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Guardian America

I didn't notice this, but the Guardian has launched an American service called (wait for it) Guardian America. After the Guardian's foray into Americana in 2004 with letters to Clark County, there was criticism of its attempt to influence the American political agenda ('Dear Limey assholes') and so it is perhaps a surprise to see them heading across the Pond.

I don't think, though, that this is necessarily an attempt to build an extension of the Guardian's imagined community in America; rather, I think that someone has looked at the server logs and seen quite a lot of hits coming from the US and decided to launch a tailored site, both in terms of content to draw more visitors and advertising package to draw more money. The Guardian's various non-UK mainstream offerings do quite well, I think - the stable includes Guardian Weekly, Guardian Monthly and Money Observer - and its online offerings are probably the best amongst the media in the UK and certainly on the left in the UK, with the great GuardianUnlimited website, Comment is Free, Guardian Abroad and G24.

I hope that Guardian America will be neither the Guardian for America, nor America for (UK-) Guardian readers, but what Americans who, if they were British would read the Guardian, would read. It is, of course, a bolt-on and not a replacement, but it will be interesting to British and other audiences to see things from an AmericoGuardianista's perspective. The lack of fanfare over here suggests so.


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disRESPECT - the disunity coalition

I have read in various places that RESPECT is having problems. It seems that George Galloway and the SWP have fallen out and now there are letters flying around. I suspect that some poor sods are having frequent 'emergency meetings', or whatever the correct term is, at unsociable hours.

I had the misfortune to come across the SWP through the Stop the War Coalition at LSE and learnt what should have been an obvious lesson - the only aims that the SWP and SWSS have in participating in things like RESPECT and the StWC are to increase the membership of the SWP. I'm sure that the motivation behind it is actually honest, founded on a belief that only the SWP way will save us all. Unfortunately, it knackers anyone else's attempts to do anything. The 'we are all Hezbollah now' posters are a case in point - they are pretty crap PR unless you're trying to show just how militant you really are and attract people who are already half-converted.

There is a point to this post - rather, a couple of questions. Firstly; why don't the SWP contest elections as the SWP and secondly; why is the SWSS kept so separate from the workers of the SWP-proper? I'd genuinely like some enlightenment.


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The Independent on 'our health crisis'

The Independent runs with a story on its front page on Julian le Grand's proposals to deal with the unhealthy state of the country. One of the suggestions is
The exercise hour

Companies with more than 500 employees would be required to designate an hour in the working day as the "exercise hour" and to provide facilities to enable workers to take exercise. Employees could then "opt out" by choosing not to participate, rather than opting in as they have to do now.

I've come across ideas like that before, in a previous employer. I remember completely voluntarily and of my own accord 'opting out' of taking the statutory twenty-minute lunch break and the eleven hours' rest per working day (as per SI 2002/3128). I think I probably signed away the 48-hour week when I started there. In a lot of companies, it simply wouldn't work; there would be no commensurate reduction in workload and 'the exercise hour' would mean you'd be home an hour later.





My love-hate relationship with Tate Modern continues with the new large-scale work in the Turbine Hall, Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo.

The Turbine Hall is a fantastic space that allows for some large-scale works that couldn't happen anywhere else. The excellent second work in the Unilever series, Double Bind by Juan Muñoz, was sadly underrated, but some of the other installations - notably the Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson and the Flaying of Marsyas by Anish Kapoor were recognised as being very successful. Their success is in part because they are large, dramatic and accessible; they offer plenty to be read into them and bring people in because they are unusual. They are easy to engage with but are not banal, facile or obvious. I'm afraid that Shibboleth is.

It would perhaps be useful to provide a description of Shibboleth. It is, of course, a crack, starting at the top of the main entrance to the Turbine Hall on the ramp and descending, while widening, deepening and branching along the length of the room. Looking into the crack, you can see the wire-reinforced concrete construction of the floor and the sides of the crack are not parallel, giving a convoluted and turbulent depth to its wider sections.

My suspicion is that we are meant to understand that racism can tell us something about our society by looking into the disfigurement it causes; that some people are very close to the split in society while others are so far way from it that it will not impede their course; and that the foundations of our society are shaky.

In reverse order, while the foundations of our society may or may not be shaky, the presence of a crack in the floor of Tate Modern has in no way affected the structural integrity of the building. I stood on the roof with nairy a tremor. Indeed, it gives the opposite meaning to the artist's intentions, saying that society can continue despite major damage to its foundations or that racism isn't really that big a deal.

