Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Alarm over radioactive legacy left by attack on Lebanon

It appears that Israel may have used uranium-based weapons in its attack on Lebanon this year. Read more by following the links below to the independent website:

Robert Fisk: Mystery of Israel's secret uranium bomb

Chris Bellamy: An enigma that only the Israelis can fully explain

UN investigates Israel's 'uranium weapons'

The United Nations Environment Programme is investigating allegations, first published in The Independent, that Israel may have used uranium-based weapons during this summer's war in Lebanon. Twenty UN experts, working with Lebanese environmentalists, have spent two weeks assessing various samples. They are planning to report their findings in December.

Is there something wrong with me?

This article in today's issue of The Independent is an expose of the sordid 'Secret life of the sausage'*, revealing that ' beneath the skin, many are an unappetising cocktail of fat, filler and gristle'. A vegetarian sent it to me, in the forlorn hope of getting me to change my carnivorous ways, but it just makes me want to eat more sausages.

*One thinks of Bismark's immortal remark that 'The people should know as little about the business as government as they know about sausage making'.

Monday, October 30, 2006

A different Hitchens

Bob Woodward's recent expose of the Bush administration includes a passage where a defiant commander in chief pledges to 'stay the course' in Iraq 'even if nobody supports me except my wife Laura and my dog Barney', or words to that effect. Reading Woodward's anecdote, I was surprised that Bush hadn't added 'and that nice English fella Christopher Hitchens' to his list of last-ditch supporters. In the long years since 9/11 the man they call 'the Hitch' has never flagged in his support for Bush's War of Terror. Recent articles by Bush's favourite ex-Marxist accuse the authors of the Lancet report of moral idiocy, fulminate against those cut 'n run Democrats, and attempt forlornly to resurrect long-dead arguments about Saddam's weapons programmes. I think that Barney is probably a more intelligent and critical supporter of Bush.

The Christopher Hitchens Web was designed to collect every new production from the great man's pen, but I'm not sure whether the site will let its visitors know about a couple of much older articles by the Hitch which have just gone online. The wonderfulMarxist Internet Archive has just added a dozen or so articles to its 'International Socialism 1969-1974' section, and they include two short book reviews that the young and comparatively clear-headed Hitchens wrote in 1972. 'Lenin's Moscow' considers the French Marxist Alfred Rosmer's account of the time he spent at the epicentre of world revolution in the early 1920s; 'Workers' self-management in Algeria' dwells on Ian Clegg's account of the worker-controlled industries that were a feature of Ben Bella's Algeria.

Hitchens sometimes likes to complain that his views have never changed, and that it's the left which has abandoned the principles he once stood for, but the reviews he wrote for International Socialism all those years ago show this argument up. The Hitch's recent columns for such left-wing publications as the Wall Street Journal have been rather short of sentences like these:

For Marxists, a critical understanding of the history of their own movement is essential, and it is all too rare for us to have the opportunity of reading genuine first hand accounts. Too often the reviewer has to advise such things as ‘ignore the cold-war introduction’ or ‘read this book for information, not author’s opinions’...

Lenin would never conceal a mistake, or try to deflect the responsibility for it...

Generally speaking, Clegg ignores the conception of a mass workers party informed by Marxist theory. Naturally enough, this leads him into confusion...

But it's not only Hitchens' political convictions that have changed - it's the subject matter of his writing. Of the hundreds of articles he has churned out about Iraq over the last few years, not a single one focuses on that country's labour movement, which has been engaged in a life and death struggle against both US imperialism and reactionary local forces. Hitchens has written often of the 'liberation' of Iraq from Baathism, but he has not found the time to denounce the retention of Saddam's 1987 Labour Law by the occupiers, or the attacks by US troops and US-backed militias on trade unionists and left-wing activists.

Against steep odds, the Iraqis have built a union movement which might yet act as a bulwark against the reactionaries once the US and British are driven from the country with their tails between their legs. But don't expect to hear about the Iraqi workers' movement via the Christopher Hitchens Web.

Friday, October 27, 2006

New light on Lenin

Christopher Read is a Professor of Modern European History at the University of Warwick, and his new life of Lenin is part of the Routledge Historical Biography Series that has already given us Ian Thatcher's study of Trotsky. The series aims to provide books that are both accessible and 'academically credible', and Read has certainly succeeded in doing this. His book is crisply written and clearly organised, and manages to cover Lenin's extraordinary life in only 300 pages without unreasonable simplification.

The modest length of Read's book means that he is unable to match the detail of the monumental, multi-volume studies of Lenin and Bolshevism put forth by scholars like Robert Service and EH Carr. Nor does he present us with new primary sources, in the manner of most biographies written since the opening of once-secret Soviet archives in the late 1980s. The strength of Read's book is the interpretation it brings to the key events of Lenin's life, and the new readings it suggests for key texts in the Lenin canon. Read's interpretation is dispensed lightly and unpolemically, but it is nonetheless original and interesting.

To understand the significance of Read's perspectives we need to remember the sorry story of the academic study of Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution. In the West, at least, there are four distinct periods in this story. The first period, which coincided roughly with the beginning of the Cold War, was dominated by anti-communists like Robert Conquest. These Cold Warriors tended to read all the deformities and absurdities of Stalin's Soviet Union into Lenin's writing, and into the practice of the Bolsheviks from 1903 onwards. 'Leninism' was presented as a system of tightly-integrated ideas that led logically and inevitably to the horrors of Stalinism.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the upsurge of radical politics in the West and the entrance of a new generation into academia generated a challenge to the perspective of the Cold Warriors. Younger, left-wing scholars in the humanities sought to retrieve Lenin from Stalin's shadow, and link his ideas to the revolutions and national liberation struggles unfolding in parts of Asia and Africa.

The exercise in revisionism was stalled by the rise of postmodernism in the academy of the 1980s. Under the guise of methodological radicalism, scholars captured by post-modernism actually reverted to some of the prejudices of curmudgeons like Conquest. By focusing on the linguistic surface of 'Leninist' texts, and on the 'discourse' of Bolshevik Russia, they lost a sense of the historical and social context of Lenin's ideas, and on what the Bolsheviks actually did with those ideas. Once again, 'Leninism' became a self-sufficient set of concepts that overdetermined any historical and social context it was inserted into.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, commentators throughout the West rushed to announce the triumph of capitalism and the 'end of history'. Not surprisingly, Lenin was consigned by these commentators to the dustbin of history, along with the state that identified itself with him right up til its dying day. In the first biography of Lenin to draw on newly-opened archives, Dmitri Volganokov presented his one-time hero as an arch-fiend who 'destroyed everything in Russia'. In another book based on the new sources, Richard Pipes characterised Lenin as a 'heartless cynic' and a 'thoroughgoing misanthrope'.

Now, a decade and a half after 'triumph of capitalism', the US is in economic and military decline, the Middle East is gripped by chaos, and Latin America is beset by revolutionary turmoil. Understandably, then, a certain sobriety has descended upon some of those who danced on the grave of socialism. Today Francis Fukuyama is famous not for his proclamation of the end of history and the hegemony of the US but for criticisms of US foreign policy. Christopher Read's biography is part of a new turn in the study of Lenin and Bolshevism, a turn which perhaps corresponds somewhat with the new conditions we live in.

Throughout his book, Read is at pains to disagree with some of the more cartoonish claims made by the likes of Volganakov and Pipes. Discussing Lenin's desire to see the First World War turned into a revolutionary class war, Read insists that:

It should not...be inferred that Lenin in any way lauded violence and misery. Quite the opposite. His whole life had been devoted to abolishing misery and war. Marxism was the mechanism by which it could be done.

Read points to Lenin's refusal to benefit financially and materially from his political power - we learn that he angrily refused offers to increase his very modest salary, and lived in a cramped four room flat in the Kremlin with his wife Krupskaya. Read absolves Lenin of repsonsibility for the cult of personality that become one of the many grotesqueries of the Soviet Union:

Only a few photos of Lenin existed. He hardly ever appeared on the propaganda posters of the day. In fact, when he heard that a woman named Valentina Pershikova had been imprisoned in Tsaritsyn for defacing one of the relatively infrequent portraits of him Lenin ordered her release saying 'Nobody should be arrested for defacing a picture'...He never promoted himself...he even had Gorky censured by the Politburo for being too glowing in his praise of Lenin...He also described Kamenev's proposal to collect and reprint Lenin's works as 'completely superfluous'...[when] Karl Radek mentioned to Lenin that he had been reading his writings of 1903, Lenin replied mockingly with a crafty smile: 'It's interesting to see how stupid we were then!'

