Welcomed visitors – Mahmoud Sarsak and Ian Henshall

Two pieces of bad news.

Unite (the ‘union’) have decided that welcoming ‘noble member’ of Islamic Jihad Mahmoud Sarsak (who is therefore, we may assume, women-repressing, gay-hating and murderously intolerant as well as Jew-hating) is a good way to stick two fingers up at Israel. Len McCluskey, Unite’s Secretary General, blesses their general thrust on this. Verdict: Unite has gone over, is lost in nasty and futile ideological territory, and therefore members should either leave or get very involved and marginalise the deranged ideologues. But they should definitely not just sit there feeding them subs. They’re spending members’ subs on jihadis, it seems. It’s worth noticing that Islamic Jihad and the jihadi murderers of that poor man Lee Rigby have a lot in common. This is a recent statement from an Islamic Jihad leader on the prospect of the Jews Nasser expelled returning to Egypt:

“We shall fight them vigorously if they return, especially the Egyptian-Israeli Jews,” said Mohamed Abou Samra, the leading figure in the Islamic Jihad movement. “Islamic Sharia says they deserve to be killed.”

“They will destroy the economy and foment sedition,” he said. “Their return will be over our dead bodies.”

And this extreme, murderous character, not to mention the standard antisemitism, is a very important thing to recognise about Islamic Jihad and any of its ‘noble members’. Unite has sunk so low that it cares very little about it.

And in my manor or thereabouts Alistair Kleebauer reports in the Ilford Recorder – without comment! – that  Ian Henshall will be welcomed into Woodford Green’s Village Bookshop. Ian Henshall has surrendered all reason to conspiracy beliefs about September 11th. He’s like this. Conspiracy beliefs are psycho-social phenomena which deserve a close look, but anything more that is a mistake. For example, hosting them in your bookshop.

I think of these two unwanted visitations as related – they’re both products of the kind of political dismay and disorientation which leads to desperate gropings for a neat cause and a quick fix. The particular reason I’m fretting is that those two have really weird and not at all warm views about Jews. I’m almost certainly understating. And yet they’re welcome.

HT @welshbeard and Richard at Engage.

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Better together. England, Scotland and the European Union

I’m very anxious that my country sustains last century’s anti-nationalist movement by remaining part of a UK and a European Union. And as a Briton (for me natural borders like coastlines are the only ones to take seriously – and not all that seriously) I’m inclined, with David Mitchell, to consider Scotland ‘my country’ even though I’m merely a second generation Briton and London sojourner. Still, a country can’t just be wished into existence. You have to build it, shore it up, hold it dear, cherish its society, be patriotic.

On tonight’s Leader Conference, Lesley Riddoch mentioned that Scotland is deeply committed to the European Union and so the news that it might lose its membership if Scottish nationalist separatists won their referendum caused a ferocious backlash against Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party.

First is it true that Scots want to be in the EU? And if so, is that across the political spectrum? IPSOS Mori indicates not.

“Six in ten Scots (61%) think that an independent Scotland should be a member of the EU compared with three in ten who think it shouldn’t (33%).”

So, that’s not all many more Scots than English in favour of the EU after all. And how interesting that Scottish National Party voters are not among the most supportive of the EU.

“Support for Britain remaining a member of the EU is highest among those aged 18-24 (68%) and those living in Scotland’s most affluent areas (66%). Liberal Democrat and Labour voters are the most likely to say they would vote for Britain to stay in the EU (70% and 60% respectively).”

I’m not sure what light this sheds on Conservative and UKIP isolationists. Are Scottish isolationists motivated by land, blood, purity? Are they wary of being a small EU state with a correspondingly small influence? At any rate, the Royal Society report says that can be avoided if the representatives and diplomats are active.

Is it silly to say that as the UK is to the EU, so Scotland is to the UK?  Riddoch for me epitomises a Scottish self-definition limited to comparisons with England. I entirely sympathise with her disgust, but she seems to lack a genuinely independent, positive vision. My Scottish friend favours separation but is bad at explaining why, leading me to think her reasons are sentimental. That’s no good. As Barry mildly put it, “you probably want to see if you can fix what is broken in a very important relationship before you break it off”. I don’t have a genuinely positive view for the EU, it’s just a strong positive hunch. I’ll try to find out more in the coming months.

