Contrasting views of conspiracy theories

Three chapters on conspiracy theories in three separate books, two pursuing a Cultural Studies perspective and the other a rationalist one.

  • Chapter 7 – A few clicks of a mouse. In Aaronovitch, David. 2009. Voodoo Histories – the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern Histories. London: Jonathan Cape. pp219-258.
  • Chapter 3 – Cultural studies on/as conspiracy theory. In Birchall, C. 2006. Knowledge Goes Pop. Oxford: Berg. pp65-90.
  • Afterword – Conspiracy theory, cultural studies and the trouble with populism. In Fenster, M. 2008. Conspiracy theories. Secrecy and power in American culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. pp 279-289.

Birchall is a theorist of popular culture who views conspiracy theories as “signalling a healthy scepticism towards official accounts” (p40). Her interest is the conditions under which the “knowledge producing discourses” of conspiracy become “necessary possibilities” to counter government secrecy veiled in “established and rational discourses” (p63), and what this has to teach her as a cultural theorist. So while she alludes to lack of substantiation and commitment in some theories, she is mainly responding to the prevailing invalidation of conspiracy theories as irrational, politically impotent, bad cognitive mapping done in ignorance. Drawing on John Fiske’s view that conspiracism can be “a method by which the negative experience of capitalism can be, if not rectified, then at least articulated” (p67), she argues that distaste for conspiracism on the part of the intelligentsia is symptomatic of a problem with the cultural analysis carried out by the academic establishment, threatened by other meta-narratives than its own. She argues that viewing conspiracism only in terms of political success or failure will fail to recognise “many aspects” (p69), namely that it is positively active and challenging of hegemony. She points out contradictions in scientific appeal to reason which simultaneously refuses to engage with the possibility that conspiract theories may be true (p71). She calls this phenomenon an example of Lyotardian ‘differend’,

“…a case of conflict between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply another’s illegitimacy.” (p72)

From this point of ‘epistemic relativism’ she proceeds to Baudrillard’s view that knowledge is imaginary and plural, and from there to a Lyotardian criticism of consensus about ‘bad interpretations’ (p81) – consensuses which bear no inherent relation to the truth, are vulnerable to being hijacked for nefarious ends, and are used by ‘the system’ to consolidate its hold on power. This lays the ground for her to celebrate the hoax cultural studies essay successfully submitted by Alan Sokal to the (non-peer-reviewed) Social Text journal. She argues that rather than compromising the cultural studies project, the Sokal incident affirms it. The essay was accepted, she argues, because despite Sokal’s intentions the essay wasn’t bad. Moreover its acceptance demonstrates the admirable openness of cultural studies to the illegitimate. At this point Birchall, while acknowledging the defenciveness of cultural studies in the face of attacks on its credibility, begins to set out commonalities between the conspiracist ‘forgers’ of knowledge and cultural studies itself, for which “the legitimacy of knowledge cannot be decided in advance of any reading”. She then asserts the illegitimacy of cultural studies: “cultural studies may well be a con, a scam, a swindle” and cultural theorists “a bunch of charlatans” (p86), warning against enlisting metanarratives such as Marxism or Humanism in the hope that “the more respectable discipline’s credibility will rub off on ours” (p87). In a move reminiscent of the embattled conspiracy theorist she first announces that she may be branded a traitor, and then professes herself a sort of cultural studies patriot, putting her neck on the line for the sake of its integrity. She then retorts that everybody who works with knowledge is illegitimate, which she qualifies as ‘undecidable legitimacy’, which in turn implies the need for precautionary inclusivity. This leads to a surprisingly banal conclusion which reads like an appeal: because none of us can claim to know anything, academics should avoid offending the subjects of their inquiry, their colleagues, or anybody by ridiculing their point of view, but should instead be as affirming as possible. She alludes to the propensity of some conspiracy theories to harm politics and sometimes people but this is not her focus. She seems primarily concerned with appropriating illegitimacy as a dignified means to retrieve lost ground and morale in cultural studies. I think you have to be a cultural studies insider to fully understand this self-referential preoccupation.

Nobody seems to have notified Aaronovitch that his pursuit is illegitimate or that conspiracists are to be studied rather than countered. Taking a firmly political historical approach, he is uncompromising towards conspiracists from a position of deep and explicit familiarity with their anomalies and slants rather than prejudicial gut distaste. He views conspiracism as effectively and fundamentally unjust and a threat to some groups who are far from power and influence, most prominently Jews and Zionists. In this respect he takes conspiracy theories more seriously as projects in their own right than Birchall chooses to; his is a different – and you could say more substantial – form of recognition. His chapter begins by recounting a 9/11 ‘truth’ event in 2005 fronted by Susannah York. He points out the habit of ruling out better-evidenced, and consequently most likely, explanations in favour of perverse and convoluted ones. He notes that the speakers are unlikely to have encountered each other without the contact across the usual boundaries catalysed and enabled by the Web, which he views as a “mass of undifferentiated information” (p221) where sites – often self-characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ – which use new media to proselytise or amplify 9/11 conspiracism far outnumber those dedicated to debunking conspiracism. Aaronovitch moves into this gap with two approaches to debunking: he fully engages with several 9/11 conspiracy theories on their own terms and takes them apart factually, and he also examines the modus operandi of conspiracists. With respect to the latter he demonstrates the dangers of ‘cui bono’ reasoning as a means of identifying perpetrators by asking who benefited from World War. He also points out the double standards of conspiracists in their “lofty incredulity” about establishment accounts while simultaneously insisting that their own highly questionable accounts stand unless each part (for example, the assertion that the FBI benefited from 9/11) is conclusively refuted. Aaronovitch is responding to a “leaching” of conspiracism into popular culture.There is a subtext of concern about the hyperactivity of the conspiracists, and his meticulous attention to detailed debunking of conspiracies positions him as somebody who hopes to shore up facts against sustained erosion as the “theories formulated by the politically defeated [are] taken up by the socially defeated” (p292).

