This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees

This must be what it was like in the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany created a major refugee crisis to which the response of Britain, the USA and other potential safe haven countries was a collective shoulder shrug of indifference – or outright hostility. This summer we have witnessed an unfolding crisis on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War, as desperate people risk their lives fleeing the civil war in Syria and the murderous advance of ISIS. With some noble exceptions, the prevailing response, especially here in the UK, has been once again to demonise fellow human beings. Continue reading “This must be what it was like when German Jews were refugees”

Gaza: ‘The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard’

Gaza: ‘The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard’


Gaza August 2014: ‘less pity on school children’

How does one avoid despair at the news these days?

The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more

It’s been a terrible few weeks: death and destruction in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Libya, all overshadowed by the appalling events in Gaza. This morning’s Guardian adds to the gloom with news that 40,000 Kurds from a minority sect of Zoroastrians are surrounded by jihadist forces of Isis on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, known in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark. Alongside that is a report by from Israel by Giles Fraser (one-time Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, who resigned during the Occupy encampment there).  In it, he paints a picture of an Israel in which there is almost total support for the war in Gaza, newspapers and TV channels are ‘simply cheerleaders for the government line, offering a constant diet of fear and fallen heroes, with little evidence of any of the atrocities going on in Gaza’, and peace activists are fearful of making a public stand.

One of the people to whom Fraser spoke was the writer Amos Oz, ‘Israel’s great literary conscience’. Fraser senses a shift even in Oz’s outlook:

He says something that feels to me like a real shift in his position. Previously he has described the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a Sophoclean tragedy over land in which both sides have a claim to right on their side; as a battle, as he put it of ‘right versus right’. But now, he says, this is a battle of ‘wrong versus wrong’.

Actually, to me, ‘wrong versus wrong’ seems a more clear-sighted assessment of both the present situation and the historical background than ‘right versus right’.  Certainly Oz has always issued side-swipes at well-meaning European liberals who, in his view, fail to understand the complexities of the conflict.  The ‘right versus right’ concept comes from a speech Oz made in Germany in 2000, later issued in a little book, How to Cure a Fanatic. This is how Oz began:

Who are the good guys? That’s what every well-meaning European, left-wing European, intellectual European, liberal European always wants to know, first and foremost. Who are the good guys in the film and who are the bad guys. In this respect Vietnam was easy: The Vietnamese people were the victims, and the Americans were the bad guys. The same with apartheid: You could easily see that apartheid was a crime and that the struggle for civil rights, for liberation and equality, and for human dignity was right. The struggle between colonialism and imperialism, on the one hand, and the victims of colonialism and imperialism, on the other, seems relatively simple–you can tell the good guys from the bad. When it comes to the foundations of the Israeli-Arab conflict, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, things are not so straightforward. And I am afraid I am not going to make things any easier for you by saying simply: These are the angels, these are the devils; you just have to support the angels, and good will prevail over evil. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Wild West movie. It is not a struggle between good and evil, rather it is a tragedy in the ancient and most precise sense of the word: a clash between right and right, a clash between one very powerful, deep, and convincing claim, and another very different but no less convincing, no less powerful, no less humane claim.

The Palestinians are in Palestine because Palestine is the homeland, and the only homeland, of the Palestinian people. In the same way in which Holland is the homeland of the Dutch, or Sweden the homeland of the Swedes. The Israeli Jews are in Israel because there is no other country in the world that the Jews, as a people, as a nation, could ever call home. As individuals, yes, but not as a people, not as a nation. The Palestinians have tried, unwillingly, to live in other Arab countries. They were rejected, sometimes even humiliated and persecuted by the so-called Arab family. They were made aware in the most painful way of their “Palestinianness”; they were not wanted by Lebanese or Syrians, by Egyptians or Iraqis. They had to learn the hard way that they are Palestinians, and that’s the only country that they can hold on to. In a strange way the Jewish people and the Palestinian people have had a somewhat parallel historical experience. The Jews were kicked out of Europe; my parents were kicked out of Europe some seventy years ago. Just like the Palestinians were first kicked out of Palestine and then out of the Arab countries, or almost. When my father was a little boy in Poland, the streets of Europe were covered with graffiti, “Jews, go back to Palestine,” or sometimes worse: “Dirty Yids, piss off to Palestine.” When my father revisited Europe fifty years later, the walls were covered with new graffiti, “Jews, get out of Palestine.”

People in Europe keep sending me wonderful invitations to spend a rosy weekend in a delightful resort with Palestinian partners, Palestinian colleagues, Palestinian counterparts, so that we can learn to know one another, to like one another, to drink a cup of coffee together, so that we realize that no one has horns and tails–and the trouble will go away. This is based on the widespread sentimental European idea that every conflict is essentially no more than a misunderstanding. A little group therapy, a touch of family counselling, and everyone will live happily ever after. Well, first, I have bad news for you: Some conflicts are very real; they are much worse than a mere misunderstanding. And then I have some sensational news for you: There is no essential misunderstanding between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine. They have very strong reasons to want it. The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reasons, which provides for a perfect understanding between the parties, and for a terrible tragedy. Rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples claiming, and I think rightly claiming, the same small country as their one and only national homeland in the whole world. So, drinking coffee together is wonderful and I’m all for it, especially if it is Arabic coffee, which is infinitely better than Israeli coffee. But drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble.

But, drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble. What we need is not just coffee and a better understanding. What we need is a painful compromise. The word compromise has a terrible reputation in Europe. Especially among young idealists, who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity. Not in my vocabulary. For me the word compromise means life. And the opposite of compromise is not idealism, not devotion; the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. We need a compromise. Compromise, not capitulation. A compromise means that the Palestinian people should never go down on its knees, neither should the Israeli Jewish people.

Amos Oz

Amos Oz

In his Guardian piece, Giles Fraser writes of his attempt to ‘come at things sideways’ with Oz by talking about Israeli poetry. Fraser tells him he has always loved a poem by Yehuda Amichai, considered by many to be Israel’s greatest poet, who died in 2000 aged 76. The poem is ‘The Place Where We Are Right’:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai

When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Amichai was invited to read from his poems at the ceremony in Oslo. ‘God has pity on kindergarten children’ was one of the poems he read that day. Less than a year later, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. In the weeks just gone there has been no mercy in Gaza even for kindergarten children.

God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.
And on grown-ups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first-aid station
covered with blood.

But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.

Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of compassion
that Mother handed down to us,
so that their happiness will protect us
now and in other days.

The events of this summer have echoed with chilling synchronicity those of one hundred summers past. As the forces of Isis have swept all before them this summer, determined to eradicate the borders established by the colonial powers in the Middle East at the end of the First World War, we have been made painfully aware of the loose ends left by that war in eastern Europe and the Middle East.  In a blog post the other day, Mary Beard wrote about attending the commemorative event at the St Symphorien cemetery near Mons on Monday. Everyone there was given a booklet by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explaining how many graves the commission looks after and where they are. Flipping through it, Mary Beard discovered with a shock that there are over 3000 graves in Gaza from the Great War.  They hold the remains of British soldiers who fought to take Gaza city in 1917. It is a reminder, Beard wrote, ‘of a complicated story of conflict in that region which reaches down a century’.

Deir al-Balah cemetery damaged headstone

Deir al-Balah cemetery in Gaza: headstone damaged by Israeli shelling in 2009 (photo by Eva Bartlett)

Coincidentally, on Monday’s Channel 4 News, Paul Mason visited the Deir al-Balah cemetery which had been hit by a couple of Israeli shells. The cemetery, which is in the centre of Gaza, has been maintained by the same Palestinian family for three generations, and was badly damaged by shelling in 2009.

Where can we seek consolation amidst all the ruination?  I have no idea.  The only hope seems to be to hold onto the vision, offered in another of Yehuda Amichai’s poems, of a weary and tarnished ‘wildpeace

Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)

Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

Deir al-Balah cemetery

Deir al-Balah cemetery in Gaza (photo by Eva Bartlett)

1973 and all that

1973 and all that

Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal on 7 October 1973

Egyptian forces crossing the Suez Canal on 7 October 1973

This past week I listened to the series of talks given by Michael Goldfarb for Radio 3’s nightly The Essay, in which Goldfarb made the case for the dramatic events of autumn 1973 as a historical turning point.  He made a convincing case in a series that reflected upon the way in which personal history intertwines with the broader history of a time, suggesting that for the generation to which he (and I) belong, and for much of the world, the events of autumn 1973 would go on to determine the unfolding pattern of the next 40 years, and the shape of the world in which we live now.

Goldfarb (by trade a historian and journalist) suggested that all of us, whether historians or not, crave a simple narrative of events, chains of causation that are obvious to all. But, he argued, sometimes it can be a complex aggregation of events that topples old structures of governance and assumptions of how society works –  without clearly offering indicators of the direction in which government or society are heading.  Such was the significance of events that had their origin in October 1974, but whose import only became apparent bit by bit – a pattern that can be a lot more difficult for historians to handle.

Michael Goldfarb is a journalist and broadcaster who has written for The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post and reported for public radio on conflicts from Northern Ireland to Bosnia and Iraq.  He recently created a media sensation when he wrote about London’s housing crisis for the New York Times, an article reproduced a couple of Sundays ago in the Observer.

Last week his essays for Radio 3 (available for another year on iPlayer) were excellent, developing over five episodes his theory that autumn 1973 was a turning point for western society and the Middle East –  though it perhaps didn’t appear so at the time. Goldfarb examined the overthrow of Allende in Chile, a dramatic stage in the Watergate crisis when it looked as if Nixon was about to overthrow the American constitution, and – most convincingly for his case – the Yom Kippur war, the Opec oil embargo and dramatic rise in world oil prices, and the spiralling inflation that resulted.

Goldfarb spoke as much about the personal as the political: of how, when he heard the news of Allende’s overthrow on September 11, 1973 he was living in London, not long out of university, getting by on occasional text-editing jobs and feeling no strong urge to do more. How, just over a month later, he heard the news of the Yom Kippur invasion Los Angeles, having crossed an ocean with an ease which, he said, is a ‘comment on the economics of the time’: cheap oil (petrol was 36c a gallon) and plentiful work (the unemployment rate was 4.6%) meant wages were rising ahead of inflation.  A few weeks of work in London had bought his flight; in those days, a few weeks work ‘was a stake to the next city, the next relationship’.

This personal note struck a chord with me: in 1973, after three years working part-time as a college teacher, I decided finally it was time to look for a full-time job.  In those days, and with sixties social attitudes, there had seemed no rush: jobs were there a-plenty, no need to worry.  I felt no need for much money beyond what a full student grant had provided: rents were back then, especially in Liverpool 8, and a lifestyle based on acquisition of consumer goods was still some way off.

