Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Glorifying Terrorism

This was what I thought in 2006: Introduction Andrew McKie The purpose of the stories and the poems in this book is to glorify ter- rorism. More specifically, they attempt to break the law proposed by the British Government designed to outlaw anything which might be read or interpreted as that. Of course, this current Government knows you could ride a coach and horses through this legislation, and that it isn’t supposed to apply to the contents of this book, not really. But that’s what this current Government says, now. My purpose is not to introduce or analyse the work which follows, except to commend it to the attention of anyone interested in what is per- haps the earliest clear ideological crisis of the 21st Century, and to hope that it will be a spur to debate. It is likely that you, like me, will violently dislike or disagree with the implications of some of the entries in this an- thology; indeed, I will go further; I suspect that I disagree more with the political views of the authors of the majority of these pieces than most of its readers will. But I am happy to stand beside them because of the one thing on which we do agree: freedom of speech. It is as well to be clear at once that, in liberal Western democracies, lib- erty is not licence, and that no freedom is unfettered. Full-blown Libertar- ians may wish it otherwise, yet even their ingenuity may be hard pressed to find an accommodation with Jihadists who advocate as a moral duty the extermination of them and all they stand for. Trotskyites and others on the Left may claim a moral equivalence between the force exerted by the State and its enemies, but it is a notoriously partial ground, and depends on your sympathies – the Israelis or the Palestinians? the Irish Republi- cans or (in the six counties) the democratic majority Unionists? the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon or Hiz’bollah? the Russian Federation or Chechen separatists? A bid for neutrality in these No Man’s Lands does little good. Even on the football terraces of Glasgow or Liverpool there is a race memory of dif- ference which goes back three centuries or more before the founding of the clubs. History, even – perhaps especially – invented history, encompasses all our narratives, as great glorifiers of terrorism such as Sir Walter Scott knew. As Orwell pointed out, even the declaration that art is not political is in itself a political statement. And so, while it is almost laughable to hear the BBC describe the be- heading of a Western captive in Baghdad by some terrorist group as the work of Iraqi “insurgents” or “militants” (the more so since most such out- fits are imported murderers), the fashion in which it is ridiculous depends upon what has fashioned your own political views. 7 8 Andrew McKie History may resolve some of your doubts. What could be wrong with Stirling’s memorial to William Wallace, Scots inventor of guerrilla war- fare, or even Mel Gibson’s wildly inaccurate film about him? Or the plaque unveiled earlier this year to Irgun’s bombing of the King David Hotel? Or the comments by the British Prime Minister’s wife that we should try to understand what drives young Palestinians to become suicide bombers? Or Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, which doesn’t disguise his connec- tions with an armed resistance to apartheid? Michael Collins or de Valera? Che or Fidel? Leon or Vladimir? The decadent Europhile neo-Papist (but Royal) Stewarts or the voice of non-Conformist, Parliamentarian small- landowner England (but Puritanical and Regicide) Cromwell? Custer or Crazy Horse? The fact is that our views of all those contests are coloured not only by our own political standpoint but by results. Though a horrible thing, I would strongly disagree with the view that the bombing of Dresden was a war crime, but it is routinely regarded as that in Germany, and by people without the slightest sympathy for the Third Reich (I don’t know Gunter Grass’s opinion). Whose governments were Left or Right wing: Pinochet’s; Franco’s; Hitler’s; Stalin’s; Castro’s; Deng Zao-Ping’s? Whose were open and whose restrictive in terms of freedom of speech: Nero’s; the Venetian Doges’; Charlemagne’s; Louis XIV’s; Thatcher’s; Ortega’s; Haughey’s; Gor- bachev’s; Kohl’s; Mitterand’s; Berlusconi’s? Since you are an intelligent reader, I suspect that I disagree with you on at least three of your answers to the questions above. Since you are an intelligent reader, I suspect you disagree with at least three of your own answers, and find at least three more which contradict others. Which brings us at last to the contradictory and thought-provoking work which follows. A literature of the fantastic has, paradoxically, less opportunity to trim, conceal and spin than has everyday journalese (itself a tautological phrase). The success of all science fiction and fantasy is rooted in three things. First: it must make, or build. We demand from it worlds that we have not imagined, but which, when they are constructed, we can imagine visiting. Second: it must remain consistent unto itself; in other words, if it falls apart, it can only do so in its own terms (you can’t have vampires in space opera, or spaceships in Faerie, unless you’ve set it up that way). Third, and hardest to explain, but easiest to spot for anyone who reads any kind of fantastic