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.

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4 thoughts on “Excellent lectures, conspiracy theory, a vegan recipe

  1. As soon as Google Reader shows you have a new post I’m over here like a shot! Sounds like you’re keeping busy. I hope you and Matt and everyone is healthy and happy.

  2. We have colds, but fine. Today I took the afternoon off to accompany Amanda (over from Australia) to the Chelsea Flower Show. Well, it was quite exquisite and I can’t believe I’d left it this long. There was a whole stand of cacti and they were all in flower. Can you imagine maybe 120 different cacti in flower? It was fucking awesome. I really found all the floral arrangements exciting in ways that give me goosepimples (or as you say, goosebumps), though I couldn’t tell whether it was the flowers that smelt good or the ladies. James May had lowered the tone with a garden made of plasticine. I know he wouldn’t mind me saying that.

    You sound busy too. I hope life is good.

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