Fenster’s chapter is between these two opposing views. A fellow cultural theorist whom Birchall quotes approvingly before rejecting this final chapter of his book, he is concerned that while conspiracism is a manifestation of “often justifiable discontent with contemporary institutional democracy and governance” (p281), cultural studies must accept that far right conspiracism, which hurts and even kills, should not be valorised and empowered. He explores the difference between the experience of black Americans with a history of enslavement, systematic exclusion, exploitation (including their unconsenting involvement in the Tuskegee syphilis study), and the assassination of their leaders and supporters, and on the other hand the experience of white working class American men who adopt far right conspiracy theories, concluding that black Americans are more justified in tending towards conspiracism. However he disagrees with John Fiske’s view (p264) that ‘blackstream’ and ‘counterstream’ knowledge should always be championed as not only legitimate but also presumptively emancipatory simply because it actively and radically resists the dominant forms of rationality.  Fenster points out that conspiracism, being simplistically constituted round a monocause such as race, “precludes linkages to other movements of resistance” (p286) and can as easily be used to oppress as to empower. Instead he paraphrases Eve Sedgwick,

“…a paranoid hermeneutic may aid critical practice and yield important insights and strong theory but it will not necessarily lead to good theory, correct answers or better practice.” (p285)

He concludes, compassionately nevertheless, that conspiracy theory is political failure.

A case study in activism – a review of ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Just bear with me a minute before I get started on the book. One Saturday morning in 1996 I set off by bus from Rusholme in south Manchester to visit my mother’s cousin’s family in the northern suburb of Prestwich. At some stage during my journey up Oxford Road the Irish Republican Army detonated their last Manchester bomb and when the bus terminated prematurely nobody knew the reason. The city’s response was still being scrambled and I managed to duck the cordons and skirt across Market Street to the bus station where the situation became clear. From a call box I dialed my relatives but it was sabbath and they weren’t picking up. I arrived hours late and was greeted with the raised eyebrow of a mother used to keeping student time. When lunch was produced I realised with dismay that I’d forgotten to tell her I was vegetarian. Never having encountered liver before, I had to inquire about the greyish lump on my plate. I considered what to do. I hadn’t warned her; in the sabbath-related news vacuum there was consternation about the bomb; I’d been very late; I didn’t want her to worry; I was hungry; the food was nearly spoiled and if I didn’t eat it it was going in the bin. So I ate a calf’s liver without complaint. It was claggy and tasted the way bad breath smells. To this day it’s the foulest thing ever to have passed my lips.

These kinds of dilemmas, arising from “the fact that we do not eat alone”, foment inside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, a book I read because I received a copy gratis from his publicist to review on this blog. I usually avoid books on this subject because the suffering of the scores of billions of animals farmed and killed each year confounds me to the point of incoherence. But remembering that I read Everything is Illuminated even though the Holocaust confounds me, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close even though September 11th confounds me, I accepted the book.

It quickly becomes clear that Eating Animals isn’t a straightforward case for vegetarianism. Instead Safran Foer, picking a path through this “slippery, frustrating and resonant subject” with discretion, ingenuity, and not a little guile, examines what it entails to eat animals – not only for the animals but also for the eaters of animals. Towards the eaters he extends only gentleness and understanding, and this is the book’s most fascinating attribute given the scale of the death, suffering, and malpractice he reveals. But Safran Foer is not diverted by hypocrisy. Instead he has done what all good activists do: made the object of his activism, the animals, his central concern, rather than the wrong-doings of the people whose behaviour he hopes to change.

My review below is divided into four parts, and as well as the book I also refer to Safran Foer’s January 2011 RSA interview, which I recommend listening to.

Suffering

As in the UK, in the USA most animals humans eat are factory-farmed. These animals have pain and illness bred into them and are disabled from enacting their instinctive behaviour. Broiler chickens whose ability to walk or mate have been sacrified to explosive growth and disabling bodily proportions are one example. Like me, Jonathan Safran Foer wouldn’t describe himself as an animal lover, nor do you need to love animals to object to their suffering.

The accounts of animal experiences in the cage, on the kill floor and being processed are present and graphic, but rather than dominating the book they form a pivot. Although he identifies that factory farm companies rely on ignorance to continue their cruel, unhealthy, and environmentally degrading business practices, when Safran Foer describes the brutal circumstances of these animals lives and deaths, there are no jeremiads and no relish, only a sense of duty to represent the actualities.

He quotes (p228) Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

“The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they’re likely to eat.”

One of the book’s recurring ideas is the need for advocacy:

“It seems to me that it’s plainly wrong to eat factory-farmed pork or to feed it to one’s family. It’s probably even wrong to sit silently with friends eating factory-farmed pork, however difficult it can be to say something. Pigs clearly have rich minds and just as clearly are condemned to miserable lives on factor farms. The analogy of a dog kept in a closet it fairly accurate, if somewhat generous. The environmental case against eating factory-farmed pork is airtight and damning.

“For similar reasons, I wouldn’t eat poultry or sea animals produced by factory methods.” (p195)

We can’t plead ignorance, only indifference … We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animal?”

Reading that, I thought of Charles Patterson’s book Eternal Treblinka which researches connections between species bias and the extremes of racism, between the slaughterhouse and the industrial genocide of the Jews. 

Here in the UK, as I have mentioned before on this blog, industrial farmers campaign to avoid animal and human welfare regulations which, because they are not global, make their business less competitive. The eaters of animals are so thoroughly insulated from what animals endure between their birth and our plates that we expect our meals to cost a fraction of what they used to cost. The book doesn’t evade the arguments of the factory farmers, but represents them. Safran Foer worked hard to surface accounts from within the industry and to a great extent he considers the farmers to be victims of the system in which they are trying to earn a living. Available on BBC iPlayer, Panorama’s recent documentary on the true cost of cheap food illustrates farmers’ predicament.

