Monthly Archives: April 2016


The Israel moment that happened at the debate in Brooklyn on Thursday was interesting.

It is a sign of the irrationality of the US-Israeli relationship that this is considered, as many commentators have been calling it, a “defining moment”. Joe Conason, in a great post on The National Memo, called it “The most significant moment of the Democratic primary debate in Brooklyn – and perhaps any presidential debate this season”.

It’s amazing, quite simply unfathomable to me that the position taken by Sanders here can be at all controversial.  There is debate on the Israel question in my country, too. But this is quite simply an overwhelmingly mainstream position. It’s hard to disagree with these basic facts. That a peace involves treating the Palestinian people with respect. That being frank and honest about the inhuman and illegal policies of occupation and suppression of the Palestinian people  is the only way forward. I just don’t see that anyone can disagree.

Nor can I see how anyone can reasonably disagree with the proposition that an intensive aerial bombardment of one of the most densely populated areas in the world is a war crime. Israel knew that the civilian losses would be unacceptable. And, as so many times before, as in their prior wars against the Gaza strip, their rules of engagement were not in accordance with international humanitarian law.

These positions should not be in dispute. As Senator Sanders is saying, the only way forward runs through everyone accepting these ideas, and building on this towards some kind of peace and stability.


As it is, the US has accepted the Israeli government’s talking points for decades now. The Israeli campaign of occupation and attrition, eroding Palestinian control of territory slowly but surely, has been a resounding success because of US support, including vetoes in the Security council.

As Conason writes,

Hillary Clinton knows that the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, responsible for the Gaza disgrace and more, is far closer in outlook to the ultra-nationalists who applauded Rabin’s assassination than to the peacemaker whose death she lamented. She knows that Netanyahu’s aim is annexation, not negotiation. She knows that our interests – indeed, those of the entire world — can only be advanced by a just peace that both protects Israel and relieves the suffering of the Palestinian people.

That Secretary Clinton would waver on this, cloud this particular issue, in order to pander to a Christian-Jewish conservative Democrat base quite simply shows a deep lack of character. I accept that some pandering is necessary to win elections. But you don’t pander about war crimes. You don’t turn the unnecessary deaths of literally hundreds of children into election bargaining chips. That’s deeply, profoundly unethical. It shows a lack of spine that is incommensurable with being commander in chief.



This is such a great spoof, made entirely with stock footage. They even manage to have a single candidate actor all the way through.

It’s not remarked upon often enough that election campaigns are public events made to generate collective emotions. Pointing at the theatre, the artifice and the rhetoric is good. When satire like this video point out the props and the greasepaint, it reminds you that someone is trying to change the way  you think and feel.

Today I seriously started to consider international-phonebanking for Bernie Sanders. And maybe I should. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to do with my time. Bernie is a fantastic candidate and would almost certainly take America in a far better direction. In a purely utilitarian cost-benefit analysis, I’m sure  it would be time well spent.

But I’m not an American, I’m European. I haven’t even lived in the US for over two decades. Why should this thing, this campaign, more than  a quarter of the globe away, capture my  attention in this way? It’s drama, storytelling, flash, show. We’re all watching.


Wake up , sheeple! Flickr: robin1966 (CC-BY-2.0)

The tragedy of the commons is an old economic theory from the 1970s  which basically says that if there is a shared resource, and some people in the community have an incentive to overuse that resource, they’re going to. Even if that means that the entire community,  including themselves, suffer.


The classic example is a public, common pasture – what they used to call “the commons” – which is being grazed on by the sheep or cows of the entire village. Each individual farmer has incentives to let way to many sheep onto the commons. The rewards of getting extra sheep to market go straight into the individual farmer’s pocket. But he doesn’t pay the full price for the damages. Oh no: the damage done to the entire community is shared by the entire community. It’s the classic example of private rewards versus socialised risk.

I’ve  been hearing a lot lately about the book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. A sociologist studying housing, poverty and evictions in the American urban poor who has managed to bottle something of the essence of poverty and made people see what it’s really like as an experience.

I thought this review in The Guardian made me want to read it, but also captured some defining insights into  poverty, which have been swirling around in my head too, these days, but for entirely different reasons:

What if the dominant discourse on poverty is just wrong? What if the problem isn’t that poor people have bad morals – that they’re lazy and impulsive and irresponsible and have no family values – or that they lack the skills and smarts to fit in with our shiny 21st-century economy? What if the problem is that poverty is profitable? These are the questions at the heart of Evicted, Matthew Desmond’s extraordinary ethnographic study of tenants in low-income housing in the deindustrialised middle-sized city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I think this idea – what if the reason there is so much poverty is that it is profitable to other people? – is a profound insight. In fact, I think that one sentence is so deep you could build an entire economic policy around it. That sentence shows us how our economic life has devolved into a tragedy of the commons. Through overuse of certain kinds of public resources, the economic elites are creating a common, public tragedy. They are manufacturing poverty for their own good.  They’re probably not thinking about it in those terms,  but they’re doing just exactly that.

