I, Max Dunbar

Max Dunbar

idanielblake-jpgHere’s a question I’ve been pondering. Can you review a film you’ve never seen? Also: can you review a review of a film you’ve never seen? This is what I’m wondering as I read reviews of I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s film about people on benefits. Liberals tend to like the movie. Or I think they like it. Lynn Enright, for the Pool, writes that, ‘My whole face was wet with crying. I tried to be discreet, but my body was shuddering as sobs clattered through it. I allowed the film to simply do its work on me, reducing me to tears, stoking a great sadness and sense of naïve uselessness.’ Jack Monroe, in the Guardian, had a similar reaction: ‘The woman beside me, a stranger, squeezed my forearm as I choked on guttural, involuntary sobs. I’m sorry, I whispered, sloping out to punch a wall in the…

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The Butchers Bill (of words)

By George Carter

This is a cross-post from the author’s own blog, reproduced with kind permission.

There’s always some trepidation that comes with writing an essay on language. There is an immediate expectation on the part of the reader for their correspondent to be, if not highfalutin then at least competent. My aim is not to produce a grammatical masterpiece, although I attempt, of course to uphold standards. My purpose runs deeper than that, to consider the debasement of the intrinsic value of words. Namely, their meaning.

I’m not the first to point out our descent in to meaninglessness. Our adoption of gibberish and jargon into the lexicon has been a constant source of antagonism since the Norman Conquest. It was brought to its near apogee in the era of George Orwell and the great man, in his — and here I daresay he would throttle me — immortal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, duly eviscerates it. Note this extract from Professor Lancelot Hogben:

Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collactions of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.

Orwell’s criticism “quite apart from avoidable ugliness” was that sentences and paragraphs so constructed fall afoul of the greatest crime of language, that of a “staleness of imagery”. This leads — so he believed and I concur — to a “lack of precision” where “the writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not”.

This literary trap no doubt still captures many amongst our lettered classes, but our current problem is far more severe. We have the destroyed the meaning of words altogether. Take awesome, adj; causing feelings of great admiration, respect, or fear. And my own note for emphasis; Awe-some, to feel in awe. Awe was reserved for moments of transcendence, of divine inspiration, a word denoting our connection with the numinous infinity of our being. Now you can walk down any street of the cultural metropolis of London and have awesome being used to describe such trivialities as a new pair of Nike high tops, or Rhianna’s latest chart hit.

It is true that words naturally change meaning over time, ‘optimism’ has cheerfully made its way from Voltaire’s original and ‘need’ these days more often denotes want. People have always abused, evolved, and divined new meaning from words and this isn’t a call for the strictures of an Academie Anglais. Not only do I think it would be a futile endeavour, I can’t help but think our language would be poorer for it, after all Moliere, for all his eclat is not Shakespeare. It is however a call to reverse our trend of linguistic nihilism. The butchers bill is much longer than awesome. Outraged, appalled, shocked, disgusted, all and more have lost their ability to apply real meaning in their use. This is a tragedy. A tragedy that prevents us from plumbing the full depths of the human condition. Harvard linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker describes language as a window into human nature. As that window becomes narrower our rich, inner world becomes that much poorer. The 21st century with its trigger warnings and safe spaces is eating at our ability to feel alive in all its beauty. So much so that when we feel afraid — as is natural in a species still to lose its fear of the night — we can find solace in the words that allow us to express our condition to our fellow travellers. In so doing we can attain what little comfort and grace is due to us in the time we have on this strange journey of life.