Read does not, however, try to 'rehabilitate' Lenin completely, and we can be thankful for this. All too often, Marxist portraits of Lenin have simply inverted the work of right-wingers, and found nothing but virtue in the man's life and works. To take such an approach means accepting the Cold Warriors' claim that Lenin's ideas and doings are essentially homogenous - all parts of a jigsaw that Stalin named 'Leninism'. Lenin's ouevre becomes a tablet handed down from on high, the self-sufficient and perfectly consistent thought of a God or Devil, rather than a record of the efforts of a real man to think through and act against the manifold obstacles his era put in the way of the struggle for the liberation of human beings from imperialism and barbarism.

For Read, Lenin was a man of contradictions. He was a mixture of the 'professor' and the 'politician', as happy in a library as on a stage, and these two halves did not always mix easily. Read's Lenin wanted to liberate the Russian people from Tsarism and war, but his commitment to a socialist model of development contradicted his desire to let loose the 'creativity of the masses'. In Read's view, the contradictory features of Lenin's thought gave the society he helped create contradictory features. Lenin's 'workers' state' ended up banning strikes and making trade unions subordinate to the Communist Party.

Read's presentation of Lenin's 'contradictions' seems a little simplistic, and his assessment of some of Lenin's policies seems to give too little attention to the tremendous damage done to the Soviet Union by the Civil War and the invasion of the country by sixteen states, including Britain and the United States. While clearly wrong, the Bolsheviks' closure of independent newspapers and repression of left-wing opponents seems less reproachful when we remember that their White opponents were massacring tens of thousands of Jews and planning the reintroduction of serfdom.

But the real strength of Read's interpretation of Lenin lies in the fresh readings it allows him to do of key 'Leninist' texts. His view of Lenin as a contradictory thinker enables him to discuss things that other, more ideologically blinkered scholars have passed over in silence. A case in point is Read's consideration of What Is To Be Done?, a work regarded by most commentators of the left and the right as the foundation stone of 'Leninism'. What Is To Be Done? has been seen as a textbook for a distinctively 'Leninist' organisation - a small, secretive 'vanguard party' designed to bring revolutionary consciousness to the working class from the 'outside' and leading the socialist revolution. Read, though, sees things differently:

Does What Is To Be Done? constitute a blueprint for Bolshevism?...Not necessarily. On the one hand, Lenin quotes many mainstream Social Democrats in support of his position, including Karl Kautsky...Similarly, Lenin points to existing forms of educated, conscious, permanent, stable leadership in the form of Liebknecht and Bebel and the leaders of the German Social Democratic Party. Surely these points indicate that Lenin was being less radical than appeared later to be the case?

...Lenin's other great model for the Party leadership comes from the early period of Russia's own populist revolutionary movement...Once again, his own youthful populism and admiration of the early populists were in evidence.

It is notable that similar points are made, in a great deal more detail, in Lars Lih's new nine hundred page study of What Is To Be Done?

Lenin is famous for his refusal to give political support to the provisional government installed in Russia after the February 1917 revolution, and for his insistence on the need for a violent revolution to overthrow capitalism. Read complicates this picture a little by highlighting a couple of documents which suggest a more flexible attitude. In an article called 'On Compromises' written a couple of months before the October revolution, Lenin talks of the possibility of a new government being formed by the 'petty bourgeois' Social Revolutionary and Menshevik parties, and advocates support for such a government, on the grounds that it would create a democratic breathing space in which the Bolsheviks could consolidate their power in the Soviets.

Read is also able to highlight interesting contradictions in Lenin's attitude to the state. Lenin considered State and Revolution his most important work, and the book's call for the destruction of the capitalist state and its replacement with a revolutionary workers' state built on direct democracy has become Marxist orthodoxy, along with the assumption that the Bolsheviks created such a state after October 1917. Read, however, points out that in one of his last articles Lenin said that 'our state apparatus is to a considerable extent a survival of the past and has undergone hardly any serious change'. Where does this admission leave the Marxist groups which have criticised Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, on the grounds that it has not 'smashed the old state' in that country? At the very least, Lenin's words in 1923 should give us pause for thought.

At the end of his book, Read tentatively links his research to the work of a number of other scholars who are trying to examine what Lars Lih calls 'the historical Lenin'. For my money, at least, this 'historical Lenin' looks far more relevant to the twenty-first century than the caricatures drawn by the rival camps of the Cold War.

Forty years ago, Louis Althusser urged us to recognise that the works of Marx were not a sacred stone tablet, but a complex, contradictory, and incomplete inheritance whose insights Marxist scholars and the socialist movement had to critically and creatively extend. Christopher Read's new biography of Lenin helps us to understand that the same lesson applies to the rich inheritance Lenin left behind.

Pop Art in Schallstadt

In 1992 I spent many days at Werner Berges' family home in Schallstadt, near Freiburg (Germany) , while on student exchange there. I was friends with his daughter Leoni who had done an exchange to New Zealand with one of my best friends. I have many fond memories of my time in Freiburg and staying at the Berges' home (an old farm house and artist' haven) - their house was always open to everyone and welcoming.

'Born in Cloppenburg in 1941, the artist Werner Berges was among those who first practised and established Pop Art in Germany. He is one of the most renowned German pop artists and is included in numerous public and private collections worldwide.

Glowing primary colours, clearly defined contours, the application of halftone dots and grid-lines, which playfully lend the paintings an air of the mechanically reproduced, are all typical of his works. Berges’ works are continually concerned with images of women culled from the world of advertising, which attain a new meaning and status through his artistic handling.

Women are his subjects – dazzling models and stars from the worlds of advertising and fashion photography. Erotically posed bodies, seductive looks and radiant faces are rendered in rich colours, halftone dots, grid lines and collage.' (from wernerberges.com)

Werner Berges lives and works in Schallstadt near Freiburg and Cadaques in Spain.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Fancy a nice piece of Historical Materialism?

For some of us, historical materialism is a method for the study of human societies and their history, a method pioneered by Marx and developed by the likes of Antonio Gramsci and EP Thompson. For others, the term seems to stand for old-fashioned and very expensive furniture.

Can we sue the buggers, in the same way that Diaz Guttierez sued the blokes using Che's image to sell Smirnoff vodka?

Repression under China: Murder in the mountains

When a group of climbers described seeing Chinese border guards shooting defenceless Tibetan refugees, the world was shocked. But only now, as the survivors speak out, are the full details of a tragic story emerging ..... read the full story by Justin Huggler at The Indepenedent

Around four hundred Tibetans and supporters demonstrated at the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. in response to the brutal killings of Tibetan refugees attempting to escape from Tibet into Nepal. (RFA/Yeshi Tashi)

Tibetan refugee, Lobsang Choeden (L) answers a question at a press conference organized by the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in New Delhi. Photo: AFP/Manpreet Romana

Deckyi Paljom, 7 years old, one of 41 Tibetan refugees who survived the attack by Chinese border guards and reached India, at the press conference in New Delhi, India, Monday, Oct. 23, 2006. (AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)
Students for a Free Tibet


International Campaign for a free Tibet



The Independent

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Mountainous men

While the pale twitching rump of the National Front got another well-deserved spanking in Wellington last weekend, a group of ex-members including deposed Fuhrer Kyle Chapman were apparently busy carrying out manoeuvres in the foothills of the Southern Alps.

The Australasian anti-racist website Fight Dem Back has posted some photos of this little army (two of the photos are reproduced above, in case you haven't guessed), along with a sort of garbled mission statement from Kyle:

we have an org for training and setting up suplies in the mountains etc...recruiting guys who are keen to support each other its for any survival situation...if there is a disaster we will claim the mountain area as our own state...we are noiw looking for hilicopter pilates

I e mailed my mate Adrian Price - live roleplayer and Warhammer 40,000 wargamer extraordinaire, and not-quite-amateur military enthusiast - and asked him what he made of Kyle's commandoes. The man they nicknamed 'the Brigadier' at Papakura Normal Primary School isn't too impressed:

The 'militia' photos are funny - especially the fake SMGs [that's sub machine guns, to you folk out there on civvy street - Maps]. First off, no one would believe they have access to those kind of weapons, secondly they look fake. Who do you think the intended audience for those photos are? Not very up on it 13 year old boys?

Pretty porky looking for a rough life in a mountain hideaway too - I think the shock would be enough to drive them back out again.

Back to Boy Scouts and learning to tie a granny knot, Kyle...

Another contribution to the debate on Buddhism...

The Roadside Shrine

You tell me the story
but it belongs to you,
comes back to you,
like the skinny dog on the string
comes back to the boy selling mangoes
on the edge of the village,
where the dust of the road
meets the dust of the riverbed
and the wind blows kisses at
your lazy saint.

How does Siddharta stay so fat
when he never eats?
They leave bruised mangoes
glasses of warm goat milk
soft bars of candy,
but he is not tempted,
is too well-trained.
He will not slaver with the dogs
who circle the village well like hunters
waiting for their wounds.

