Saturday, 31 July 2010

Israel. Learning the Truth.

I have just finished reading Ilan Pappe's The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld 2006); I picked it as a result of reading Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, about which I blogged in June.

Several times in recent years I have been shocked to discover the depth of my own historical ignorance. The first shock came when I read Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's The Unknown Mao. Somehow, I had managed to hang on to the idea that Mao had been a good thing for China. Other shocks came reading all the post-1991 books which demonstrate the depths of viciousness which characterised the old Soviet Union. Some of it I knew about; but not all.

Now I feel a bit ashamed to discover my ignorance about Israel: a racist, colonialist state founded on historical fantasies, ethnic cleansing and continuing violence. It is apartheid South Africa, probably worse. After reading Sands and Pappe, it is hard to avoid the thought that Israel is the last remaining outpost of 19th and 20th century European right-wing nationalist and racist ideologies. Most of the strategies and tactics of expansionist Nazism have been deployed and continue to be deployed against the Palestinians, except genocide. And now there are fringe Zionists - looking at non-Jewish Palestinian population growth - who spend their days dreaming of killing Palestinians. Sometimes they get the opportunity.

When the Jewish settlers cleansed Israel of its indigenous Palestinian population in 1948 - 49, they killed thousands as part of the terror they created to hasten their exodus. But only thousands; most became the refugees living in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, the West Bank and the Gaza strip. The UN observed what was happening, the General Asembly passed a Right of Return resolution, but the UN - which started the conflict by partitioning Palestine without conducting a Plebiscite - then did nothing. At the same time Stalin's Soviet Union and its satellite Czechoslovakia was supplying Israel with more arms to attack the Palestinians.

One of the most revealing details in Pappe's book is the claim (pages 235-236) that in 1948 - 49, the new Israeli authorities were very keen that the Palestinian refugees should be the responsibility of a new UN organisation, UNWRA, rather than the existing International Refugee Organisation (IRO). The latter had recently gained massive experience with handling refugees from World War II, many of them Jewish victims of Nazism. The Israelis did not want IRO staff to make any connection between the plight of the refugees they had recently helped and the Palestinian refugees displaced by the actions of the new Israeli state.

The Palestinians survived, in refugee camps and ghettos of one kind or another, of which Gaza is now the biggest: a "prison camp" in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Despite constant migration into Israel of foreigners claiming to be Jews (and some who don't even claim that), the demographics are against the Zionist state.

So is elementary morality. So is the absence of anything other than an ersatz, fake state-sponsored culture that (as I read Pappe) the universities have played an important role in creating.

One must remember that there are important strands of Jewish religious and secular cultures which are not Zionist and sometimes even anti - Zionist. At the time of Israel's creation, there were non-Zionist Jews living in the country who opposed the expulsion of the Palestinians, sometimes with local success.This does not stop Zionist propagandists, from conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Judaism and, of course, anti-Semitism. Sir Martin Gilbert [of the UKs Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war] was doing it on Israeli army radio only recently.

In 1995, I travelled to Jerusalem to initiate discussions on a distance-learning doctoral programme between the University of Sussex (where I worked) and an Israeli higher education institution. I knew so little about Israel that I did not really register why some of my Sussex colleagues were less than enthusiastic about partnering with an Israeli institution. There was a peace process, wasn't there, which meant (among other things) that I had been able to walk alone all the way round the top of the Old City walls taking photographs, some of them showing the young Israeli soldiers looking down from the walls to observe the comings and goings of the Muslim/Palestinian markets. And when I was unexpectedly introduced to Yasser Arafat in Bethlehem, I simply wished him Good Luck ... (this encounter is recounted in "A Christmas Carol" - go to Stories at www.selectedworks.co.uk )

I knew enough to keep quiet about that odd encounter when going through the Security de-briefing on my way out at Ben-Gurion airport. But otherwise: Such ignorance! I am embarassed. My own Owl of Minerva is very clearly flying only after dusk.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Over 60s are going to be with us for a long time

Recent UK official data have revealed the massive burden of Government capital and interest repayments which will fall on the next generation of taxpayers - unless, of course, they repudiate their parents' and their grandparents' debts. If those who incurred the debt were obliged to pay it off, then the present generation of taxpayers would be looking at an all-round 30% tax hike.

