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Monthly Archives: April 2013

For a recent show about religion on Channel 4, journalist Mehdi Hasan interviewed Prof Richard Dawkins, in a lengthy back-and-forth on religion and evil. Knowing that Hasan is a devout Muslim, Dawkins thought he’d be clever and ask if he believed that Muhammad really flew to heaven on a winged horse. Hasan didn’t really have a comeback. The audience laughed, I think at Dawks in a dismissive way.

Later on Twitter, for some reason not ‘@’ing Hasan, he complained:

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Mehdi Hasan presents on Al Jazeera and writes for New Statesman and Huffington Post. He has a lot to say about being a Muslim in the UK, yet, there isn’t one instance in his work where the belief about a winged horse has jeopardised his journalistic integrity, directly led to irrationality or revisionism, or forced him to make a factual error. Outside of mere matters of the specifics religious belief, and any parabolic moral implications, it is probably a non-factor.

Obviously there are occasions when a personal belief can conflict with a profession. Someone who believes certain sex acts deserve capital punishment is not in the best position to be a human rights lawyer or ethics professor. A medical doctor won’t be taken seriously if they think that the MMR vaccine leads to autism. This specific miraculous belief says nothing about one’s skill as a journalist.

Mehdi Hasan’s regularly updated Huffpo blog

and his writing for the New Statesman

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Based on a talk I have given and hope to give again. A friend has let me borrow Jonathan Neale’s book on ecosocialism, so I will have more insights soon hopefully.

Believe it or not, I think that climate change has not been politicised enough. It is central to questions of austerity and nationalisation, and is likely to affect the world’s poorest people the most. There are certainly some useful parallels therefore to be found between class struggle and environmentalism. We cannot expect “green capitalism” to work. If a radical new socialist way of organising society is needed, it should include investment in jobs, technology, and scientific research that will reduce the effects of global warming.

A few weeks ago, I noticed what I see as a contradiction between two publications of the Green Party of England and Wales. The first text is the third page of a welcome pamphlet, on which the party’s ten core values are listed. They are simple, thoughtful, and difficult to disagree with. The second core value in particular sounds very Marxian:

“The Earth’s physical resources are finite. We threaten our future if we try to live beyond those means, so we must build a sustainable society that guarantees our long-term future.”

This principle weirdly echoes chapter 32 of Marx’s Capital Volume 1, which argues that capitalism cannot go on indefinitely, and that crises and an eventual collapse is inevitable, because of overproduction and other contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production.

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This figure is a decent illustration of the extent of inequality in the US, and reminds us that capitalism has become something beyond what Marx could have imagined. I found this image on the Facebook page ‘The Other 98%’ which is the kind of baffling liberal group that will happily expose capitalism but still show support for Obama. As we know, liberalism is characterised by a “reform, not revolution” mentality, as well as thinking that cooperation with the ruling class is possible so I worry that that people seeing this image are not thinking, wow, we need to reorganise society from top to bottom. Instead, they just want to rely on the wealthiest to be more generous.

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The main problem with this is that altruism can only be a short-term solution. It isn’t a system change that offers security for future generations. Once a rich person throws money at some problem, like homelessness, what are we left with? Some people now have a better quality of life but in the same situation that caused their poverty in the first place. Nothing has changed.

Or maybe something has changed, for the worse. At the heart of trade unionism is the idea that workers need to organise and demand or force their government/bosses to give them their comfortable working conditions and other basic human rights. Achievements such as the 8-hour day are achievements of the exploited and overworked. Now more than ever, with the ‘business ethics’ of Starbucks, books like Philanthro-Capitalism, and billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and George Soros, the extremely wealthy want to take even pride away from the poorest. It’s a cruel trick: the minority who have most of the money, possessions, fame, and luxury, also want the reputation as the ones struggling against oppression. Charity will always only lift some out of poverty and disease, though. Socialism is needed for a system that makes these problems impossible in the first place. But altruism will cure just enough illnesses and lift just enough people above the poverty line that it will slow down discontent and anti-capitalist reaction. So really, by taking the advice from this statistic too literally, one would be supporting and dragging out inequality.

Music students, I think, have something unique to offer if they wish to oppose capitalism and classist prejudice. The different fields of performance, composition, and music history or musicology are all useful platforms, if you find singing union songs to yourself isn’t enough.

