Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Cookies? Or simply Kooky?

I have finally cracked it. If I go onto easyjet.com and look at booking a flight, then the next time I go to browse the front page of the guardian.com, up jump banners and panels telling me about the delights of easyjet. This, it seems, is what cookies do. They let a retailer know that whoever is using computer Nr 12334567890 has just looked at their website so if you want to follow up this potential customer, now is the time to fly banners on the next website this person visits.

This seems a bit dumb to me. It's a bit like a salesperson in one shop following you when you leave and accosting you in the next shop you visit, still trying to sell you what you've just bought or considered buying. It's a bit rude too. Sorry, I have now left the easyjet website and turned my attention to The Guardian, kindly leave the page.

They are all at it: johnlewis.com pursues me and so does zoopla.co.uk, but most of them give up after about a week. But at some point in the past I did something which persuaded some retailer than my desire for Düsseldorf hotels is infinite and they are never going to give up trying. Maybe Cookie Technology isn't quite perfect.

I have heard that the people who make their living from Cookie technology make it sound much more sophisticated. They can build up a complete Profile of this guy who sits at computer Nr 1234567890. And, true, they have figured out things about me. They have found out (or inferred) my age group and as a result I find myself regularly invited to place my retirement savings into some Ponzi scheme or other. What they haven't figured out is that I don't really have any retirement savings. As for invitations to find my partner on some dating site, I think this is probably a cross we all have to bear rather than the result of expert, forensic intrusion into my private life.

Dear Reader, count yourself lucky. I have three Blogs, two of which have enough visitors for Google to tell me that I should Monetize them - make money by allowing Google to fly banners and make things Pop Up all over my Blogs. But I have decided to spare you. And perhaps eventually the Cookie makers will decide that their business is just Kooky.



Friday, 7 February 2014

Thinking About National Identity

I just finished reading two books: Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl in the expanded 1990s edition available in Penguin Books; and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem in the 1965 edition (with a Postscript) and also easily available in Penguin Books.

"...my first wish after the war is to become a Dutch citizen. I love the Dutch, I love this country, I love the language and I want to work here. And even if I have to write to the Queen herself, I won't give up until I've reached my goal". Thus Anne Frank in her Diary entry for 11 April 1944.

To say the least, it's an understandable wish for a displaced German Jew living in hiding in Amsterdam. Anne Frank listened to the radio broadcasts of the Queen and members of the Dutch government exiled in London and took them very seriously. By going into exile, the Dutch leadership provided a focus of resistance to German occupation which could be heard and which helped Dutch people identify themselves as opponents both of the Germans and their policies. The Frank family in hiding was sustained by the support of four non-Jewish Dutch citizens.

Later in the Diary, Anne Frank is perturbed by signs of anti-semitism among the Dutch particularly aimed at German Jewish refugees (22 May) and, of course,  it was a Dutch citizen who finally betrayed the Franks' hiding place in August 1944. But even on 22 May she writes, "I love Holland. Once I hoped it would become a fatherland to me, since I had lost my own. And I hope so still!"

Citizenship - central to what we understand by National Identity - is normally acquired by accident of birth, just as it was for Anne Frank born in Frankfurt in 1929. It all depends on geography. At the extreme, national laws could make it the case that anyone born on national territory is automatically a citizen - even the child of a passing  tourist who goes into premature labour in the wrong country! Countries move away from that extreme and lay down citizenship requirements - for example, that the child born on national territory needs to have one or both parents who are already nationals. Conversely, countries recognise as their own the child born in a foreign country to nationals who have gone into labour there.

In one famous instance, that recognition was not available: in Yugoslav law, to become the heir to the throne you had to be born on Yugoslav territory. So in order to secure the right of succession of the baby born in London who became Crown Prince Peter of Yugoslavia, it was necessary for Churchill's war time government to formally cede territory to Yugolsavia, viz, a suite of rooms in Claridge's Hotel, London. Job done, Yugoslavia then ceded the rooms back.

As this example illustrates, the rules can get very complicated but geography remains central. Nine times out of ten, you get your passport from the country where you were born. And your passport is not only what enables you to leave your country and get into another, it is - very traditionally - a guarantee of protection and a return ticket. Get into trouble in a foreign country and you can turn to your consulate. Get kicked out of a foreign country and however much they might wish not to let you and your obnoxious drunken stag party back in, your own country has to take you back (though you might have to give up your political ambitions as the British MP Aidan Burley has had to do).

These banal facts are worth thinking about partly because it was only in the period of Nazi domination in Europe that people found their citizenship routinely stripped from them (leaving them stateless and without protection) or found that their children could no longer benefit from what one might call the Geographical Principle.

