ago. Today its hyperactive militancy is being felt around the world every single day, from Nigeria to Somalia to Syria. Events in Paris were a timely reminder that people cannot expect a cosy life of liberal democracy in their own European cities under the pretence that this is “none of our business.” If Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers are going to be internationalists, then we’re going to have to be too. As Alex Massie has eloquently put it: you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

Those looking for peace for our time will have to get used to the fact that it will be on al-Baghdadi’s terms. The world will have to get used to the idea of a Caliphate empire; women will have to get used to covering themselves if they don’t want acid thrown in their face; homosexuals will have to get used to being thrown off buildings; and anybody else who doesn’t submit to their absolutist religious demands will have to get used to being raped or put to death at any time. Anybody who thinks these are acceptable conditions for peace better get ready for their demise.

I have the feeling that some on social media missed the irony of their outrage when they pointed out excessive media coverage of Paris in comparison to the attacks in Beirut or Baghdad. The wake-up call is welcome, but if the Parisian attack was what was needed to draw their attention to the global nature of this conflict, then they should at least have the decency to question their own parochial attitudes too.

It’s ironically Eurocentric to insist that jihad is simply a product of Western imperialism; it’s obvious in the language of their sermons and communiques that it’s inherent in the ideology of religious absolutism. Paris was ridiculed by the attackers as “the capital of prostitution and obscenity;” alienation, economic hardship, colonialism or any of the other usual apologia you hear wasn’t mentioned once. To pick just one example: the slaughter of the Yazidi Christians – dug up from a mass grave last week after the liberation of Sinjar – was not the result of their unrelenting imperialism or their drone warfare.

The question looms over us all as to how much security we’re willing to sacrifice for liberty or how much liberty we’re willing to sacrifice for security, forever searching for that happy medium between the state of nature and Hobbesian absolutism. I think history will be unkind to Theresa May in her attempt to police the free exchange of ideas by banning fundamentalist opinion on the airwaves and on University campuses, citing the painfully vague principle of “protecting British values.” Aside from negating moral universalism by nationalising principles, it will also drive a very serious ideological crisis underground. It removes the impetus to discus why democracy and pluralism are worth having in the first place. This isn’t just for my sake; it’s for the sake of the ongoing dialectic and debate within Muslim communities on this urgent issue. By extension, commonly held illiberal views regarding homosexuality, blasphemy or the role of women need to be confronted head on.

It should go without saying that Muslims or migrants should not be collectively blamed for these atrocities; freedom of religion and the assumption of innocence is an inseparable part of pluralist society. The refugees from war-torn Syria are escaping the same violent theocrats who rendered their ugly faces at the Stade de France. It’s becoming more apparent that sexually frustrated European-born teenagers are the problem, as the perpetrators in Paris have so far shown. The shooting at Chapel Hill or thuggish nationalist groups like PEGIDA highlight that the assumption of innocence is not yet universally appreciated. The French Front National is the one of the largest extreme-Right parties in Europe, receiving funds directly from Mr. Putin.

Most of the victims of armed jihad are Muslims. Innumerable sacred monuments of Shi’a Islam have been blown up by Sunni gangsters. Huge sections of the Kurdish resistance against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are Sunni Muslim by confession. In fighting the Taliban, the Northern Alliance of Afghanistan – led by the heroic Ahmad Shah Massoud – consisted almost entirely of pious Muslims. Meanwhile, the youth of Iran have unanimously agreed that a holy book is no guide from which to run a society, choosing instead to look towards the secular American model. All of this points to an ongoing war of reformation between the peace-loving modernists and the militant medievalists. The reformation within the reformation is between the secular Muslims and the politically-motivated Islamists.