Hardman Radio bus advert, Liverpool Echo, 1973

Hardman Radio: one of the first Liverpool buses to be painted entirely as an advertisement. 

Nevertheless, with the proceeds of my first month’s pay, we bought our first ‘real’ stereo system – Thorens deck, Technics amp and huge Kef Cadenza speakers – from Hardman Radio on Dale Street.  Getting it home, hooking up the cables and then lowering the stylus to hear the opening heartbeat of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, released earlier that year, remains an indelible memory.

Childwall college.

Childwall College: now the home of Hollyoaks.

I’ve still got my P60 from April 1974; it records that in that tax year I earned the fabulous sum of £1299.21 and paid £155.85 in tax.  I taught British Constitution O-level to Post Office telegram boys (now there’s a lost profession!), police cadets and fire service apprentices at Childwall College of Further Education, then one of eight FE colleges in Liverpool – all controlled, as were all the schools and the Polytechnic, by Liverpool City Council. The building where I taught is now the headquarters of Phil Redmond’s Lime Pictures where Channel 4′s Hollyoaks is produced.

Something else about that first P60 of mine chimed with Michael Goldfarb’s view as we will see shortly: I paid £67.27 that year in Teachers Superannuation contributions.  At 25, I hadn’t a thought in my head about retirement, but decades later I would be deeply grateful for the generous pension accrued from working in the public sector in the era before austerity.


Summer of ’73: on Skye, long hair and loons.

Goldfarb spoke of how most of us, as we live out our personal histories against the backdrop of the times, may only fleetingly glimpse their true meaning.  That autumn I was listening to the Allman Brothers’ Brothers and Sisters, and Little Feat’s Dixie Chicken, meanwhile guitar-wielding Hugh, a Londoner, had arrived in Liverpool to teach alongside Rita and a motley collection of refugees from the sixties at Mabel Fletcher Technical College.

Mable Fletcher College 1972

Mabel Fletcher College in 1972.

Hugh wore platform heels, sang ‘Starman’ and was passionate about Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album with its apocalyptic images of a decadent, decaying future – ‘five years, that’s all we’ve got’ – that now seem more prescient than the sun-kissed American west coast singer-songwriter stuff that was grist to my mill back then:

Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying

I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and TV’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there

Windermere 1974

Atom Heart Mother on the Lakeland fells, 1974

I thought Michael Goldfarb really got to the nub of his case in his last three essays.  First, he set things up by exploring the personal meaning, for a secular Jew living in LA, of the October War when Israel fought off invasion by its Arab neighbours, Egypt and Syria. This was a war that wrought fundamental changes in Israeli identity and Arab perceptions that in the long term also changed the world we live in.

Annihilation, Goldfarb said, is an extraordinary word now largely used rhetorically, usually around football – ‘we annihilated them’ – but for Jews,”it’s a word that still conveys its original meaning of the mid-16th century when the term first came into use – ‘to obliterate, reduce to nothing.'”  The October war, he said, was 40 years ago:

Precisely 40 years earlier there was no Israel and most of the world’s Jews lived in Europe.  Now, in 1973 there were virtually no Jews left in East and Central Europe – the life and culture of the people had been obliterated, annihilated – but Israel exists.

He quoted a New York Times article from the week of the invasion, in which the writer stated,’ there are no more doves left in Israel’:

Historians will refer to this war as a turning point in the Middle East, if only because of this definitive change of mood.

Prescient, indeed: within weeks of the war’s end, Goldfarb observed, five of Israel’s previously fragmented right-wing parties coalesced into a single group – Menachim Begin’s Likud. By 1977 Likud was in power and has ruled Israel for most of the last 40 years.

The Yom Kippur war did not permanently change life for just the combatants, it changed it for all of us.  Although that wasn’t clear at the time.

Goldfarb explained how for him this was time of intense self-absorption as his relationship with a woman, with whom he planned to return to London, fell apart.  He would not return to London any time soon – that plan was put paid to by the Arab oil embargo and the resultant steep rise in the price of oil that led to inflation metastasising rapidly across the west, with the UK particularly hard hit: ‘No matter how many hours I worked, I could not save enough to get back to London’.

1973 oil crisis, motorists queue for petrol

Autumn 1973: motorists queue for petrol as the oil embargo bites.

The impact in Europe, where 40% of energy supplies came from Middle East oil, was enormous.  The daily flow of oil was cut by 4 million barrels – applied overnight. On that scale, the embargo even had an impact on the US which relied on the Middle East for only 10% of its oil. In Goldfarb’s words:

A quarter-century long economic era of unprecedented prosperity came undone in a matter of weeks.

By 17 October, the tide had turned decisively against Egypt and Syria, and OPEC decided to use oil price increases as a political weapon against Israel and its allies. Israel refused to withdraw from the territories it had occupied, and the price of oil increased by 70 percent. In December, oil prices were raised another 130 percent, and a total oil embargo was imposed on the United States. Ultimately, the price of oil quadrupled, causing a major energy crisis in the United States and Europe that resulted in price rises, shortages, and rationing.  Although the embargo against the United States was later lifted, oil prices never returned to the pre-1973 level. By 1980 the price of crude oil was 10 times than it had been in 1973.


Broke down, but not broke: the road to Yugoslavia, 1974.