Recognising the humanity of the impoverished, and helping empower them to become a political force is a first step towards seeing a way out of it.

What is important is that Desmond takes people who are usually seen as worthless – there is even a trailer-dweller nicknamed Heroin Susie – and shows us their full humanity, how hard they struggle to retain their dignity, humour and kindness in conditions that continually drag them down.

The main condition holding them back, Desmond argues, is rent. The standard measure is that your rent should be no more than 30% of your income, but for poor people it can be 70% or more. After he paid Sherrena his $550 rent out of his welfare cheque, Lamar had only $2.19 a day for the month. When he is forced to repay a welfare cheque he has been sent in error and falls behind on rent, he sells his food stamps for half their face value and volunteers to paint an upstairs apartment, but it is not enough. People such as Lamar live in chronic debt to their landlord, who can therefore oust them easily whenever it is convenient – if they demand repairs, for example, like Doreen, or if a better tenant comes along. Sherrena liked renting to the clients of a for-profit agency that handles – for a fee – the finances of people on disability payments who can’t manage on their own. Money from government programmes intended to help the poor – welfare, disability benefits, the earned-income tax credit – go straight into the landlord’s pocket and, ironically, fuel rising housing costs. Public housing and housing vouchers are scarce. Three in four who qualify for housing assistance get nothing.


Flickr: tonythemisfit (CC-BY-2.0)

The reason I’m thinking about this idea of the tragedy of the commons so much, obviously,  is the recent revelations about the Panama Papers. I’ve already written a lot about them, but it’s worth noting that our entire economic system has been shown to be scaffolding built around a concealed structure intended to facilitate the tragedy of the commmons. The economic and political elites are dragging the rest of us down. They’re undermining our welfare states, our democracies.

It’s hard to estimate exactly, but most experts say that something in the range of $ 21 to 32 trillion is invested or secured in tax havens. That’s an insane amount of money.  It’s a number so big you can’t wrap your head around it, but maybe this will help: it’s roughly ten times an annual budget for the US federal government. Or a little under half of the gross world product for one year. That’s everything produced in the entire world in a single year. 

But that’s a static figure. Another estimate is more keyed into the dynamic production of values. It says that at any time, anywhere from 3 to 5 % of any country’s GDP is disappearing to tax havens. Or, by some estimates, as high as 20 %.

That’s actually, believe or not, worse. That means that at any given time, the public goods being produced are being dragged down. The government is being leeched so it can’t bear the economic burden of producing both a viable welfare state and other social goods, as well as a productive economy.

At any  given time, all countries are struggling to make ends meet, and we are locked into an endless cycle of needing to grow to cover the deficits produced by tax evasions.

This is unsustainable. And in fact, it is a classic case of a tragedy of the commons.

Let’s end by focusing on that one word, though: tragedy. Because that’s what this is. I just talked a lot about this as being a theoretical, economic problem. But economy is directly about the way we live our lives.

The urban poor in their decrepit housing, being evicted, unable to find stable footings: that’s the misery being produced by tax evaders. Every time a welfare state is unable to provide proper elder care to the old and dying, that’s capital flight. When the political elites cut public spending and schools, roads, police and child protective services need to be cut, the financial district is almost certainly to blame. The victims of all these cuts and disasters need to be seen for what they are: fully human, deserving of the chance to rise. But they are not seen as that. And they are not given that chance.

That’s the real tragedy underlying so many of our public ills. It is a tragedy that requires a common solution.


Interior dome of the Hagia Sophia under renovation, Wikimedia Commons.

A wonderful and strange project at the intersection of music, history and science: audio experts are “storing” the acoustic signature of certain spaces. Both for later recreation and for learning about past spaces. In the process, they are learning a lot about how ancient churches sounded. It gives a different, tactile knowledge to our ability to imagine ourselves into the past. Be sure to see the videos and hear the music embedded in the page I linked to.

Unless you’re an audio engineer, you’ll have little reason to know what the term “convolution reverb” means. But it’s a fascinating concept nonetheless. Technicians bring high-end microphones, speakers, and recording equipment to a particularly resonant space—a grain silo, for example, or famous concert hall. They capture what are called “impulse responses,” signals that contain the acoustic characteristics of the location. The technique produces a three dimensional audio imprint—enabling us to recreate what it would sound like to sing, play the piano or guitar, or stage an entire concert in that space.