Referendums. I don’t think most people are motivated to discover their own interests on the question of EU membership. I also think referendums confuse people. People probably reason that if the matter were all that important then it would be left to the experts and we wouldn’t be asked to vote at all. Having convinced ourselves that our votes hardly matter, we’ll indulge our gut feelings and the the ignorant jingoism or misty eyed national sentiment of the moment  will prevail – goodbye EU. The Conservatives stupidly promised a referendum either because they know this, or because they can’t stand up to UKIP. If the matter isn’t settled before the Scottish referendum in September 2014, then you’d imagine the SNP would try to get that one postponed. And basically if we collectively vote No to Europe that will probably boost Scottish separatism – which I may even start referring to in more positive terms of ‘independence’ and move there myself. Did I mention my Grandpa grew up in the Gorbals?

Vivez les misanthropes!

Activism used to be synonymous with protest: you raised the alarm and then called for action. You explained ways in which something is bad, called on people to do their duty, gave them something constructive and well-defined to do, and entertained criticism of the ones who didn’t do it. Campaigning is not really like this any more though – at least not if it’s successful. Last week that change hit me with some force when in the space of a few days I encountered several deterrents to traditional forms of activism, and a turn to psychology.

The first example was Sunny Hundal’s Guardian piece on how activists should change their ways in the face of a 17% drop in support for tackling climate change, as expressed in the British Social Attitudes Survey. As well as the anti-capitalist associations of the Green movement, he also points to the problems with feel-bad campaigning. “Talk about solutions rather than focusing on doom. A recent paper, titled Fear Won’t Do It, by the Tyndall Centre found that sensational representations of climate change “can successfully capture people’s attention” but also disengage them and “render them feeling helpless and overwhelmed””. I think this is over-generous. I think that people doubt that climate change is a threat after all. So does the Daily Mail. Anyway, despite promising strategies, Hundal confuses them with goals. Nothing here except a pervasive ‘Don’t scare the horses’.

Another example was Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity. They say that dwelling on what’s wrong with surface level transport (the bad air, the asthma, the expanding waistlines) is a losing strategy for those not already convinced. They learned to avoid cognitive dissonance from the famine charities; apparently the emaciated kids with flies crawling over their open eyes was too much for prosperous global northerners – they might give once to take the edge off the guilt but, finding that the guilt persisted, they rarely sustained the giving. So concluding that giving is mostly self-serving, leading charities had to change tack. We abandoned regular religious worship, and because there’s nobody left to tell us what to do, some charities decided on a strategy of manicuring our self-image. When it comes to transport it’s better to emphasise the positive, the opportunities, the alternatives, our heroism. We are all heroes. We are all Gandhis and Mandelas.

By Sarah Richards on Flickr

By Sarah Richards on Flickr

What do these commentators think is wrong with us? Mrs Hall is such a slave to feeling good that it’s assumed her moral fibre has turned to pulp. We’ve arrived at very low expectations of her acting on duty or conscience – it would be mistake to invoke them at all because she would probably refuse on principle. Mrs Hall has been taught to think of herself as unimpeachable. Consequently, Mrs Hall probably couldn’t recognise anything wrong with the way she lives her life. She is thought to expect extravagant praise for any act not obviously in her own self-interest. She’s thought inert except when somebody is gratifying her vanity. Mrs Hall is assumed to be above all interested in her own self-image. Mrs Hall is anybody’s fool.

And this is the crux of it. Feeling good is not a virtue. This can be clearly seen in my third example, Eve Garrard’s substantial examination of the pleasures of antisemitism and the failure of rational, cognitive approaches to combating it. Thankfully she doesn’t recommend a feel-good approach to dealing with antisemitism – in fact she talks past the people indulging in it when she writes “Here the devil frequently does have the best tunes, and the thin and reedy voice of rational argument is often quite drowned out by their brassy insistence. But we’ll do better in the combat, however we conduct it, if we realise that the views which we’re struggling against provide deep emotional satisfactions to those who hold them, satisfactions not easy either to overcome or to replace”. Eve too wants us to recognise the power of feel-good.

