Tuesday 29 January 2013

In defence of Gerald Scarfe

There are many many things that Rupert Murdoch should apologise for. But Gerald Scrafe's cartoon of Netanyahu with the caption 'will cementing the peace process continue ?' is not one of them. 

Murdoch distances himself from the cartoonist - 'grotesque and offensive' - so I can only wonder of he has actually seen any of Scarfe's work before. Because the offensive and the grotesque have been Scarfe's stock in trade for something over forty years - as they have been of great cartoonists since the days of Hogarth.

Accusations of antiemtism seem to hinge on two artistically spurious arguments;

That Netanyahu is pictured with a big nose. surely this can only be said by someone who has never seen Scarfe's work before. As Nissim “Nusko” Hezkiyahu - one of Israel's leading cartoonists puts it:

“If you look at the other caricatures, Bibi came off easy.” “To say that this caricature shows Bibi with a big nose — compared to all the caricatures that are published here, I think that was the smallest nose he ever had,”

Or - that the depiction of blood oozing out of the mortar in the wall symbolising the West Bank Barrier is a reference to the 'blood libel' of medieval antisemitism. Again anyone who has seen Scarfe's work know that splashing blood  red ink about on white paper is one of his  favoured shock techniques. Artistically then perhaps we can accuse Scarfe of a lack of originality.

But what we are really left with is a lazy political argument that condemnation of the policies of an Israeli government towards the Palestinian people is antisemitic. 

Which leaves the question of the timing of the cartoon's publication  on Holocaust Memorial Day - something that does show some insensitivity and misjudgement. However it was a decision which Scarfe himself had no part in. That particular decision lies with ... Murdoch and his management.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Fritz Thyssen. A warning from history.

Friends in Germany have told me how the collective-guilt rammed down the throats of kids in the school system there can actually be counter productive. Rebellion is and should be the default setting of youth - and if it's rebellion against a well-meaning liberal agenda then it can produce a new generation of neo-Nazis.

In this country anyone with digital telly can at any given moment find a couple of programmes about the Nazis or WW2 on History or Discovery. And kids in our schools might easily find that they are studying the Nazis and/or the Holocaust in History (possibly both before and after they chose their GCSE options), in English, in Drama, in RE and PHSE.

I have now seen at first hand that many kids seem to compartmentalise the Nazis, WW2 and the Holocaust. They can easily come away with the view that WW2 is quite cool. The Holocaust is a bad thing but fairly divorced from antisemiticism. And  Hitler was  really charismatic.

So when coming to teach this I thought I'd try to get across the idea that the Nazis weren't just about Hitler's personal charm. And that they went from fringe nutters to viable force only when rich and powerful people decided that they were the best bet in helping them hang on to their power in the face of crisis and revolution. Not an original analysis I know - but still one that seemed to be lacking.

I hit upon the idea of getting this across by looking at a potted biography of Fritz Thyssen. The steel magnate was one of the richest men in Germany - and an early adopter of Nazism once the depression started to grip. He recruited his mate to the party - who also happened to run the national bank. They donated millions to the party to help fund one of the most extraordinary election campaigns in history. And they orchestrated a letter signed by a group of twenty seven leading businessmen calling on President Hindenburg to ask Hitler to form a government in the interests of law and order and social stability. Unfortunately for Thyssen he was also a devout Catholic who had qualms about Crystal Night and fell out with the party as the Holocaust was getting underway. He fled to Vichy France, was brought back and put in a concentration camp. After the war the allies tried him as a war criminal.

In other words a perfect personification of the uneasy but intrinsic relationship between big business and fascism. However I was told that none of this was needed. It simply isn't on the syllabus - not even at A level. It is however essential reading for our own times.

Monday 14 January 2013

The lords and drugs

I have never accepted the argument that a second chamber could somehow act as a voice of reason that does not have to bow to the hurly-burly of politics. Whether it's hereditary, elected or just packed full of cronies, that argument seems like an argument against democracy itself. The same kind of reasoning that  suggests the monarchy is somehow 'above' the vested interests of elected politicians.

But I will applaud the House of Lords select committee on drugs policy of decriminalisation. 

I haven't seen the proposals in detail, nor do I claim  any expertise on the subject. But whatever the ins and outs of their reforms, they at least have had the balls to treat drugs as a health issue and not a law and order issue  - or a public morals issue.

Of course the cynical could say that they can afford to think outside the box because in our current political climate there is bugger all possibility of their ideas being implemented. Cameron has certainly pissed ice on it from the start and Miliband has unsurprisingly said something dull and non-committal about on-going reviews ... blah-blah-blah. Both are far too nervous looking over their shoulders at the pitch-fork wielding self appointed guardians of middle England's virtue  to actually yield to common sense about the ludicrous notion of a 'war on drugs'.

Clegg alone has picked up the issue. But then again as with everything else the LibDems do - it's easy to pose as libertarian when you're hiding behind the skirts of reactionary neo-Thatcherites...

Sunday 6 January 2013

Unusually positive festive break

I am just coming to the end of my first ever 'teacher's long Xmas holiday'. 

Previous holidays  have always involved going to work in the hiatus between Xmas and the New Year. These were curious days of doing a very small amount of work - usually from some arsehole-client who only gave us work when every other firm was shut - and a lot of buggering about doing nothing in particular. And with a bit too much time on my hands, usually some whiskey-induced melancholic introspection and stock-taking.

Paradoxically the year,  whilst I am actually at home for the holidays I have far more to do in terms  of course work, planning and marking. And for once, I am actually looking forward to going back to it all.

In my last years in the old job - I found myself in the unenviable position of being the governor at the annual works do. This meant staying relatively sober and being button-holed by some pissed-up back seat driver who would then tell me where I was going wrong and what they would have done. Being a tolerant sort of chap I tried to take this in tolerant good humour - but it did wear thin after the third or fourth ear-bashing. A variation on this, and one that I had to restrain myself from joining in with because in truth I agreed totally, was a similar ear-bashing about how things aren't what they used to be - and that as a trade we were all doomed.

In contrast I was at the school staff Xmas bash this year:

In terms of the what I've been used to having worked in Soho for all these years, as bashes goes this was a bit woeful. And teachers let off the leash definitely fall into the category of what one of my old reprobate colleagues used to dismissively call 'amateur drinkers'. But as I quietly propped up a darkened corner of the bar, I was similarly buttonholed by someone telling me that - in spite of everything I might hear -  teaching really was the best job in the world. Not once, but on three separate occasions. So starting a New Year on a positive note for once - I'll take that all as some sort of endorsement.