Learning music history, particularly of Western art music, often feels like studying the history of the stuffy aristocracy, who have so little in common with the rest of us. If you are in a position to teach an overview of music history, it is perfectly possible to have a theme of class division and struggle in your lectures. Teach about what the ignored majority was doing with music and how it functioned socially. Place emphasis on the exceptions to what was expected of a musician. This could be the women composers all the way back to Kassia need to be mentioned, how the guitar broke some class boundaries in Spain, or how the first ‘superstar’ performer, Paganini, had a working class background. In terms of original research, ethnomusicology is very exciting for talking seriously about folk music, and music in class struggle and protest is the topic of many articles and books, such as Dorian Lynskey’s ’33 Revolutions per Minute.’

If you love performing in a classical style, and want to orientate your studies in that direction, then perform to as many different people as you can, in any setting. If you are asked to play a piece of music, or if someone wants to hear what you’re listening to you, and you dismiss this by saying “oh, you won’t like it,” it might just be embarrassment for your personal taste, but often I think it is a childish kind of elitism. Many more people will get into classical music if they are given they chance and if it isn’t presented in a way that makes it seem totally separate from all other music. I perform weekly in my university’s Performance Society, usually doing something by Fernando Sor, and accompanying a singer later on. Most people do a pop song or part of a musical so I feel like, by including classical music in this setting, I’m reducing any class implications of the music, in a small way. If you do any instrumental teaching like teaching folk guitar or jazz piano, you could suggest some easy classical stuff to show that it isn’t so boring. One of my earliest influences in guitar-playing was my granddad’s skiffle band and some ‘Guitar Legends’ compilation album, but my first teacher broadened my listening and playing by suggesting some simple flamenco-influenced pieces.

Composers, when writing stage music or anything character-driven, could present a typically unheroic character in a dignified way. Think Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ but without killing them off. Another option is to compose in a classical form but use an obvious folk influence, like Smetana, Glinka, Bartók and others have done before. Usually this is used for some kind of patriotism or nationalism, but it has the effect of legitimising the creations of poorer people as real art.

Like students of every discipline, music students need to protest tuition fees and put more pressure on the NUS or their own institution’s union to fight it. Many musicians are not having their talents fully realised when they miss out on a music degree. It goes without saying that we need to protest capitalism and austerity at every level, too. Poverty stifles creativity.

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If you think that almost everyone in North Korea is a brainwashed idiot and a threat to the rest of the world, you might just be believing uncritically whatever the pro-capitalist media tells you about other countries. This BBC Panorama documentary spends most of its time reenforcing the same old horror story about the DPRK, unveiling no new secrets and considering no original perspectives. It wasn’t what I expected from an “undercover” documentary, but it was what I expected from the BBC. The reporter is the familiar John Sweeney, who seems to have done a little bit of reading about the country on the flight over, but he probably nodded off at some point. His constantly descending mumble makes him sound utterly bored of being in North Korea.

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Even if it was called “An introduction to North Korea” instead of Undercover, it would be a pointless programme. The same old images of tanks and salutes are shown in the documentary’s introduction, when Sweeney’s voiceover tells us “We’re flying into the strangest nation on Earth.” He commits the same crime as the Vice Travel Guide, of totally dehumanising North Koreans and standing around pointing out how crazy everything is. From the view of the documentarians’ hotel, we see a group of construction workers apparently building a new bank. Footage is shown of the work in the afternoon and at 4 in the morning. “They’re building a bank, night and day, day and night… They never stop.” Maybe they’re not forced to work endlessly without any sleep. It’s conceivable that at some point, different builders took over. Maybe. Possibly.

The only truly interesting footage – even though it was nothing new – was the images of people living in poverty while the tour guides shout “No photos! No photos!” More time probably should have been given to the defectors and experts. On calling into question the officially communist ideology, Professor B.R. Myers, an American analyst living in Seoul, says, “I think it’s far more accurate to look at North Korea as a far-right… ultranationalist state.” Many other Pyongyang-watchers will disagree, but it is the kind of fresh look at the country that such a documentary needs more of. The increase of mobile phones was also an issue well worth addressing.

At the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), John Sweeney takes a moment to trivialise the US’s military power by mocking the North’s “current paranoia” about America. This is not paranoia, but a very justified and rational fear. The circumstances and provocations at the start of the Korean War are presented in a one-sided way. It would have been a good use of 60 seconds to instead ask an expert to speak more complexly about the US and South Korea’s role.