Hypocrisy

From these accounts from farmers it becomes clear that a change in consumer behaviour is the best chance for human and animal welfare – but in this respect there’s much that Safran Foer leaves unsaid. His RSA interview confirmed this unwillingness to take on the individual consumer, at least directly. Instead the book is a prelude, an effort to open up a space for decision-making between the extremes of, on the one hand, either eating meat with the defiance of say, food critic Jay Rayner or restaurateur Gordon Ramsay, both of whom spent time at abattoirs in order to achieve consistence in their defence of eating animal – and, on the other hand, eating no meat at all. Safran Foer correctly identifies this behaviour as a visceral aversion to hypocrisy potent enough to overpower all other aversions. Some people in the grip of this aversion will, like Ramsay and Rayner, confront and commit themselves to the violent deaths of animals. Others would prefer to remain fully ignorant rather than confront hypocrisy in themselves. Disgust of hypocrisy becomes an enemy of compassion because the hypocritical space in between the two extremes is an uncomfortable space.

Disgust of hypocrisy is one possible explanation for why consciousness of factory farming fails to penetrate the bovine disregard of the chewing human majority. Another the book doesn’t suggest is the defensive assertion of identity when confronted with a perceived attack on that identity. The main proposition of the book – “to allow ourselves to fill a hypocritical space” – is astute in the light of this psychology. Safran Foer cautions against the moral vanity of putting undue emphasis on the behaviour of single individuals. Single individuals do not change the world but they can become insufferable in the attempt.

So, although Safran Foer makes plenty of forays into dead-pan rationalism – in his case for eating dogs, for example – these are in service of a more profound invitation to consider how what we eat tells stories about ourselves. One key story is that of his grandmother, pursued by the Nazis and on the verge of starvation (p16-17):

“The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A Russian, a farmer, God bless him, he saw my condition and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.”

“He saved your life.”

“I didn’t eat it.”

“You didn’t eat it?”

“It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?”

“What, because it wasn’t kosher?”

“Of course.”

“But not even to save your life?”

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

We make categorical decisions about what we eat – the “lines we draw in the sand, lines that if we cross them we cease to be ourselves”. It wasn’t a fear of hypocrisy which compelled her to decline the meat, but a will to lead a dignified, undegraded human existence according to her own principles. This is a key idea in the book.

Pragmatism

Safran Foer doesn’t relish the specifics of animal suffering, but given that he could have written “an encyclopedia of cruelty” with the testimonials of animal agriculture workers, and given these practices are clearly part of a conscious business model, he cannot well leave them out. I’d venture to say that unless he has an angelic temperament, he must have been horrified, sickened and angered by what he saw and read in researching the book. During his talk at the RSA he hinted as much when he told the audience that in writing the book he had sought the “most productive approach” possible – ‘productive’ contrasts here with ‘direct’. I’d say that this book is one of the most heroically un-self-indulgent pieces of campaigning literature I’ve encountered. This is why some of its strongest advocates have been farmers – who, it turns out, feel degraded by the obligation to produce according to Kentucky Fried Chicken protocols – and why when his book was published, the incendiary reaction anticipated by some of his writer associates didn’t materialise:

“It’s not a controversial book because it’s not a controversial subject. If you speak about it the right way. Is it controversial that we don’t want chickens packed body to body in cages? Is it controversial that we don’t want our air and water polluted? It only happens one way: the more you talk about it the less you want it.”

This is how farmers who want their animals to live contented lives before they die came to be some of his most significant supporters, as well as he theirs.

I’m left with the impression of somebody who has assumed the role of mediator. In response to a question at the RSA about whether he kept in touch with the flinty, uncompromising activist whom he accompanied in breaking into an industrial chicken farm:

“It’s good to surround yourself with people who keep you honest, and she – despite my barely knowing her – I wouldn’t consider her a friend and she wouldn’t consider me one – she really keeps me honest – I have her in the back on my mind when I’m getting lazy about choices”.

I find myself wondering whether evoking the idea of Jonathan Safran Foer would keep a meat eater honest, when he makes their excuses so generously, and this question opens up a contradiction, though it’s not a particularly crucial one. Safran Foer recognises that he needs to be kept honest, while he views most meat eaters as deserving of excuses. It also occurs to me that perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way. Uncompromising activists also need to be kept honest – in the sense of grounded and sociological. Safran Foer’s book works in this direction.

At the same time, he allocates the responsibility for animal welfare to the industry’s policy-makers while simultaneously treating the industry as a force of nature responding to the stimulus of consumer preferences, so advancing his argument for consumer empowerment. It is left unsaid that if consumers can change this, then consumers have a degree of equal and various responsibility to change it. In the marketplace of ideas Safran Foer has not considered directness to be the most productive approach for animals. The most productive approach is one which massages us into the hypocritical space – the least uncomfortable and confrontational overtures to ordinary supermarket shoppers with their withered consciences. He would never put it that way. I think he’s right.

Accordingly, although he recognises veganism to be the ideal diet, Safran Foer urges his readers to focus on reducing the amount of animal eaten rather than increasing the numbers of vegetarians and vegans. The illustration he gives is powerful: one less meat meal a week in the US would bring about a reduction in emissions equivalent to taking 5 million cars off the road. “If you can’t eat one less meal a week, that begins to sound pathological”, he told the audience at the RSA.

I appreciate Safran Foer’s talent, which is to simultaneously hold ideas which scuffle – one that factory farming is a locus of atrocity and suffering, another that veganism is the ideal way to eat, and a third being an attitude of straightforward unrancorous remonstrance with factory farmers and consumers. I think this will contribute to something important – a reduction in meat meals consumed.  I also think that it will sow confusion, and in the current circumstances that can only be a good thing.

Another issue Safran Foer didn’t address is the comparative price of nourishing, convenient and delectable vegan food. In fact at the RSA he argued that vegan food was cheaper – this isn’t currently the case. Vegans are either sitting ducks trapped in a niche market, or they are given boring and uncreative alternative dishes at a cost which subsidises the hospitality industry’s meat eating clientele.