Zionism got its biggest boost from this aspect of Nazism. If geography will no longer secure you the ordinary protections of citizenship, then it is necessary to create a new country - Israel - where it is your race or religion or some mixture of them which will do the job instead. For a time, some Zionists felt that this could provide the basis for a working relationship with the Nazis : you don't want Jews in your country any more, OK, then if we have our own country we will offer a home to as many of them as you want to kick out. It was nearly as crude as that. Hannah Arendt fleshes out the details of attempts at rapprochement and accommodation.

But something changes fundamentally at this point. The geographical principle as the basis of citizenship is a very weak principle of  National Identity. It's very clear in the case of my own country. Here, we all hold "United Kingdom" passports but there is not a single person who thinks of themself as "United Kingdomish". Most of us when abroad will answer to being "British" (but not the Northern Irish who aren't) but when at home we are more likely to answer to being English, Welsh and Scots. It depends partly on where we were born, partly on where we live now, partly on the football team we support (there is no United Kingdom football team - a very good thing if you think that there is a United Kingdom entry to the Eurovision song contest).

In contrast to the geographical principle the Zionist principle is excessively strong. Trying to define "Jewishness" runs into the mirror-image of the problems the Nazis faced in trying to concoct some working definition of "Aryan". The very idea has always been under pressure: on the one hand, there are today Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship in virtue of the geographical principle. On the other hand, there are Jews in Israel who don't want to recognise the Jewishness of some of those knocking at the door - and who are, well, different or, simply, black.

The Nazis never got their Judenfrei Reich, though they got close to it. It will be a long time before any European country ventures to restrict citizenship on such tight principles, though some are trying to move in that direction.

Equally, the best hope for peace in the Middle East is not a Two State solution based on tight principles of national identity ( Hebrew speaking / Arabic speaking; Jewish / Muslim; black clothes / white clothes ... you can go on and twist yourself into as many knots as you like). The best hope for peace is a one state solution with citizenship accorded on weak geographical principles but also open to those who love the country, love the languages and who want to work there and are willing to write to anyone who will listen to their case.







Monday, 3 February 2014

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford and Commissar of Enlightenment Lunacharsky

Yesterday I was in Oxford. It was a cold but bright, sunny day so I did what I always try to do when in Oxford - I went for a walk round Christ Church meadow. I've been doing that for nearly fifty years.

The meadow is an ordinary meadow, maybe the size of a hundred football fields. In summer, cows graze there.The walk is an unchallenging kilometer around the four sides and back to where you started from. There are, I guess,  two things which make it a tourist attraction as well as a place favoured by joggers and young lovers: it is right in the city centre and,as you walk round, you have uninterrupted views of Oxford's dreaming spires - particularly Magdalen Tower and Christ Church itself. It is a very peaceful and beautiful place.

Christ Church - known to many as the college where Lewis Carroll taught - is one of the richest (and most reactionary) Oxford colleges and owns the meadow. It gives the college an impregnable view southwards down to the River Cherwell. It occurred to me as I walked round that there is another reason why it has survived over the centuries without being built on: the meadow floods. Yesterday it was completely flooded, more than I have ever seen it before. The Cherwell had also overflowed its banks. The raised walkways around the edges of the meadow remained reasonably dry, though officially they had been closed off - no one was paying any attention to that.

When I arrived in Oxford in the middle 1960s, the City Council had a plan to build a road through the meadow to by - pass the congested main street. It was argued that the rumbling of traffic there was undermining the foundations of the many colleges which front directly onto the street.

It was an appalling scheme and you would have been hard put to find anyone in favour of it. We radical students laughed when we read about High Church and High Tory dons in Christ Church threatening to prostrate themselves in front of any bulldozers which dared. But, of course, they were absolutely right to be absolutely determined. We owe them a debt.

I was thinking back to this as I walked round the meadow and, perhaps because I had just been talking to someone from Moscow, I was reminded of a story about Anatoly Lunacharsky.

He was People's Commissar of Enlightenment right at the beginning of the Russian Revolution when the government was still based in Petrograd - it did not move to Moscow until 1918. Now whereas the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd on the night of 24 - 25th October (Old Style) was without bloodshed, the subsequent seizure of power in Moscow involved heavy fighting - and the deployment of heavy weapons. Lunacharsky became distraught when informed of the damage to historic buildings in Moscow - all of them symbols of the old order just overthrown - and even handed in his resignation. I think his colleagues must have been amused but they kept him on in his job and he had considerable success, for example, in pushing up the literacy rate in Russia. (I am recalling all  this from a book by Sheila Fitzpatrick read many years ago).

Stalin dealt (or may have dealt) with him quite leniently. As an Old Bolshevik, of course, he had to go - but in 1933 he was  simply sent into exile as Ambassador to Spain. He died - of natural causes it seems - on his way to his new job, at Menton in France, where there is a memorial.