No wonder the extent of our vocabulary is linked to everything from educational attainment and social standing, through to cognitive development and your chances of suffering from depression. Our ability to explain our inner world and to open the window that allows us to express this onto the world of things is ultimately limited by our ability to effectively communicate that world in words. Is it any surprise that we have generations failing to achieve any sort of attainment in any field of value. Generations hooked on vacuous ‘reality’ television and alarmingly adulterated narcotics. No wonder we see people falling under the thrall of false prophets, Donald Trump is just the logical outcome of this destruction of any ability to explain. An absurdity wholly appropriate to absurd times. In a world where at the click of a button people can meet anyone else in the world but lack the words to say anything meaningful to them. A world where a post on a virtual wall is a substitute for in person greetings and texting has replaced the art of the heartfelt letter between lovers. Contrast Ronald Reagan’s 1981 Christmas love letter to Nancy where he describes the women in his life and ends “fortunately all these women are you — fortunately for me that is, for there could be no life for me without you… How do I love thee — let me count the ways? For there is no way to count. For I love the whole gang of you” reduced in modern vernacular to “u r fit”, or else equally banal.

The apoplexy of the Bernie people to Trumps victory is the other side of the same coin. Call everyone a racist and you remove the meaning of the word. No longer is it the stupidity of Jim Crow or the bravery of Dr King, let alone the insanity of Mengler and the horrors of Auschwitz. Treblinka. Belzec. Sobibor. Chelmno. Majdanek. I feel impelled to list them all. To impregnate some meaning into what they represent. When we destroy them, words become useless at denoting anything in reality. Only 54% of the world’s population has heard of the Holocaust. What does it do when two-thirds either don’t believe it or think it’s exaggerated? If genocide has lost all meaning what does that brood for future generations?

In Jean Hatzfeld’s painfully documented narrative driven from the side of the genocidaires in Rwanda, the killers are acutely aware of the power of words refusing to even mention genocide when spoken to in the French informal personal ’tu’ and only opening up in the broader more formal ‘vous’ even then preferring instead to refer to it as ‘the cuttings’ in the full knowledge of the shame of what genocide means in relation to their crimes. We risk much in the debasement of the language, as much in our shame as in our triumphs. It is through, and only through language, that we can comprehend. And in comprehending come to terms with, what Rilke so beautifully illumed as “that unique, not repeatable being which at every turn of our life we are”.

Just Beyond Ludicrous

Our own David Paxton on why the “efforts to deal with Labour’s antisemitism problem are going nowhere fast.”

David Paxton

In Labour’s antisemitism debacle, the Guardian’s Owen Jones is above reproach. He is above reproach because he has written articles explaining that antisemitism is bad and that it must be confronted. He has also written one explaining that the Holocaust was bad. What more could he do?

Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn has also said that antisemitism, and all forms of racism, are bad. His mother was at Cable Street so how can he be criticised for supporting and befriending unabashed Jew-haters? He then is also above reproach.

In his piece from March, Jones called for a commission on antisemitism and, because balance or something, one on Islamophobia too. He suggested these should be chaired by a Jew and a Muslim respectively.

Corbyn eventually called for an inquiry, it wasn’t to be chaired by a Jew but so what, it was to be chaired by Shami Chakrabarti. She is above reproach because she is Shami Chakrabarti. Or as she is…

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Labour comrades: One day this will all be over, all we can do now is be ready.

Nora Mulready

Here we are, again, having elected Jeremy Corbyn as the Leader of the Labour Party, solidifying a terrible chapter in Labour’s history with the cement of a fresh mandate for destruction. This time we know that appeals to Corbyn supporters about how poisonous, unelectable and just plain wrong the Party will become are pointless. It happened. They didn’t care. And in Labour now, they are many and we are few. No, we are now living in a changed Labour order, the kaleidoscope was truly in flux and by God did they reorder our world. The Labour Party has been captured by the Hard Left, top, middle and bottom, and there’s little dignity or integrity in denying this anymore. It’s done. The question is, what do we do now? Here are some thoughts. Mostly they require time, patience and honesty.

Jeremy Corbyn must fight an election as the Leader of the…

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“Success supposes endeavour”

Thirteen months ago I wrote a short piece just ahead of the announcement of the result of the 2015 Labour Party leadership contest. The eve of the 2016 result seems like a good day to reflect on what has changed in that time.