literature: it must be true in some way. Which is just a way of saying that good sf and fantasy are always talking about how the world is, and how it might be. Sometimes ( John Brunner, John Wyndham, Philip K Dick) as prophecy or awful warning. Sometimes (Ursula K Le Guin, Arthur C Clarke, JRR Tolkein) with an almost optimistic yearning. But whichever it is (and all the writers suggested as examples of one ten- Introduction 9 dency have moments of demonstrating the opposite), it is about elucidat- ing the present, rather than predicting the future. Indeed, it is the freedom of sf and fantasy that makes it the most flexible literary form for this purpose: the excursions into the fantastic by Borges, Marques, Havel, Lem, Bulgakov, Kafka and others in the last century were often born of restrictions on what could plainly be said. British publishers may have refused Animal Farm on the ground that no one wanted to read anthropomorphic fables; in the countries where it mattered, everyone got the point. When The Master and Margerita came out in serial form, the magazines flew off the shelves: no one could quite believe the authorities had not realized what it was about. But of course they hadn’t, as they never do. The most vocal opponents of Tony Blair and his ever-more authoritarian declension of Home Secre- taries (at the last count David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, John Reid: though who knows by the time of printing?) do not claim him as a Kruschev. I am sure all of them believe that they are doing their utmost to combat the terrorist threat. Which allows us to return to the restrictions which liberal Western democracy has always placed upon freedom of speech, and against which voices have been raised since before Milton’s Areopagitica. But whether the logic of the arguments advanced (implicitly or explicitly) in the pieces which follow create a case for greater freedom of speech, one thing is evi- dent about the new curtailment of expression. It will achieve nothing, can- not, indeed, achieve anything productive in the “war against terror”. The purpose of terrorism is to make ordinary life unsustainable by creating random assaults on the population. The hope is that resisting the ambitions of the terrorists becomes less important than the horrors which may be consequent upon resistance. The game is not worth the candle, they hope we will say. And the result is that families are displaced from Catholic or Protestant areas of Belfast, from Jewish or Palestinian sections of Jerusalem; Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Hutus and Tutsis, and who knows what group next, shuffle from refugee camp to refugee camp. It is perfectly respectable for legislative bulwarks to be raised against such bullying. And so we have in Britain a law against the incitement to riot; we have numerous public order acts; we have laws against incitement to racial hatred, and laws, or proposed laws, against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, ethnicity or religious conviction. But, as I have said, this collection is not primarily about the logic of that existing legislation, but asks only why, when it is already in place, any new law should be required. If some Imam urges the slaughter of all Jews, he may be prosecuted as the law stands. If some Roman Catholic thinks all Protestants damned, or vice versa, he may say so; but if he does so in a particularly incendiary situation, he may be charged with offences under the Public Order Act. 10 Andrew McKie Some believers in International Socialism (Trots) have been arguing since I was in nappies for violent perpetual revolution; though the adher- ents of that doctrine may feel they have been victimised by the state, the state has in fact provided me with the opportunity to read the maxims of their founding fathers at the taxpayers’ expense at every public library, and paid for their adherents to attend places of further education, where they can try to sell me more copies of their tiresome newspapers. Neo-Nazis, when they can avoid calling for measures which offend against the law against incitement to racial hatred, have no difficulty publishing their ar- guments. I personally have no trouble in ignoring those arguments as both wrong-headed and repugnant. I can, however, see no way in which either group should not be allowed to advance its case which does not at the same time compromise the ability of, say, the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Nationalists to do the same. The question, for liberals, for conservatives (who are, in the British tradition, liberal) for socialists (who are, in the British tradition, liberal) is one of proportionality. Whether or not we want unfettered freedom of speech, there is at least a case for the law prohibiting open calls for the assassination of individuals (this is not theoretical, as the Rushdie case demonstrates) or groups (as both the conflict in the Balkans and Islamist and Nazi assaults on Jews demonstrate). I am writing this in the country from which liberal Western democ- racy, inherited from Greece, spread throughout Europe. It is also the cen- tre of Western Christendom; not, perhaps, a doctrine which many of the writers in this book wish to advance against the threat which proudly op- poses it, but a tradition which allowed the evolution of the civilization we are now engaged in defending. Getting here, thanks to a terrorist scare the day before I left Britain, involved a prohibition on carrying laptops, mobile phones and – most dif- ficult for a family with three children, one of them an infant – a ban on liquids, including close examination of baby milk, on planes. I don’t like those curtailments on my freedom of movement, but I un- derstand them as a reaction (even if over-zealous) to a perceived threat. I have myself been fairly close to terrorist bombs several times – South Quay (one failed bomb, one successful); and in Soho and Covent Garden (the Admiral Duncan, the White Swan, the bomb near Centre Point). I was on a train stopped on its way to King’s Cross on 7/7. So I don’t mind these tiresome, temporary, impediments to liberty, be- cause they are temporary and proportionate. Having everything X-rayed and taking off your shoes at an airport may do some good; so may making it illegal to call for the extermination of an entire people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity by birth. What is absurd is to call for a law which prohibits anything which might be characterised or interpreted as “glorifying terrorism”. And, in the Introduction 11 peculiarly post-modernist interpretation in statute, by anyone. You, like me, may not think it enough for Tony Blair to assure you that he’s “a pretty straight kind of guy”. You may start thinking quis custodiet ipsos custodes or, if you’re of a slightly different political cast, who, whom? You’d be right. There’s an important battle going on here, and one which probably only became clear to the West after September 2001. It’s a battle for what we believe in, but whether we’re reactionary Presbyterians or Catholics, liberal middle-of the-roaders, radical Trotsykists or Libera- tiarians or, probably most acutely, devout Muslims who want to hold to traditionalism without being labelled wicked, when it comes to legislation we would do well to ask what we were taught to ask of any remark: Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? The trouble is that it’s a maxim which relies on the good faith of our masters. I have, as you would expect from someone who has made a living writing editorials for The Daily Telegraph, a certain scepticism about this Labour Government. But I have also understood, and indeed supported, certain aspects of its stance on the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, its support for America, its anxiety to tackle what I think is a genuine assault on the values of Western society. That, I’d guess, won’t be shared by many of the writers who follow. What we do share is a demand that we inhabit any area of thought we choose; an assumption that the imagination not only should not but can- not be policed, and a refusal to take the word of “moderate” governments that their illiberal, shoddy and badly-drafted legislation does not intend us to be its target. Under this legislation I can think of plenty illegal sf classics, from Dune’s suicide commandos to short stories by Bob Shaw, John Varley and Bruce Sterling. So can you. All we are asking is that we continue to be allowed to think of them; that the people writing for you in this book con- tinue to be allowed to think of them, and others. If we are not going to be allowed to think as we choose, we choose to be targets – not for terrorists, but for our own legislators. Andrew McKie Montepulciano, August 2006 The book in question was published by Rackstraw Press and was full of excellent sf stories by clever people who often disagreed with my view (as predicted), but were never anything other than wonderful. The book was devised, edited and made by the very brilliant Prof Farah Mendlesohn. Goodness knows where you could get a copy now.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Herald column June 6 2011

A slight technical meltdown means The Herald website didn't get this up. Here's the raw copy for the multitudes that have requested it:

By Andrew McKie

Last Monday I took my life in my hands and ate a Greek salad. The cucumber was from Hertfordshire, which probably meant that it was free of deadly levels of E. coli, but also meant that it didn’t taste of very much, as tomatoes and cucumbers pumped full of water and grown in British or Dutch polytunnels usually don’t.
The food in Italy, a couple of days later, was better. On Wednesday, I had a small glass of white wine with my lunch (spaghetti con vongole) and a Campari-soda before a dinner – prosciutto, then pasta Bolognese, fegato alla Veneziana, and a big slice of parmigiano reggiano and an espresso instead of pudding – which I accompanied with half a litre of red wine.
Nice for you, readers may be thinking, but why tell us, unless the aim is to foster jealousy and undermine the appeal of our breakfast toast, instant coffee and the box of Coco Pops against which we’ve propped the newspaper?
Because, to echo a title by the food historian Margaret Visser, much depends on dinner. Eating those meals, I became embroiled in three major news stories: the row over food safety prompted by the E. coli outbreak centred on Germany, which by yesterday had killed 19 people and made more than 1,800 seriously ill; the declaration that one in three Scottish children is being brought up in a “binge-drinking” household; and the assertion by Barbara Stocking, Oxfam’s chief executive, that within decades there will “absolutely not be enough food” to feed the world’s population.