Goldfarb is effective in pulling out the numbers that support his case: in the month after the embargo began, consumer prices shot up 0.8%, the highest jump since the start of the Korean War. US airlines raised fares by a colossal 5%.  But, it was worse in Britain: at the start of the year in the US, the inflation rate had been 3.5%, by December it had already reached 8.7%, but Britain ended the year with a 9.1% inflation rate.  By end of 1974, the respective figures would be 10.8% and 16%.  In 1975 inflation in Britain would reach an astonishing 24.24%.

Yet 1975 was the year that Hugh drove Rita and I down to Venice and on to Yugoslavia in his Hillman Minx.  I don’t recall we ever talked about the cost. Yet we had left behind a country reeling from the economics of the new situation, and deeply divided along class lines.

Venice 1974

Venice 1974: no worries.

In Britain, back in 1973, as Goldfarb pointed out, energy was bought and supplied by the state (something that many of us would wish was the case today). Any decisions taken had to be made by the Conservative government led by Edward Heath.  Three weeks after the embargo began, the National Union of  Mineworkers – which had already tabled demands for wage increases of 22-46% in the summer – pressed its demands.  Heath offered 13%, the union rejected it and imposed an overtime ban.

As energy supplies dwindled, power cuts began (I remember seeking out candles in the more old-fashioned chandlery stores on Granby street). Soon, the three day week began: ‘wartime austerity measures in peacetime’, as Goldfarb succinctly puts it.

Autumn 1973 was a turning point, Goldfarb insists. It wasn’t an instantaneous change of direction ‘like a train being shunted onto a new track;  it was unique, subtle, yet definitive’.  He quotes from a piece by Geoffrey Smith in the Times where he wrote: ‘Suddenly some of the most important assumptions that have gone unchallenged for the past quarter of a century and more, no longer look so secure’.

The foundations of the postwar economy, Goldfarb explains, had been swept away.  in 1972 western Europe spent a collective $11bn for imported fuel; by end of 1974 it was $50bn.  There was no way, he argues, for a society to distribute a rise of that scale rationally.  There was no way for wages to keep up with the inflationary pressures of that increase – and they didn’t.  But, he insists, it would be wrong to interpret the results of the oil shock simply in ‘spreadsheet terms’: social change, he argues, cannot be understood simply by numbers. What was happening went deep.

Goldfarb  refers to an article by Anthony Smith in the New York Times that October that spoke of ‘living on two distinct levels of conciousness’:

We go about our daily business, we talk about politics, about possessions, about travel and food and football, and all the while it becomes harder to avoid the awareness that the ground upon which our society rests is shifting.

Or, in Michael Goldfarb’s words in our present now:

The shifting ground: a progressive era, with government as the honest broker and referee between business and labour was coming to an end.  A conservative epoch, with unregulated markets as the ultimate arbiter of all things was beginning.  The oil embargo was a category 5 hurricane.

3 day week

The winter of 197 3/4: power cuts and a three-day week (The Guardian).

This is how Goldfarb tells it: As 1973 ended, the miners went on strike, and the three day week was imposed. Edward Heath called a general election asking, ‘who runs Britain?’  He lost.  18 months later he would be ousted as leader of the Conservative Party and replaced by Margaret Thatcher.  When Mrs Thatcher became PM four years later, her second order of business, after weaning the economy from central planning (and causing a deeper recession in the process), was to destroy ‘the enemy within’ – the miners. After his victory in the US Presidential election of 1981, Ronald Reagan set about the same objectives.

thatcher wins

Fallout: Margaret Thatcher secures the Conservative party leadership, February 1975.

In his final essay, Michael Goldfarb set out how the great inflation of the 1970s resulted in the progressive ideals of the generation that grew up in the era of postwar prosperity and societal consensus being challenged and swiftly overthrown, ushering in a new era of politics. As one of that generation, who came of age politically in 1968, he saw libertarian ideals commodified in a new era of economics, dedicated to free market principles, privatisation, and rolling back state expenditure and control.

He told how, following the crash of 2008, he had been required to report on growing wealth inequality.  He kept coming across study after study demonstrating that wage stagnation for most Americans began in 1973.

Fact: between 1947 and 1973 household income surged 74%; since 1973 has gone up by only 10%.

He discovered that almost all economic studies of the postwar era, no matter what facet of the economy they are dealing with, use 1973 as the dividing line.

Fact: American steel production peaked in 1973.

New cars loaded for rail transport, Detroit, 1973

New cars loaded for rail transport, Detroit, 1973.

Goldfarb provided a powerful illustration of his case with the story of a strike at the Chrysler car plant in Detroit in September 1973. 117,000 workers, members of United Auto Workers Union, working three shifts, seven days a week at the plant. The issue wasn’t pay – that was pretty good already – but overtime and retirement.

The workers wanted to be able to refuse overtime, and to retire after 30 years on the job with full pension and health benefits. Goldfarb continued:

The company’s concern was that if someone started on the assembly line at 18, that meant retirement at 48.  A 23-year-old working the line that year, who already had 5 years towards his pension, had a life expectancy of 65.  Paying pensions out for more than a decade was something the company management did not want to do.

The workers went on strike for the first time in 23 years.  After 9 days, Chrysler’s management caved in. I thought Goldfarb’s observations about this were astute:

How many assumptions about the world are included in those numbers?  And how different they are from the world of today.  That a person would work for a single employer for 30 years.  That unions were strong enough to win disputes. That an American automobile manufacturer would be selling so many cars that it needed to run three shifts a day, seven days a week.  That an assembly line worker’s pay, relative to the cost of living, was good enough that he wouldn’t need to work extra hours to make ends meet.  That a union, for just one auto manufacturer, would have 117,000 members: in 1973 the total membership of the UAW was close to one and a half million; today, it’s a little over 300,000.