You can read for yourself my warnings about what Corbyn’s supporters would try and do, of what the atmosphere in the party would be like (and the comments below the line on them) and decide how wide of the mark I was. The most important development though has been the fruition of my hope that there would be unity amongst the anti-Corbyn camps, and that has been shown throughout this year’s leadership campaign. It’s no secret that not all of us who oppose Corbyn would necessarily have started with a shortlist of Owen Smith and Angela Eagle, or chosen Smith as our candidate. Nor would anyone suggest that all of Smith’s policy proposals have been supported by those of us who oppose Corbyn. But what is important is that we have done what the Corbynistas have done, and unite around both the candidate and the cause.

The contrast with the 2015 contest couldn’t be starker and precisely demonstrates the approach that is required to win general elections. The competition to succeed Ed Miliband was partly a narrow ideological debate and partly a test of soppiness. What started as a ballot of how many of the party’s members supported the four identifiable strands of thought turned into a flood of desire to feel better about things. Corbyn won in part because the differences between Burnham’s soft leftism, Cooper’s Brownism and Kendall’s Blairism (none of those labels are particularly accurate) were indistinguishable by comparison to his simple anti-austerity message. But he also won because a large number of party members were fed up with being sensible about things and went with what felt nice.

In the late 1990s Tony Blair did not have the support of everyone in the Labour Party, but (nearly) everyone in the Labour Party was fed up with opposition and wanted to win the next general election. Members then also wanted to feel nice about things by actually being in power and recognised that uniting behind Tony Blair was the way to do it. In 2016 we have the odd situation where large sections of the party are either unfussed about winning the next general election or actively don’t want to. For while there are certainly Corbynistas who would rather retain their principles over gaining power there are also some of us who think that a Corbynista government would be extremely dangerous. In any event a significant number in the party, including the overwhelming majority of MPs, certainly don’t think that uniting behind Corbyn will win the election. I would go further and say that Labour has a better chance of overall success as a party in a general election if individual parliamentary candidates make it clear to their constituents that they oppose, or at least don’t particularly support, Corbyn.

My view hasn’t changed over what those of us who oppose Corbyn and his supporters need to do. We must hold our nerve and continue to expound the reasons why the electorate should choose to support a party led not by extremists like Corbyn and McDonnell, but by those who share the view that Labour is the party of work, of success, of growth, of modernity, of equality and of international democracy. I’ve argued in other articles about the need to draw a clear distinction between us and what Corbyn represents. We can articulate that difference within the party. MPs can articulate that difference in Parliament. And the next challenger for the leadership can articulate that difference in 2017. In 2016 the opposition to Corbyn has been able to unite people behind a broad coalition of views that includes soft left, Brownite, Blairite and even some Corbynite opinion, and behind a single candidate. In other words the Owen Smith campaign has, happily, proved that a broad church strategy is still possible.

 

 

 

There’s Nothing Moral about Stop the War

An excellent read on the fallacy that underpins the Stop The War movement

Soft Left Politics

Making the case for war should always be the last resort. An intervention should only be motivated by our duty to save lives.

The world is now interconnected by global social media and corporate media outlets. An atrocity cannot happen that we will not hear about.

The question is do we just stand by and allow it to happen?

For many on the left, post-Iraq War foreign policy is one afraid to answer that question. Humanitarian intervention, even in the case of human atrocity, is ‘bad’ because any Western intervention creates only more chaos and instability.

The solution must merely be a political one, longer and driven by discussion.

Yes, we must search political solutions where they exist. But the left have forged a supposedly leftist position in which one is ‘anti-war’ to the extent of apologising for fascists, tyrants and terrorists – and ideologically opposing any intervention, even when…

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France, the Left and the burkini ban: It’s complicated

By Nora Mulready

My reaction to the burkini ban and ‘that photo’ was not quite in step with most people on the Left. Yes, the state shouldn’t be telling women what to wear but I can’t shake the niggling feeling that the reaction is a bit over the top. The French Courts have already ruled that the ban is unlawful and must be lifted. There will be push back from the mayors, and this one will likely run on for a while longer while they fight is out in the courts. Personally, I have mixed feelings. Do I think it was a great idea? Probably not. Am I outraged? Not really. Am I going to jump to the defence of an item of clothing that only exists because women and girls have been taught that it is ‘immodest’ to swim in public without covering their entire bodies? No.