All three are significant stories which raise important issues. Naturally, the knee-jerk response of many lobbying groups is to demand government action. Specifically, in the words of Oxfam’s report, “to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest”. For Alcohol Focus Scotland, that means minimum pricing and stricter licensing; others have called for stricter rules on food production in Europe. It’s a depressingly familiar reaction to matters which are, at root, to do with individual choices by consumers.
Spanish cucumbers, it seems, did not cause this outbreak, but that has not stopped a catastrophic slump in sales of vegetables, and probably an expensive round of bureaucratic compensation payments. Yet such threats to public health have been well identified and controlled – particularly in Britain – for more than a century; which accounts for their rarity.
Of course, it is important to identify the cause of this outbreak and, if there are lessons to be learned, see that they are. But since E. coli can be avoided by very simple precautions (washing and cooking vegetables properly) by consumers themselves, racing to introduce sterner regulation would be a clumsy and damaging response.
Similarly, Scotland, and the rest of the United Kingdom, has an unenviable record when it comes to its drinking habits. But narrowly defining the real dangers of alcohol in terms of units or their cost in order to maximise the scare potential of the story, rather than looking at the behaviour and responsibilities of individuals, is to distort the picture. As this newspaper wisely pointed out, government measures are a peripheral distraction; the central issue is changing attitudes.
I dispute the claim in Friday’s editorial that no one wants to see a return to the 1950s, when self-control was seen in part as a moral issue. Older rituals of food and drink, tied to religious observances and balancing periods of abstinence with prescribed days for feasting, encouraged responsible behaviour more effectively than any blunt instrument Holyrood may devise.
Sensible drinking can add immensely to the store of human happiness, just as excessive drinking can generate terrible misery. The same is true of food. The “obesity epidemic” is caused by ignorance, reliance on unhealthy, disgusting, packaged and junk food, and by families failing to sit down to eat together. In this country, we do not just eat and drink badly, we buy and cook badly. We spend much less of our household income on food than most Continental Europeans, and throw out a third of what we buy untasted. The solution is not to manipulate the consumer price, nor to regulate manufacturers and producers of food and drink, but to make people care about their behaviour.
Oxfam is quite right to point out that it is an outrage that nearly a billion people go hungry while so many in the developed world are obese. It is right, too, to attack the dumping of crops by the EU and the USA – the equivalent of households throwing out the “buy one get one free” food they never get round to eating – and the mad subsidies which encourage the use of agricultural land to produce biofuels, in order to meet climate change targets.
But Oxfam seems unable to see that these absurdities have been created by governments doing exactly what they are asking for more of: prevention, intervention, correction, protection and investment. The single greatest thing oppressing farmers in the developing world is the existence of tariffs set by the EU and the USA to protect domestic producers.
The reason for the growth in yields in the West is precisely the large-scale farming and technology, including genetic modification and chemical fertilizers, which Oxfam opposes for the developing world on environmental grounds. Despite the price rises of the past few years, two of three world’s three staple crops (maize and wheat) are, in real terms, half the price they were in the 1940s, and a quarter cheaper than they were in the 1960s. India (which used to import rice) improved yields spectacularly by introducing such techniques, and by abolishing their equivalent of the Corn Laws. Regulation, the fashion for “sustainability” and the command economy solutions of the “Fair Trade” movement impoverish many more than they help.
Prosperous countries need to take food more seriously and consume it more responsibly. Poor countries need to be given the advantages the rich countries have already had from the introduction of modern agricultural practice and access to free markets. Doing that would prove the truth of the third aphorism with which Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin introduced La physiologie du goût: “The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves.”

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Herald Columns

I'm trying to spot those which don't appear online & offer them here. I think this may have been missed from April 4.

If you’re taking part in a debate, it’s a good policy not to ask any questions that you don’t know the answer to. That’s because debate, like “abate” and their aphaeretic relative “bate” in all its various senses – diminution, strife, rage – ultimately shares a root with “batter”. Debates are for bashing the living daylights out of your opponents, not for establishing the truth, which may be why, having delivered what he no doubt thought was the knockout punch, Pontius Pilate didn’t stay for the answer.
But you and I are above all that sort of sophistry, so perhaps we can approach, in a spirit of honest, humble, Socratic inquiry, one of the urgent questions of our age: “Why is the Labour Party so remarkably useless?”