The abandoned Packard automobile factory in Detroit

The abandoned Packard automobile factory in Detroit.

Goldfarb asks: What caused the change?  His answer: the oil embargo, quadrupling the price of oil, led to the great inflation and economies stagnated.  American car manufacturers failed to respond, as foreign rivals did, producing fuel-efficient cars.  Production fell, shifts were cut, and unions agreed to previously unimaginable lay-offs.

Society shifted decisively away from an era of progress – that had been heralded by Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, the time of the UAW’s founding – to an era of conservatism. But who, in the autumn of 1973, asks Goldfarb, especially those just out of university (like him and me) realised that they were living through a paradigm shift in the culture: a shift, not just of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but of expectations?  We had lived through era of liberation politics –  but what price principles in an age of runaway inflation?

The great population shift from Detroit and the other industrial cities was, Goldfarb argued, every bit as devastating as the migration out of the Great Plains during the dust-bowl years of the Great Depression, but with no Steinbeck to document it. Rust belt cities lost 40% of their population. Liverpool experienced the same hollowing out in the 1980s, as just about every significant manufacturing industry closed, and the docks folded.

Demolition of Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, Liverpool

The demolition of the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, Liverpool.

The New Deal’s social safety net started being hacked at as too expensive.  In Washington, 40 years on, in Washington, they are still hacking.

A great accommodation began as left politics was transformed, reflecting the new age of conservative individualism, ‘fragmenting into single issue campaigns that fought for narrow causes that would benefit them alone’.  Goldfarb concluded:

I grew up taking part in political demonstrations that changed history.  As a journalist I have covered conflicts whose origins are in centuries-old history, and wars that will still be affecting history a century from now.  I have also lived long enough to acquire a certain amount of ‘personal history’.  My conclusion is that for all the politics and ideologies and massacres, the greatest force driving history is each individual’s realisation that they will only live this one time, and either they seek to change the world or accept it as it is.  I had to accept my place in the new world created that autumn.

Another thing about history: its turning points may be fixed, but its outcome can never be established so certainly.

Little to celebrate as Unite caves in, it is announced that the Grangemouth plant will remain open

Grangemouth last week: ‘a textbook display of corporate power by Britain’s largest private company’.

So: where are we now, 40 years on?  Let’s turn for an answer to Seumas Milne’s opinion piece in today’s Guardian.  October 2013 has, Milne argues, been the month when the monopolies, City hedge funds and foreign-owned cartels made it clear that it is they who are calling the shots.

Milne continues:

In the past week, a Swiss-based tax exile announced the closure of the Grangemouth petrochemicals plant, a crucial slice of industrial Scotland, after provoking a dispute with his workforce. Threatened with the loss of 800 jobs, they signed up for cuts in real pay and pensions.  Naturally, the employer claimed to be losing money (despite having made £1.7bn last year), while the media blamed the union. In fact it was a textbook lockout and display of corporate power by Britain’s largest private company – a strategic and once publicly owned complex supplying 85% of Scotland’s petrol, left to be run on the whim of a billionaire.

Then we have the ‘big six’ cartel, which controls 98% of electricity supply, increasing prices by over 9% – while wholesale prices have risen a mere 1.7% in the past year and profit per ‘customer’ has doubled. The profitable Royal Mail has  been privatised, and the country’s most successful rail service, the publicly owned east coast mainline, is about to be sold off.  If that wasn’t enough, the Co-operative Bank has fallen prey to US hedge funds.

What is obvious from all of this, argues Milne, is that:

Powerful interests are driving what is by any objective measure a failed 30-year experiment – but which transfers income and wealth from workforce, public and state to the corporate sector. In the case of privatised utilities, that is the extraction of shareholder value on a vast scale from a captive public.

Echoing Goldfarb’s case concerning the transformation of left politics, Milne states:

The existing privatised utilities have failed on all counts.

The case for public ownership of basic utilities and services – including electricity, gas, water and communications infrastructure – is overwhelming. It’s also supported by a large majority of the country’s voters. But it’s taboo in the political mainstream. … Labour’s refusal to commit so far even to bring back rail franchises into public ownership as they come up for renewal – which would cost nothing – shows the problem is political, not practical. Why, you might wonder, is it acceptable to hand basic services to state-owned companies, so long as they’re owned by foreign states?  The answer is because it’s a commercial relationship, not one of democratic accountability.

Milne concludes:

Privatisation is a failed and corrosive model. In Britain, it has combined with a determination to put up any asset up for sale to hollow out the country’s industrial base to disastrous effect. If Britain is to have a sustained recovery, it needs a genuinely mixed economy. The political and corporate elite have run out of excuses.

Mrs Coulson, 1973, by Tom Wood

Oh, sod it: ‘Mrs Coulson, 1973’, by Tom Wood, street photographer active on Merseyside in the 1970s.

See also

Horror in Homs: speaking truth to power

One of those moments tonight when, following the daily routine of watching the night’s TV news, you are pulled up short.  Channel 4 News broadcast outstanding video footage, filmed by an anonymous French photojournalist, that revealed graphically what is happening in the Syrian city of Homs, under siege for days now from shelling by government forces.