For this reason, it’s facile – even if it’s well meaning – to pretend that militant jihad isn’t an Islamic issue. By denying the religious connection and insisting that that these attacks are mutually exclusive, you deny the power of the liberal reformists in the Muslim world to challenge and destroy the extremists. Progressive Muslim commentators are leading the campaign to drop the faddish notion of “this is not Islam.” David Cameron – on the advice of the exemplary reformist Maajid Nawaz – is one of the few world leaders to explicitly recognize the religious aspirations of terror. I don’t know whether violence is inherent in Islamic teaching, and neither do those who declare with such conviction that it isn’t. I can only have a vague suspicion that stories of Muhammad ordering the death of Asma bint Marwan for blasphemy hadsomething to do with the Charlie Hebdo attack, or that stories of Muhammad expelling the Jewish Banu Qaynuqa tribe from Medina has something to do with the the rampant anti-Semitism within Islamist circles. This makes it all the more important to engage with dissenting voices in the Muslim world, as they will ultimately be the ones to prise out this fundamentalist tendency.

In the end this is not a war between civilizations, this is a war for civilization. The French traditions of liberté, égalité, fraternité and laicité are always worth defending against those who wish to destroy them.

How I came round to liking the novels of Jane Austen


This is a cross-post from Himadri’s own blog The Argumentative Old Git

Not that long ago, I used to find myself frankly puzzled by the high regard, indeed, by the reverence, in which Jane Austen was held. And this reverence was discernible not merely in the casual reader, or in those who, influenced no doubt by various lightweight adaptations, saw her novels as essentially chick-lit in fancy costume: those whom I admired for their taste and for their critical judgement seemed also unanimous in their regard for Austen.

So I had a choice of three options: I could claim that those who enjoyed Austen were fools unable to see through the hype, and that I, possessing superior discernment, knew better (this is the default position on the internet in such matters); or I could shrug my shoulders, and accept that we all have different perceptions, and that not everyone can take in everything; or, thirdly, I could have another go, and see if, this time round, I could at least see something of what her admirers clearly see. Now, there are many things about my former self that I find myself disliking, but I am glad this former self of mine eschewed the first option, found himself dissatisfied with the second, and went for the third. For now, having re-read all six of her complete and full length novels (the shorter and unfinished works are still waiting in the wings), I can not only see why her admirers admire her so, I have come to share much of that admiration myself. I won’t claim to be a fully paid-up Austenite: our individual temperaments inevitably lead us in different directions, after all; but now, when Austen is praised as a novelist of the foremost rank, I find myself inclined to agree, and to join in the praise. Is not our capacity to change over time quite wonderful?

Of course, this is all very inconsistent in me, but consistency is not really, I think, something to be praised: a mind and a soul impervious to change bespeak a spiritual dullness and an inability to look beyond our immediate horizons – as if these horizons of ours encompass all that need be encompassed. Change is not merely to be welcomed, but to be actively sought – change in our thinking, our tastes, our critical judgement; change in our moral and aesthetic values.

Towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Antony, who had thought that he knew himself, discovers to his surprise that he doesn’t. He looks at a cloud, and its shape seems to him constantly to change:

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

He wonders at this, and finds his own self just such an amorphous body:

… here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape …

This is the self-knowledge he acquires in the course of the drama: he comes to know that he doesn’t really know himself at all; there is nothing solid that he can grasp, and all is as water is in water.

Antony is overstating, of course: we need not take this as Shakespeare’s own view. It is a mistake to take the thoughts of a character at the edge of human experience as representative of authorial wisdom. For, whatever Antony may think at this point, there is clearly a continuity between what we are now, and what we used to be; the human personality, for all its multiple facets that so puzzle Antony, retains a unity amidst the diversity. But it’s this diversity that makes humans so endlessly fascinating – a diversity the nature of which is so mysterious, even to ourselves, that it becomes impossible to say whether any change we undergo over time is the acquiring of new characteristics and the discarding of old, or whether it is, rather, the emergence to the fore of existing but previously unobserved elements.

If any reader who has stuck with me so far into this post is worried that I am now about to launch into intimate autobiography, and detail how I have changed over the years, please rest assured that nothing could be further from my intention: this blog is not, thankfully, a confessional. However, it has long struck me that the books that I value or have valued highly in different periods of my life, and my reasons for valuing them, do constitute an autobiography of sorts. And my progress, within a mere few years, from a dislike for Austen, or, at best, a grudging respect, to an unfeigned and unalloyed admiration, very possibly marks out in me new ways of looking at things, new perspectives. Which would give me cause for introspection were I given to navel-gazing.