Secondly, the position of the crack suggests that there are varying distances from racism or, indeed, any similar division in society. While people may not perceive themselves as affected by racism, its potency is in that it cuts across society; if you are not aware of it or do not believe it exists, you are even more likely to be stumbling across it while if you do 'see' it you cannot be removed from it. Equally, racism is not the only social schism and if such divides must be represented two-dimensionally on the floor of a gallery, a series of islands, some linked by bridges, formed by cross-cutting cracks would be more appropriate.

Finally, it is wrong - dead wrong - to depict society as a flat surface disrupted by the scar of racism. Racism, if it is anything, is the search for that very monoculture and I would not want to live in such a barren and featureless society that we can only learn more about it through its fractures; moreover, I do not believe that is so and those aspects of the Tate that deal with the fullness of the human condition are testament enough to that.

In short, the interpretation of racism and colonialism that Shibboleth gives us is simplistic. 'The history of racism', Salcedo writes, 'runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side'. This immediately implies that racism is not prior to modernity; given that the existence of nations implies national conflict, there is a good argument to say that racism existed well before modernity that is reinforced by looking at, say, the views held of the Macedonians by the Attic Greeks.

If we overlook that, Shibboleth still falls down. Racism is not a single divisor; nor is it just between the west and the rest. I won't go into any great length, but the complex racial relationships in the Spanish empire, with complex hierarchies of pensinsular, criollo, mestizo and indio1. To say that racism is just that is not only ignorant but dangerous - it allows no conceptual space for anti-Semitism or brown-on-black (and vice-versa) racism.

As I said at the beginning, the visions of racism, division and society that Shibboleth gives us are banal, facile and obvious. They are also wrong.

I would not for a moment say that Shibboleth should not have been attempted but it reminds us that the price of good art is bad art.

Sorry, Doris.




Songs in the key of B

I have stumbled and mumbled my way onto a meme on Chris Dillow's website - top ten songs beginning with a letter of the alphabet. I'm choosing the letter 'B'.

1. Brown Eyed Handsome Man - Buddy Holly and the Crickets
2. Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon and Garfunkel
3. Blue Suede Shoes - Elvis Presley
4. Bleed Like Me - Garbage
5. Blitzkrieg Bop - Ramones
6. Bummer - Scarling
7. Ball and Chain - Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Company
8. Baby Please Don't Go - Muddy Waters
9. Bela Lugosi's Dead - Bauhaus
10. Berliner Messe - Arvo Part

The last one is cheating slightly, as it's in eight parts, but I'm having it anyway.


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Dear Mr Milburn

Dear Mr Milburn,

I've heard things of late. Apparently, you're not happy. Indeed, you're so unhappy that you're thinking of breaking your silence and saying how unhappy you are.

It would appear that a few days, perhaps a couple of weeks, of poor polling and difficulties for the Prime Minister mean that you feel ht need to declare, publicly, your dissatisfaction. Not long ago, the polls were strongly in our favour. Are we seriously to believe that just a short-lived and temporary phenomenon has caused you, relatively soon into Gordon Brown's premiership and with perhaps two years until a General Election, to break ranks, or do we believe that you are taking this, first opportunity to present itself to oppose the leadership of the party?

I would take this moment to remind you that many of the problems the Conservative Party have had since 1997 are due to senior figures within that organisation not being prepared to accept outcomes that do not precisely align with their expectations. Your pronouncement could be couched positively, but instead you attack, split and damage. It is my belief that further statements of the kind accompanying your website, 2020 Vision, would damage Labour in the way that the Hard Left did with their total unwillingness to compromise in the 1980s.

I have some experience of how the media work and I've come across that magical word, 'leaking'. I think you've leaked to the media your sentiments in the hope of drumming up a story. I don't know why; perhaps you've too much time on your hands and you're trying to recapture past glories when people paid attention to what you said or perhaps you are just incredibly tribal, with loyalties to a lost leader who will no more glad mornings see. Either way, I don't care; the drip, drip of such stories will damage and is damaging the Labour Party.

A period of silence on your part would be welcome.

With every best wish,

Dave Cole.

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Tasteless money-grabbing

The Tories have failed to prevent an £8.3m bequest to them being overturned on the grounds of mental illness. The details are unimportant; while I feel that it's unfortunate that the Conservatives felt the need to contest what seems, prima facie, a clear, if tragic, case. It is not, though, the Conservatives that, in this instance, I am accusing of 'tasteless money-grabbing'; rather, it is the system that forces parties to go after every last penny.

I am no advocate of state funding of parties, but the financial situation of the parties is parlous, opening them to undue influence from single individuals. A good start would be for the parties to stop advertising on billboards. Quite apart from, as Adlai Stevenson put it, that "the idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process", I'm not sure that it's effective; the image a party presents is developed over the parliament preceding an election, not in the few short weeks leading up to it. It may even be self-defeating, as people are probably smart enough to realise that if political parties believe they can secure votes with a clever logo or a catchy slogan, they're probably not going to be doing detailed, community-based policy formulation.