As attentive readers may have guessed, I haven’t generally delivered my vote in the direction of that party, even when it tempted me with Bob Gillespie in Govan. But I’m aware that, for unfathomable reasons, not everyone shares my views, and -– in the midst of what we keep being told are “savage cuts” – Labour’s comparative lack of support strikes me as genuinely rather puzzling.
True, the party is ahead in the national opinion polls by five or 10%, but during the “savage cuts” of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s, it was regularly out in front by 20% or more, and it contrived to lose all those elections. For the Holyrood elections, as the Rev Ewan Aitken, Labour’s candidate for Edinburgh Eastern, put it yesterday: “We are not behind but we are not ahead.”
To be neck and neck with the governing party is an alarmingly feeble position for an opposition on the eve of an election but, as party managers must know, it is at least better than the frankly catastrophic showing of Iain Gray in the poll before last week’s STV debate, in which only 7% of respondents identified him as the best candidate for First Minister.
No doubt I should be heartened when Scottish voters rank their country’s Tory leader above the leader of its Labour party, but the truth is that I’m baffled. Or at least I was until I saw Mr Gray’s performance, which went some way to explaining it. Tavish Scott was a hole in the air, and managed to be more impressive; Patrick Harvie came out of it better, and he wasn’t even on the programme. But the fault isn’t just Iain Gray’s; Ed Miliband is faring no better south of the border.
Perhaps the polls are wrong. After all, three days before that Govan by-election in 1988, Labour were on 53% to the Nationalists’ 33%. The platitude of all politicians in the face of poor opinion polls – that the only poll that matters is on election day – has, like most clichés, the virtue of being true.
Nor, though I might wish it otherwise, can it be simple cause and effect derived from that other political cliché which brought Bill Clinton the presidency: “It’s the economy, stupid.” After all, despite Norman Lamont’s efforts, the economy was in pretty good shape by the end of John Major’s government, and it didn’t stop them from getting one of the worst bloody noses in electoral history. It may be more surprising that although Gordon Brown left the economy in the worst condition in living memory, it didn’t lead to a Tory landslide.
But it’s for precisely that reason that one would expect Labour to be in much better electoral shape almost a year on, now that the cuts to public services are beginning to take effect, and when growth remains hesitant. Where, for example, is the surge of support from all those Left-wing Liberal Democrats who feel betrayed?
I don’t know, but I suspect that the trouble for the Labour leaders, both at Holyrood and Westminster, is – appropriately enough – the same as the inept debater’s. They have no answer to offer. During his speech at the March for the Alternative, Mr Miliband neglected to say what the alternative was, and Mr Gray has not been much more forthcoming at differentiating Labour’s spending plans from those proposed by the Nationalists.
The public may dislike and fear the cuts being proposed by the Coalition government, but on the whole, they believe in their necessity. They may be sceptical about the SNP’s spending plans, but no competing vision is being offered by the Labour party, other than increasing the rate at which we borrow money. For the “savage cuts”, which amount to just over 3%, will only return us to the spending levels of 2008. We are not paying off our debts, but merely addressing the deficit by slowing the rate at which we are borrowing.
In many ways, the other week’s rally typified the Labour party’s problem. It brought together a large number of people who work in or depend on the public sector to complain noisily (though, I happily concede, almost entirely peacefully) about the level of cuts. But surely few, even among the protestors, would argue that no cuts are required. That irritating chant “No Ifs, No Buts, No [fill in the name of your special interest group here] Cuts” is not an argument.
There are lots of “ifs” and “buts”, yet no credible alternative vision is being suggested by Labour, not even an illusory one, such as Tony Blair’s specious “Third Way”. Even with the last government’s expansion of the public sector, the protestors are hugely outnumbered by voters who, for all their worries about public services, acknowledge that we cannot continue dunning taxpayers to expand the state forever.
Labour’s central support, of course, and the vast majority of its financing, comes from the public sector unions. Gordon Brown attempted to expand the party’s natural support by adding 800,000 people to the public payroll, and by dragging almost everyone he could think of (including families earning £60,000 a year) into the welfare system. That story had a very unhappy ending.
The Labour party has yet to find another political narrative to offer those outside its core constituency. Until it does, it will have trouble in parliamentary constituencies, whether for Holyrood or Westminster.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Every Little Helps...

With the addition of tobacco, you could live in this aisle.