Humanity

Beginning on page 181 is a section titled ‘Our New Sadism’. It documents the perversions of violence and sexual abuse which take place in the closed environment of the industrial farm, before proceeding to talk about those which are part of the business plan.

I look at the media. Nigel Slater continues to push animal consumption despite all he has pledged to the contrary. Industrial milk producers are planning a cruel and unnatural megadairy in Nocton, Lincolnshire. One English family farmer given a tour of a U.S. megadairy for the investigative BBC programme Panorama says “This is the way that probably milk is going to have to be produced”. The World Wildlife Fund has commissioned a weekly menu intended to balance sustainability and health which I scan with growing incredulity: every single meal contains animal. There’s plenty of soya – only it’s been eaten by the animal on the menu before it gets to the human eaters. Arthur Potts Dawson of The People’s Supermarket observes the last hours of a dairy farm as it goes out of business. It turns out that most of The Guardian’s so-called ‘New Vegetarian’ Yotam Ottolenghi‘s recipes are so dependent on egg and cheese that on the whole they’re impossible to adapt for an animal-free diet. Chickens continue to have their beaks mutilated because we allow farmers to overcrowd them. The Observer has a double page spread on the premature slaughter of clapped out race horses for Europe’s meat market. In In Denial – Climate on the Couch, the movers and shakers of societal behaviour change are avoiding confronting us with bad news – rather than “Don’t”, they say “Instead”.

Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t go in accusations. Instead he presents readers with a vision of what it is to be human, the humanising act of declining something you want because you know that it is wrong to take it. After all, “We incarcerate people who cannot restrain their instincts to have sex” and “those who eat chimpanzee look at the Western diet as sadly deficient of a great pleasure” (p196)

“I miss lots of things and I feel good missing them. I feel better missing them than I do having them.”

Good things to eat

If like Jonathan Safran Foer you agree that a vegan diet is a good idea but you’re having trouble following one, I recommend you poke around your nearest town or city, not to mention the Web. Today I ate Ethiopian lunch from a vegan place in Brick Lane’s Truman Brewery. I bought solid, therefore unpackaged, shampoo from Lush in Liverpool Street Station. From a vegetarian grocery on Commercial Road something came over me and I bought ginger and orange chocolate and rasberry chocolate from Divine, the Essential co-operative’s chocolate spread (all Fairtrade), the peerless Sojade rasberry yoghurt, Viana hazlenut tofu and Taifun Hungarian-style wieners. As I write this I’m drinking red beer from the Pitfield Brewery near Chelmsford, Essex.

Like Safran Foer, the savoury smells of scorched flesh in street markets make me salivate, and like him I feel better missing meat than having it.

The book requests that we give thought to the life before the act of slaughter which dominates the attention we pay to farmed animals – if you focus only on the slaughter, you cannot attend to the lives of suffering that would have been better unlived. Safran Foer coaxes readers away from the slough of extremes and hypotheticals – in broad and deep ways don’t we all agree? he implores. 95% of people in a survey may say it’s right to eat animals, but who would condone a farm industry which contributes global warming, or pollution, or the increasing ineffectiveness of antibiotics? Who thinks it is a good thing to keep pregnant pigs in concrete crates without bedding and too small to turn around in? On these things all but the most marginal agree, and this consensus is the most productive and promising starting point Safran Foer can identify.

Veena’s makes Barkingside even tastier

This post is for My Favourite Shop. (Yes, me again – Barkingside’s most famous shopper and consumer of high street services.)

Food shops tend to change my life more than I expect. When I moved to Barkingside with no particular enthusiasm in 2004, the kosher food I found on sale here allowed me to finally commit to a vegan diet. Strictly observant Jews isolate dairy from meat, so Jewish food manufacturers put a lot of creativity into the so-called ‘parev’ foods which are neither, and therefore can be eaten with either. The kosher shops and supermarket sections of Barkingside brought about this positive change for me.

So it has been with Veena’s. Some time ago I attracted the attention of Barkingside 21 by complaining that the entire High Street would soon be edible. Veena’s is exempt from this complaint; it is simply excellent and I’m delighted it’s here.

Veena’s opened on July 2nd 2009 in our former Woolworths. Its large glossy sign is  burgundy with a yellow ‘Veena’s’ in a stylish font. When I first saw it, I thought to myself “Barkingside is getting an enormous Sri Lankan supermarket. Now I can eat”.

But although owner Brahmma Raj is Sri Lankan, it wouldn’t be accurate to call Veena’s just a Sri Lankan supermarket, or even just a South Asian supermarket. Turkish, British, Italian, Thai, Chinese, African and other regions are represented on the shelves – there’s even a dinky Jewish section. As one of the assistants on checkout (perhaps Brahmma Raj himself – he had a certain proprietorial air) told me, they aim to have everything under one roof. This is pretty much the actuality – at least with the things I want to buy – and Veenas has taken a big share of my food money from Sainsbury’s and Somerfield. The simple fact is, I tend to shop on foot at the end of my working day, and Veena’s sells food and ingredients I want but haven’t been able to get elsewhere in Barkingside.

As soon as I saw Veena’s I decided to get out my New Internationalist ‘Vegetarian Main Dishes From Around the World‘ cookbook which had been lying dormant on the shelf because I couldn’t get the ingredients. Now Veena’s is here I can finally use it, so I’m going through taking every tenth recipe in turn. The first meal was maharagwe, an East African dish requiring rosecoco beans. I found them at Veena’s along with every other bean I have ever heard of, tinned and dried.

There was a choice of 5 or 6 coconut milks (although none were low fat – coconut fat is saturated so you have to watch out). Today I decided to skip aprapansa, the Ghanaian palm nut stew, in favour of yemesirkik, an Ethiopian lentil stew, but I feel confident I could have found palm butter. Veena’s didn’t have berbere paste for the yemesirkik, but there was a choice of 4 other chilli pastes. We ate it tonight with chapatis I made out of Veena’s own-brand chapati flour and it was good.