The most bizarre part comes at the visit to one of the DPRK’s biggest hospitals. Sweeney notices that there are no patients in any of the rooms he has been show. Ignoring how unusual it is that a tourist has been invited to a hospital, he becomes suspicious, he then asks if he can see some of the patients. This is perverse! Korean tourists would not go for a look around a hospital in the UK and say, “Wahey! Let’s see some sick people!” Not booting John Sweeney out of the hospital showed incredible politeness from the Korean doctors. He even comes close to being enthusiastic outside of the building, asking another doctor, “Why aren’t we allowed to see them?” It is totally reasonable to not be allowed to see patients. This is a matter of elementary privacy, treated with all the sensitivity of a tabloid journalist.

We end the documentary with some more fear-mongering, over the top of the images that everyone has already seen. The closing statement is something that could have been written by the same people that did Red Daw: “For the moment, Kim the third remains armed with nuclear power, the most dangerous man on the planet.” This is the stupidest thing anyone has ever said. If you want to describe the human rights abuses of the North Korean government and how much of a threat they are to their own people, well, that documentary could last for days. But their rule does not extend to any other countries and they only have a feeble amount of military power that would not stand up to US-occupied South Korea even if they did make some kind of attack. There is a chance of course, that if John Sweeney was capable of putting expression into his voice, it would have sounded like a question rather than a statement.

Finally! I got a copy of *that* Socialist Worker. It’s very unsettling to see a positive headlineImage in the Worker, and I’m not sure what it says that they needed a death to be able to write one. On the back of the Thatcher’s Dead pullout there’s a good section on how Labour are essentially trying to copy Thatcherism. “Labour’s failure to challenge right wing ideas has helped legitimise them.”

Me and nine others took part in an East Kent KONP (Keep Our NHS Public) meeting. We have plans to celebrate around 6th July, which will be the 65th birthday of the National Health Service. We will most likely have a showing of Spirit of ’45 and some speakers.

There was lots of other internal and publicity stuff to talk about, but we probably spent longer addressing the campaign against the Bedroom Tax. There are many myths that need to explain on benefits, but the main issue is that being unemployed and on housing benefits is the norm. This is only a minority. Most benefits claimants are either pensioners, disabled, or on in-work benefits. The divisive exaggerations are only a distraction from the billions lost in the rich’s tax avoidance, which doesn’t receive nearly enough outrage. Seeing as Ukip would go even further than the Tories with cutting benefits, there is an anti-Ukip leaflet that we will be giving out leading up to the Kent County Council elections. I have found from talking to people while leafletting or selling papers that many Ukip-supporters do not know what the party is really about, merely agreeing with the anti-EU stance. We agreed we need to pressure local Labour councillors to back the ‘No Evictions’ motion supported by independent left candidate Ian Driver, who has expressed his disgust at the bedroom tax and privatisation of the NHS.

Hatred of Islam and various Islamic cultures can be easily justified by claiming that the veil or headscarf is representative of the religion’s sexist nature – the logical conclusion being that by being anti-Islam one is on the side of women’s liberation. British newspapers not only agree with this stance, but are probably to blame for such a perspective. Between 1998-2009, three of the five most commonly associated adjectives with the veil were: obligatory, undesirable, compulsory. This portrays Muslim women as passive, their only hope being the liberation of Western liberal democracy. The topless protesters of Femen have gained a lot of mainstream attention lately, strongly believing that they are coming to the rescue of downtrodden veiled women everywhere.

ImageWith this kind of sentiment, we forget to listen to the voices of the people whose opinion should matter most: Muslim women. Muslims in this country of course do face discrimination daily, being much more likely to be stopped and searched or denied work. But the argument over the veil totally excludes those who are imagined to be the victims. Unsurprisingly, many Muslim women view their headscarf to be personally liberating.

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As well they might: veiling is as much a part of the freedom to express religion as wearing a crucifix or a Jewish cap. The popular Facebook group Muslim Women Against Femen, with the aim to “expose Femen for the Islamophobes and imperialists they are” gives a voice for empowered Muslim women that the papers tend to deny. With Islam having such diversity, it features women of different skin colours and languages, and various styles of headscarf, including those who choose not to wear one. Still, the broader aim of Femen is an important one. It is absurd that men can usually wander around topless on a hot day, but a bare-breasted woman is seen as grotesque and necessarily sexualised. For some, being topless is liberating. If someone feels freer for wearing their niqab, then that is just as valuable.

Further reading:

Next I will answer the idea that Islam is anti-democratic. Really, I am quite ignorant about Islam but would love to learn more, so tell me if I should correct something or if you can think of a book or article I need to read. I’ve just started Adam J. Silverstein’s Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction.