Monday 27 November 2006

Saying Sorry For Slavery

To mark the bicentenary of its abolition, Tony Blair has said that Britain’s slave trade was ‘regrettable’. Not quite the apology or reparation that has stirred so much controversy.

Everyone’s apologising for past sins these days, even the Pope (for the repression of women for centuries). But I’m not sure that I buy into the idea of collective and/or inherited guilt. And I don’t know how you compensate for crimes against peoples that span generations.

There may even be a kind of racism in thinking this way. Having seen the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last year I found it difficult to look modern Germans in the eye. But in truth the only thing that links liberal young Germans today with the SS generation is their German-ness. Do they bear some sort of genetic stain of Nazism ?

The story of slavery is a horror that should be known and commemorated. How many tourist that visit the Jane Austen theme park that is Bath, with its Georgian crescents and assembly rooms, know the sinister reason for its splendour ? The eighteenth century town was built as a demonstration of the wealth that the slave trade brought to the West Country, and the respectability of the slave traders. We should know that modern Britain was largely built on slavery. Britain was the first industrial nation, and its economic take-off was made possible by wealth accumulated from the slave trade.

But in apportioning blame, who was more culpable the agricultural labourer in Britain, or the West African slave trader who captured the slaves and sold them to the Europeans ? By the logic of inherited collective guilt, their descendants in Nigeria and Ghana should apologise to African-Americans.

We should also remember that slavery disappeared because of a fight not the inevitable march of progress. Although the abolitionists may be revered today, at the time slavers argued fiercely that slavery was actually benevolent and an economic necessity. Much like those who now argue that sweat shops and free trade zones in developing countries are in the interests of those who are exploited. Rather than apologising for the past it would be more meaningful if we looked at
slavery today; glamorous designer brands that use child labour in developing countries, human traffic in the sex industry or the exploitation of migrant labour.

Friday 24 November 2006

God Bless America !

Thanksgiving yesterday. That other holiday of sentimentality, over-indulgence …and turkey.

The holiday commemorates the puritan settlers in Massachusetts being provided with food to survive their first New England winter. It would seem that the pilgrims were not particularly effective farmers and had to depend on the neighbouring Wampanoag Indians to provide the food.

This generosity was then repaid by stealing their land, killing many of them in wars of conquest and introducing them to smallpox and syphilis, both unknown until the Europeans arrival. The event was later decreed a public holiday by George Washington to give thanks (to God, not the Indians) for the founding of the nation

But it is a classic instance of history being re-written. This started after the North won the civil war and has been continued by the neo-cons of the Religious Right.

The first settlers in the area that became the USA were not puritans fleeing religious persecutions but Elizabethan merchants and adventurers (with only a whisker of legality separating them from pirates), and disgraced libertine courtiers. And that’s just the White Anglo Saxon Protestants. No mention of the (Catholic) French or Spanish, or the African slaves and European indentured servants who were the basis of the colonial economy.

And when the thirteen colonies became a nation and a constitution was written; the pilgrims were of far less significance than the patrician merchants and planters of Virginia and the Carolinas. Their ideology was more influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment than Puritan Protestantism.

Alarm bells start to ring when any nation claims that it has a special mission ‘under God”. This ‘manifest destiny’ has been used to justify:

• Acts of genocide against the native peoples of America.
• The Monroe Doctrine’s claim to intervene in the affairs of neighbouring nations.
• The Cold War and wars against independent nations like Vietnam
• The crusade against Islam.

Thursday 23 November 2006

What no bowing ?

A weekend workshop for my Sifu (martial arts teacher) at the weekend. He lives out of the country these days so I only get to see him a couple of times a year, and it is a chance to catch up with him and with the guys from other associated schools. When we meet up, one thing you won’t see is any bowing or saluting. But plenty of laughter, handshakes, back slapping and bear hugs. This sometimes shocks people from outside our martial arts ‘family’.

