George orwell

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My new piece in this weekend’s New York Times Book...

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 23/05/2021 - 4:27am in

My new piece in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review!

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/21/books/you-cant-judge-a-book-by-its-title.html

Tories Killing Free Speech and Democracy in the Name of Stopping ‘Nuisance’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/03/2021 - 8:51pm in

Following the Met police’s rough manhandling of the women at the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common and the consequent outcry, our smirking excuse for a home secretary, Priti Patel wishes to introduce legislation with the explicit intention of limiting public protest. This, as Mike and the good peeps on Twitter have pointed out, is Fascism. It’s suppression of the fundamental right to public protest. The intention is to stop criticism of the government. But the Tories are past masters in lying, and so they’ve dressed this latest assault on democracy up as somehow empowering the public. They’re not doing it to stop free speech, you see. They’re trying to empower local communities, who may find themselves seriously disrupted by noisy protesters. It’s about stopping them making a nuisance of themselves. And so the proposed legislation will, if passed, allow the authorities to cancel a demo if even a single person complains about it.

There’s a quote, which unfortunately I’ve largely forgotten, which states that Fascism never comes as a repressive force. It always presents itself in friendly terms until it is too late, the concentration camps have been put up and thugs in jackboots are stamping on human faces, to use George Orwell’s metaphor. There’s another quote that says that the totalitarianism of the future won’t present itself as an oppressive tyrant, but as society’s benevolent, obedient servant. Patel’s wretched bill surely bears out the truth of this statement. It’s Fascism all right, but dressed up as defending local communities’ right not to have their peace and quiet spoilt by anything as vulgar as an enraged or concerned public.

While Priti Patel is trying to push the bill through parliament now, it isn’t just her that’s behind it. It’s a Tory idea that’s been around since ‘Dodgy’ Dave Cameron was in No. 10. He also tried to pass it, but with no success. Now, almost a decade later, the Tories are trying again.

The Labour party plans to oppose the bill. So should everyone who values democracy and free speech, regardless of party. And including and particularly Tories. One of the Transatlantic Conservative sites I used to read several years ago was opposed to government legislation outlawing Holocaust denial. There was a debate at the time over whether the Canadian government should join other countries in banning it. This was just during the Conservative Harper administration. The Jewish owner of the site was against this, arguing that Conservatives should not support legislation limiting free speech. If the precedent was set, then it would give a weapon to the Tories’ enemies, who could use it to their own advantage. Exactly. And I have come across Tories who are genuine, passionate defenders of free speech. Years ago Lobster reviewed a book written by one of them, which recognised that every democratic freedom we now enjoy isn’t a natural outgrowth of the development of some transcendent principle of freedom and democracy inherent in British or western society. No, these freedoms are the hard-won results of bitter struggles. And Patel’s vile legislation makes it very clear that struggle is far from over.

People are already organising petitions and planning protests against the bill. I received this email from Democracy Unleashed, laying out the arguments and asking me to sign a petition against it, which I did. It runs

‘Once again, the government is attempting to force controversial legislation through Parliament without proper scrutiny.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains provisions that could land peaceful protestors with up to ten years’ imprisonment if their protest is deemed capable of causing “serious annoyance” to any section of the public. 

Did the People’s Vote marches cause “serious annoyance”? What about Black Lives Matter? Or Extinction Rebellion? Or March for Women? Or Stop The War Coalition? Which one of those protests do you think the Home Secretary would ban under this new legislation?

I will not be silenced

Many thousands of people take part in hundreds of protests across the United Kingdom every year. In most cases, a little bit of nuisance is what gets them noticed and their messages heard. Whether or not you agree with their cause, their right to protest is an essential part of a healthy democracy and any legislation that dilutes that right should be subject to very careful scrutiny indeed. 

We don’t think protestors campaigning passionately (or noisily) but peacefully for a cause should face the possibility of a prison sentence just because the Home Secretary has decided that someone might find their protest “seriously annoying.”

This legislation represents a serious attack on the foundations of our democracy and history tells us that such attacks often signal the beginning of something more sinister. We need to wake up to the threat and do something while we still can.  