Look: his hands stay on his knees.
His mouth has congealed into a blissful smile.
Only the dust touches his lips.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Bill Direen: I'll always be round

Posted by Muzzlehatch [!]

Bill Direen has a new video up on youtube of 'I'll always be round' off the album 'New York Sack' recently released on Powertool records, check it out .

For all you NZ music geeks there's a 'Home Sweet Home' photo in one of the last frames of the video that is a shot of a very famous house in NZ music history, for the first person to work out what the house is and what its significance is, MAPS has kindly offered an all expenses paid dinner to Wendys! don't miss your chance!

Robert Fisk: We've all been veiled from the truth

Posted by Syler

10/21/06 "The Independent"

The wretched fiction of Iraq's 'success' is Blair's attempt to make us wear the veil By Robert Fisk

Yes, the film O Jerusalem - loosely based on the epic history of the birth of Israel by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins - has reached Europe (mercifully, not yet Britain) and it is everything we have come to expect of the Hollywoodisation of Europe. It is dramatic; it stars the French singer Patrick Bruel as an Israeli commander; there is a flamboyant David Ben-Gurion - all white hair defying gravity - and Saïd Taghmaoui and JJ Feild as that essential duo of all such movies, the honourable, moderate, kind-hearted Arab (Saïd Chahine) and Jew (Bobby Goldman) whose friendship outlives the war between them.

We are used to this pair, of course. Exodus, based on Leon Uris's novel of the same 1948 events, contained a "good" Arab who befriends Paul Newman's Jewish hero, just as Ben Hur introduced us to a "good" Arab who lends Charlton Heston's Jehuda Ben Hur his horses to compete in the chariot race against the nastiest centurion in the history of the Roman Empire. Once we have established that there are "good" Arabs with hearts of gold, we are, of course, free to concentrate on the rotten kind. They murder a young woman in Exodus and they also kill a brave young woman during the battle for Latroun in O Jerusalem. (She is seen being partially stripped by her aggressor before being killed by a shell.)

It is also a sign of the times that for "security" reasons, O Jerusalem had to be made in Rhodes, just as the Beirut scenes in the infinitely better movie Munich had to be staged in Malta and the crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven made in Morocco, complete with Maghrebian-accented Arabs. Exodus was filmed on location in an earlier, much safer Israel.

But it's not this routine bestialisation of Arabs and Muslims that concerns me. You only have to watch the Arab slave-trader film Ashanti, again filmed in Israel and starring Roger Moore and (of all people) Omar Sharif, to see Arabs portrayed, Nazi-style, as murderers, thieves and child molesters. Anti-Semitism against Arabs - who are, of course, also Semites - is par for the course in movies. And I have to admit that in O Jerusalem, the confusion and plotting of the Arab leadership - only King Abdullah of Jordan is an honourable man - is all too realistic, not least the arrogance of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini (he who shook hands with Hitler).

No, what I object to is the deliberate distortion of history, the twisting of the narrative of events to present Jews as the victims of the Israeli war of independence (6,000 dead) when in fact they were the victors, and the Arabs of Palestine - or at least that part of Palestine that became Israel in 1948 - as the cause of this war and the apparent victors (because the Jews of East Jerusalem were forced from their homes after the ceasefire) rather than the principal victims. Take, for example, the 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin, where the Stern gang murdered the Arab villagers of what is now the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Shaul, disembowelled women and threw grenades into rooms full of civilians. In O Jerusalem, the Stern gang is represented as a gang of wicked men, a kind of Jewish al-Qa'ida, hopelessly out of touch with the mainstream Israeli army of young, high-minded guerrilla fighters.

In the movie, you see the bodies of the dead Arabs - and a wounded woman later being treated by an Israeli - but at no point is it made clear that Deir Yassin was just one among many villages in which the inhabitants were butchered - this was particularly the case in Galilee - and the women raped by Jewish fighters. Israel's "new" historians have already bravely disclosed these facts, along with the irrefutable evidence that they served Israel's purpose of dispossessing 750,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes in what was to become Israel. Israeli historian Avi Shlaim has courageously referred to this period as one of "ethnic cleansing". But no such suggestion sullies the scene of slaughter at Deir Yassin in O Jerusalem.

Reality has to be separated from us. Thus a massacre that became part of a policy has been turned in the movie into an aberration by a few armed extremists. Indeed, after the film ends, a series of paragraphs on the screen bleakly record the dispossession of the Palestinians as a result of "Arab propaganda". This itself is a myth. Yet again, Israeli historians have already disproved the lie that the Arab regimes told Palestinian Arabs over the radio that they should leave their homes "until the Jews have been thrown into the sea". No such broadcasts were made. Most Palestinians fled because they were frightened of ending up like the people of Deir Yassin. The propaganda about radio broadcasts was Israeli, not Arab.

It's as if a blanket, a curtain, a veil has been thrown over history - so that the shadow of real events is just visible, but their meaning so distorted as to be incomprehensible. "So this is why you wanted guns," Bobby Goldman shouts at the Stern leader amid the dead of Deir Yassin. And he's wrong. The guns enabled the Stern gang to murder the Arabs of Deir Yassin to produce the panic that sent three quarters of a million Palestinians on the road to permanent exile.

But isn't this the world in which we live? Aren't we all veiled from the truth? I'm not talking about the remarks of Jack "the Veil" Straw but of his political master, Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara. For only a day after I watched O Jerusalem, I opened my newspaper to find that our Prime Minister was calling the Muslim women's niqab "a mark of separation".

Yet can there be any man more guilty of "separation", of separating British people from their own democratically elected government, than Blair? Can anyone have been more meretricious - could anyone have told more lies to the British people - to obscure, dissemble, distort and cover up the historical facts than Blair?

The weapons of mass destruction, the 45-minute warning, the links between Saddam and al-Qa'ida, the whole wretched fiction of Iraq's post-invasion "success" and Afghanistan's post-Taliban "success" are attempts by Blair to make us wear the veil, a far more dangerous weapon than any Muslim female covering. We are supposed to look through the veil which Lord Blair placed in front of our eyes so that lies will become truth, so that what is true will become untrue. And thus we will be separated from the truth. Which is why Blair himself now represents that "mark of separation". O tempora! O mores!
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Zero

I'm a bit tied up this (long) weekend, so instead of posting something remotely relevant I'm going to excerpt from To The Moon, In Seven East Steps, the volume of my poetry and prose - proetry? - that Titus Books has in its lack of wisdom decided to publish (look out for a launch in the New Year, featuring Will-Joy Christie and Richard Taylor as well as yours truly).

To The Moon includes a capsule biography of New Zealand's semi-legendary 'mad red vicar' Roger Rountree and a riveting account of my excavations in the archives at the Brynmor Jones library in Hull last year, as well as 'normal' poems like 'The Zero'. Here's the very nice blurb that Jack Ross has written:

Scott Hamilton's poetic territory seems to me to lie in some vast tangled region roughly between early Auden (The Orators) and mid-to-late Smithyman (Inheritance, Auto/Biographies).

Scott's heroes, like Auden's "helmeted airman," are forever setting out on some doomed quest to explore the hinterland -- or is it the human psyche? -- it's hard to decide. These largely abstract quests draw their substance from a kind of doomed school-story/ Boys Own ambience.

On the other hand, his more recent delvings into the mythopoetic past of the North Island of New Zealand clearly take their inspiration from Smithyman's layered archaeological anatomies of Northland. The King Country is Scott's principal stamping-ground; the result, in poems like "1918," a compassionate sense of a shared, living past that continues to work through all of us. Scott's sympathy with and deep knowledge of contemporary poetics is complemented by an equally passionate political commitment. The humanity of his work stems in large part, one must conclude, from this feeling of revolutionary outrage.