We respect tradition, but in the spirit not the letter. Ours are traditional kung-fu schools, not commercial franchises. We don’t have set class times; people drop in and train as hard, as often or as little as they want. We don’t line up and have a teacher bark orders at the students like a drill sergeant. Teacher and senior students will quietly observe, monitor, teach and correct. We don’t have uniforms either; they are a kind of caricature of oriental dress, a bit like thinking all Englishmen wear bowler hats or Frenchmen berets.

All that shouting, bowing and funny pyjamas do not make a traditional kwoon or dojo (school/training place). Many of the schools that do have them are fast-food ‘McMartial Arts’ franchises. Students are rushed through the ‘syllabus’ as quickly as possible to reach a spurious grade so that they can themselves become teachers, open their own schools, and set up a pyramid selling structure.

Martial arts training is about brotherhood and respect. Whatever style you practice you are playing a high intensity exercise with some risk of accidental injury. As my teacher says, if you're going to train it’s best to do it amongst friends to avoid misunderstandings and outbreaks of stupidity. There’s no room for phoney rituals that have no feeling behind them, you can often see bows snapped out as a form of ritual intimidation. Better to give genuine greetings to you training partners that actually means something to you and to him; the 'other guy' is supposed to be a brother to train with, not an enemy to be defeated.

Friday 17 November 2006

Milton Friedman (Fascist Collaborator) dies..

The granddaddy of neo-liberalism Milton Friedman died yesterday.

He wasn't simply a harmless old academic with some discredited ideas about inflation and money supply. I do resent the fact that he made possible the Right misappropriating the words 'liberal' and 'libertarianism'. Terms used to cover such bizarre ideas as the abolishing of licensing of the medical profession. But more seriously I can’t absolve him from responsibility for how his ideas were implemented by right wing politicians.

He called the Great Depression of the 30’s the 'Great Adjustment' and this sums up his disdain for the inevitable losers under his view of the economy's natural order. Over twenty years on, and the consequences of the implementing his ideas can still be seen in devastated former mining communities in the North of England that have never recovered from their ' adjustment'.

But the greatest stain on his memory is his co-operation with Pinochet military dictatorship. The regime in Chile provided a showcase for the ultra-free market philosophies of Friedman and the Chicago school. I can't imagine what mental acrobatics he must have used to reconcile his 'libertarianism' with a military coup to
overthrow the elected Allende government and the murder and torture of thousands of oppositionists.

Wednesday 15 November 2006

Queen's Speech

I’m not going to comment on the content of the Queen’s Speech. It’s pretty much the paranoia-fuelled, little Englander stuff we have come to expect from New Labour.

But I do have a problem with the fact that we have to endure a Queen’s Speech at all.

It’s just another reminder of how we are not a grown-up, twenty first century democracy, and that the outlining of the government’s legislative plans for the next session of parliament is delivered in the form an archaic farce.

Although it’s actually not as harmless that:

The presence of the queen in our legislative assembly at all is a reminder of that little-understood quirk in our ‘un-written constitution'; Crown Prerogative.

When a British government acts in the name of the Crown it effectively puts itself outside of the control or censure of parliament. This is not some obscure legal nit-picking, it means that the government doesn’t have to get parliament’s approval for example when it declares war, or in its diplomatic relations with foreign countries, or when it deals in matters of national security. Worrying isn’t it ?

If you can bring yourself to listen to the speech, it is striking that everything is prefaced with the phrases ‘my government will’ or ‘my government intends’. Not ‘our government’ but ‘mine’. Just to remind us all where we stand. Not citizens but subjects.

Oliver Cromwell’s statue might stand outside of the House Of Commons but we seem to have lost the spirit of 1649.

Tuesday 14 November 2006

Don't talk about Fight Club.

First rule of fight club - don't talk about fight club.
Second rule of fight club - DO NOT TALK ABOUT FIGHT CLUB.