Perhaps I hadn’t paying sufficient attention in my previous readings. I tried to interrogate my old self: what was it about these novels that I disliked? I don’t think I ever bought the view of Austen as a purveyor of chick-lit in fancy dress, even though legions of her fans did: she was quite clearly a far more serious writer than that. But I did, I think, find her very formal and decorous, and, as a consequence, distant; I formed the impression of her as detached, as lacking in passion; I saw her as looking down censoriously on her own creations from a moral high-ground; I found her too severe, too cold, too unwilling to sympathise with the common flaws and weaknesses of our shared humanity; I found a lack of warmth; and it seemed to me frankly worrying that her laughs were always at the expense of others: never was there an open and generous laugh – what I’d describe as a Dickensian laugh – in which we may all join.

All this seems damning. In some of them, I had been simply mistaken: for instance, Austen is certainly not short of passion – as is surely obvious from even the most cursory reading of Mansfield Park or of Persuasion (and how that insensitive oaf that was my former self could have missed this I really cannot imagine). As for my other criticisms, there is more than an element of truth to them, but they are not the whole truth. What I failed so dismally to see, I think, was that major works of art are not restricted to a single tonality; that what they present merely on the surface can be deceptive. Why, I had asked myself in my previous reading, is Emma Woodhouse to be taken to task for being unkind to Miss Bates when the author herself had presented Miss Bates in precisely the terms in which Emma had seen her – as no more than a tiresome old bat? I think I can now answer that question: Miss Bates is a tiresome old bat, and Austen sees no reason to present her otherwise; but she was wise enough and compassionate enough to know that even tiresome old bats have feelings, and that these feelings are sacrosanct. To have presented Miss Bates as anything other than the tiresome creature she is would have been merely pious and sentimental; Austen does better – much better: she allows us to think of Miss Bates in the same way that Emma does, so that when Miss Bates’ feelings are hurt, we find ourselves every bit as mortified as does Emma. And as a consequence, if we had looked down on Miss Bates before, we feel ashamed for having done so; and if we had looked down on Emma before, we no longer can; for how can we consider ourselves to be above that in which we find our own selves implicated? Far from looking down from remote heights on the flaws of humanity, Austen involves us in them.

The key to my greater understanding – for such, I hope, it is – came when a friend referred to Austen’s novels as “Mozartian”. Now, as a fully paid-up member of the Mozart fan club, I am constantly surprised when people pronounce his music to be twee, lacking in passion, shallow, and all the rest of it; for, underneath the elegant perfection of his surfaces, there seem to me to lie inexhaustible depths of passion. Was I being similarly obtuse, I wondered, in failing to look beyond the formal and decorous surfaces of Austen? Having now re-read these six novels, I can only conclude that such was precisely the case. Not that Austen is now an author close to my heart: she isn’t. Nonetheless, I did find myself charmed by Pride and Prejudice; I found myself utterly absorbed in the sombre drama that is Mansfield Park; I found myself quite swept along by the passion – yes,passion – and the eroticism of Persuasion. Emma, I confess, I found hard work, but its artistry and its seriousness of purpose are in no doubt. Even the two earlier works, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, though novels of somewhat lesser substance than the masterpieces that followed, remain remarkable works.

So, while our substance may not be of infinite plasticity, while we may not quite be, as Antony had thought, as water is in water, we do have the ability, I think, to look beyond our own individual horizons, and see what we had not previously been capable of seeing. Not that we’ll give ourselves the opportunity to do so if we keep on simple-mindedly rating works in terms of “Like” or “Dislike” as we do Facebook posts; nor if we do as Goodreads urges us, and fix works produced by minds greater than our own on some insipid scale from one to ten. And it may sometimes be the case that one’s temperament is so far removed from that of the author, that not even the greatest willingness, open-mindedness and flexibility on the part of the reader can quite reconcile one to the author’s artistic vision. But it sure is worth a try!

For my posts on individual novels of Austen, see here

It’s the Maths, stupid

It’s the Maths, Stupid. By Saul Freeman This a cross-post from Harry’s Place

I’ll share 2 of my life-long basic positions:

The UK left is where I both belong and feel “safe”.

Qualitative analysis is where it’s at, not the hard edged cold world of quant.

We’ll return to these.