A rather better solution would be for the parties - all parties - to focus on membership. We could all learn a useful lesson from Howard Dean, who, with average donations of less than US$80 in the famously moneyed world of American politics, beat the previous Democratic record for single-quarter donations by US$4.5m (the previous record of US$10.3m having been held since 1995 by one William Jefferson Clinton). Beyond the financial factor, I am of the opinion that one friend saying that they are a member of a party and are voting for it is worth more than a party political broadcast and that a knock at the door - which requires motivated people to do the knocking - is worth more than an election address.

Of course, to do that, you have to show that it's worth the party member's while; I'd suggest, for various reasons that we're all familiar with, that this is not happening at the moment.


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Changing my opinions on freedom of speech?

For a long time, I supported the 'no-platform for the BNP' policy, specifically at the LSE Students' Union. It meant, in essence, that the BNP were not to be invited to speak on any LSE SU platform and that no member of the LSE SU could speak on a platform with a member of the BNP other than in a personal capacity. In essence, it was the same idea as a cordon sanitaire.

Two recent events are leading me to think about that position anew; Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's speech at Columbia university and the Alisher Usmanov affair.

One of the arguments behind the no-platform policy was that the BNP could use the association with the LSE's brand to make themselves appear more legitimate. Indeed, I've heard it said that the LSE's most valuable piece of property is the red square device. That would not seem to be the case with Ahmedinejad - he was described by Lee Bollinger as "exhibiting all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator" and was mocked for saying that
"In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it".
I'd say that, at least in the Western media, he was made to look foolish in asserting some of his dogmatic beliefs against pretty conclusive evidence to the contrary (such as Iran's policy of executing homosexuals). It didn't make him seem less dangerous, but it did show that his assertions are based on an, at best, tangential relationship with reality. I don't know how it would play in Iran.

One of the comparisons I would draw between Ahmedinejad and the BNP - other than Holocaust denial and homophobia - is that their statements are probably not aimed at people who don't share their opinions; rather, they are aimed at rallying the 'true believer' and swaying those who tend that way.

While Ahmedinejad was made to look a fool (a dangerous fool, but a fool nonetheless) in the Western media, I don't know how it would have played at home. What is certain is that Ahmedinejad didn't gain any legitimacy as a statesperson by appearing at Columbia.

In short, I am not sure which way a utilitarian argument would fall on the arguments made above. However, recent events have, as I mentioned, meant that I am increasingly likely to come down against the no platform policy. I should say that I don't consider a no platform policy per se to be against free speech; there are untold ways of communicating one's message, particularly with the advent of the internet. Individual organisations refusing to allow the association of their name with a given political position only becomes problematic when free speech as a whole comes under threat.

Enter stage left, Alisher Usmanov. The entire sorry sage, including one oligarch, a law firm, some bloggers and the former ambassador to Uzbekistan can be found here. Usmanovgate is only one example of the various problems with UK libel law (information and solutions from the Ministry of Truth) I am increasingly of the opinion that no platform is heading in the wrong direction.


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House Resolution 106

I agree with Ewan Watt that the US House of Representatives' Foreign Relations Committee should not have recognized the Armenian Genocide as such, but perhaps for slightly different reasons. Ewan is, in foreign policy terms, very much a realist and I do agree that the results of the Committee's decision have already been profoundly negative - Turkey has summoned its ambassador to Washington back to Ankara for 'a week or ten days of consultation' but has stopped short of a recall. With US troops deployed in Iraq, a country that borders Turkey, Turkey's strategic position and role and the desire not to alienate a country that teeters between West and East or to fuel the continuing problems between Turkey and Armenia - Karabakh and Baku-Ceyhan for instance - it seems like a poor decision.

Nevertheless, fiat justicia ruat coeli stands as a principle; if it is just, I feel it should be done, even though the consequences are uncomfortable, shall we say; to do otherwise is hypocritical and leads to a host of problems in international relations.

I question why the Committee felt the need to address the issue at all. Ewan also identifies the answer - special interest lobbying - but the implications haven't been thought through. There are many other crimes - some committed by the US - that could be condemned.

More importantly, it is not the role of a Government to decide what history is; there can be no official version without grave risk of a government interfering unjustifiably in the process of discussion and debate. Equally, as Nye Bevan put it, 'this is my truth; tell me yours'; whether ordained by the state or not, there is no one, true version of history, only arguments that are more or less persuasive. When the arguments are emotionally and geopolitically loaded, officially recognising a term can only cause problems and is, from a state, philosophically invalid.