Sign the petition to tell the Home Secretary that government cannot be allowed to bury our democratic rights just because it suites them to do so. 

I’ll sign the petition

Help us make this the loudest protest possible by sharing the petition on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp with the hashtag #SeriouslyAnnoyed. ‘

We have to oppose this bill, otherwise democracy in Britain will be as hollow and meaningless as Singapore. You have the right to speak in public there about political issues, but you have to register with the police in advance, who have the power to turn you down and arrest you. Needless to say, people aren’t exactly lining up at the Singaporean equivalent of Speaker’s Corner.

And that’s the kind of empty, hollow democracy Priti Patel and her predecessors want for Britain.

Remembering 3.11: Faces and Voices of Resilience Part 1

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 05/03/2021 - 10:10am in

Published in Japan Forward 3/3/2021

In the event of an earthquake, you’re supposed to shelter under a table. That’s the official advice, anyway. In the early afternoon of March 11th 2011, when the walls of my dwelling started groaning and shuddering like a creature in pain, primitive instinct took over. Before I knew it, I was outside on the street.

Others were there too, mostly complete strangers. Social distancing comes naturally in Tokyo, but suddenly we were hugging each other for comfort. Waves of energy surged underfoot, causing us to stagger like drunkards. An instant premonition told me that somewhere on this land mass many lives would be lost this day.

In a matter of hours, the giant city had ground to a complete halt. It was unnerving – but as became clear as the days passed, it was nothing compared to the devastation wreaked in the north east region of Japan’s main island. The people of Tohoku, as it is called, had suffered one of the most terrible natural disasters to afflict a developed country in the modern era

The earthquake and tsunami caused 15,899 deaths, nearly all from drowning, with 2,633 missing. The waves of the tsunami are believed to have reached a height of 133 feet and moved at 430 miles per hour, giving people just ten minutes of warning as the wall of water raced to the coast from the epicentre offshore.

The quake itself shoved Honshu, Japan’s largest island, eight feet to the east, and shifted the earth on its axis by some 4-10 inches.

 credit, Soko Hashimoto It looked like a warzone: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

As if to prove the saying that bad news comes in threes, at the end of the week nuclear meltdowns occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.  In all, over half a million people would have to be relocated.

Such statistics are easily digested. They have a numbing, almost comforting effect, allowing us to think we understand experiences that are unfathomable and unimaginable. How did the people of Tohoku cope with the reality?

***

Shoko Hashimoto’s face is a map of his life. It radiates intensity, strength, humour, boundless curiosity and a wisdom that comes from deeply lived experience. Though he has been based in Tokyo for decades, he seems to come from a different, earthier world – and indeed he does.

He is a native of Ishinomaki, a north eastern port town of some 150,000 souls which was hit hard on March 11th 2011, suffering some 4,000 casualties. He is part of Ishinomaki, and Ishinomaki is part of him.

For many years, Hashimoto held a regular photography workshop for elementary school kids in his hometown. Several of his pupils drowned in the tsunami, which took a terrible toll of schools near the port. Ten years on, he still has some of the photos they took.

A Nichiren priest prays for the dead children A Nichiren priest prays for the dead children: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

He recalls the shock of that dreadful day. “Something awful has happened in my hometown. I don’t know whether my relatives are safe. Kawaguchi Citizens’ Hospital is under water. People are saying that the east side of Kawaguchi Town, the Kadonowaki area, the fish market and the port area have been totally destroyed.  One of the men glimpsed on TV in an evacuation shelter was almost certainly my brother.”

It took over a week to confirm that his family members were indeed safe. On March 27th, sixteen days after the quake, he travelled up to Ishinomaki. He was shocked by what he saw. Some parts of the town looked like a war zone.

People rooted through the ruins of their houses, hoping to find something useable, and lined up for emergency rice rations. The smell of putrid fish was everywhere:  the tsunami had wrecked trucks packed with seafood produce intended for the major urban centres.

Hashimoto decided immediately to make a photographic record of his hometown’s struggle to return to normality. “What has the disaster taken from people?” he asked himself. “What effect will it have on their daily lives, their values and inner selves?”