The Zero

It was easy. He avoided the other boys, ducking into the bogs like a smoker and missing his train, and the next train, and perhaps the train after that. He crossed the overbridge, waited a whole quarter hour, then caught the half-past ten. Sitting in an empty carriage, beside an open window, he watched the suburbs slide by in their arbitrary order: Manurewa, Papatoetoe, Otahuhu, Mt Wellington, Orakei...Sixteen stations, on the northern line. What would he do about the uniform? If it was incriminating, it might also offer excuses. He was running an important errand, passing a message from the Phys Ed instructor at Kings to the Headmistress at St Cuthberts, he had a tooth to be pulled at eleven o’clock, he had a cancerous uncle to farewell at Grafton Hospital. Nobody noticed him, as he crossed the Newmarket overbridge, hurried through the flowering gardens of the Institute for the Blind, and skirted the edge of the Domain, where the bare oaks were still softened by mist. Inside the museum, a crowd of schoolchildren – King’s Preparatory, the accents and uniforms told him - surged up and down stairs, pursued by a fat old Master. He waited for them to disappear, then climbed the marble steps carefully, listening to the echo of each of his footsteps for traces of nervousness. She was waiting, as she’d agreed to wait, in the Hall of Remembrance, beside the Wall of the Dead. He pulled a poppy from a niche of marble titled MAX CHAPPLE 1923-45, and pushed it into the buttonhole of the duffel coat she was wearing to hide her uniform. They kissed, and he managed for a moment to squeeze her left elbow, but a dozen little bullies had stormed the Hall of Remembrance, shouting and giggling at their echoes. It was she who started for the room - the large room, out the far end of the Hall, where the Zero waited for them. He’d admired the plane before, of course – two and a quarter years ago, to be exact, on a visit with his parents and that leaking uncle, who had come down from his farm at Broadwood to die uselessly on the seventh floor. There’d been the reprimand, then, for touching the snubbed silver of the Zero’s nose, and the rough edge of its wing – there had been other people, other older people, in the room, and his sudden enthusiasm, so unexpected after weeks of insolent depression, had confused and exasperated both his parents. He had been ordered to the cafeteria, to buy a sandwich and shred it for Uncle Angus, who needed a breather. He had eaten his muffin slowly, furiously, jealous of his parents’ possession of the plane, and disgusted by the war talk of a father who had served his country in a Reserved Occupation. ‘Jap crap, really. Nothing, to our Spitfires – shot ‘em out of the sky, our boys did.’ Now she was smiling - at his impersonation, or at his desire to impress her with scorn? ‘They’re coming’ she said quietly, as the echoes of schoolboys filled the Hall behind them. He was staring out the window, plotting a course, following that snubbed nose over the rooves of Parnell, across the grey lid of the harbour. By now the school, his school, would know. He imagined the phone call, his mother descending the stairs two steps at a time, and her quick tears, and the House Master’s kindly voice. ‘Are you ready?’ The words seem to come from far away. They had talked about it, resolved upon it, so many times already, that the execution seemed almost unnecessary, an afterthought at best. She patted his bum, as he climbed onto the wing and lifted the cockpit’s glass cover. There was room, of course, for the two of them, and she insisted on sitting at the controls. In a moment the engine started, drowning the squeals of the children and the hoarse shout of their Master. The plane gathered speed quickly, the windows broke silently, and in a moment they were gaining height with a speed that surprised him. Villas and gardens were greys and greens, and the harbour was grey, or silver, or blue, depending on which way he looked. All that water was the rough pelt of some wild beast - he was shouting, smiling at his conceit. He looked down the east coast, away from the city, and saw a range of mountains rising, covered in blue forest. Now the wind was beating the sides of their cockpit, rocking them gently, like the harbour rocks a rowboat on a sunny day. She smiled slightly, as he grasped her hand in fright, and he noticed for the first time that

Friday, October 20, 2006

Tibet Update - Two Norwegian mountaineers witness the shooting

Posted by Skyler

For those who are interested in keeping up to date with the Tibetan refugee shootings I thought I'd recommend two websites. The International Campaign for Tibet has good background information on the situation in Tibet and all the latest news developments.

The weblog of the Students for Free Tibet International is another good site that has comment from members and links to news stories. They are following the shootings at Cho Oyu advance Everest base camp closely.

Over a hundred climbers and sherpas witnessed the shootings on Ngapa La 30 September. It's good that more of them are starting to come forward and testify to what they saw that day.

Two Norwegian climbers have just come forward with testimony after witnessing the shootings, you can read their account here at Phayul.com

Thursday, October 19, 2006

What's wrong with Wikipedia?

I've just done a google image search for 'encyclopedia' and stumbled upon this wikipedia entry:

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Why would you ever look up the definition of encyclopedia in an encyclopedia? It is quite obvious you have an utter disdain for rational thought and reasonable objection.

Retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclopedia"

Whether you find a page like that wondefully quirky or irritatingly silly will probably depend on your attitude to the Wikipedia project in toto. Some people love the fluid and occasionally erratic quality of this 'democratic encyclopedia'; others agree with wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who believes that the site has become intolerably error-prone. Sanger is founding a new online encyclopedia, Citizendium.org:

Larry Sanger says that vast swaths of the anarchic encyclopaedia he helped create in 2001 are in desperate need of an editor – and that is what he is promising for his new project.

The launch of Citizendium.org, which begins testing in the next few days, is the latest chapter in the bitter public feud between Mr Sanger and Jimmy Wales, with whom he conceived Wikipedia in 2001. And it comes as Wikipedia is still reeling from the revelation of embarrassing errors and the activities of malicious hackers.

Mr Sanger has begun signing up academics furious at the mistakes and generalisations they find on Wikipedia's articles on their specialist subjects, and vowed to give these experts a special role to shape articles on Citizendium.org.

Sanger suggests that specialists who try to contribute their expertise to Wikipedia are being frustrated by over-enthusiastic members of the hoi poloi:

Mr Sanger says Wikipedia itself is "dysfunctional" and he has heard from many academics who have gone out of their way to try to edit entries, "only essentially to be beaten back by the community".

Unlike Wikipedia, Citizendium will insist that members of the public making changes do so using their real names. It will throw out troublemakers and those who do not defer to expert editors.

Not everyone agrees with Sanger's portrait of wikipedia. In a piece for The Independent, Paul Vallely points out that Wikipedia is not doing too badly, considering that it has only one full-time employee:

[Wikipedia] reckons to have 3,800 hardcore users making more than 100 edits a month, another 18,000 who make at least five and countless others dipping in as the mood takes them...Their motto is "out of mediocrity, excellence."

A report by the scientific journal Nature found that on 42 randomly selected science articles Wikipedia came close to Britannica in terms of accuracy. (The average Wikipedia article contained four errors or omissions; the average Britannica article, three).

Despite or because of this, former Britannica editor Robert McHenry has compared using wikipedia to visiting a public lavatory. I've just taken a look at Wikipedia's entry for EP Thompson, and I can't really it square it with McHenry's rhetoric. Though less than a thousand words long, the entry gives an adequate overview of Thompson's complex and interesting life, outlines his contributions to history, literary studies, and left politics, and includes a bibliography and references to some authoritative secondary literature (most of it offline, alas).

There are two minor errors in the entry. The author (or authors) claim that Thompson 'formed the Communist Party Historians Group along with Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Dona Torr and others' in 1946. In fact, Thompson was never involved in this famous group, though his wife Dorothy Towers was. In the late 1940s and early '50s Thompson considered himself a poet rather than a historian, and participated in the Communist Party's literary organisation, which isn't today remembered with the same reverence as the history group.

Later in the entry we encounter the claim that 'Thompson left Warwick University in protest at the commercialisation of the academy, documented in the book Warwick University Limited (1971)'. The problems at Warwick went a bit beyond the connotations of the word 'commercialisation': at the beginning of the seventies students discovered that university administration had been spying on them, and on left-wing academic staff. Thompson took a full part in the protests against this state of affairs, and put together Warwick University Limited in a week in an effort to expose university administrators. But Thompson didn't quit Warwick over the activities of the administration: he had already decided to leave the academy and pursue a career as a freelance researcher and writer.

Neither of these errors is calamitous, and neither seems to me to be the product of some sort of sinister hidden agenda. It's understandable that someone would conclude that Thompson, the most famous British Marxist historian and a friend of many ex-members of the Communist Party Historians Group, must have been a founder and key member of the group in the '40s. And the belief that Thompson left his job at Warwick as a sort of protest is widespread: I've seen it in many of the obituaries written by friends and colleagues at the end of 1993.

Perhaps, though, it's not fair to test Robert McHenry's remarks by looking at a wiki entry for a relatively obscure subject like EP Thompson. If anyone does a wiki search for 'Israel', or 'Islamofascism', then they are likely to find the going less gentle, as Paul Vallely explains:

[Y]ou will detect the hands of dedicated contributors with idiosyncratic beliefs whose views are there because no one has the time and energy to counteract the bias.

Some pages seem to have been taken over by fanatics and special interest groups (try the Scientology page). When others try to correct their pages the dedicatees "revert" the contributions of new contributors.

Perhaps there's another way of looking at the chaos of disputation that besets parts of Wikipedia, though. There is no such thing, even in the most august encyclopedia, as value-free facts, or a straightforward historical narrative. Every fact is affected by the prism of assumptions we bring to it, and every story we hear is constructed rather than simply 'the way it happened'. Perhaps the more outrageous Wikipedia entries serve the useful purpose of reminding of us these truths, and keeping us on our toes? Perhaps the aim of an encyclopedia, or any textbook for that matter, should be to stimulate discussion, rather than settle it?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

U.S. Is A Terrorist State

Noam Chomsky Interview on CBC (Part 2 of 2)

U.S. Is A Terrorist State

Noam Chomsky Interview on CBC (Part 1 of 2)

Chomsky explains the reality of Israel's actions in the Middle East to Canadian interviewer Evan Solomon.