As a note, I think it is wrong to use a category to encompass the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust; they are both sui generis, IMHO.

The Committee chair, Tom Lantos, put it well in his comments ahead of the vote:
Today we are not considering whether the Armenian people were persecuted and died in huge numbers at the hands of Ottoman troops in the early 20th Century. There is unanimity in the Congress and across the country that these atrocities took place. If the resolution before us stated that fact alone, it would pass unanimously. The controversy lies in whether to make it United States policy at this moment in history to apply a single word – genocide – to encompass this enormous blot on human history.

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Letting in the Iraqi employees

I went last night to the meeting at Parliament in support of Iraqis employed by British forces in Iraq and their quest for asylum. Everyone who attended the meeting , I think all would agree, came away with three things; firstly, that David Miliband's actions are a start but are nowhere near enough; secondly, that the situation is both desperate and urgent; and that Britain has a moral obligation and a practical necessity that should motivate quick, deliberate action.

The announcement made by Mr Miliband falls on a couple of counts. Firstly, the length of time served should be irrelevant - UK plc put these people up to it and they are in danger as a result. Secondly, there are lots of people who have worked for more than twelve months for the British in Iraq but in six month batches for different regiments on rotation as part of TELIC.

Mark Brockway's well-informed and emotional speech shows the depth of the problem; people are at risk and dying now and delays for any reason are unacceptable. The breadth of knowledge that he and Andrew Alderson showed of the reality on the ground and how people might be practically helped in leaving, including verification processes, was remarkable and I hope that they will be heard by the Government. As many people commented, the Danish put us to shame - when they withdrew from Iraq, they took all their people with them and worried about paperwork later.

The moral case is overwhelming; we are the reason for these people being in danger and we have the capacity to help them. Practically, failure to act will further damage the reputation of the UK in the area and make it harder for us to recruit local people to help us in Afghanistan, where we appear to be committed for some years to come, and any other conflicts we may end up in going forward.

Evidently, no planning was given to ongoing support for Iraqis who worked for Britain in Iraq; apparently this was also the case in the Balkans. When we have found a resolution to the current problem, we shall have to keep up the pressure to prevent it happening again; everyone agreed that, in the future, there should be clear contracts that set out the responsibilities of both parties.

Thanks must go to the three MPs who spoke on the panel, Chris Bryant (Labour, Rhondda), Lynne Featherstone (LibDem, Hornsey & Wood Green) and Ed Vaizey (Con, Wantage), as well as to Julian Brazier MP (Con, Canterbury) who spoke from the floor and the other MPs who came in for some of the meeting, as well as to The Times for their support of this campaign. I think that everyone took on board that the twelve-month rule is unfair and unworkable and that further action is necessary.

I found the most moving speech of the night to be that of an Iraqi exile, talking about his experiences and the death of his loved ones for having worked for the UK. Like many other interpreters, he was an educated, erudite person who only wanted and only wants to rebuild his country.




Government recognises the problem but doesn't do enough

Two pieces of news on the Iraqi employees front. Firstly, the meeting has been moved to the Attlee Suite, Portcullis House. It will still take place at 1900 tomorrow, Tuesday 9th.

Secondly, the Government has committed itself to supporting Iraqis who have worked for the British in Iraq for over a year; that is woefully insufficient. It recognises the problem - that people who are seen as 'collaborators' and their families face death, but won't help all of them.




Iraqi employees: maintain the pressure

Two important posts from Dan Hardie:

Maintain the pressure

I am not a doctor




The Observer reports that the Government is only letting one out of every six Iraqis - those who have worked for Britain in Iraq for over a year - into the UK. That leaves an awful lot of people, including families of people who worked for Britain - stuck in Iraq facing torture and death.

It's a cop-out from the Government and I hope that pressure will be maintained on them, now that they have accepted the principle that people who worked for the UK in Iraq are in danger, not to turn any of them away.




We must let them in

The Times reports what appears to be a positive story about Iraqis who worked for Britain in Iraq being let in. Unfortunately, I understand that it's premature and that no decision has been made. Please do still come along to the meeting this Tuesday, 9th October, from 1900 in Committee Room Fourteen at the Houses of Parliament.



'What neglected issues should US presidential candidates address more' meme

Ashok has started an interesting meme - what neglected issues should US presidential candidates address? The one I would go for is an area that affects most other policies - federalism.