I have a few days before labra (spicy mixed vegetables from Bangladesh) on page 40 but I had it in mind when I last shopped there. Yes, they had panch phoron (5 mixed spices – fennel, fenugreek, onion seed, cumin and bayleaf) and all of its individual ingredients, separately.

On page 70, we have tamarind dal. Well, you can get dry tamarind, wet tamarind, sweet tamarind, salt tamarind, black tamarind. Cadju (cashew) curry, a dish from Sri Lanka, is on page 90. Veena’s sells lemon grass in jars and cashew nuts in volumes from the packet to the sack.

On special, resisted with difficulty, a platter of small sweet pastries made with vegetable ghee.

From a well-being point of view and from an excitement point of view, I feel extremely fortunate to live close to Veena’s. There’s so much there. For example, I put black sesame seeds and white poppy seeds in my bread these days. I’d prefer to see a better mix of shops here than we currently have, but what with the marvellous Ushan’s (Sri Lankan fruit and vegetable shop), Yossi’s (kosher baker), La Boucherie (kosher butchers and grocers), Rossi’s (the ice cream, coffee and chocolate institution), not one but two beautifully-kept Polish delicatessens, the eel and pie shop, the couple of unpretentious, high quality coffee, cake and brunch places, BK’s which is distinctively Turkish, Onur’s kebabs, the excellent North London Chinese take-away chain Oriental Chef, and the (“More than a”) farm shop selling local horseradish and Havering honey, we should now think of Barkingside as a cosmopolitan food-lover’s mecca.

Yes, there is meat, fish, dairy and other animal products here, and these things should never be eaten. Whenever I give money to vendors who trade in these things, I compromise something. And certainly, Sainsbury’s is far superior to anywhere else here for good booze, vegan dairy alternatives (although still poor), fair trade produce, organic produce, and environmentally-conscious produce – this is why they’ll continue to get my custom. But Barkingside has become a modern cosmopolitan food-lover’s mecca and Veena’s is central to this happy development.

(And not for the first time I ask myself, who wouldn’t live here?)

Excellent lectures, conspiracy theory, a vegan recipe

I’ve been luxuriating in podcast lectures. Three of the best:

  • Gwen Griffith-Dickson’s Gresham College lecture on Countering Extremism and the Politics of ‘Engagement’, whose central tenet is that the agencies which are doing the engaging should choose their Muslim partners on the basis of how they engage, rather than their denomination, beliefs, the content of their writing or speaking, or trouser style. She anatomises engagement, with many examples. It’s definitely a must-listen / look / read which gave me new criteria with which to evaluate Press TV, say (when I die, I might leave my hoard to Gresham and the RSA). GGD was principally concerned with civil liberties – freedom of belief, to be precise – and the credibility of the engagers, whom she advised (again rightly) to stand for justice. She was spot on in content, but the level of detail left me wondering (and sometimes her tone was blase). Her approach to engagement is a very challenging one, requiring immense skill and wisdom on the part of facilitators. Good – how could it be otherwise – but I didn’t really get the sense that she appreciated this – how would her proposed approach be implemented by Faisal, say? She was kind of detached, like Fenster below, an academic making the recommendations of an academic, and they were very good ones, after all, and based in her evaluation work carried out for the Lokahi Foundation, an organisation which has managed to attract a number of people I very much respect and connect them with Tariq Ali, thus reprieving him somewhat from my Injustice bucket. I think about the “feral media” she derides – bloggers, commenters – and although I realise that her presentation was more of a commission than a how-to, I wish she’d had sufficient time to engage with the challenges in a little more detail. The engagers are, after all, operating in the face of some views which are openly threatening.
  • Steven Lukes’ RSA lecture on Moral Relativism, in which, as well as a penetrating the origins of moral relativism in Anthropology, and nature of moral relativism (researchers asked primary school children “Can you call the teacher by her first name?” They reply “No”- he does the voices a bit. “Can you call the teacher by her first name if she says you can call her by her first name?” “Yes!” they say. “Can you hit little Johnny, your classmate?” “No”, they reply. “Can you hit Johnny if your teacher says you can?” “No!” they shout) he also takes the piss out of Matthew Taylor so affectionately that I burst out laughing on a very windy moor in the Yorkshire Dales, and again on London Bridge a week later. He draws a sharp distinction between tolerance, which is what you do when you dislike what somebody stands for or how they live their life but you don’t intervene, and moral relativism, which is when you believe, on principle, in the equal validity of different ways of life, which in my view and his is a load of old cock. There is also some discussion of neurological aspects and the view of some scholars that there is an innate moral sense in human beings.
  • Explanations of Enmity: Pessimists, Optimists and Sceptics, another Gresham College lecture by Rodney Barker. Perhaps this is my favourite. He considers enmity through the lens of five theorists, including the inspiration of many fascists, Carl Schmitt. He notes, with Ferguson, the great dynamism that a threat can represent. He takes a look at Georg Simmel’s Conflict and its thesis that conflict between societies can build unity within them (the other week I went for dinner with a friend, a Somali exile, who told me how when Ethiopia had invaded Somalia a few years back, for the first time in ages Somalia had mustered a government of national unity, kicked out the Ethiopians and promptly disintegrated into upheaval again) and, following from this, the expediency of enemies. And Schmitt, who yearned for a strong, unified government. A brilliant lecture, and one in which an interesting observation was made and not developed – the rhetoric of enmity does not necessarily lead to enmity being played out on the street (nor between states?).

I finally finished Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (reviewed in The Observer), emerging with the feeling I’d survived an ordeal (New York Times review: “you turn the pages astonished and frightened”), but clearer about my fears (see for example Eve Garrard on today’s Normblog, and see Ignoblus, via Bob) and with a better awareness of the difference between a state on the verge of going fascist, and the state in which I live now.