Chomsky: ... "Let's take a look at the Middle East, let's take a look at facts. The facts are, for 35 years, there has been a harsh, brutal, military operation. There has not been a political settlement. The reason that there has not been a political settlement is because the United States, unilaterally, has blocked it for 25 years"...... watch the clip for the rest......

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


British journo and blogger Dave Osler has posted an interesting consideration of the problems facing Britain's labour movement and its far left activists. Dave doesn't believe that British socialists have thought through the consequences of changes in Britain's economy over the last two decades:

Traditional British labourism was largely the product of the culture of organised blue collar workers – miners, dockers, printers, engineers - that is no longer extant, and will never come back. The Marxist left needs to take that on board to a far greater degree that it has managed yet...

This time the pits will never reopen. This time the factory gates are shut for good. The deindustrialisation of the UK is permanent.

Of course the working class still exists. Conditions for many are far more miserable, the exploitation far worse, than in the days of unionised jobs with unionised pay cheques.

But it is a very different working class, with much of the combativity knocked out it, and broken up into much smaller workplaces that do not generate the same degree of class consciousness that factory work tends to imbue. That is why strike activity remains at the lowest since records begun in the 1890s.

A young blogger by the name of Kit has related his own experiences to the changes Dave has described:

I was only won to Trotskyism a few years ago, and the movement I have pretty much grown up with has been around issues of imperialism, anti-racism, etc. Basically, very little 'class' politics per se.

I think it's correct to point to a transition in many First World countries from industrial to service sector dominated economies.

Back in the 1980s the circle publishing Marxism Today were saying that this shift made class politics obsolete; in the 1990s Blairites took up their cry. The claim that the industrial working class is dead has been closely linked to the claim that any alternative to capitalism is impossible to implement today. But such claims ignore the fact that the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to the Third World was a response to the end of capitalism's long postwar boom and descent into crisis in the late sixties and early seventies, and the consequent need of capital to cut labour costs savagely in order to protect profitability. (Of course, the same need has driven attacks on the 'social wage' - on health, education, and other aspects of the welfare state - in the West.)

The ideologists of capital also ignore the fact that the industrial working class is, on a world scale, larger than ever. The old Fordist economy hasn't disappeared - it has just shifted to the nations of the Third World. And the service sector economies that are increasingly found in the West are parasitic upon the industrial Third World. Consider, for example, the call centres that have sprung up in what used to be the industrial heartland of South Wales. In many cases, these call centres process inquiries about computers which are manufactured in the Third World.

A couple of conclusions follow from all this. The first is that we can expect the Third World, rather than the West, to be at the cutting edge of the global class struggle in the twenty-first century, and to throw up many of the most important anti-capitalist movements and initiatives.

Even by the closing decades of the nineteenth century, it was obvious to Marx and many other Western socialists that the best prospects for revolution lay not in Britain and the other advanced countries but in developing nations like Russia. In the twentieth century, the vast majority of progressive revolutions occurred in Third World nations.

Even though the West was the industrial heartland of the world economy for much of the twentieth century, the uneven development and myriad forms of injustice capitalism in its imperialist stage brought to the Third World meant that revolutionary situations frequently arose there. (Trotsky coined a useful metaphor when he spoke of imperialism as a chain, and of the semi-colonial nations as the weakest links in that chain.)

Today, the low wage industrialisation of large parts of the Third World means that revolutionary situations are even more likely to arise there, and are more likely to involve the working class, rather than the peasantry or bourgeois nationalist groups, as key actors. If another revolution occurs in China, for instance, it will surely be a revolution of industrial workers and rural wage earners, not peasants led by intellectuals.

Britain and other Western nations may still be experiencing very low levels of class struggle, but we have already seen the first progressive revolution of the twenty first century in Venezuela, and it is in other Third World countries - in Bolivia, in Nepal, and perhaps in Mexico - that we see the best short-term prospects for new revolutions.

Given the centrality of the Third World to the battles over the future of capitalism, it is entirely appropriate that young activists like Kit have been so heavily involved in anti-imperialist activity of one kind or another. Such activity shouldn't be seen as less important or less class-based than more traditional workplace activism. Rather than seeing anti-imperialism and workplace-based activism as two separate affairs, the left should try to bring them together.

One way to do this is to create international union campaigns, and ultimately international unions that can provide an answer to the mobility of capital in a deregulated global economy. A good example of an international union-focused anti-imperialist campaign is the Hands off Venezuela initiative, which has succeeded in persuading Britian's national Trade Union Congress to take a stand against the US's attempts to destabilise Venezuela.

In New Zealand, some parts of the union movement have made a pathetic alliance with moribund local businesses in a doomed effort to recreate the old fortress economy of the Keynesian era, but others have joined in international campaigns for better pay and conditions. One such initiative is the Clean Start campaign, which has been organised by Australian and New Zealand unions and includes some of the features of the famous Justice for Janitors campaign in the United States. Clean Start acknowledges the increasing integration of the Australian and Kiwi economies by coordinating actions on both sides of the Tasman and seeking ultimately to create a single contract for cleaners on both sides of the ditch.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Placating Mr Jenkins

Last year, as a callow visiting scholar from the colonies, I got into a great deal of trouble with one of the team of elderly but vigilant men who patrol the British Library for infractions. My crime was not writing graffiti on those beautiful mahogany desks, or sneaking a chocolate bar through the marble entranceway to the reading rooms, but engaging in 'inappropriate photocopying practices'.

I'd managed to track down some tattered copies of the Universities and Left Review, a journal produced by a bunch of gifted left-wing Oxbridge undergraduates in the late 1950s, and I'd been in the act of making some copies when Mr Jenkins swooped. I was accused of breaking the spines of the copies of Universities and Left Review - I had thought them pretty broken already - and threatened with expulsion from the library. In my defence I argued that the Universities and Left Review was a rare commodity, and that I needed to copy the best parts of it to take back to the Shaky Isles, where copies were as rare as, well, scholars interested in the history of the British left. And that turned out to be the right tack to take with Mr Jenkins - he was himself something of a scholar, he explained, and his researches into the hidden meanings of the Dead Sea Scrolls had been frustrated by a lack of access to source materials. He left me to get on with my photocopying, and I managed to take home such obscure treasures as EP Thompson's 1958 reply to Kinglsey Amis' derisory pamphlet Socialism and the Intellectuals, and Alisdair MacIntyre's 1959 attack on Ernest Gellner. (Yes, I know, I'm a geek...)

Now, forty-nine years after that first poorly-produced issue on smelly off-white paper, the Universities and Left Review has gone online, thanks to the labours of the Amiel and Melburn Trust Archive. The Trust has also put up Pdf versions of two other important journals, The New Reasoner and Marxism Today. The New Reasoner was founded in the same year as Universities and Left Review by John Saville and EP Thompson, who had just been forced out of the Communist Party of Great Britain for running an 'illegal' internal discussion journal called The Reasoner. The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review counted amongst their contributors some of the brightest thinkers of Britian's budding New Left, and in 1960 they fused to found the New Left Review, a journal which continues today. (In 1963 Saville, Thompson and a few others who had been involved in The New Reasoner broke away from the New Left Review to found the Socialist Register, which is also still going strong today, and has recently put its own back issues online).

Spurred into life by the controversies of 1956, the year when Krushchev's invasion of Hungary and the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt threw both the left and right into turmoil, both Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner wanted to create a 'Third Way' - the term had not yet been tainted - between the 'Natopolitan' social democracy of the West and the Stalinism of the East. Neither publication was given over completely to politics in the narrow sense of the word, though - Universities and Left Review featured trailblazing analyses of post-war pop culture by the likes of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, and The New Reasoner published fiction by Doris Lessing and poetry by Christopher Logue and a chap named William Blake.

In these days of DIY publishing programmes and speedy printing it's worth remembering the sheer physical effort that the production of journals like The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review cost. In his 2003 autobiography, Memoirs from the Left, John Saville remembered the way that Thompson would have retype every word of The New Reasoner onto a primitive sort of printing block, then take his precious template on the train from Halifax to Hull. Saville would meet his friend at the station, stow the printing block under his coat, and ride to the office of a small publisher who offered mate's rates. After the cantankerous printing machine there had done its slow and noisy work hundreds of parcels needed to be sent to subscribers as far a field as New Zealand.