At 63, I am one of those who benefited significantly for the first fifty or so years of my life from other people's taxes: in school, university and in a career as a university teacher. This is one reason why for the past ten years I have made my academic work available on line with free download. It's there for today's students if they want it (www.selectedworks.co.uk). I think all old academic work should be made available like this and not hidden behind paywalls of one kind or another.

My occupational pension is modest enough to indicate that my career was not a material success (I net £1170 a month) but the pension contributions also came from public money.

Now I am self-employed and in the month of July I have to pay my half yearly tax, quarterly VAT and quarterly self-employed National Insurance contributions: this time round, a bit over £6000. I know that much of that money will be squandered by the government, but on balance I count myself fortunate in being fit enough to work, to like the work I do and to enjoy a standard of living higher than my pension alone would permit me.

But government and the over 60s have a very different outlook. Governments encourage women to leave the workforce by offering them a lower age (60) at which they can collect their Old Age Pension. And even if they continue to work, women can still collect their pension. They do not have to pay further National Insurance contributions. Men have to wait until 65. It is the biggest piece of legalised sexism still in existence.

Governments also indicate to all the over 60s that it is time to take it easy and stop contributing to society. Free Prescriptions, Free Swimming, a cash handout every Christmas (allegedly for "Winter Fuel" but you can winter on the Costa del Sol and still collect it)and, of course, the iconic Free Bus Pass.

These freebies are essentially patronising and paternalistic electoral bribes. There is absolutely no reason why the government should pay a person's bus fares just because they are over 60. It distorts the transport market, discouraging walking and cycling and encouraging binge bus riding. Rather than put the funds into a higher state pension, leaving people free to decide how they spend it, the Bus Pass shepherds older people to a government-preferred pattern of consumption.

Worse, it has created or reinforced a culture of dependency among the over 60s. They now firmly believe that the Bus Pass is a Human Right, part of what society owes them. As a result, some now think they should also get free rail travel and goodness knows what next. It is a culture of benefits scroungers. The benefits are modest - they are freebies - but the beneficiaries are often affluent. And mean.

Since this group of over 60s is going to increase as a percentage of the population, a cultural shift is needed. The over 60s should be encouraged to think that they are responsible for themselves so long as their health allows it. Their children should be encouraged to accept more responsibility for them as they get older and more frail - they get their reward in the end: an inheritance. The government should define its responsibilities more narrowly. The vulnerable elderly who are beyond voting but need expensive care are a primary responsibility. The state pension comes next, but that should be more clearly framed as a contributory scheme even if it is a compulsory one. After that, I am not sure that the government should be doing very much. All the freebies should be abolished.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Domestic Violence

This is autobiography

I am reading Maggie Gee's My Animal Life (Telegram 2010). It's an autobiography by someone my age and who in the past was a visiting lecturer on an MA course on which I taught. It's very readable, there is a fine chapter about What Children Need and in that chapter there is a hilarious paragraph (page 83) about over-anxious parenting. As with all autobiographies, it works best as a memoir of childhood; trying to write about your adult life and the people who are still sharing it rarely works and I don't think it works here.

You are some way into the book before Maggie Gee discloses that her father, a headmaster, was violent both towards her mother, and on one occasion, quite seriously, towards his teenage daughter. Such violence is not without its consequences, often complex, which the book explores, in an understated way, bit by bit.

I thought back to an incident in my early life which provides one of my earliest framed memories. It's fading now but I have always had the memory. We - my mother, my father and me - are in the downstairs back living room of the house at 79 Lincoln Road - the house I lived in until I was seven. My parents are arguing about who should poke the fire. My father must have been shouting (he always did, my mother was always subdued). They wrestle for the poker and my mother falls into her chair and hurts her back (She may well have been wearing a surgical corset for a slipped disc). This distresses me and though I want to stay with her my father takes my hand and pulls me unwillingly out of the house and into the garden to feed a pet rabbit. I must have protested. I think I was three or four years old.