This really is an exquisite book for character, for situation and for prose. When they say that Roth is at the height of his powers, they are not kidding. Some things I loved about the story (spoiler follows). I loved it that the son who became a tool of the pro-Hitler regime abandoned his activism as soon as he discovered girls. He didn’t have an epiphany, he didn’t meet a bad end – he just discovered girls. I loved it that the Italian family who moved into one of the houses vacated by Jews who had been repatriated from Newark to the countryside were no less protective of their neighbours than the Jewish family had been. I loved the references to the US constitution, how they were referred to as wall between the Jews of the US and the ghetto, and how, ultimately, they were invoked and applied. I loved the way that the Jews who (like today’s Independent Jewish Voices) sought a personal haven from antisemitism by cleaving to their persecuters and grooming their own credentials, were induced by the collapse of their world to create conspiracy theories which exonerated President Lindberg. Winchell’s martyrdom and the obituary speech that followed were masterful.

Now, and relatedly, I’m reading Fenster’s level-headed and compassionate book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (see his Rorotoko piece) in which conspiracy beliefs are not pathological but part of the popular idealistic tradition which has shaped American culture. We can see the distribution of power between executive, legislature and judiciary as anti-conspiracy measures, for example.

“Conspiracy theories proceed from an assumption that is undoubtedly correct, even banally so: we don’t all have equal access to power and capital. They then seek evidence of the extent to which the system by which those assets are distributed—the state and economy—is both hidden and corrupt, and they construct elaborate stories that explain the conspiracy’s secrecy and villainy. These steps are shared not only by the most committed conspiracy theorists; political novelists and investigative reporters, for example, also try to explain and narrate a world of unequal power. They do so differently, but they share with conspiracy theorists many of the same interpretive and narrative strategies.”

I’m not at all very far through this one. Like Gwen Griffith Dickson, above, with regards to extremism, Fenster seems to feel mercifully free of any sense of personal threat from conspiracy theories. This is to some extent reassuring, but not entirely. So alongside this cultural theorist perspective, I’m reading Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, for which he put in some time at the British Library researching primary sources. Hear him talk about it at the RSA. Even Aaronovitch Watch liked it:

“I’d forgotten that Aaro is a history buff – and is in general a much more rounded and less one-dimensional character than yer average Decent, and he knows how to build a story. The chapter on the origins and dissemination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is excellent and has more or less everything in it that you might need to know. Particularly, Aaro is generous enough to provide you with ample evidence to undermine his whole thesis – in that although the Protocols is a story of a clearly fake conspiracy, the way in which it was brought into general circulation was by the specific and purposeful actions of individuals who concealed their actions.”

I finally got a new foot for my old Singer sewing machine (from the magnificent Ilford institution Regent Home of Sewing, and also home of Keith, who gave us special curtain tracks from below stairs – bet he says that to all the customers – and who knows 45 year old Singers by their 3 digit serial number alone). I made purple curtains with gold ribbon detail, and I got out Matt’s old shirts and made lavender bags from last year’s lavender, for the drawers. I seem to have lost his most playful old shirts, though, and am left with stripes and open checks. I also bought a haunting picture of Bette Davis in 1934, not posed, from Soho.

For the gob, Vegan Society Magazine (is it my imagination or is this improving somewhat?) had an unpromising-looking recipe by Helen Edwards (p24, Summer 09 issue) which I followed only because I had a cauliflower mountain from my local veg box delivery. It was fantastic – the flavours worked in ways I have never encountered. I adapt:

Tahini Fried Cauliflower (serves 4)

Grate the rind of 2 lemons, add to 4 -6 grated garlic cloves and a finely chopped red chilli and gently fry in a big frying pan or wok for a minute before removing to a small mixing bowl. Mix these well with the juice of 2 lemons, 4 tbsp tahini and 4 sbsp water. Cut 1 medium head of cauliflower into small-ish florets. Steam until just tender, and keep warm. Cook 400g of farfalle pasta (I used white), rinse starch off in fresh boiling water, and keep warm. Put a slosh of oil into the pan / wok and fry the cauliflower fairly hard until it browns. Turn down the heat and add the pasta and the tahini mixture. Cook until hot. Stir in 120g hot peas. Eat.

I might consider frying 2 or 3 sliced shallots at the start. Matt said he’d have preferred a little less lemon juice in the sauce, and some texture – I thought some roughly chopped hazelnuts toasted in the pan before anything else would have done it.

That’s all.

Flesh’s new Acer Aspire One

My  frenzied acquisition of technology continues apace. I’d been dithering around trying to choose the best sub laptop for months – there was nothing that had everything. I wanted it to weigh as little as possible, be as small as possible, have a 10″ screen, long battery life, good keyboard, web cam and mic, integrated connectivity including 3G, big processor, don’t mind about storage but want plenty of USB slots and a storage card slot with SD compatibility. I eventually chose the Acer Aspire One. Matt bought it for me and when it arrived from Amazon he gave me it – I’m writing from it right now.

There’s a more in-depth review on Trusted Reviews.

Mine’s pearl-coloured (£10 off the price) and cost c. £200.

I decided a new computer was going to be a turning point – I would do the decent thing and move to linux (which is why I thought 512Mb would be OK, and it seems to be). The AA1’s a dinky little bit of kit and the hardware is really pleasant to use. But getting to grips with the software has been all-consuming so far. I seem to have a better awareness of what is possible  with linux than my technical acumen would indicate, so I tend to arrive at How-To type pages which perfectly fit the bill of what I want to do, but miss out crucial information – like this one. (I’m certainly not complaining – these people aren’t providing services, they’re blogs and I’m grateful). The AA1’s user community is smaller than the Asus Eee’s.

Ever since acquiring the thing I’ve been blundering around in the terminal (command line) interface following instructions found on the Web. This is not the best way to learn but what the hey.