And so, despite devoting a fair chunk of my free time to the study of martial arts for most of my adult life, I try to avoid discussing it with non-practitioners. This isn't some sort of elitism it just avoids at best stupid questions, and at worst ugly misunderstandings and machismo.

But today I came in to work with a black eye - not a big deal, just one of those unavoidable accidental bye-products of training - and I couldn't avoid the interrogation.

Typical stupid questions, along with some stupid and not-so stupid answers:

• What belt have you got ?
Snakeskin with a Harley Davidson buckle. Our (Chinese) style doesn't use belts. Others (usually Japanese or Korean ) do, but even then they are a relatively recent invention for Western consumption. You can usually get a black belt in three or four years and most people who know will tell you that is the beginning not the end.

• What's better Thai Boxing, Judo, Karate or your sysytem ?
Rugby Union, Rugby League, the NFL or Aussie Rules ? How can you compare them ? A Judoka is certainly better at Judo than I am. But they are schools / styles of training not fighting - when you fight you just fight you don't 'do' your martial art. But if you train properly your training will automatically come out. There are no bad martial arts, just bad martial artists.

• You've been training all those years - could you fight one of those guys from the UFC ?
You've been playing golf all your life - could you beat Tiger Woods ? Those guys are professional athletes in the prime of life, I am a middle aged guy who does this for a hobby. Even so UFC is a sport (albeit a very tough one) not a martial art, and there are still rules that they must keep to. Who knows ? It doesn't keep me awake at night.

• What would you do if (insert crazy scenario of your choice) someone came at you with a chain saw ?
It's martial arts not magic. You can't fight without getting hit any more than you can swim without getting wet.

• Have you ever made practical use of your martial arts ?
I'm using it right now to keep my cool in answering these stupid questions. It's about much more than fighting - like coping with pressure, self control and multi-tasking. As regards fighting - well I'd rather not put it to the test. But we do regularly face grown men offering us some kind of threat, whilst most people don't ever have a physical confrontation once they leave the playground. Maybe that helps in a practical situation. But even so, the Chinese say in fighting; firstly courage, secondly strength, and thirdly, kung-fu.

* So is it some sort of spiritual thing ?

Personally I tend to think that mumbo-jumbo is mumbo-jumbo whether it comes in the form of Western Christianity or Eastern mysticism. But on the otherhand for a few hours every week you are immersed in something totally absorbing that takes you away from mortgages, cashflows, deadlines and arguments with traffic wardens. Maybe you could call that a spiritual thing. But I'm sure that the guys who make models out of matchsticks have the same thing going for them. Or even train-spotters. In the final analysis it's a hobby and you enjoy it - do you really need anything more ?

Monday 13 November 2006

Christmas cheer on credit.

Farepak have gone bust, taking with them the savings of some of the poorest people in the country, who will now be faced with a grim Christmas. Probably it's not a name that is familiar to most people. They ran a savings scheme to provide food hampers and gift vouchers through a pyramid selling scheme of agents. The scheme does sound like something from Dickens rather than the 21st century, but it gives a glimpse into the under belly of the economy.

In the same category are catalogue companies which use local agents. In the internet era, they are not about the convenience of home shopping, but a means of providing credit to those that in other circumstances would not be able to get any.

More sinister still are the finance companies offering debt consolidation or credit to those who have previously been denied a loan from a mainstream lender. They advertise on digital tv channels often in the day-time slot, when ad time is cheap and the target audience of the long term unemployed are most likely to be watching. But the dark side of this is sky- high interest rates and debt recovery by intimidation. Only their corporate gloss separates them from the individual loan-sharks to be found on every estate.

It's an ironic and fucked-up feature of Capitalism that the less you need credit, the easier it is to get it. But if it is any comfort to the poor, apparently God agrees that they only have themselves to blame:

"For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away."
Matthew 25.29

Friday 10 November 2006


The BBC's Jon Snow is getting some flak for his refusal to wear a poppy whilst reading the news. He says that it is a personal choice and resents what he calls 'poppy-fascism'.