My family are socialists. The Labour Party is the natural home of the working classes – which is where I’m from. Ok, I confess. I was briefly a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the heady days of Marxism Today. Seems we ended up with political post-modernism so I’m sorry about that. Joined the Labour Party then left it after hearing Ed Balls mention immigration 6 times in the space of 4 minutes.

Half-Jewish and entirely secular on all fronts, I grew up in North West London. At school there were fights in the playground when I was called “Yid” and worse. My name marked me out – it practically yelled it out – as Jewish, even though I was of course only half-Jewish. I pretty much always lost those fights.

Later on I married a Jewish woman and now have a son who is, of course Jewish.

As a politically active student I recall a sense of unease at NUS conference & on campus when groups of keffiyah-wearing students from “other political groups” seemed to be just a bit too interested in the Middle East.

After my student days I joined that group of people who – whilst not politically active day-to-day- knew exactly where right and wrong lived. Whilst we bemoaned the retreats from socialism of the Blair & Brown years, we remembered what it was to live though 18 years of Conservative government. So we never, ever voted anything other than Labour despite some friends moving off to the Greens or seeking other radical homes.

Four years of Conservative/Lib Dem government found my wife and I enraged by the assault on all we valued. I berated the local Lib Dem canvassers for enabling the old-Etonian Praetorian Guard to seize control.

As a family we attended some Reform synagogue services in an attempt to give our son some context for his Jewishness. We drifted away. I learned from my wife how to celebrate Passover but moaned like a teenager at all the “god bits”.

Then in summer 2014 Israel found itself in violent confrontation with Hamas.“So what?” I might have asked. “I’m worried about cuts to my LEA, not whatever mess Benjamin bloody Netanyahu might have got himself into now.” My relationship with Israel had so far been less than intense. I’d never been there and I regarded it with low level unease. “They need to sort their shit out and behave like the rest of us nice, liberal European (half) Jews. Just do what they need to do to get Peace. Now.

Tellingly, I’d occasionally ordered books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and had then rarely managed to finish reading them, over-whelmed and bored by theotherness of it all.

So – there we were in summer 2014, the news full of Israel doing bad things to Palestinian children (again) and my wife and I notice that some of the things we’re reading on Facebook & Twitter are not so nice. About Jews. “Okay”, we think. “That’s not news. We know about anti-Semitism. We know the Right doesn’t like Jews. Those Tories with their aristocratic disdain of the Jew sure as hell don’t like us. But that’s ok – we don’t much like them.

Actually, we also know that some writers in The Independent don’t seem to like Jews. But we’ve always been Guardian readers.  Alright, we know the Guardian does seem to bang on a bit about Israel when it’s being bad, but we just don’t read those articles.

Then on Twitter I see a post from a very prominent British musician. He’s a staple of every middle class CD collection or Spotify “world music fusion” list. He’s a good guy. He’s super smart. He’s one of us. He’s also someone I’ve worked and got drunk with – I used to be a musician too.

But his tweet isn’t funny, smart or good. It’s a graphic suggesting that the world would be a better place if all the Jews in Israel were forcibly removed to the USA, seeing as the US seems to love them so much.

So I contact this avowedly socially progressive musician from an immigrant background and, once we get past the “hey, it’s been a long time, you’re great/no you’re great!” bit, I ask him why he would post such a thing. He tells me that he’s very upset about the children in Gaza and he knows I must be too. I am, of course. But I explain that anti-Semitism and ethnic cleansing probably isn’t going to help much and that I find it a little “difficult” to see one of the good guys stoking the fire. He accepts this, apologises for any offense but reminds me that the trauma of witnessing events in Gaza (via mainstream and social media) has caused him to act the way he did. He declines my suggestion that he remove the post. We part on good terms with a promise to keep in touch – as you do – and then I quietly fume for the next couple of months.

In the meantime, my wife and I stop reading below the line on the Guardian website as it appears that pretty much every article (perhaps with the exception of the “my wife/husband doesn’t seem to want sex with me anymore” type – though I’m not absolutely sure about this) end up footnoted by comments blaming the Israelis/Jews/Zionists for whatever bad stuff the article might have been about, or not about.