Who should poke the fire. It's good Freudian stuff. I cannot recall witnessing any other scene of domestic violence - my father in my presence confined himself to shouting at my mother but it was crude and nasty stuff which often homed in on her history of mental illness. Towards the end of the marriage, when I was thirteen, my mother took herself down to the police station to show them the bruises but I don't recall seeing any of them inflicted. At night, she slept in my bedroom with the door barricaded.

At school, I rarely if ever fought anyone, but I was never bullied. I can recall only one proper stand up fight with a friend, with other boys watching. I don't think it lasted more than a few moments and I am sure I wasn't the winner. I must have been eleven or twelve.

On the handful of occasions when I have been in a situation where someone might easily have hit me, I have generally had no emotional response or I have responded with an emotion which could have made matters worse. A few years ago, confronted rather amateurishly by three men in a foreign city - pretend policemen flashing ID who wanted to snatch my wallet when I pulled it out to produce the Passport they demanded - I laughed outright, turned round and walked away from them. Later, I realised that this was probably not the best thing to have done. They might have responded to the offence by jumping me from behind.

Just once I can recall being frightened, a more appropriate response. I was running a Youth Club on Reading's Whitley Estate. I called a boy - sixteen or seventeen years old - into my office for a telling off. His older and rather chilling friend came in with him and found something I said to his mate offensive. So he bent down and picked up a chair leg (this was a youth club where things often got broken) and gave me the choice of withdrawing my remark or .... I was frightened. I knew he meant it and I knew I couldn't snatch the chair leg. I withdrew my remark with as much dignity as I could manage and engaged them for a few minutes before letting them go. But I didn't like it one bit.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Hoarders and Wasters

One of our responsibilities to ourselves is to live our lives and not have them lived for us by others or by our vices and weaknesses. That is something which can be said in affluent, democratic societies. Those who are at the mercy of famine or terror have no chance of making something of lives which are nasty, brutish and short. In advanced societies, even disability and disease does not always stop someone living their life and even living it well.

Living one's life involves ambitions and projects and doing all that one does with as much energy, talent and commitment as can be mustered.

Most people have to earn a living to live a life. I don't really know whether it is a misfortune or not to be able to live on money you have not earned. It doesn't stop you having ambitions or projects or living life to the full. But the need to prioritise and structure and savour must be weakened.

People who earn a living save deposits to buy their own home or to travel the world. That is intelligble and rational. They may save for a rainy day - but that is often the thin end of the wedge for saving to no purpose, since they may have no clear idea of what counts as rain.

Saving turns easily into hoarding, the activity of those who believe that life isn't worth the money. They fold their arms and refuse to live the lives they've got.

In most Western societies, inflation generally outstrips the rate of return on ordinary savings. When I was a child, the Government could rely on the Post Office Savings Bank - in which every child was enrolled - to supply it with cash at what, in reality, was a negative interest rate. So savers always ended up with less (real) money than they started with. They still do. Most saving is an irrational activity. It's hoarding an asset which wastes away. That is why people who have scrimped and saved for a lifetime complain that they still have to scrimp when they are old. They have paid the price of their own meanness.

In my working life as a stamp dealer I see it in collectors' hoards, almost universally stored in unsatisfactory conditions - damp or dust or sunlight degrade the hoard so that it ends up, at the collector's death, worth much less than it cost. A serious collector, as opposed to a hoarder, takes care of what he has collected.

There is a lot of talk about splitting cautious "High Street" banking from "casino" banking and fiercely regulating the latter. A life-affirming government would be equally worried about the former. People should be encouraged to live their lives; hoarding money should be made difficult and the miser socially disapproved of. Why do you want to make bankers rich? is the question that should be asked of hoarders.

Gambling can be an addiction, like hoarding but the opposite. But wasters are sometimes rational too. Given a choice between negative real interest and the chance of a big win, the latter - depending on the odds - may be the more rational choice. When it is clearly rational, we call it investment.