Deep emotional satisfaction isn’t a vice, but it isn’t a virtue either. Feel-good isn’t intrinsically anything moral at all. Sadism is a feel-good behaviour – in Iran, members of the National Guard can feel good raping young male anti-government activists, relishing their future isolation as their unspeakable shame eats them up from within. It feels good but it’s evil. It can feel fantastic when rapists rampage with abandon through Congo villages with abandon, but it’s evil. Ethnic cleansing can feel powerfully good, but it’s evil. Assisting your incapacitated neighbour can feel good, and it is good. Eating dead animals can feel very satisfying (this example is different because it’s normal) but I expect future generations will shudder at the suffering and wonder where our conscience was.

I welcome psychology insofar as it can explain things, but it can be badly used in policy. Don’t tell me the ‘nudge’ phenomenon – libertarian paternalism – doesn’t represent a failure of better means, for example. This Mrs Hall construct of Oxfam’s, which stands for all of us, has a character flaw which is vulnerable to, and contains the germs of, bad social movements. Rather than pander to her failings and pragmatically dream up ways to part her with her cash without disrupting her self-image, I’d prefer people gave more leeway to their inner disappointment in themselves and humankind, and treat moral discomfort as a civilising route to truth in untruthful times. If the Taliban score 10 for misanthropy, the Puritans, 9, Bob Geldof, 5 and Bob Geldof’s daughters, 0, I’d say we’re currently at 2 but we need to be at 6. Which allows for different approaches to campaigning, along the lines of the Daily Vegan who, encountering criticism about preachy vegans, responds with a defence of diversity.

No, I’m atheist-secularist.

Ways to make Jews disappear / the campaign to boycott Israel

Alas, Stephen Hawking, if you think boycotting Israel helps Palestinians, think again.

Let’s hear from other academic voices. Raphael Cohen-Almagor explains the fallacy of a boycott campaign which no longer pretends to target only institutions, and now openly and predictably excludes Israeli individuals. Most Jews consider the boycott of Israel a threat to Jews, if not an active attack on Jews. Consequently boycotts exert strong introverting pressure on Jews. As an anti-Jewish strategy (which boycotting Israel often is) antisemites should understand why they fail to annihilate the object of their hatred. Norman Geras points out that antisemitism is interrelated with Jewish survival – it strengthens identity and mutual bonds between those who are designated and threatened as part of an ethnic group. Norm isn’t the first to note this paradox – unread as yet on my bookshelf is Dan Cohn-Sherbok’s book The Paradox of Anti-Semitism which contains many examples of Jewish leaders recognising this dilemma, from Rabbi Shneur Zalman and the spiritual dangers of integration to Theodore Herzl (“It is only pressure that forces us back to the parent stem”). In contrast, Moses Mendelssohn, Jewish Enlightenment  leader, set out to secure both the Jewishness and the participation. Robert Fine looks at the beginning of Jewish emancipation when the establishment extended a hand, if mistrustfully and conditionally, to German Jews. Ruth Wisse observes that throughout history where Jews suffered a deficit it tended to strengthen their collective resource and tenacity. Since emancipation, freed of the deficit and with a state of their own, but retaining a strong shared memory of persecution and a disinclination to take their continued success for granted, Jews are seen to strive and excel when taken as a group. Consequently in today’s prevailing (and I think ill-conceived) meritocracies, Jews have successful positions in greater proportions than their overall numbers indicate. Consequently it is easy for people affected by antisemitism to forget the obvious: Jews are individuals, not a coordinated group.

So are Jews out of the woods? It depends on the resilience of this society. At the heart of the boycott, political historian Jonathan Lowenstein explains, is envy, and this envy is sharpened by a shrunken economy. And after the Enlightenment came a global competition for resources and a related decision by a great power to do away with all Jews and appropriate their prosperity. So while I think speciesist, tribalist views of Jews about Jews belongs to desperate times, on the other hand to quote Hannah Arendt when attacked as a Jew it’s opportune to respond as a Jew.  Perhaps the desperate times have arrived.