I have another couple of chats with my Jewish son to check that he’s not getting any hassle at school and to remind him of what to do if he is.

My wife and I try not to focus on the fact that some of her friends have posted “Free Palestine” or “Save Gaza” messages on Facebook but don’t seem to have anything to say about the daily barrage of missiles sent by Hamas from Gaza into Israel. I start trying to actually read some of the books about Israel/Palestine that had been gathering dust.

By March we decide to visit Israel as our summer holiday. An only just sub-conscious two finger salute to what appear to be gathering forces? Our friends raise eyebrows, say “challenging” things and then tell us about their exciting plans to visit China. Or Russia. My wife had twice been to Israel when she was young and spent 6 months on a kibbutz. Brought up in a “normal” Jewish family, as opposed to my messily inter-married version, she has an uncomplicated relationship with Israel and knows exactly what it is and what it is for. Being a gentle and wise woman she never assumes that either my son or I will share this outlook and wants us to work it out for ourselves.

As summer approached I had moments when I wondered why I was taking my family to Israel. Ok, the diving in Eilat would be good but what about the Palestinians? Would I be having “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery”? These moments of self-doubt were usually ended by sneaking an almost pornographic look at the comments sections on the Guardian website – “Zionist child killing scum” etc. after an article on de-forestation in Brazil.

Watching a BBC documentary on the “apartheid railway” that is apparently the Jerusalem Light Rail system whilst running at the gym had me seriously doubting both my judgement in terms of the safety of my family and my moral compass. I ran a little harder on the treadmill and tried not to have a panic attack.

Then weeks before our holiday in Israel something happened. The Labour Party had a leadership contest. And Jeremy Corbyn was standing.

I’d recently bought my wife a T-shirt that read “Labour: I prefer their early work” – (from the Guardian shop, of course) and we were intrigued, though we knew little about this obscure backbencher. Could this be a good thing? Would Andy Burnham answer our need for a more left wing candidate or would Corbyn be interesting? Who would we vote for using my wife’s union vote and my Party vote?

My wife Googled the new candidate to see what he was about. She found Corbyn’s explosively angry outburst in a C4 interview. Krishnan Guru-Murphy had asked him a question over his dealings with Hamas & Hezbollah and he wasn’t too pleased about it.

Questions over Corbyn’s deep involvement with the Palestinian Solidarity Committee Stop the War Coalition etc. deepened during the first weeks of the leadership campaign and we rapidly realised that he probably wasn’t going to be our rabbi. We started reading the Jewish Chronicle online for the first time in our lives and watched whilst it asked a bunch of questions of the self-styled “plain speaking” candidate. He declined to answer.

On social media any questions about his attitude to Israel and Jews were revealed as smears organised and propagated by “Zionist powers”. Corbyn fans declared Zionism an evil ideology and that Israel had no right to exist. We spent more time than was good for us trying to work out what was going on. It turned out that Corbyn was at best a reluctant advocate of a two State solution, describing it in pointed terms as being “the only option currently on offer”. His belief that all 7 million plus Palestinians registered by the UNRWA should be given the “right to return” to what is currently Israel made his commitment to the continued existence of a Jewish state appear less than total.

We went to Israel, relieved to be leaving what increasingly felt like a baying mob behind us. As we descended to Ben Gurion airport the lights of Tel Aviv came into view. It dawned on me that Israel was of course not an abstract and remote ideological concept – it was a real place with real cities full of millions of real people. Some of them with names a lot like mine. The Corbynistas declared it had no right to exist. But it didn’t look much like Brigadoon to me.

As our taxi driver drove towards Jerusalem he confided that he worried about those Jews who, like us, did not live in Israel. Were they safe? He knew that his family hadn’t been. “But hang on” we said. “Surely it’s the Jews in Israel that feel threatened, not us”? He looked at us like children and pointed out that Israel knew perfectly well how to look after itself, had survived several attempts to eliminate it and was not about to start again with the existential angst. We felt more sophisticated than our well-meaning taxi driver and smiled knowingly.