I have mixed feelings on this. There is something poignant about Remembrance Day, but there is also an association with flag-waving and militarism. And like the revival of St George's flag, there is a sense of nationalism and a pressure to conform.

I know that Remembrance covers veterans from all wars, but inevitably it is still the two world wars that stir the emotions most. I don't think that this is simply because of the sheer scale of loss from these conflicts. It is that those who faught were very much civillians in uniform rather than professional servicemen. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. To remember them with marching bands and military parades is somehow to miss the point.

Like many families we have the bronze memorial plaque sent to the next of kin of those who died in the First World War. Ours is of my great uncle, Albert. I was given it when I was a kid, and sadly as the years have gone by, there are no living relatives left who can tell me anything about him - he exists only as a name.

A few years ago I tried to research Albert's past by contacting the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and his regimental association. I have visited France often and am always moved by the cemetaries there; whether it is the unimaginable scale of the graves at the Somme or Verdun battlefields, or just one of the numerous small graveyards that are scattered amongst country villages. I imagined myself visiting Albert's grave in such a place. In fact, what I found out was both more haunting and more ironic.

Albert had served as private in the Hampshire Regiment and he was killed in action in February 1917, aged 19. He has no known grave but is commerated at the Commonwealth memorial just outside Basra, in what was known at that time as Mesopotamia and is now more familiar to us as Iraq. The memorial has only recently been restored as it was damaged when it was in the middle of a tank battle in the First Gulf War.

Even amongst the horror and carnage of the First World War, the Mesopotamian Campaign stands out as a tragic waste. Faught for no clear strategic purpose; it was one of the last adventures of empire, in which poorly-led, disease-ridden and ill-equipped British and Indian troops struggled against the conditions of fighting in the desert.

The lowest point came with a disasterous siege at Kut-al-Amara in 1915-16, when the British garrison surrendered. It rates as one of the largest mass surrenders in military history. There was a public outcry at the mismanagement of the campign, and the fate of the prisoners of war in Turkish camps whose treatment was not unlike those in Japanese camps in the Second World War.

So I will be taking a few moments to remember Albert and others like him tomorrow, but without any sense of nationalism, and, like Jon Snow I resent any pressure to wear my feelings on my sleeve.

Wednesday 8 November 2006

A bloody nose for Bush.

YeeHaaa !!!

The Democrats have taken control of the House, and at the moment the Senate is too close to call. The only possible interpretation of this is that American people have voiced their disapproval of Bush's Iraq adventure.

But let's not get carried away - the Democrats are hardly a party of radicals. But the most important thing is that they are NOT the Republicans and will cramp the style of the Bush administration for the next two years. And no further adventures in Iran.

I'm getting used to that kind of thinking - low expectations, because British politics has gone pretty much the same way as the US; now there's only a wafer of fundamental difference between the Tories, New Labour and the Lib-Dems.

And before anyone here in Britain gets smug about the deficiencies of the US system: they have a written constitution, the separation of powers, and a system of checks and balances.
As prime minister, Blair has more real power than Bush does as president; he has used his parliamentary majority to railroad legislation and prevent criticism of the government. The US system of mid-terms is at least intended to curtail this.

Right now I think that Steve Earle's words, written at the time of a previous election, probably sums up best what we really need:

It's Christmastime in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Gettin' into gear for four more years
Things not gettin' worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, 'He cannot seek another term
They'll be no more FDRs'
I sat home in Tennessee
Staring at the screen
With an uneasy feeling in my chest
And I'm wonderin' what it means

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now

I followed in your footsteps once
Back in my travelin' days
Somewhere I failed to find your trail
Now I'm stumblin' through the haze
But there's killers on the highway now
And a man can't get around
So I sold my soul for wheels that roll
Now I'm stuck here in this town


There's foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You'd think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It's going straight to hell

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barracades are goin' up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We're marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring


Tuesday 7 November 2006

One for the 'hang 'em & flog 'em' brigade

Ronald Castree appeared in court in Oldham today, charged with the murder of Lesley Molseed in 1975. The 11 year old was sexually assaulted and stabbed a dozen times.