So far I’ve installed Firefox, enabled a kind of start-button thing on right click (but not yet sorted out a desktop), got myself onto our wireless network at work, set up dual monitor (but not managed to fix it so I can have different resolutions on each nor move out of clone mode), installed Skype (left off to keep prices down), sorted out all my add-ons in Firefox and made some small theme adjustments. Haven’t managed to install software which plays AVIs, or install GIMP properly (but I have half an inkling about how to). I think the best thing I’ve done was find out about and enable circular scrolling which actually works as expected. I think I can sort out the fan-speed which might be nice – currently sounds like a fly in a jar.

Setting up these things requires using the terminal. Web browsing, blogging, multimedia-viewing, creating standard documents are all absolutely perfect, easy, intuitive and straightforward, though.

I can see that doing anything more sophisticated in linux as a novice could be pretty consuming. I inch along. Macles* and Acer Guy in combination with their commenters has been helpful. Time will limit what I can do so it’s going to be slow going. But despite my early apprehension it’s proving to be quite satisfying in an in-at-the-deep-end kind of way. Having said that, I can’t tell you what I’ve learnt. Problem solving and simple replication is what I’m doing right now.

No regrets.

Update: Thanks to Macles* and his/her commenters (they flag problems and carry out troubleshooting), I’ve just installed VLC media player and can now see the AVI format that my Samsung NV6 camera records. Fabulous.

Mildreds vegetarian/vegan restaurant. A review

Mildreds is a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Soho with a no-booking policy and an inhospitable waiting area.  On arrival we were advised that we’d have to spend up to an hour in the narrow entrance before a table became free, penned in between the bar and the wall with many other hopeful diners and the continual activities of the waiting staff. My friend rapidly developed claustrophobia and a waiter graciously (read grudgingly) granted us permission to leave the building. We decided to go wait it out with a drink in the warm fug of TV production staff in the John Snow 30 seconds down the road. We arrived back in good time – we had about 5 minutes to wait. I announced to my friends it was my round and was overheard by another waiter – who inferred correctly that we had been out and so threatened to de-list us! I gave a bit of lip and either because of that or for some other reason we were seated in minutes. The selection of beers was very dull.

We waited for 15 minutes to order drinks and about half an hour to order food (from a different waiter because we couldn’t get the attention of ours). It was another half an hour before the food arrived. There was cream with my burrito. “Is this the vegan burrito?” I asked. The waiter replied “No” and removed the plate. The others began their meal. Our original waiter came to the table. “You didn’t tell me you wanted a vegan option burrito”, he said. “You didn’t take my order”, I answered. “Oh”, he said “I thought I didn’t remember you asking me for a vegan option burrito”. Then he went away.The burrito was mediocre, as were the sweet potato fries. Other people enjoyed their meal.

The toilets were slummy. No soap.

After our plates were cleared we waited 20 minutes to order desserts and a further 15 or 20 for them to arrive (I had the chocolate rasberry torte which was fine). Then we asked for the bill. It came within about 90 seconds. We paid in cash and decided not to tip. The total was something like £56.00 without service and £63.00 with it. We put in £60. We never got our change. Because nobody wanted to make a fuss, I didn’t. One of the waiters kicked me in both heels on my way out in a bout of unaccustomed haste.

So. Mildreds: inhospitable; variable quality food; disrespectful and unfriendly, or friendly but inattentive, or petty tyrannical staff; unhygienic sanitary facilities.

You won’t catch me back there in a hurry.

Quarkbase – see vital signs of a web site

Enter a domain into Quarkbase and it will generate information on:

  • Traffic Rank
  • Countries in which it is famous
  • Tags (keywords; topics – roughly equivalent to ‘concerns’)
  • Language (e.g. English)
  • Social popularity: Delicious Bookmarks; Diggs; Technorati; StumbleUpon; Reddit; Wikipedia
  • Technology/Framework (e.g. PHP)
  • Number of feeds
  • Blogging tool (e.g. WordPress)
  • Contact person
  • Owner
  • ISP
  • Domain creation and expiration date
  • Daily traffic rank (Alexa) – also monthly and three-monthly average, with change
  • Unique page views – daily, monthly and three-monthly average, with change
  • Percentage of global internet users visiting
  • Host info
  • Similar and related sites
  • And sundry other facts.

Good for comparing sites. Mashing up at its best.

In the spirit of constructive feedback:

  • I was quite surprised at how little social popularity reflects actual hits. Maybe Digg and Reddit are not good measures of ‘Social Popularity’ – I would imagine that they have a younger usership for example. A move beyond dominant social software tools included there to incorporate similar others, such as Diigo and Wikio, would be good.
  • I would find it helpful to be able to measure variation in a ‘social popularity’ between social software tools
  • Transparency – a little more about the mashup for the layperson. Why can’t I see a subscriber count for some web sites when I can for others? How are similar and related sites generated?
  • I really want to know about volume of comments and readership of comments. I’ll be lucky, as things stand.

There is a relatively in-depth review at AppScout.

More holiday snaps and snippets. Cabaret today.

Wheeee – Kalki the hula girl!

There was a woman from Spymonkey who ejected things with force from under her skirt. There were was Marjo the acrobat-contortionist, trapeze people and a really good ukelele player who sung Minnie the Moocher and Creep by Radiohead. There was a fair bit of piss-taking out of burlesque. There was Frank Sanazi (“he may not be a real nazi but he’ll give you one hell of a gas”) who came on dressed as Hitler and sung reworked Sinatra songs interspersed with stand-up about the Iraq Pack. I thought he might fuck up but he didn’t I don’t think. The Sinatra theme was kind of random I thought, but he was very funny. Stealing glances round the table I saw that everyone else was enjoying it too. Afterwards the only Jewish bloke in our group was the only person wondering what anybody else thought of it – I opined that he lumped Hitler together with Hesbollah, Bin Laden, Saddam and the shoe bomber and that was OK by me, and that as long as Hitler remained an unsympathetic or alien figure, which he did throughout, then it was all OK by me. If, like I say, kind of random (or am I missing a reference somewhere – I’ve never seen Cabaret) and trading just on being clever with lyrics and provoking about taboos. What was it he said – “So Osama killed a lot of people. Well that’s OK. There are plenty of people in the world – that much we know.” The Churchill Comedy Club in Bromley banned him (not sure if they relented later), nevertheless.