A good rule of thumb for living a life is to take no heed for the morrow. That is why I have no savings, just an income which I spend as it comes in.

Sleepwalking to King Charles III

If you asked a bookmaker to give you odds on Prince Charles NOT becoming King Charles on the death of his mother, the odds would be quite long. There would be shorter odds on which of his names he will choose to be known by since there are objections to Charles and he has three others to pick from (Philip, Arthur, George).

The main job of UK politicians is to stop people thinking about UK politics. This is why the LibDems are a nuisance with their nonsense about holding a Referendum on the voting system. It might give people ideas.

Lib Dems or no Lib Dems, there certainly will not be a Referendum on the future of the monarchy. The most decent proposal I have heard suggests that on the death of Queen Elizabeth II - a person who has done an acceptable job as Head of State, though displaying insensitivity on occasions that have mattered (Aberfan, the death of her grandchildren's mother) - that on her death, the throne should be held vacant and a Referendum held asking the UK's citizens whether they wish to continue with an unelected and hereditary head of state. Some have suggested that they should be further asked if they want to see Charles in the job. But this cannot be asked, since if they say "Yes" to the unelected and hereditary they don't get to have a say in who it is. That's logic for you.

So unless you want an elected head of state, you are just going to have to get out there, wave your eco-friendly Made in China flag and cheer for your new King.

It's a bit like the Pope's forthcoming visit. Gordon Brown invited him to make a State visit which actually means that the poor old Queen had to write the invitation on her own notepaper. Since he accepted, she now has to have tea with him. "More tea, Vicar of God?". There's no choice in the matter even though Mr Brown has gone away. I rather suspect that the Queen wouldn't mind a Referendum on whether she should lace the tea with arsenic.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Public Time

If you are interested in the relation of Nature and Culture, think a bit about the calendar. A year is anchored to the earth's rotation around the sun which takes just over 365 sunrises to complete. Between half of those sunrises, the periods of daylight get longer and between the other half, they get shorter.

On this basis, we have constructed months, weeks, and 24 hour days.

There is clearly something dodgy about months. They aren't all the same length (poor old February) which has something to do with the fact that 365 does not divide exactly by any number higher than five (Correct?). A month bears a rough relation to the length of the female menstrual cycle but I don't think it has any other anchor in the non-social world.

You could have nine months each of 40 days and then five and a bit left over, which could be fun. Nine months would be roughly related to the length of a human pregnancy. Or you could dispense with months and have 73 five days weeks - you would just have to remember which week you were in.

Our actual seven day weeks have been around a long time. It was a good idea for the writers of the Old Testament to offer a day off in seven in return for accepting their favoured structure. But one day off in five would have been a better deal.

Hours, minutes and seconds ...

We live in societies which have become 24/7 - societies in which day and night no longer matter and in which everything is always open. This is the achievement of electric light, central heating, the Internet and Tesco.

24/7 shows how bizarre is the thinking of British governments. The last one even reached an agreement with General Practitioners - doctors - which allowed them to shut up shop on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays and hand responsibility to "Out of Hours Services". It doesn't work. If you get ill at weekends, you are more likely to die because "Out of Hours" is unlikely to understand what might be wrong with you. Some of the doctors who cover at weekends fly in from Europe (it's cheap)to earn a bit of extra cash. Sometimes they kill people because they don't speak English or because they specialise in cosmetic surgery (and that's just one recent case).

It's a good job your local kebab shop doesn't have a hot line to the British government. With a staff of four or five, a kebab shop normally opens 14/7 and 364/365. The staff work on a rota (a what? ...). Since most GP surgeries have a similar sized - or larger - staff, there seems no reason why they should not do the same. After all, they are paid more. Or would you prefer it that your local kebab should operate the same hours as your doctors' surgery?

Electricity, central heating and the Internet allow us to think more imaginatively about how we structure and use the time available to us. Tesco has understood this. British Governments never will.