In an attempt to answer those questions, over the next three years he made thirty six trips to Ishinomaki, spending the equivalent of twelve months there taking many thousands of photographs.

 credit Shoko Hashimoto The empty schoolroom: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

Hashimoto tells me that his childhood ambition was to become a diplomat, as English was his best subject at school. However, he soon came to realize that his heavy Tohoku accent, known as “zuzu-ben” because of the buzz-like intonation, might not go down well in top diplomatic circles. His next ambition was to be a painter, but his elder brother, who went on to become a fine arts teacher in Ishinomaki, got there before him.

In the end, Hashimoto opted for photography, which he studied at Nihon University’s College of Art. After a brief period as an in-house photographer for a monthly magazine – snapping celebrities was “boring”, he says –  he took the plunge and became an independent art photographer.

This was at a time when photography was booming and practitioners like Daido Moriyama had the cachet of rock stars. In the 1970s, the photo magazine Asahi Graph, which backed several of Hashimoto’s projects, was able to sell 100,000 copies a week.

Hashimoto’s approach to his work has always been uncompromising and emotionally committed. One of his first projects after turning professional  was to document daily life in Sanya, a rough-and-tumble area of east Tokyo where day labourers scuffle for jobs.

In order to understand their world, Hashimoto became a day labourer himself, unloading ship’s cargoes and cleaning up at construction sites. He even spent three days in the “monkey cage” (police holding cell), after photographing, and participating in, an invasion of Tokyo’s City Hall.

Some of his most interesting work has centred on Japan’s remote regions. Nishiyama Onsen: Empire of Nakedness explores the custom of communal mixed bathing in a medicinal spa high in the Yamanashi mountains. It was quite literally an immersive experience for Hashimoto, as he joined the naked throng singing and laughing in the crowded bath.

His Goze project involved roaming the countryside, mostly by foot in harsh conditions, with a small group of sightless female singers and musicians, the last remnants of an age-old tradition. Gaining the acceptance of the all-female band was no easy matter, but Hashimoto’s engaging, open-hearted personality invites trust.

Altogether, he was with them for three years, and the work he produced won him the prestigious Newcomers’ Award from the Japan Photographic Society. His images of 3.11 and its aftermath are just as visceral and haunting.

 credit, Shoko Hashimoto Trying to make sense of disaster: credit, Shoko Hashimoto

Hashimoto has an obsessive eye for detail. In conversation, he became quite animated on the subject of a classic photo by Bill Brandt. Well-known as the cover image for George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, it portrays a tramp hunting for food in the trash bin of a fancy restaurant while a man in a bowtie and tuxedo looks on.

An academic book had described the bin as being made of plastic. Hashimoto, convinced it was metal, researched the market for bins in 1930s France to prove his point and wrote to the book’s publisher asking for a correction.

The same visual acuity is present in the haiku that he writes. According to the late Tota Kaneko, one of the masters of modern haiku and a stern critic, Hashimoto’s haiku come from the same creative source as his photos and have “a special visual impact”. Here are two examples.

One cold morning

Two people using sign language

Come passing through

 

Fledgling swallows

Having eaten from mother

Snap their beaks shut

Back in Ishinomaki, Hashimoto lost himself in photography. “It was if I was in a boxing match with the actuality before my eyes,” he recollects.  “Day after day, the camera captured piles of rubble, flattened fishing villages, the expressions on people’s faces.”

Sometimes he felt that he was talking to the tsunami itself, which had brought this once-in-a-thousand-years catastrophe. “Why did you do it?” he asked. “What was the real reason?”

The reply was always the same.  “It was you.”

What does that mean? Hashimoto talks of an atonement that human beings must experience if they are to be protected from extinction on this earth, of the need to recognize the underlying principles of nature and the gods.

His heart told him to keep on pressing the shutter button.

All the photos in this two part series were taken by Shoko Hashimoto. His photobooks can be purchased online at the Shashasha bookshop.

To be continued…

Book on Utopias from the 17th Century to Today

Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd 2011).