The third journal preserved on the Amiel and Melburn site is a good deal less distinguished than Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner, but perhaps just as interesting. From 1980 until its liquidation in 1991, Marxism Today evolved into one of Britain's most popular monthlies under the editorship of Martin Jacques, but the price it paid for this success was considerable.

Marxism Today was supposedly the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and its trajectory was one of the main reasons for the splintering of that organisation in the second half of the 1980s. Looking through the 130 or so issues Amiel and Melburn have put online, one sees a steady movement from a commitment to class politics, albeit one compromised by Stalinism, to a fascination with fashionable concepts like 'post-Fordism', 'postmodernism', 'market socialism' and 'green entrepreneurship'. By the beginning of the nineties the journal seems more interested in the stock exchange and fashion shows than in strikes and protests - it mentions the insurrection against Maggie Thatcher's poll tax only in order to condemn that struggle's 'ultra-left' (i.e. Marxist) leadership. By 1991 the Tory Minister Norman Lamont is plugging Marxism Today , and Tony Blair is writing a guest article about his 'vision' for British politics.

In an extraordinarily pompous piece written to introduce the online Marxism Today, Jacques calls his old journal 'a tour de force' but admits casually to a 'failure to lay sufficient stress on core values of the left like equity'. Quite, old chap. In the early '80s Marxism Today still gave the odd bit of space to interesting Marxist thinking - there are thoughtful reviews of GA Cohen's and Leszek Kolakowksi's accounts of Marxism in the October and November 1982 issues, for instance - but reading the issues from the last few years is a little like watching a train crash in slow motion, or visiting the blog of Norm Geras.

But even if Marxism Today has little intrinsic value, Amiel and Melburn deserve congratulations for making Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner available to a new generation of readers. They've probably made Mr Jenkins' job a little easier, too.

CBGB's Last Show

Debbie Harry and Patti Smith are among the artists returning to perform at legendary New York music club CBGB's, ahead of its closure after 33 years. Harry's band Blondie, Smith and acts including The Ramones and Talking Heads found fame after performing at the club which helped launch US punk music.

Landlords Bowery Residents Committee refused to renew owner Hilly Kristal's lease after a dispute over rent rises. Kristal says he plans to open a new CBGB's club in Las Vegas. "We're going to take the urinals - I'll take whatever I can," he told the Associated Press news agency. "The movers said, 'You ought to take everything, and auction off what you don't want on eBay.' Why not?"

Steven Van Zandt, of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and also an actor in The Sopranos, organised a rally last year in a bid to save the club. Mayor Michael Bloomberg even offered to mediate in the dispute, describing CBGB's as "a great New York City institution". The venue was founded by Kristal in December 1973, its full name CBGB OMFUG standing for "country, bluegrass, blues and other music for uplifting gormandizers".

Smith, one of the first punk performers to appear there, headlines Sunday's closing night. Harry and Blondie co-founder Chris Stein perform an acoustic set on Saturday.

Story from BBC News

Maps comments: the best band to 'make it' at CBGB's was not The Ramones or Blondie but Television, who mixed punk attitude with sonic exploration and a sort of urban romanticism. You can watch them playing their twelve minute classic 'Marquee Moon' here.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Footage of Tibet shootings

Posted by Skyler

Sergiu Matei, the Romanian climber who witnessed Tibetan refugees being shot last week at Nangpa La, has provided the world with a video of the murders. The footage, which was taken by a Romanian TV crew that accompanied Matei, can be seen at ProTV.ro and the YouTube clip above.

Here’s a description of the video from the editors of MountEverest.net:

The video clearly depicts that the Tibetans had their backs to the soldiers, were unarmed, and offered no resistance. The nun who died, Kelsang Namtso, appears to have been shot in the back. During the shooting, a mountaineer in the cameraman’s group can be heard saying: “They are shooting them like dogs.”

The video also shows a refugee hiding out in the expedition toilet tent, as described by Serguei in his earlier dispatch. Serguei told International Campaign for Tibet: “He was terrified and shaking. I couldn’t think of what to say so I asked him if he was going to see the Dalai Lama, and when he heard those words he put his hands together in prayer. We hid him in the mess tent for several hours and when it seemed to be safe, I took him back onto the pass.”

The best information on this story can be found at:
Mount Everest.net
Radio Free Asia
Save Tibet.org
Students for a free Tibet

Backing Dennis Perrin

This message comes from Louis Proyect:

One of my favorite general interest, leftwing blogs--besides James Wolcott's--is Dennis Perrin's "Red State Son". Unlike Wolcott, who has a lucrative day job writing for "Vanity Fair" (alongside the wretched Christopher Hitchens), Dennis is a blue-collar stiff who has been working as a janitor in recent years. Such are the vagaries of American society that being a trenchant prose stylist does not get you high-paying jobs writing for glossy magazines, although Dennis has been a highly respected professional writer over the years.

In any case, Dennis now faces loss of his job and hopes to get something going as a full-time writer once again. I certainly hope that he is successful. In the meantime, those who want to help sustain an extremely valuable dissident voice are encouraged to click the paypal link on his blog and chip in, as I just did with a $25 contribution.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Consolation for Orhan

Orhan Pamuk was reported to be gutted after perfoming poorly in our recent Reading the Maps poll for the title of Greatest Living Writer. Orhan finished a distant seventh behind names like Tomas Transtromer and Jack Ross, but now he at least has the consolation of the Nobel Prize.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Western mountaineers witness Tibetan refugee killings

Posted by Skyler

I have just read about recent Chinese atrocities towards Tibetans. The story brought home to me again what a dire situation Tibetans face daily. It has been confirmed that on 30 September 2006 Chinese forces fired on innocent Tibetan refugees (mostly children) on the Nangpa La mountain pass. At least two children were killed and others shot. Chinese officials are reportedly trying to track down and silence Western climbers and Sherpas who witnessed the killings.

Leonard Doyle, Foreign Editor for The Independent, wrote today, …'fears grow for the safety of a group of Tibetan children, aged between six and 10, who were marched away after at least two refugees including a nun, were shot dead.

The children were being sent by their parents into exile in Nepal to be educated as part of a group of about 70 refugees crossing the Nangpa Pass. Secretive crossings are usually made at night or in winter. But this time - probably because of the children in their group - the Tibetans crossed in the morning. They were travelling lightly, clad in jackets and boots without any mountaineering equipment, when they were attacked.

The nun who was killed, Kelsang Namtso, 17, was leading the children. A 13-year-old boy was also gunned down during 15 minutes of shooting witnessed by Western climbers, including two British policemen, 1,000 yards away at Cho Oyu camp.

Later three Chinese soldiers marched the children through the camp - some 12 miles west of Mount Everest - as climbers and Sherpas looked on. None of the Westerners tried to help the Tibetans.

Fears for the safety of Western climbers still in Tibet and worries that China will clamp down on profitable climbing operations - it costs up to £30,000 for an attempt on Everest - have meant that news of the incident has been slow to emerge. An American climber, who asked not to be identified, told of his revulsion at the failure of other climbers to speak out. "Did it make anyone turn away and go home? Not one," he said. "People are climbing right in front of you to escape persecution while you are trying to climb a mountain. It's insane."’
You can read the rest of the article on the Independent website.

Witnesses say that soldiers fired on the refugees for 15 minutes. It is being reported that up to seven people were shot dead. A Tibetan monk that managed to escape said that the western mountaineers took pictures. The world should see those images – let’s hope that they are not too afraid to make them public. It’s time that China was made accountable for the human rights violations that continue in Tibet.

BACKGROUND (taken from freetibet.org)
Approximately 2,500 Tibetans annually flee over the Himalayas into exile, escaping the brutality of China's occupation. It is difficult to know how many are caught or shot by the Chinese border authorities. Previous similar allegations have remained uninvestigated.
MountEverest.net, a climbers' website, was the first to report of the killing and quoted a "trusted source" (a western mountaineer who was climbing at the time) as reporting that he witnessed the Chinese Army shoot at a line of Tibetan refugees as they made their way to the Nangpa La Pass at the border with Nepal.

The shooting by the Chinese border guards is in violation of the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (1990), which requires that "Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life." (Principle 9).

Below are links to blogs and further news on this story:

The Independent - China tries to gag climbers who saw Tibet killings
Students for a free tibet blog
Reuters - Climbers watched as Chinese guards shot Tibetans
Times UK Online - Mountaineers see nun shot dead near Everest camp
Daily India - Nun was shot dead near Everest camp
International Herald Tribune - Report: China holding Tibetan Children after refugee shooting
Free Tibet Blog

Arguing about Orwell

Ever since Animal Farm became a surprise bestseller in the late 1940s, George Orwell's life and oeuvre have been contested territory. In his magisterial study Orwell and the Politics of Literary Reputation, John Rodden surveys the bewildering variety of political trends, from the far right to the far left, which found comfort in Orwell's work during the four decades of the Cold War. Weighty as it is, Rodden's book is sadly out of date today: the last fifteen years have seen Orwell invoked by a host of new commentators and forecasters, as well at least half a dozen major biographies which strike various attitudes towards Orwell's politics.