We’ve seen a lot of low quality footage, filmed on mobile phones and the like, beamed out of Syria on YouTube and other internet channels.  But this film, shot by ‘Mani’, a photographer who has been to Homs several times,was crystal clear.  The  incredible footage a vivid and  frightening account of what Homs has been like for the past three weeks.   The massive Syrian government bombardment and assault on opposition districts in Homs began on February 3.   ‘Mani’ filmed the beginning of the assault, the effects on the population, and the response of the Free Syrian Army to the massacre, on the first day, of over 140 people.

It was an awful coincidence that Mani’s film was broadcast on what has been the worst day in the Syrian conflict for journalism. The dangers of reporting from Homs have been tragically highlighted by the deaths of Marie Colvin (of the Sunday Times) and award-winning French photographer Remi Ohlik.  His image, ‘Battle for Libya’ (below), won first prize in the general news section of the 2011 World Press Photo awards. It shows rebel forces outside Ras Lanouf, Libya, in March 2011.

Marie Colvin was a foreign correspondent with more than 30 years of experience in conflict zones.  In 2010, she spoke of the importance of war reporting:

Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you. […]

Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?  Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price. … I lost my eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.

We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.

Also dead is the citizen journalist Rami al-Sayed, who provided live video streams from Homs and posted more than 800 videos on YouTube.  He was also hit during the shelling of Baba Amr on Tuesday and died some hours later.  His YouTube channel, Syria Pioneer provided many of the online videos showing the Syrian government’s bombardment of Homs that were used by news organisations like ITN and the BBC.

Tonight, Channel 4 News concluded with the grim news that there are now no remaining channels for news out of Homs.

Egypt: it’s not finished yet

This shocking image reveals as starkly as any could that the struggle in Egypt is not yet over.  It was taken over the weekend and shows a young woman being dragged away from protests in Tahrir Square on the third day of clashes between the Egyptian military and protesters demanding that Egypt’s military rulers give up power – protests that have left 14 dead.  Tonight The UN’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, has called for the arrest and prosecution of members of the Egyptian security forces involved in the crackdown on protesters.

Since the Egyptian uprising began back in the spring, the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif has been reporting from Cairo as events unfold in a series of despatches to The Guardian. She and other members of her family have been active in the protests.  Today her report concerns this photograph.  She writes:

The woman is young, and slim, and fair. She lies on her back surrounded by four soldiers, two of whom are dragging her by the arms raised above her head. She’s unresisting – maybe she’s fainted; we can’t tell because we can’t see her face. She’s wearing blue jeans and trainers. But her top half is bare: we can see her torso, her tummy, her blue bra, her bare delicate arms. Surrounding this top half, forming a kind of black halo around it, is the abaya, the robe she was wearing that has been ripped off and that tells us that she was wearing a hijab.

She continues:

Now our revolution is in an endgame struggle with the old regime and the military. The young woman is part of this. Since Friday the military has openly engaged with civilian protesters in the heart of the capital. The protesters have been peacefully conducting a sit-in in Ministries’ Street to signal their rejection of the military’s appointment of Kamal Ganzouri as prime minister. […]

They dragged the unconscious young woman in the blue jeans – with her upper half stripped – through the streets.

The message is: everything you rose up against is here, is worse. Don’t put your hopes in the revolution or parliament. We are the regime and we’re back.

What they are not taking into account is that everybody’s grown up – the weapon of shame can no longer be used against women. When they subjected young women to virginity tests one of them got up and sued them. Every young woman they’ve brutalized recently has given video testimony and is totally committed to continuing the struggle against them.

The young woman in the blue jeans has chosen so far to retain her privacy. But her image has already become icon. As the tortured face of Khaled Said broke any credibility the ministry of the interior might have had, so the young woman in the blue jeans has destroyed the military’s reputation.

Ahdaf Soueif is the author of the bestselling The Map of Love which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999.  She is also a political and cultural commentator: a collection of her essays, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground, was published in 2004. She has a new book Cairo: My City, Our Revolution published in January 2012.

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2011: the year a generation found its voice

It’s been a year since Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in a provincial Tunisian town –  an event that triggered a year of revolt that has flared not just across the Arab world but the entire planet in what has turned into the most potent year of protest since 1968.

This is Sidi Bouzid, the Tunisian town where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, photographed for Time magazine this December. A portrait of Bouazizi hangs outside the Governor’s office that was the site of the young street vendor’s protest.

Each year, Time magazine chooses a Person of the Year to place on the cover of the last issue of the year.  This year they have chosen The Protester, explaining their choice in these words:

History often emerges only in retrospect. Events become significant only when looked back on. No one could have known that when a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire in a public square in a town barely on a map, he would spark protests that would bring down dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattle regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Or that that spirit of dissent would spur Mexicans to rise up against the terror of drug cartels, Greeks to march against unaccountable leaders, Americans to occupy public spaces to protest income inequality, and Russians to marshal themselves against a corrupt autocracy.Protests have now occurred in countries whose populations total at least 3 billion people, and the word protest has appeared in newspapers and online exponentially more this past year than at any other time in history.

Is there a global tipping point for frustration? Everywhere, it seems, people said they’d had enough. They dissented; they demanded; they did not despair, even when the answers came back in a cloud of tear gas or a hail of bullets. They literally embodied the idea that individual action can bring collective, colossal change. And although it was understood differently in different places, the idea of democracy was present in every gathering. The root of the word democracy is demos, “the people,” and the meaning of democracy is “the people rule.” And they did, if not at the ballot box, then in the streets. America is a nation conceived in protest, and protest is in some ways the source code for democracy — and evidence of the lack of it.