As our holiday progressed I realised I really liked Israel. Of course I did – I was on holiday. I had really liked Australia, Scotland & Gambia. I wasn’t too sure about Norfolk though. But standing with my Jewish son at the Western Wall I more than liked it. Climbing Masada, crossing the Negev desert, wandering through Jaffa – I really more than liked it. There were layers of meaning, some narrative to unpick. Norfolk certainly hadn’t had that effect on me.

It might have been the surreal realisation that in most places, most of the people around us were Jews. Everything was the same as anywhere else I’d been to, except that most of the people were Jews. Even the poor people. Jews collecting the bins, working in cafes, driving the buses. And there are Arabs too, travelling on the light rail (deemed ‘controversial’ by the BBC), not waving fists or throwing rocks, but working in shops and cafes alongside the Jewish Israelis.

The exception was our visit to the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa. We went there to marvel at the buildings and setting and my wife recalled loving the place when she had visited it 25 years ago. So we joined the other tourists – mostly blond, blue eyed Scandinavians – and queued up to pass through the security gate. Once through, we found ourselves immediately surrounded and shouted at by people who didn’t seem to be welcoming tourists. Stunned by the beauty of the architecture but intimidated by the shouting and the black clad groups of women waving copies of the Qur’an, we left as soon as we could. My wife was shaken by the contrast with her last visit.

We visit Yad Vashem and try to spare our son from the most horrific of the images. Against all the rules forbidding photography, I sneak a picture of a Nazi-era board game that depicts Jews being sent off to Palestine. This is clearly the losing square that you don’t want to land on.

We return home and immediately I find myself spending too much time on Twitter. I conduct one of those debates-by-tweet with a writer whose work regularly appears in the Guardian & the LRB. I express my concern over politicians from the secular UK Left supporting radical Islamic theocratic groups such as Hamas & Hezbollah that want to kill Jews, non-believers and gays and restrict the rights of women. I tell him I’m not comfortable with a potential leader of the Labour Party who has long standing links going back decades with groups that want to wipe Israel from the map.

He lets me know that whilst Zionism is a morally degenerate, evil ideology & must be condemned as such, it would not be appropriate for him or others on the UK Left to pass judgement on any “representation choices of the Palestinian people that may not be congruent with my ego-ideal“. He is angered by my suggestion that the logic of this might be flawed because it offers moral & political relativism about 1 ethnicity, but is not short of a view about the choices of another ethnic group.

He speaks for what appears to be a significant slice of the British Left in finding it not at all problematic to announce that Jews have no right to self-determination. As in not being able to collectively and individually decide their political, economic and cultural fate. They must simply do as they did prior to 1948 and take what they are given, good or bad. The writer declines to identify any other ethnic groups that he extends this kind offer to.

This Guardian writer is far from the only individual who seems to find it important to tell me what is and what is not anti-Semitic. Twitter is bursting with Corbyn fans that are very keen to set me straight. They “know” I am Jewish because of my name – just as they did in the school playground. When I point out that there might be something a little unwise and unseemly about non-Jews telling Jews what is and is not anti-Semitic, they get cross. Very cross. They tend to want to shout at me about dead children in Gaza. My famous musician friend often drifts into my mind once people get to the “what about the children of Gaza?” stage.

These people who identify so urgently with Corbyn and his “position” on the Middle East also appear to have almost no knowledge of the historical, political and cultural basics. They just know.

A significant proportion of the British Left appears to be very, very concerned about what Jews do and don’t get up to.

My wife and I notice that Corbyn supporters get very excited about pointing us in the direction of Jews like the writer Michael Rosen who are themselves anti-Zionists and do not believe that Israel has a right to exist. Rosen used to be‘personally and politically close to the SWP’ and stood ass a candidate for George Galloway’s Respect Party. This makes him something of a rarity as most UK Jews do not share either of these attributes, let alone both.

We over-hear one of our very vocal left wing acquaintances saying to another left wing Hackney dweller: “Oh, you should meet X. He’s a barrister – Jewish. He’s fine though –very anti-Israel”.

Corbyn wins the leadership. Well, things can only get better. Surely?

They get worse. Corbyn uses his address to Labour Friends of Israel to engage in some not very subtle “discursive dissonance” by declining to mention the Zionist entity by name. At a meeting that has the word Israel all over the tin. It’s audacious in its execution. My wife and I are stunned fish, gasping on the bank. The Left bank.