One of the more odious political currents to appeal to Orwell for support is formed by the small group of bloggers and journalists sometimes called the pro-war 'left'. Harry's Place, the most popular blog of this current, keeps a quote from the great man on its masthead, and regularly uses his support for the Churchill government as an argument for support for the adventures of Bush and Blair in Iraq. Christopher Hitchens, who is perhaps the most famous of the 'left-wing' supporters of Bush's war, has published a rambling hagiography called Orwell's Victory, in which he views the wartime writing and novels like 1984 and Animal Farm through the prism of his post-9/11 politics.

There are obvious links between Hitchens' use of Orwell to bolster the case for the 'war against Islamofascism' and the efforts of rightward-moving intellectuals like Kingsley Amis in Britain and the Partisan Review circle in America to turn 1984 and Animal Farm into justifications for US policy towards the Soviets in the 1950s and '60s. Over at Lenin's Tomb Richard Seymour is understandably miffed by the attempts of the right to appropriate Orwell. Richard argues that:

Orwell, despite the list-making of his later years, despite his petty bigotries, despite his increasing pessimism, never abandoned anti-imperialism, any more than he abandoned his hatred of capitalism and his commitment to working class self-organisation.

Orwell was a professional writer, and despite his early death his Collected Works extend to twenty thick volumes. Trying to find a single coherent, systematic political philosophy in the reviews, essays, letters, and novels - many of them written in haste, to meet deadlines - that fill these volumes is a task for ideologues like Hitchens, and to his credit Richard does not attempt to place some sort of simplistic theoretical framework over Orwell's work. I think he bends the stick too far, though, when he says that, contra Hitchens et al, Orwell never abandoned anti-imperialism. It seems to me indisputable that during World War Two Orwell did support British against German imperialism. One of the commenters at Lenin's Tomb makes the same point:

Orwell - quite rightly - took the side of Britain, the US, and the USSR against German-Italian-Japanese Fascism because, as he put it, "half a loaf is better than no bread".

Orwell wrote with unflagging energy in support of the war effort, and made scathing attacks on those - pacifists, Trotskyists and, before mid-1941, Communist Party of Great Britain members - who questioned the wisdom of supporting the coalition government Winston Churchill led. Admittedly, Orwell's support for the war did not mean he had given up on socialism. On the contrary, he believed, for a time at least, that World War Two opened up the prospect of the transition of British society to socialism.

In a strange book published in 1941 under the title The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, Orwell argued that Britain could only defeat the Nazis if it reformed its political system, economy, and military, abandoning the ossified institutions and methods of class-based society and embracing new, egalitarian models of organising, as well as a large degree of state planning. Orwell saw the Home Guard, which sprung up spontaneously as a result of popular alarm at the defeat of the British army in France and the blundering that led to it, as an example of one of the new and necessary models of organisation.

Orwell was wrong: Britain defeated Germany without undergoing a socialist transformation. The economic planning that the war brought was a temporary necessity, and did not affect underlying relations of class power; the Attlee government that took office in 1945 nationalised a few aged and unprofitable industries, and established a welfare state that had long been advocated by respectable liberals like Keynes and Lord Beverage, but it did nothing to threaten Britain's bourgeoisie. Had he lived long enough the author of Keep the Apidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air would have recognised the same ossification and apathy in 1950s Britain that he had observed with such disgust in pre-war society.

For some of the commenters at Lenin's Tomb, though, the mere fact that Orwell hoped for the war to lead to the transformation of British society, and maintained his verbal opposition to the inequities of that society and the Empire that sustained it, is enough to excuse him of support for imperialism. Orwell, it appears, could pick and choose his causes with exceptional subtlety.

I know this argument is meant in good faith, but it strikes me as worryingly similar to the rhetoric that we increasingly hear from Bush's band of beleagured 'left-wing' supporters. The likes of Christopher Hitchens, Norm Geras and Nick Cohen temper their support for the occupation of Iraq with criticisms of the worst abuses of that occupation. Hitchens and co are happy to condemn opponents of the war in language as violent and - dare we say it? - Orwellian as that used by George, who coined the unhappy term 'objectively pro-fascist' to put down the Quakers, but when they are challenged about Abu Ghraib, the repression of trade unions, or rampaging death squads they become indignant, and protest that their support for the occupation is 'critical'. They are still good lefties, and the fact that Bush's adventure has led to civil war, widespread human rights abuses and creeping theocracy can't be used to impugn their support for it: they were, you see, hoping that Bush would make Iraq a functioning liberal democracy.

In much the same way, some of the commenters at Lenin's Tomb seem to excuse Orwell from support for the worst excesses of Churchill's war - the genocidal famine in India that killed as many people as the Shoah; the deliberate inaction for years over death camps like Auschwitz; the division of Europe decided at Yalta, over the heads of the European peoples who had fought heroically against fascism; the hundreds of thousands of German civilians killed by Bomber Harris' airplanes; the handing of huge chunks of Asia back to colonial powers like France and the Netherlands after the Japanese had been chased out by local resistance; the destruction of the communist-led forces that had resisted the Nazis in Greece and the installation of a fascist regime there - because he hoped that the war would lead to socialism and an end to imperialism. It didn't, and Orwell should have known that, just as Hitchens and his friends should have known that the invasion of Iraq would not lead to liberal democracy.

Of course, a lot of people, even on the far left, would argue that Churchill's war was worth supporting, despite all of the bad things I've mentioned, because the alternative was even worse. I'll address this argument in another post.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mission unaccomplished

As another ill-conceived offensive peters out in bloodshed, chaos and recriminations, a new opinion poll puts US opposition to the war in Iraq at sixty-one percent. The shambolic state of the US occupation of Iraq and the collapse in support at home make it hard for us to remember those salad days in the middle of 2003, when Bush was able to don a bomber jacket and proclaim 'Mission Accomplished', and opinion in most Western countries had swung behind what seemed like a wildly successful exercise in imperialism. A year later, the White House was still claiming victory and refusing to accept the existence of significant armed resistance to the occupation.

I was not particularly impressed by the triumphalist rhetoric of May and June 2003, and by the middle of 2004 it was clear to me that the US was staring down the barrel of defeat in Iraq. One of the reasons for my certainty was the experiences I had at a demonstration staged by exiled Iraqis and Palestinians during the first siege of Fallujah in the autumn of 2004. Auckland has a surprisingly large Iraqi community, and many of its members came to this part of the world as refugees from Saddam Hussein's regime (not a few of them were members of the Iraqi Communist Party, an organisation which Saddam repressed vigorously after cementing his power in the late '70s). I was struck by the way that the obvious bitterness of these exiles toward Saddam did not translate into one iota of support for Bush's invasion. I remember saying to myself 'If these people, who have more reason than most to hate Saddam and be pleased he is gone, hate US imperialism even more, then how can Bush hope for goodwill from other Iraqis?'

Here's a report of the exiles' demonstration which I sent to indymedia and various anti-war e lists back in 2004:

'Victory to Iraq!'

Auckland's Arab Community Shows the Way

On Sunday April 18 about 140 members of Auckland's Arab community and a handful of their supporters marched to the US consulate. Organised at short notice and almost totally ignored by the media, the march was a powerful show of support for the armed insurrection shaking Iraq.

The demonstrators chanted slogans like '1,2,3,4 We don't want your racist war!', 'ANZAC troops, out of Iraq!', and 'With our lives, with our blood we defend you, Iraq!'. A group of young Palestinians delighted the march by improvising a song which paid tribute to the heroism of the defenders of Fallujah. A number of Islamist chants were aired, but when a Communist Workers Group member raised an old Iraqi revolutionary chant at least a third of the crowd joined in, and others applauded.

Outside the US consulate a series of speakers emphasised the criminal nature of the US/UN occupation of Iraq, and the need to support the the Iraqi resistance to occupation. One Iraqi addressed the US government, saying 'We are not responsible for the killing - get out of our country and we will stop killing you'. Another Iraqi blasted Bush's talk of democracy, saying 'Freedom exists in Iraq only for Americans. Our country is being made safe only for Americans and Zionists'. A Palestinian speaker announced the news of the murder of Hamas leader Rantissi, and vowed that the intifada would continue until Israel was destroyed.

Bystanders were divided in their response to the demonstration. A handful were enraged, and shouted racist abuse and threats. Many, though, were very supportive. When the march passed a music store near the bottom of Queen Street a crowd of young people poured out of the store and applauded wildly. Dozens of motorists honked their support. A Communist Workers Group member talked to a young American tourist who had spontaneously joined the march to show her opposition to Bush and solidarity with Iraq.