Miss Behave, whose variety night this was, is a very funny and commanding woman who swallowed swords in a rubber suit which flung big splashes of perspiration about every time she gestured. As soon as she got started I realised with a sickening jolt that this was Amy Saunders whom I had heard on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek a few months back (jump to 8 minutes 20 on the recording) recount how she nearly died after nicking her innards without realising and slowly haemorrhaging over the following hours. After that I couldn’t look (I usually I prefer to watch difficult things like this, violent drama and the last 400m of the men’s 10k open water marathon swim, reflected in Matt’s glasses where they’re diminished in size and I can see his beloved face at the same time, but being in public this would have been unacceptable to him) so I turned away and squeezed my eyes shut until I heard the applause.

This ends tomorrow – I think it’s very good.

Beforehand we ate at the (vegan) Thai Buffet close to Camden Tube where you can get seitan (mock duck – i.e. gluten – wheat protein) in 10 or so different formats and salads, rice, noodles and dumplings aplenty. These are all over London now. Buffet is the most enjoyable way to eat out in my opinion – this particular one is not for the gluten-intolerant though.

And now to my friend’s bbq-cum-gig. This has been an excellent holiday so far.

Onur, oh yes

Hmff.

We got a leaflet through the door saying that the establishment which for the purposes of this post I’m going to have to call Thingummy Grill on the High St was selling falafel.

So tonight on the way home I foresook Onur and went to Thingummy Grill. The staff were very sweet but all of a sudden I was charged eight quid! Eight quid for two houmous-salad-pitta-falafel! I know there’s a food crisis, but given that the falafel kebab was three quid, that’s two quid for two rather meagre smears of houmous! On the way back I ducked my head and hurried past Onur’s plate glass window trying to hide the bag. Onur have been very good to me. Sometimes it seems that the tireder or more dejected I am, the less they charge. As you can imagine, I’ve ramped up some considerable discounts over the years. I feel like I at least owe them my custom on houmous-salad-pitta.

Matt and I were pretty disappointed. “Only a little onion” turned out to be none. Matt didn’t have any tomato. And the falafels weren’t done (although I’m pretty sure they were the ones from La Boucherie, which are very distinctive).

My recommendation to falafel lovers of Barkingside – buy them frozen from La Boucherie, where Barkingside vegans can also find there icecream and other incidentally vegan foods that Jews have created to keep strict kosher after a meaty meal. And order your houmous-pitta-salad-chillisauce from Onur. Even though they insist they’re exempt from selling falafel on account of being Turkish, Onur is fantastic. Get your old man to nuke the falafels in time for when you get home. (Yes, microwaving falafels from frozen is best for mouth-feel if you as I do rule out deep frying on account of waste.) Or if there’s nobody to do that, doesn’t matter – houmous-salad-pitta is cold anyway so you can even do it yourself no harm done!

You can’t go wrong with Onur.

It would be nice if the people at La Boucherie would crack a smile once in a while though.

An act of grace breaks a cycle of violence. Yael Farber’s Molora at the Barbican.

A few of us with an interest in South Africa went to the Barbican Pit to see Yael Farber’s reworking of the Oresteia, based in Homer’s story of the doomed house of Atreus and taken up by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Yael’s Clytemnestra is a damaged, unrepentant white woman (the only white character) who has revelled in axing to death Agamemnon, the husband who killed her first baby, brutalised and raped her, made her his wife and sacrified their daughter Iphigenia to Artemis for victory against Troy. Clytemnestra has married his cousin Aegisthus and the future of her son Orestes and daughter Electra, potential avengers, have become doubtful. Electra has secretly placed Orestes out of danger with a mountain tribe but herself remains “a slave in her father’s house”, nursing her bitterness, dreaming of revenge and subject to brutal episodes of torture at the hands of her deranged mother. 17 years later Orestes returns as avenger. In the original work he kills his mother and for this crime of matricide is pursued and tortured by the Furies. In Yael’s version, Orestes and Electra are pulled back – Orestes by his own conscience, wailing Electra by the chorus of seven older Xhosa older women who remove the axe, pin her down and comfort her. Orestes and Electra are reconciled with Clytemnestra. Events are witnessed and accompanied by the chorus who sing, whistle, stamp, drum and pluck a Xhosa musical accompaniment.

Having averted the unabsolvable crime of matricide the chorus, who stand for South Africans humiliated by apartheid, marshal themselves in Xhosa with a firm, rousing oration and response. In the play’s final lines Clytemnestra delivers her judgment on white South Africa: “We who made the sons and daughters of this land servants in the halls of their forefathers, we know we are only here by grace.”

Afterwards Yael Farber answered questions. It emerged that the Xhosa chorus, who indeed didn’t look as if they had been to stage school, moreover don’t understand English and rehearsals were mediated by a translater. She talked about the act grace on the part of the majority population at the end of apartheid which allowed white people to remain and keep their property. To a question about why she had dealt so sympathetically with Clytemnestra, whose own suffering, being manifest, interfered with the urge to blame her, Farber had some brave and interesting answers. She said that she didn’t accept the idea of protagonists and antagonists. The questioner was not satisfied, and Farber had to defend her refusal to simplify, and therefore caricature, the apartheid regime – she said to the questioner “It’s a very difficult thing you’re asking” because the acts of apartheid are themselves indefensible – but the problem is that it takes enormous self-belief and feelings of righteousness to torture and kill, and that this cannot be ignored. She said that the Truth and Reconciliation commission is only the beginning and that demands for reparation will understandably come in the future.

The Independent and The Times have reviewed Molora, which is on at the Barbican Pit until April 19th.