The protests have marked the rise of a new generation. In Egypt 60% of the population is under the age of 25. Technology mattered, but this was not a technological revolution. Social networks did not cause these movements, but they kept them alive and connected. Technology allowed us to watch, and it spread the virus of protest, but this was not a wired revolution; it was a human one, of hearts and minds, the oldest technology of all.

Everywhere this year, people have complained about the failure of traditional leadership and the fecklessness of institutions. Politicians cannot look beyond the next election, and they refuse to make hard choices. That’s one reason we did not select an individual this year. But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. For capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending governments and conventional wisdom, for combining the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path for the 21st century, The Protester is TIME’s 2011 Person of the Year.

Tahrir Square protesters in Egypt: women have been at the forefront of protests

This morning, The Guardian has a thoughtful piece, ‘How a lost generation found its voice‘, which concludes that ‘2011 was the year of a global youth revolt’.  Here are some extracts from the article:

The struggles that gave birth to each demonstration, occupation or revolution were separate and yet connected; part of a collective roar from young people who, for the first time in modern history, faced a future in which they would be worse off than their parents. […]

But it is far more than material privation that underlies this year’s youth revolt, more than just a question of how to integrate into the globalised economy the talents and expectations of 80 million unemployed young people from the most well-educated generation in human history.

At the heart of this most potent insurrection since 1968 is an expression of the deep uncertainty about how the future will pan out.

“It’s the first time in American history that a generation came along and was told: ‘No, things are gonna be worse for you than they were for your parents’,” says Jesse LaGreca, a prominent Occupy Wall Street figure who has travelled to occupations across the US.

“I think that has created the necessity for change, and we can no longer wait for political promises – we have to make that change ourselves.” […]

When you speak to those organising the Occupy movement, it is remarkable how important Tunisia and Tahrir were to their own action. No longer was the west to be a democratic beacon to the Middle East. It was very much the other way around.

“Who would have thought that Mohamed Bouazizi would set in motion such a series of events?” says David Osborn from the Occupy Portland movement. He says that many in the west were “deeply moved and inspired” by seeing protests across the Middle East, but that Egypt in particular had captured Americans’ imagination.

“To see the movement generally, but in particular the youths, mobilise and really demand the impossible … to think Mubarak would not have been president more than a few weeks or even a month or two before he actually fell was almost impossible. And yet they asserted that another world without Mubarak was possible, and I think that kind of re-inspired the radical imagination in many of us.”

“The lesson of Tahrir Square was that once again, democracy has become a revolutionary force,” says Shimri Zameret, who spent four months organising the global day of occupation on 15 October that saw people in more than 900 cities turn the square’s tent city into a worldwide phenomenon. […]

It is easy to dismiss the interconnectedness of 2011’s youth-driven resistance movements; and it is possible even to deny they amount to any kind of identifiable social phenomenon at all.

Certainly, comparisons between the pepper spray of Oakland and the tank shells of Homs can be facetious, and the triumphs of the protester – named this week as Time’s “person of the year” – appear scant if limited purely to the arena of formal political change.

But connections there are, not just in mutual recognition and frustration, but in method. The movements that made the headlines in 2011 were largely non-hierarchical, creative and locally autonomous. And consciously so. […]

The generation that grew up being told they were the heirs to Francis Fukuyama’s end of history and victory of a liberal capitalist society, is now working its damnedest to prove how untrue this is, not for the sake of utopian reimagination but to resolve the very serious problems that very system has created.

Where the movement goes next remains to be seen. But as the Jordanian human rights activist Laila Sharaf recently told a group of young people in Beirut, in a statement that could apply universally: “Today the rules of the game have changed, and the ball is in your court.”

Or, to put it in the words that are so often held aloft at any street protest today, part in hope, part as threat: “This is just the beginning.”

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman.

Remarkably, too, the Nobel Peace Prize was shared this year by three women who have campaigned for peace and democracy in Liberia and Yemen.  The Nobel committee said the three had been chosen “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

Awarding the prize to Tawakkul Karman, the Nobel committee said :

In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the Arab spring, Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.

Karman has been a key figure among youth activists in Yemen since they began occupying a square in central Sana’a in February demanding the end of the Saleh regime, and has often been the voice of activists on Arabic television, giving on-the-ground reports of the situation in the square outside Sana’a University, where dozens of activists have been shot dead by government forces.  She called her award ‘a victory for the Yemeni people, for the Yemeni revolution and all the Arab revolutions’.

This is a message that the era of Arab dictatorships is over. This is a message to this regime and all the despotic regimes that no voice can drown out the voice of freedom and dignity. This is a victory for the Arab spring in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Our peaceful revolution will continue until we topple Saleh and establish a civilian state.

Jesse Jackson speaks at St Paul’s

Yesterday, Jesse Jackson spoke at the Occupy St Paul’s camp with a speech in which he hailed the protest as not just a force for good but as a direct descendent of the civil rights movement.  The Occupy movement, which began in Spain before gaining prominence in the US and then moving to other countries, was, Jackson said,  ‘a global spirit, which is now sweeping the nation and the world, fighting for justice for all of God’s children. His Christmas message on the steps of the cathedral was this:

Jesus was an occupier: born in poverty, born under Roman occupation.  Under threat of his life his parents took him to Egypt as an immigrant, as a refugee. He served the poor, he challenged the prevailing ethos of power in Rome. … Gandhi was an occupier … Martin Luther King was an occupier …They are all exalted now but they were rejected as occupiers, as protesters, as radicals, called terrorists by governments. The occupiers’ cause is a just cause, a moral cause. They should not be dismissed but heard – listen to their message. Occupiers are the canaries in the mine, warning us of the dangers – few have too much, too many have too little, too much poverty, too many costly wars. Banks got bailed out, people got left out. Protesters are criminalised but not a single banker has gone to jail for their crimes, the corruption and greed which drove the global economy to the brink of collapse.