A disappointing feature of the demonstration was the absence of almost all of Auckland's left-wing community. Apart from Students for Justice in Palestine, the CWG seemed to be the only left group represented. Several speakers emphasised the need for the Arab community to liaise better with the rest of Auckland's anti-war movement, and to explain its cause better to the general public, and one speaker urged demonstrators to come on Auckland's Mayday march.

It is certainly true that Sunday's march could have been better advertised, and that the Arab community could make stronger links with the many Aucklanders who hate Bush and his imperialist war.

But the left and the labour movement also have some work to do, if they are to reach out to the community most affected by the War of Terror. In particular, the left and the union movement must learn from the militant anti-imperialism of last Sunday's demonstration, and of the Iraqi resistance as a whole.

Auckland's Arab community is connected by family and history to an occupation which is for most of the rest of us a matter of TV images and newspaper stories. For Auckland's Arabs, the brutality of US imperialism is especially keenly felt, and the necessity of armed resistance to this imperialism is easily understood.

Last Sunday's message of solidarity with armed resistance to US and NZ troops contrasts very sharply with the official line of this country's mainstream peace movement and larger left-wing parties. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq last year, both the Alliance and the Green Party refused to support Iraqis' right to defend their homeland against Bush's armies.

Instead of backing the Iraqis, Green MPs like Keith Locke and peace movement 'celebrities' like Bishop Randerson used prime speaking slots at massive anti-war demonstrations to promote illusions that the UN and 'international law' could stop the war. When the war wasn't stopped, disappointed demonstrators disappeared faster than Saddam's WMDs. The active anti-war movement faded at the very moment the Iraqi resistance needed it most.

Twelve years of sanctions costing a million lives and a year of brutal UN-sanctioned occupation have made Iraqis somewhat sceptical about the charms of the UN. The Green Party, though, is still blindly calling for a UN 'solution' for Iraq. 'Resistance' is a word that is still absent from Comrade Locke's vocabulary.

Our union movement has an even worse record than the Greens. Echoing Helen Clark, the national leadership of the Council of Trade Unions voted to oppose unilateral US war, but said nothing against a UN-sanctioned bloodbath. When the UN rubber stamped Bush's conquest, Helen was happy to send troops, and the CTU was happy to keep quiet.

Some unions are going further, and seeking a slice of the War of Terror pie. The Engineers' Union, for instance, has been lobbying John Howard's government to build several frigates in Whangarei. (What's next fellas - a tender for a New Zealand leg of the Star Wars system Howard is co-sponsoring with Bush?) As rank and file trade unionists, we are disgusted and embarrassed by the failure of our movement to distance itself from the imperialist war machine and to show solidarity with the people fighting to stop that machine in its tracks.

Instead of acting as cogs in the War of Terror, our unions should begin a campaign of aid to the Iraqi workers’ organisations opposing the occupation of their country.
In the 1930s, New Zealand unions sent money to the Spanish republicans fighting Franco and the Nazis, and some left-wing Kiwis travelled to Spain to join the International Brigade that took on the fascists on the battlefield.

Today, the Iraqi people are defying a colonial occupation every bit as dangerous as fascism. We need to support them by getting Kiwi troops out of their country, and by aiding their struggle for real liberation. Anything less would be a betrayal of the spirit of last Sunday's demonstration.

Monday, October 09, 2006

My journey to the Dalai Lama

Posted by Skyler

Maps has been writing about his 'journey with the Dalai Lama', but his understanding of Buddhist philosophy and teaching is limited to twenty pages of one book. My own understanding of Buddhism isn’t extensive either, but I would like to write about my experience of living and travelling in the Buddhist regions of Northern India in 1995. The quotes in this piece are from one of the friends who shared that amazing journey with me.

At 19, shortly after completing high school, I set off with two of my friends on a four month trip to India. We didn’t have any definite plans or itinerary - only a flight into Delhi and the rough plan to head north to Himachel Pradesh. Nothing in India is ever predictable; the only thing to expect is the unexpected. So, armed with our travel bible the Lonely Planet, we embarked on our adventure.

Our trip began in true Indian Style - we arrived two days late in Delhi, in the middle of the night, tired and bewildered. It was hard to adjust to the onslaught of touts, heat and poverty. I remember how on that first night one of my friends turned to me as we drifted of to sleep and in a tearful voice said, “I’ll give it three weeks, then I’m going home.”

"Arriving in Delhi was a real culture shock, so many people with so little awareness of personal space. People trying to sell you things, crowding you, touching you, and not leaving you alone when all you wanted was to find a hotel room and sleep! But coming back to Delhi after a few months of travel around India was different. I enjoyed the hustle and bustle, the people, the smells, the food and the shopping."

We decided to get out of Delhi as quickly as possible and head north to the Himalayan foothills, to give ourselves time to relax and assimilate the sensory overload that is India. We travelled by train and bus to McLeod Ganj (near Dharamsala), the town in the foothills of the Himalayas which houses the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan Government in Exile. McLeod Ganj was a relief from the heat and crowds of Delhi. I remember spending hours lying on the roof of our guest house watching the monkeys play in the trees, and gazing out over the plains that seemed to stretch out for miles below us. I felt safe and happy up there; it was a great way to relax and start my love affair with India.

"McCleod Ganj was like a little oasis of peace. The Tibetan refugee people living there were so welcoming and humble. It almost felt like they too were visitors. They were making lives for themselves in India but were really hoping that it would not be long before they could return to Tibet."

McLeod Ganj is mainly Tibetan and the town is a mecca for Western travellers and Buddhists from all over the world. I remember circumnavigating the Buddhist temple by the Dalai Lama’s residence and coming across wandering cows – an unexpected sight for the newly-arrived traveller but a common one in India, where cows are considered sacred by Hindus. During my stay in Dharamsala I had the privilege of meeting Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. He had a profound effect on me, because he had a way of really connecting with each person he met and showing everyone genuine compassion (even though he was meeting over 500 people that day).

"I had the privilege to meet the Dalai Lama while we were in Dharamsala. I found the experience humbling. Waiting with the Tibetan people for our turn to meet the Dalai Lama gave me the opportunity to witness how dedicated they are to him, to Buddhism, and to a peaceful resolution and return to Tibet. I saw the genuine care and love with which the Dalai Lama greeted each visitor, including myself. That was special."

Tibetan culture is rich and colourful, full of celebration and a humour that belies the sufferings they have endured since the invasion of their country by China. It’s hard to imagine that people who have lost so much can still live life with a smile on their faces.

We travelled to many other parts of India, but the only place that had an impact comparable to Dharamsala was Ladakh, which is also located in the mountainous far north of the country. We flew in to the region from Delhi, because the roads were still closed by snow. This isn't an unusual situation - a plane is the only way into Ladakh for six months of the year.

The largest town in Ladakh is Leh. It sits in one of the lowest points of the region, but is still about three thousand metres above sea level. I made the mistake of flying into Ladakh with the beginnings of bronchitis, and with the high altitude in Leh I promptly got worse and ended up on bed for two weeks. The foolishness of youth!

Ladakh ("land of high passes") is an autonomous state in Northern India, sandwiched between the Karakorum mountain range to the north and the Himalayas to the south. A majority of Ladakhis are Tibetan Buddhists and the majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims. Ladakh is a high altitude desert as the Himalayas create a rain shadow, denying entry to monsoon clouds. The main source of water is the winter snowfall on the mountains. Most of the region looks like a moonscape.

While we were in Ladakh we travelled over the highest motorable road in the world. It was unsealed, full of potholes, and clung to the edges of immense cliffs. Looking down one of those cliffs, I was disconcerted to see the wrecjakge of numerous vehicles far below.

"We stayed in Ladakh many more weeks than we had planed to. But I loved the life there. Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims living peacefully side by side. We went to festivals from all these religions and witnessed them in the street."

In Ladakh we visited a small village called Dha, which had only been open to Westerners for six months. We needed a permit to get in and could only stay for two days. Some of the villagers had auburn hair and green eyes, which marked them out as desendants of the army of Alexander the Great. We were made very welcome in Dha, and all over Ladakh.

Ladakh felt like a crossroads between very different worlds: a traditional travel route, it still plays host to traders from India, China, Tibet, Nepal, Kashmir and Pakistan. The borders of the state are continually contested and there is a big Indian military presence. We found this useful, because we were able to hitch rides to otherwise inaccessible areas on army and goods trucks.

Anyone interested in Ladakh and in Tibetan Buddhism should read Andrew Harvey’s book A Journey in Ladakh. Harvey journeyed to the region in 1981, searching for the wisdom within the ancient Buddhist traditions.