The project not only allows art historians to enter the past, but it also preserves that past far into the future, creating what LaFrance calls a “museum of lost sound.” After all, the churches themselves will eventually recede into history. “Some of these buildings may not exist later,” says Kyriakakis, “Some of these historic buildings are being destroyed.” With immersive video and audio technology, we will still be able to experience much of their grandeur long after they’re gone.

That little echo of Palmyra saddened me: “some of these buildings may not exist later”. Indeed they may not. Those who hate history are doomed to live without it. The piece in the Atlantic is actually better, but has less audio:

Even before their technical analysis began, it was clear that these ancient spaces were designed to shift a person’s sensory experience.

“You cross the threshold and your eyes immediately have to adjust,” Gerstel said. “It seems pitch black inside. The first thing you notice is images of saints, who are your size, staring at you. Gold halos against dark background, and they seem to loom. It smells of incense. You’re in this world of myrrh. The temperature is different as well. Inside, you’re in a much cooler space. Your entire body adjusts … and then to have music at the same time? That hits every sense.”

“What was truly surprising for me,” Donahue said, “was going into a space that was ancient, and to crawl around the ceiling and look at the walls and realize that they were looking at things acoustically. It wasn’t just about the architecture. They had these big jugs that were put up there to sip certain frequencies out of the air … They built diffusion, a way to break up the sound waves by putting striations in the walls. They were actively trying to tune the space.”

“They also discovered something that we call slap echo,” Donahue added, “when you have walls fairly close to one another and the frequencies go back and forth. It goes ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta. [In the ancient world,] they described it as the sound of angels’ wings.”

80117972_charliekissing464Sometimes you really want to defend the indefensible. And this is one of those times, for me.

When the atrocity was committed against the offices of Charlie Hebdo, in January of last year, my heart was crushed. Apart from the sheer human agony and the sense of tragedy that always accompanies human beings murdered over what is, essentially, differences of opinion, I was also struck deeply by another feeling. A feeling of solidarity with my fellow journalists, writers and publishers now dead and bloody on the floor of the staff editorial meeting.

I used to work in the media, and the sense of belonging to a profession hasn’t left me. I think it’s hard to work for any length of time in a publication and not feel a devotion to freedom of speech and care for the wellbeing of the democratic public. So when everyone said Je suis Charlie, I was right there with them, whole-heartedly.

I still am, obviously. When Charlie Hebdo, or any other publication, is being shot at or shut down I will be proud to count myself among their supporters. Even for publications I disagree strongly with.

Like Zaman, a conservative, Turkish, islamic newspaper. About a month ago, the Turkish government – NATO member, western ally – just plain seized control of the newspaper, following a spate of criticism against the Erdogan government. Two days after the takeover, Zaman published a paper full of pro-government articles and featured a smiling Erdogan on the cover. About the only thing I agree with Zaman about is an opposition to Erdogan’s authoritarianism and a support for an open and democratic conversation and a free press. The takeover was an international disgrace, and I’m outraged that there wasn’t more outrage. There was very little je suis Charlie spirit when it came time to say Ben Zaman duyuyorum (literally Google translate, my apologies to any Turkish speakers).

I liked a lot about Charlie Hebdo. I liked that they didn’t give a shit and that they were so dead serious about grinding everybody with an opinion’s face in the dirt. I defended them against some of the charges against them, and believed the people defending them, explaining that their jokes weren’t racist but rather making fun of racists.

That defense has become harder to trust now. Last wednesday, Charlie Hebdo published an editorial about the terror attacks in Brussels. The editorial was informed by what I can only describe as a racist attitude towards Muslims. In essence, it gave European Muslims the collective guilt for the attacks.

In reality, the attacks are merely the visible part of a very large iceberg indeed. They are the last phase of a process of cowing and silencing long in motion and on the widest possible scale.

Take this veiled woman. She is an admirable woman. She is courageous and dignified, devoted to her family and her children. Why bother her? She harms no one. Even those women who wear the total, all-encompassing veil do not generally use their clothing to hide bombs (as certain people were claiming when the law to ban the burqa was being discussed). They too will do nothing wrong. So why go on whining about the wearing of the veil and pointing the finger of blame at these women? We should shut up, look elsewhere and move past all the street-insults and rumpus. The role of these women, even if they are unaware of it, does not go beyond this.

Take the local baker, who has just bought the nearby bakery and replaced the old, recently-retired guy, he makes good croissants. He’s likeable and always has a ready smile for all his customers. He’s completely integrated into the neighbourhood already. Neither his long beard nor the little prayer-bruise on his forehead (indicative of his great piety) bother his clientele. They are too busy lapping up his lunchtime sandwiches. Those he sells are fabulous, though from now on there’s no more ham nor bacon. Which is no big deal because there are plenty of other options on offer – tuna, chicken and all the trimmings. So, it would be silly to grumble or kick up a fuss in that much-loved boulangerie. We’ll get used to it easily enough. As Tariq Ramadan helpfully instructs us, we’ll adapt. And thus the baker’s role is done.