I think that the US systems is based on the federal government not having many competencies. Whether this is right or wrong, it is how the system was originally designed and a lot of the constitutional infrastructure still supports that position. There is too much going on at the federal level. I believe it's damaging both the Democrats' chances and the US polity as a whole.

To start with, the polity as a whole. The excess power of the federal government and its invocation as a panacea has led to quite spectacular amounts of pork barrel spending. The amount involved and the damage it causes is detailed at the CAGW. I would note that it is unfortunate that it is mostly 'rightwingers' rather than 'leftwingers' who oppose pork, which is very unfortunate. Given that the Democrats generally want to spend more than the Republicans, they should be even more interested in making government spending both efficient and effective.

As an example of another effect it has in a particular policy area, I want to look at abortion. I think Roe v Wade should be overturned for three reasons. Firstly, judges should not make policy. A constitution, IMHO, should set the framework in which decisions are to be made or, if you like, the rules of the game, but not what decisions are made as it reduces the effectiveness of democracy and the likelihood of people engaging with democracy (and not just in the ballot box) I recognise that any rules will have an impact, but the manner and extent of judicial decisionmaking in the US is grossly excessive. Secondly, it reduces debate about the issue to legal niceties and not the substance of the issue; if the option is accepted of dodging the argument is allowed for this, it can spread to other areas. Thirdly, and here I'm being partisan, it would benefit the Democrats and have no effect on the availability of abortions. I am given to understand that, in many states, abortion is effectively unavailable because of cost, social pressure and distance. I contend that this is not the case in the states that would permit abortion. It would, as it is a dogwhistle issue, diminish the religious right's support for the GOP. It would have a similar, but less pronounced, effect on the Democrats. All the while, it would be possible to debate the issue rather than abstruse legal principles.

This principle runs across a whole range of areas; there is not going to be wholesale change of the US Constitution, but there is a real possibility of power being devolved downwards and dogwhistle issues being less shrill.

I'm tagging Ewan Watt, Matt Sinclair and Iain Dale.


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Gingerbread haka

The New Zealand Bakery of the Year Contest (words I never thought I'd write) has gingerbread men doing the haka. It's wonderful, even if slightly cute gingerbread men doing a throat-slitting action disturbs me.




In some ways, I am incorrigibly British and I have the great good fortune to live within hearing distance of Big Ben. I was delighted to hear last night, for the first time since August 11th, the sonorous chimes on the hour. The sound of Big Ben and the Shipping Forecast are, I would go so far as to say,
not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.
Courtesy of Wikipedia, the tune played by Big Ben, Westminster Quarters.



Time to let them in

Let's say that a company comes and offers you a job. There aren't any other jobs and you need to feed yourself and your family. It's a dangerous job, but the company offers to protect you. Then the company decides it doesn't need you. Not only are you out of work, but you're now being hunted down by people who don't like that company. They refuse to help you.

Would you work for that company again? Would you work for that company for the first time if you saw how they treated ex-employees?

Probably not. The company in question is the UK, the employees are Iraqis employed in Iraq as translators and so on and if, for no other reason than it will make it impossible to recruit local staff anywhere in the world again, should we need to, we should give them and their families asylum in the UK. We can't turn them away.




America won't turn them away...

...and neither should we. Good news - the US is making it easier for Iraqis who worked for the US in Iraq to gain refugee status.

Story courtesy of Norm, via Mr Eugenides.




Election timing

I don't think that Gordon Brown should call an early election for three reasons.

Firstly, the UK system is too presidential or, more accurately, parly-presidential. There is a lot of talk about Gordon Brown needing a mandate. The perception may be that he does, but that perception reinforces the concentration of power around the PM and the Cabinet. The mandate is for the Labour party, not a given leader.

Secondly, it was not so long ago that people were talking about hung parliaments and how many seats the SNP would secure. Labour has, in a funny way, had a good summer; flooding, foot & mouth, bluetongue and Northern Rock have given the Government the chance to act decisively and given the opposition scant chances to oppose any of the measures being taken by Labour. I am no expert on finance, but I think the action on Northern Rock - guaranteeing deposits - and the extension of savings protection to £35,000 has gone down well with the public, who increasingly see that things go on in the markets that are beyond Government's control. Events (dear boy, events) could swing round once Parliament returns to scrutinise the Government's actions over the summer and the Conservatives can start to generate news with their conference in Blackpool. Add in poor weather and the picture doesn't look so rosy.

Thirdly, there are mayoral and local elections coming up next year. I would like to see the elections take place at the same time, if for no other reason than that it will increase turnout.

I feel that Mr Brown should wait until he has a more concrete set of accomplished policies before going to the country based on the success of those policies.

Update 1422: Just seen this on Peter Kenyon's blog.


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