I have by now read countless tweets, articles, facebook posts etc with reference to some variation of “a woman was forced to strip at gunpoint by the French police.” I’m sorry, but this didn’t happen. The French police carry guns. If they give you directions, did they tell you to tourner à gauche at gunpoint? No, of course not. There was never any threat that the woman would be shot, and to suggest there was is either deliberately dishonest or genuinely daft. This is France, where they subscribe to Human Rights law, it’s not the wild west of an ISIS’ ‘caliphate’. She was never in any danger from the police. Further, there was no ‘force’. A woman was asked to comply with a publicly advertised dress code, or leave the beach. She was given a choice. She choose to stay on the beach. In Venice recently I wasn’t allowed to enter St Mark’s Basilica without covering my shoulders. I had a choice, wear a shawl given by the church security, or don’t come in. I wanted to go in, I made a choice, I complied. It’s infantilising to suggest that women are incapable of making such a choice without feeling mortally offended, feeling vulnerable, feeling violated. We’re pretty robust, rational creatures these days, capable of weighing up our options and making decisions.

A big problem is that the Left has erected an impenetrable mental barrier to discussions of Islamic dress, from headscarves to burkas, to burkinis, supplementing what should have been years of legitimate, and healthy, public discussion and debate with the Pavlovian response:”it’s their choice”. We have nothing to say about the reason why people make these choices, we make no attempt to try and persuade women and girls that they don’t have to cover up (in fact, the very idea of saying that is considered insulting, even racist), we abandon Muslim women (and men) who makes these arguments, we abandon ex-Muslims who make these arguments. If our state schools taught all girls that they should cover their hair and hide their bodies, would our society accept that? I hope not. And yet for countless girls, we don’t just accept it but defend it in the name of equality.

I see the bukhini ban as an example of this conflict between secular liberalism and conservative religion, something France is having to grapple more than most. ‘Rights’ is a messy moral and legal area. Rights conflict. That’s why we have Human Rights law and Human Rights courts. Your right to swing your fist stops precisely where my nose begins, as they say, and very few such conflicts are as clear cut as that one. France is a secular Republic, its citizens’ right to secular public spaces is integral to its very foundations. Religious dress is integral to conservative Islam. These things clash, of course they do, and unless our answer is simply that one should always give in to the other, there are going to be messy clashes as we navigate our way through. One of the most helpful things everyone can now do is talk about it all, openly, honestly, and as far as possible, without fear. That requires a new acceptance that it is legitimate to discuss – and, if people so wish, to criticise – overt symbols of conservative Islam, including when manifested in women’s clothes. It also requires an understanding that in the current climate of Islamist extremism, a particularly raw subject in France, overt symbols of conservative Islam are going to be seen by many as more than an expression of personal faith or individual expression. This may be unfair, but it is the reality of the times we live in.

I don’t know where we go from here. What I am certain of is that we will make our way through it all far better if people of all perspectives can speak openly about how they feel. I’m not asking for bans, I’m asking for conversations, and for an acknowledgement that silence leads to tensions. I’m asking that political leaders on the Left stop leaving it to the far right to give voice to the secular instincts of secular Europeans, because as we are seeing in France, if the Left don’t help find answers, the Right will. I’m asking that if girls are gong to be taught that they need to cover up, they are also exposed to arguments that say they don’t have to. I’m asking for a bit of honesty on the Left about why an international context dominated by Islamist violence means there are likely to be stronger reactions to overt symbols of conservative Islam than to those of other religions. And I’m asking for the Left to see that if we want to help make things better, as opposed to standing on the sidelines as the diversity and equality we cherish is destroyed by extremists of all sides, we don’t only have a right to make these points, we have a duty.