An instance of brilliant and relentless police work and the application of state of the art forensic science ?

Well maybe, but unfortunately they already had the wrong bloke in prison for sixteen years for the crime before his conviction was overturned.

Stefan Kiszko, a tax clerk who lived with his mother and suffered from a developmental condition probably conformed to the stereotypical police view of a 'nonce' and was accordingly fitted up. It wasn't until 1992 that evidence confirmed that he was innocent.

But this was a bit late for Stefan who died within a year of his release and for his mother who having campaigned on his behalf, also died months later.

I can't imagine a worse nightmare than being imprisoned as an innocent man for such a crime. Except perhaps being executed as one, as happens on a regular basis in the US.

Monday 6 November 2006

Not just a bigot but a hypocrite too.

I see that the Rev. Ted Haggard, vocal opponent of gay marriage in the US, has admitted that he brought methamphetamine and went with a male prostitute.

As a result Pastor Ted has now had to resign as head of the 30 million strong National Association of Evangelicals. That's a lot of pissed off Christian bigots (and Republicans too).


Sunday 5 November 2006

Justice for Saddam ?

So Saddam got the verdict and martyrdom that I am sure both he and George Bush wanted. Undoubtedly he's was a war criminal and a tyrant. You could say that he has it coming.

But so did former apartheid South African President Botha who died (of natural causes) last week. And he's getting a state funeral.

So let's not kid ourselves that this about justice - it's about politics. War criminals are generally ok so long as they're on the 'right side'; be it Botha, Pinochet, or even Saddam when he was America's champion against Iran a few years ago. But with the US mid-term elections next week, a convenient execution will look like Bush's crusade has been justified. Republicans' flagging fortunes will probably get a boost.

But in the cynical terms of 'real-poloitik' it may prove not be too smart. Parallels are going to be drawn with the Nuremburg trials but these are a bit thin - there was no on-going Nazi insurgency as the background, nor talk of a planned withdraw by the occupying forces.

And ethically:

Well I'm not a pacifist; I tend to think that human life is precious rather than 'sacred'. Sometimes violence is the only unavoidable answer. But I would have less of a problem with the killing of someone in defence of myself or others, or even an act of personal revenge, than I would have in giving my silent support to judicial execution.

There is something peculiarly obscene in state killing. It gives the lie to any moral authority that a state can claim to have beyond that of private individuals, and it implies the consent of the citizens of that state. And the United States record on the death penalty strikes at the heart of everything that is wrong with that nation. The same nation that flaunts the idea that it was created 'under God' with some special moral purpose, also ranks in the world's top three state-killers along with China and Saudia Arabia.

That's the same nation that boasts the largest number of Christian church-goers. As Bill Hicks observed it's ironic that these 'pro-lifers' who picket abortion clinics are comfortable with the death penalty and defend it against us godless liberal types.

Thursday 2 November 2006

Paranoid in times like this

Sometimes being paranoid is the best form of defence.

We have 4.2 million CCTV cameras watching us in the UK; that means there is one for every 14 of us. That is the highest per capita number in the world.

We have a DNA database that covers 5% of the population. It is not drawn from criminal records but from anybody whose record has ever been part of an investigation, including a large number of children. That constitutes the largest database in the world, the next largest is Austria with 1% of their population.

The Daily Mail response is that if you're not breaking the law you have nothing to fear. But history shows that even in democracies laws can quickly change and the innocent become criminalised.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, journeyman, all-round renaissance man and founding father of the United States in the days before that nation lost the plot:

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety".

Right now I think the best advice is to stay informed and watch your back.