I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything for several days. Part of that is because the news doesn’t really inspire me. It’s not that it isn’t important, or that the Tories have stopped trying to strip working people of their rights and drive them further into poverty and degradation. Or that I’m unmoved by Trump trying to organise a coup to keep himself in the Oval Office like just about every other tin pot dictator throughout history. Or that Brexit isn’t threatening to destroy whatever remains of British industry and livelihoods, all for the benefit of the Tory superrich and investment bankers like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who have their money safely invested in firms right across the world. Or that I’m not outraged by even more people dying of Covid-19 every day, while the government has corruptly mismanaged their care by outsourcing vital medical supplies and their services to firms that are clearly incompetent to provide them, because those same firms are run by their chums. Ditto with the grossly inadequate food parcels, which are another vile example of Tory profiteering. It’s just that however disgusting and infuriating the news is, there is a certain sameness about it. Because all this is what the Tories have been doing for decades. It’s also partly because I can’t say anything more or better about these issues than has been already said by great bloggers like Mike, Zelo Street and the rest.

But I’ve also been kept busy reading some of the books I got for Christmas, like the above tome by Ruth Levitas, a sociology professor at Bristol Uni. The blurb for this runs

In this highly influential book, Ruth Levitas provides an excellent introduction to the meaning and importance of the concept of Utopia, and explores a wealth of material drawn from literature and social theory to illustrate its rich history and analytical versatility. Situating utopia within the dynamics of the modern imagination, she examines the ways in which it has been used by some of the leading thinkers of modernity: Marx, Engels, Karl Mannheim, Robert Owen, Georges Sorel, Ernst Bloch, William Morris and Herbert Marcuse. Utopia offers the most potent secular concept for imagining and producing a ‘better world’, and this classic text will be invaluable to students across a wide range of disciplines.

It has the following chapters

  1. Ideal Commonwealths: The Emerging Tradition
  2. Castles in the Air: Marx, Engels and Utopian Socialism
  3. Mobilising Myths: Utopia and Social Change in Georges Sorel and Karl Mannheim
  4. Utopian Hope: Ernst Bloch and Reclaiming the Future
  5. The Education of Desire: The Rediscovery of William Morris
  6. An American Dream: Herbert Marcuse and the Transformation of the Psyche
  7. A Hundred Flowers: Contemporary Utopian Studies
  8. Future Perfect: Retheorising Utopia.

I wanted to read the book because so many utopias have been socialist or socialistic, like the early 19th century thinkers Karl Marx described as utopian, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen, and was interested in learning more about their ideas. In this sense, I’m slightly disappointed with the book. Although it tells you a little about the plans for the reformation of society, and the establishment of a perfect state or political system, the book’s not so much about these individual schemes as a more general discussion of the concept of utopia. What, exactly, is a utopia, and how has the concept been used, and changed and developed? Much of this debate has been within Marxism, beginning with the great thinker himself. He called his predecessors – Owen, Fourier and Owen ‘utopian’ because he didn’t believe their particular schemes were realistic. Indeed, he regarded them as unscientific, in contrast to his own theories. However, Marx did believe they had done a vital job in pointing out the failures of the capitalist system. Marxists themselves were split over the value of utopias. The dominant position rejected them, as it was pointless to try to describe the coming society before the revolution. Nevertheless, there were Marxists who believed in their value, as the description of a perfect future society served to inspire the workers with an ideal they could strive to achieve. This position has been obscured in favour of the view that Marx and his followers rejected them, and this book aims to restore their position in the history of Marxist thought. This idea of utopia as essentially inspirational received especial emphasis in the syndicalism of Georges Sorel. Syndicalism is a form of radical socialism in which the state and private industry are abolished and their functions carried out instead by the trade unions. Sorel himself was a French intellectual, who started out on the radical left, but move rightward until he ended up in extreme nationalist, royalist, anti-Semitic movements. His ideas were paradoxically influential not just in the Marxist socialism of the former Soviet Union, but also in Fascist Italy. Sorel doesn’t appear to have been particularly interested in the establishment of a real, syndicalist utopia. This was supposed to come after a general strike. In Sorel’s formulation of syndicalism, however, the general strike is just a myth to inspire the workers in their battle with the employers and capitalism, and he is more interested in the struggle than the workers’ final victory, if indeed that ever arrived.