Jackson said: ‘The church should be the headquarters for the Occupy movement. … The occupiers represent the conscience of the church’.

A requiem of sorts: at the end of a year of global economic meltdown, the euro crisis and Occupy protests, The Guardian  invited writers and artists to invent new currencies and banknotes for a changed world.  This came from Naomi Klein:

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Bankers are the dictators of the West: Robert Fisk

For once I’m going to reproduce an entire article because of its excellence and importance.  This is Robert Fisk in today’s Independent:

Writing from the very region that produces more clichés per square foot than any other “story” – the Middle East – I should perhaps pause before I say I have never read so much garbage, so much utter drivel, as I have about the world financial crisis. But I will not hold my fire. It seems to me that the reporting of the collapse of capitalism has reached a new low which even the Middle East cannot surpass for sheer unadulterated obedience to the very institutions and Harvard “experts” who have helped to bring about the whole criminal disaster.

Let’s kick off with the “Arab Spring” – in itself a grotesque verbal distortion of the great Arab/Muslim awakening which is shaking the Middle East – and the trashy parallels with the social protests in Western capitals. We’ve been deluged with reports of how the poor or the disadvantaged in the West have “taken a leaf” out of the “Arab spring” book, how demonstrators in America, Canada, Britain, Spain and Greece have been “inspired” by the huge demonstrations that brought down the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and – up to a point – Libya. But this is nonsense.The real comparison, needless to say, has been dodged by Western reporters, so keen to extol the anti-dictator rebellions of the Arabs, so anxious to ignore protests against “democratic” Western governments, so desperate to disparage these demonstrations, to suggest that they are merely picking up on the latest fad in the Arab world. The truth is somewhat different. What drove the Arabs in their tens of thousands and then their millions on to the streets of Middle East capitals was a demand for dignity and a refusal to accept that the local family-ruled dictators actually owned their countries. The Mubaraks and the Ben Alis and the Gaddafis and the kings and emirs of the Gulf (and Jordan) and the Assads all believed that they had property rights to their entire nations. Egypt belonged to Mubarak Inc, Tunisia to Ben Ali Inc (and the Traboulsi family), Libya to Gaddafi Inc. And so on. The Arab martyrs against dictatorship died to prove that their countries belonged to their own people.

And that is the true parallel in the West. The protest movements are indeed against Big Business – a perfectly justified cause – and against “governments”. What they have really divined, however, albeit a bit late in the day, is that they have for decades bought into a fraudulent democracy: they dutifully vote for political parties – which then hand their democratic mandate and people’s power to the banks and the derivative traders and the rating agencies, all three backed up by the slovenly and dishonest coterie of “experts” from America’s top universities and “think tanks”, who maintain the fiction that this is a crisis of globalisation rather than a massive financial con trick foisted on the voters.

The banks and the rating agencies have become the dictators of the West. Like the Mubaraks and Ben Alis, the banks believed – and still believe – they are owners of their countries. The elections which give them power have – through the gutlessness and collusion of governments – become as false as the polls to which the Arabs were forced to troop decade after decade to anoint their own national property owners. Goldman Sachs and the Royal Bank of Scotland became the Mubaraks and Ben Alis of the US and the UK, each gobbling up the people’s wealth in bogus rewards and bonuses for their vicious bosses on a scale infinitely more rapacious than their greedy Arab dictator-brothers could imagine.

I didn’t need Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job on BBC2 this week – though it helped – to teach me that the ratings agencies and the US banks are interchangeable, that their personnel move seamlessly between agency, bank and US government. The ratings lads (almost always lads, of course) who AAA-rated sub-prime loans and derivatives in America are now – via their poisonous influence on the markets – clawing down the people of Europe by threatening to lower or withdraw the very same ratings from European nations which they lavished upon criminals before the financial crash in the US. I believe that understatement tends to win arguments. But, forgive me, who are these creatures whose ratings agencies now put more fear into the French than Rommel did in 1940?

Why don’t my journalist mates in Wall Street tell me? How come the BBC and CNN and – oh, dear, even al-Jazeera – treat these criminal communities as unquestionable institutions of power? Why no investigations – Inside Job started along the path – into these scandalous double-dealers? It reminds me so much of the equally craven way that so many American reporters cover the Middle East, eerily avoiding any direct criticism of Israel, abetted by an army of pro-Likud lobbyists to explain to viewers why American “peacemaking” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be trusted, why the good guys are “moderates”, the bad guys “terrorists”.

The Arabs have at least begun to shrug off this nonsense. But when the Wall Street protesters do the same, they become “anarchists”, the social “terrorists” of American streets who dare to demand that the Bernankes and Geithners should face the same kind of trial as Hosni Mubarak. We in the West – our governments – have created our dictators. But, unlike the Arabs, we can’t touch them.

The Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, solemnly informed his people this week that they were not responsible for the crisis in which they found themselves. They already knew that, of course. What he did not tell them was who was to blame. Isn’t it time he and his fellow EU prime ministers did tell us? And our reporters, too?

Remember this? (BBC News, 26 September 2011)

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