My wife realises that her union is a key player in the BDS movement, supporting boycotts of Israeli goods and services right down to picketing outside Jewish-Israeli owned businesses. Her union has been a key backer of the Corbyn campaign. She writes a letter which points out that these two aspects of union policy are a little hard for Jewish members to take right now. Her local union office doesn’t bother to reply. She resigns.

We lurch into October and Israel finds itself under attack from knife and gun wielding Palestinian terrorists.

What is the reaction from elements of the UK Left to the daily tally of horrific terrorist attacks on Jewish Israeli’s? Many like Brighton BDS and the Palestinian Solidarity Committee find it impossible to condemn the attacks. Stop the War Coalition – chaired by Corbyn prior to his winning of the Labour leadership –joins a host of these groups protesting angrily outside the Israeli embassy. They chant for an Islamic Palestinian state “from the river to the sea”.

Gaza Boat Convoy state that if they were Palestinians they would “definitely” drive cars into elderly Jewish Israeli women waiting at bus stops.


The Guardian writer who I “debated” with writes on social media that a Jewish Israeli journalist – who wrote a piece detailing the Palestinian violence – “should have his throat cut.”

The Scottish Green Party considers that this is the right moment to pass a motion which denies the right of Israel to exist as the Jewish state and demands that Hamas be removed from lists of proscribed terrorist organisations.[1]

If calls from those on the Left in the UK for the obliteration of Israel and its replacement by an Islamic Palestinian state and the sheer violence and blood lust in some comments were not surreal and disturbing enough, my wife and I have noticed something else. Silence. From friends on Facebook when my wife posts anything that acknowledges the very existence of Israel or the random horror that is being enacted on its streets.

Silence from the Labour Party on the issue of the Party leader’s associations despite Jewish communities expressing their profound anxiety.

Silence from the Left. No one is falling over themselves to condemn Corbyn’s highly partisan attachment to the Palestinian movement despite its seismic shift from a violent, revolutionary secular form to the radical Islamic shape it now presents. Almost no one from the UK Left is thrusting themselves forward to say “Israel has a right to exist, as does any other legitimate state and terrorism can never be excused or condoned.”

Silence on the fact that those Palestinian groups urged on to victory over the Zionists do not share any of the values that we used to take for granted on the UK Left.

There are of course notable exceptions, and those people and groups know who they are. They would never expect me or other Jews to be grateful, because they are not bestowing this as a gift. They are simply demonstrating their commitment to first principles. Yet these first principles appear to be missing in action for many on the British Left in 2015.

We worry about our son. He will be confronted by Israeli Apartheid Week when he arrives on a University campus in a few years. If he is a Jew who believes that Israel has a right to be, he will be hated by many on the student Left. My son is an enthusiastic, articulate and kind boy. The realisation that he will be hated by those who will not see any of these attributes, but instead will see only one attribute – his Jewishness – chills me.

Strangers feel compelled to say hateful things to me. Others threaten violence to all Jews – “go back to Auschwitz, Zionist scum”. All this from the Left.

We slowly become traumatised by the sheer horror of what has unfolded around us.

Mostly, we are distressed because we cannot understand why the Left is so silent when Jews call out. We just don’t understand. None of this makes sense. We have no critical lens through which to view this rupture between us and us.

And then it hits me. Not only have I woken up to the fact that the first of my foundation strands – that I belong and feel safe on the Left – is misguided, largely because I have failed to engage with reality (or the works of Nick Cohen) until very recently, I also realise why.

It’s because Jews are a minority.

In the UK Jews make up just 0.3% of the population. Not even a lousy 1%. A tiny minority. My family – my wife and my son – are part of a tiny, tiny minority. And yet my wife and I had driven ourselves half mad wondering why our voices were not being heard. Dumb, isn’t it?

It’s not the principles, the ethics, the logic, the politics, and the narrative. It’s the bloody numbers. It’s all about the quant not the qualitative. And there goes my second foundation strand….

So this is what being a minority really feels like. And now I understand what our Israeli taxi driver was getting at. This is what he worries about. And this is why he lives in Israel, where Jews are no longer a tiny minority.

It’s the maths, stupid.