The taxi heads for Brussels airport. And still, in this precise moment, no one has done anything wrong. Not Tariq Ramadan, nor the ladies in burqas, not the baker and not even these idle young scamps.

And yet, none of what is about to happen in the airport or metro of Brussels can really happen without everyone’s contribution. Because the incidence of all of it is informed by some version of the same dread or fear. The fear of contradiction or objection. The aversion to causing controversy. The dread of being treated as an Islamophobe or being called racist. Really, a kind of terror. And that thing which is just about to happen when the taxi-ride ends is but a last step in a journey of rising anxiety. It’s not easy to get some proper terrorism going without a preceding atmosphere of mute and general apprehension.

This is unacceptable.

The piece is full of well-mapped ideas of the islamophobic, racist right. The basic trope of the piece is that Muslims are collectively (and possibly semi-consciously), destroying Europe from within with foreign values. The physical presence of Muslims and their values in Europe, even when participating in public life with their own traditions and cultural signifiers, becomes a problem to be dealt with. Law-abiding, democratic citizens like the intellectual Tariq Ramadan, a hijab-wearing woman and a baker are complicit in the bombings. They are, the piece argues, fostering a climate of what I guess US conservatives would call “political correctness.”Muslims, in short, carry collectively guilt for the bombings.

So, to put this bluntly, this is racist. I don’t know if Charlie was radicalized by victimhood, but in a sense that’s an excuse that infantilises them. I’d rather they took responsibility for what they wrote and apologise.

So, to start with the obvious thing, Muslims in Europe do not carry collective guilt for the bombings. It’s not just morally wrong, it’s a profoundly dumb idea in practical terms.


Jean-Leon Gerome, Prayer on the Rooftops of Cairo, oil on canvas, 1865

The moral case for it: collective guilt is only relevant insofar as the group is actively working to promote a moral wrong. So if, say, you are a fine and upstanding member of the NSDAP in 1942, someone who did nothing morally wrong yourself – you nonetheless legitimized and supported an organisation that carried out great evils.

But, since I’m not an idiot, it’s hard to see a hijab-wearing womanor a baker being a member of ISIL, supporting ISIL, or being an ideological cheerleader for ISIL without actively doing any of those things. Muslims of Europe aren’t secretly or negligently helping ISIL. They aren’t eroding democracy – what kind of a weak-ass democracy would that be? Instead, the Hebdo piece seems to argue that Muslims in general help foster terrorism by their faith. That makes no sense. 1.3 billion people can’t carry collective guilt for the actions of a bizarre minority of their faith. Even if you only count the roughly 45 million European Muslims you’re stretching it.

The strategic case for it: Do you really want to further alienate the Islamic minority? There are very few things you could do that would actually increase the likelihood of there being more terrorism in the future, but apart from making sure minorities have poorer living conditions, I’m pretty sure that fomenting cultural alienation is one of them. And studies of Islamic radicals seem to agree with me.

I’m sorry I had to write this. I really am. I hope Charlie will take all of this back. But maybe they won’t, so let me say this: if they ever come back to shoot at you, Charlie, I’ll be there for you. But I can’t accept this.


John Martin: “Macbeth”, oil on canvas, circa 1820. 

A great essay in the New York Review of Books by Stephen Greenblatt on the continuing interpretation and reinterpretation of Shakespeare.

Though Shakespeare’s theatrical artistry gave pleasure, it was not the kind of pleasure that conferred cultural distinction on those who savored it. He was the supreme master of mass entertainment, as accessible to the unlettered groundlings standing in the pit as to the elite ensconced in their cushioned chairs. His plays mingled high and low in a carnivalesque violation of propriety. He was indifferent to the rules and hostile to attempts to patrol the boundaries of artistic taste. If his writing attained heights of exquisite delicacy, it also effortlessly swooped down to bawdy puns and popular ballads.

In Twelfth Night, one of those ballads, sung by a noisy, festive trio of drunkard, blockhead, and professional fool, enrages the censorious steward Malvolio. “Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?” he asks indignantly, to which he gets a vulgar reply—“Sneck up!”—followed by a celebrated challenge: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?” Shakespearean cakes and ale may have been beloved by the crowds drawn to the Globe, but they were not fit fare for the champions of piety or decorum. The pleasure they offered was in indefinable ways subversive.

If you’re at all interested in Shakespeare, the person, I highly recommend Greenblatt’s book Will In The WorldIt’s sort of a biography of Shakespeare, but not quite, and it is relentlessly interesting. And it makes you want to read the whole Shakespeare canon immediately, and what better outcome than that?


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