The book also covers the debate over William Morris and his News from Nowhere. This describes an idyllic, anarchist, agrarian, pre-industrial society in which there are no leaders and everyone works happily performing all kinds of necessary work simply because they enjoy it and find it fulfilling following a workers’ revolution. Apart from criticisms of the book itself, there have also been debates over the depth of Morris’ own socialism. Morris was a member of one of the first British Marxist socialist parties, Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, and the founder of another, the Socialist League, after he split from them. Critics have queried whether he was ever really a Marxist or even a socialist. One view holds that he was simply a middle class artist and entrepreneur, but not a socialist. The other sees him as a socialist, but not a Marxist. Levitas contends instead that Morris very definitely was a Marxist.

When it comes to the 20th century, the book points out that utopias have fallen out of fashion, no doubt due to the horrors committed by totalitarian regimes, both Fascist and Communist, which have claimed to be ideal states. However, the critic Tom Moylan has argued that utopias have still been produced in the SF novels of Joanna Russ, Ursula le Guin, Marge Piercy and Samuel Delaney. He describes these as ‘critical utopias’, a new literary genre. The heroes of this literature is not the dominant White, heterosexual male, but characters who are off-centre, female, gay, non-White, and who act collectively rather than individually. The book criticises some earlier utopias, like News from Nowhere, for their exclusive focus on the male viewpoint, comparing them with the Land of Cockayne, the medieval fantasy that similarly presents a perfect world in which everything is seemingly ordered for men’s pleasure. In contrast to these are the feminist utopias of the above writers, which began in the late 19th century with Harriet Gilman’s Herland. It also discusses the value of satires like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, and dystopias like Eugene Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

Levitas does not, however, consider utopianism to be merely confined to the left. She also considers Thatcherism a form of utopianism, discussing the late Roger Scruton’s Conservative Essays and citing Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country. This last argued that the Conservative promotion of heritage was being used to reinforce old hierarchies in a markedly racist way. Some members of society were thus delineated as truly members of the nation, while others were excluded.

The book was first published in 1990, just before or when Communism was falling. It shows it’s age by discussing the issue whether the terrible state of the Soviet Union served to deter people dreaming and trying to create perfect, socialist societies. She argues that it doesn’t, only that the forms of this societies are different from the Marxist-Leninism of the USSR. This is a fair assessment. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of books about the future colonisation of Mars, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, the colonists not only succeed in terraforming the planet, but also create socialist society in which authority is as decentralised as possible, women are fully equal and patriarchy has been overthrown and businesses run by their workers as cooperatives. At the same time, those wishing to return to a more primitive way of life have formed hunter-gatherer tribes, which are nevertheless also conversant with contemporary technology.

Further on, although the Fall of Communism has been claimed to have discredited not just Marxism but also socialism, recent history has shown the opposite is true. After forty years of Thatcherism, an increasing number of people are sick and tired of it, its economic failures, the glaring inequalities of wealth, the grinding poverty and degradation it is creating. This is why the Conservative establishment, including the Blairites in the Labour party, were so keen to smear Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-Semite, a Communist and Trotskyite, or whatever else they could throw at him. He gave working people hope, and as Servalan, the grim leader of the Terran Federation said on the Beeb’s classic SF show, Blake’s Seven, ‘Hope is very dangerous’. A proper socialist society continues to inspire women and men to dream and work towards a better world, and it is to stop this that the Blairites contrived to get Corbyn’s Labour to lose two elections and have him replaced by Keir Starmer, a neo-liberal vacuity who increasingly has nothing to say to Johnson and his team of crooks.

Back to the book, its discussion of the nature of utopia therefore tends to be rather abstract and theoretical as it attempts to describe the concept and the way it has changed and been used. I didn’t find this really particularly interesting, although there are nevertheless many valuable insights here. I would instead have been far more interested in learning more about the particular ideas, plans and descriptions of a new, perfect, or at least far better, society of the many thinkers, philosophers and authors mentioned.