Eve Garrard sets out the pleasures of antisemitism, (if you read nothing else, read that) which brought to mind Iain Banks’ lost tussle with antisemitism as his life reaches its premature end. In my trade union anti-Jewish activity I expected to be against the law has been found to be inside the law. David Hirsh and Sarah Annes Brown respond to the judgment from the legal action taken by Ronnie Fraser against the University and College Union on grounds of antisemitism related to anti-Israel campaigning. More on this from me in due course.

Stephen Hawking talked of pressure to boycott in ways which remind me of my MP’s appeal to populism in explaining that he is against gay marriage or protecting abortion rights because most of his correspondents have urged him to be. Perhaps Hawking represents a second phase, a mainstreaming of boycott. On the other hand, he has embraced the British Committee on Universities of Palestine, an organisation staffed by UK Israel eliminationists who, far from supporting a Palestinian call, instigated boycott themselves before any Palestinians had made call (takes your breath away, doesn’t it). There are so many reasons not to boycott.

Now, go and see if you can form some links with Israeli academics or cultural institutions, which despite all this acrimony are incredibly fertile, humane, questioning places.

The Politician’s Husband and the clown’s clown.

I’ve been watching The Politician’s Husband, a serialised psychological thriller which presents the front bench of the parliament as iredeemably venal and treacherous. Its writer, Paula Milne, paints a picture of unalleviated scheming, betrayal and bad character which obscures most of what is really important about politics. She says what she really wanted to do is explore marriage. Politics suffers collateral damage.

Milne gives us a duplicitous former front-bencher (the titular husband) whose oldest friend, best man and political ally betrays him, catapulting his wife (the titular politician) into power. A pastiche of emasculation, the deposed husband can now only love the newly empowered wife when he perceives her to be weak. To drive the point home we find he needs his son, a vulnerable child with aspergers, as much as or more than the boy needs him. Predictably enough the increasingly estranged couple bond over the boy’s vulnerability. But their bed is unsafe, their sex life a horrifying battleground, and the husband ricochets absurdly between remorse and connivance. The only character with any integrity is the husband’s father, an academic who supplies the husband with grounded and incisive alternative viewpoints, but is otherwise inert and serving as a dramatic device to illuminate the husband’s downfall. The politician seems primarily hypnotised by power. At one point, the chief whip remarks (to the treacherous best friend, who himself has designs on the party leadership) something like “Wouldn’t it be something if we could put as much energy into solving this country’s problems as we do into feathering our own nests”. In fact it’s Paula Milne who’s abusing politics to pursue her own interests.

It’s true that politicians’ surgeries are often banal. But it’s irresponsible, because untrue and at a time when trust in politicians is exceptionally low, to claim that leading politicians (all of them, mind you – she never names a party and the implication is that politicians are homogenous in nature) care more about their own positions than they do about anything else. Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel – there are plenty of others who take the yoke of leadership because it’s their turn, their duty, and it keeps the bad ones out. While she’s busy turning people off politics – collateral damage of using it as a convenient backdrop to what is little more than a dramatisation of marital politics – Paula Milne should keep in mind that electoral engagement has never been so low.

Today’s London Evening Standard leader on UKIP’s local election gains was something like ‘Farage: voters send in the UKIP clowns’. I am kind of grateful to Nigel Farage. He’s the opposite of Milne’s characters. And though I’m certain that given enough power UKIP would ruin this country in months, I think a protest party and a protest vote is infinitely better than no vote at all. Back in 2010, the Electoral Commission briefed (in its October 2010 Factsheet on Turnout that

“Turnout at the local elections in May 2010 was 62.2%. The unusually high turnout could be explained as a result of the local elections being combined with the UK general election. Local election turnout in 2009 was 39.1%, marginally lower than the 2008 average of 39.9%.”

I don’t have figures for this election. A quick web search suggests high 20s for several councils. Which is dire.

Farage is a strange decoy politician. And yet compared to Paula Milne’s characters he looks like a winner. I could have never felt this warmth for Farage before seeing The Politician’s Husband. Of course, none of this is Paula Milne’s fault – but along with all of us, it is her problem.