Friday, 18 December 2009

That the CIA has been involved in the training of torturers in the Palestinian security forces should come as no surprise (Special Report Guardian 18 Dec). The CIA has a long history of training foreign security forces in torture techniques even though they were forbidden in the US itself (until Bush and Cheney decided it was time to remove the ‘pansy’ kid gloves). The CIA helped train the Shah’s notorious SAVAK secret police, the Pakistani secret services and a whole list of para-military forces in Central America, among others. During its war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, its infamous training manual, demonstrating the use of torture techniques, became public and caused widespread outrage. If Obama wishes to retain any humanitarian credibility, he should clean up the CIA and outlaw all torture techniques and their export.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

An Orchestra Beyond Borders – voices of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
By Elena Cheah
Pubs. Verso; 280 pps
Pbck. £10.99

The renowned Palestinian literary critic, Edward Said and his friend, the Argentinean-born, Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim set up the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999. It was their attempt to put into practice what others had only preached or decried: a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis, to show that a genuine human understanding and dialogue between these two peoples was possible. Music, they quite rightly perceived could achieve what politics were unable to.

Barenboim, in his foreword to this moving and illuminating book, writes: ‘of course the orchestra is incapable of bringing peace to the Middle East. We are musicians, not politicians. We wanted to create a human solution in the absence of a political one.’ He and Said, he continues, also believed in ‘.letting opposing voices be heard at the same time; we were not interested in providing a line of thought to be followed by all.’

Elena Cheah, a member of Barenboim’s orchestra at the German State Opera, became involved with the Divan orchestra in 2006 and has produced this book of interviews with the young members of this vibrant orchestra.
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is made up of musicians from Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, together with several professional musicians, like Elena herself, from elsewhere.

What you learn from her book is how each member of the orchestra comes with pre-conceived ideas and cliché images about the ‘others’, but how over time, through tears, tantrums, anger and prejudice, they each get to know each other through their working together in the orchestra. It also communicates the fun they have playing and living together in this unique community, even if only for a few weeks or months each year. Prejudices and shibboleths are slowly eroded, close friendships made across previously unimaginable divides, and political, historical and cultural pre-conceptions deconstructed. Also, through the eyes and experiences of these young musicians. The reader learns about the living conditions in their home countries. The stories each relates are extremely moving, perceptive and illustrative of the intractable ‘problem’ of the Middle-East. If only one could bring together more such groups like this, to overcome hatred, ignorance and prejudice, there would be no more wars and killings.

A deeper understanding of the ‘other’ is helped by the fact that the orchestra doesn’t just rehearse and discuss musical issues. It also organises debates about the Middle Eastern conflict and invites well-known personalities to give lectures. All participants are confronted with uncomfortable questions, facts and viewpoints for the first time in their lives. Over time, they come to a realisation that, in the orchestra, they are leading lives and making friendships impossible in the ‘real world’ contexts of their home countries, but which should be taken for granted. Their lives become changed for good and when they return home it is with a very different perspective and new ideas.

One Israeli participant says: ‘One month ago I was standing at the border [between Lebanon and Israel, as a soldier] and if this girl had been there or made the wrong move, I might have shot her. And now I’m sitting here next to her and we are playing Beethoven with Barenboim; I just don’t understand…’

A Lebanese son of a construction worker says he spent his ‘childhood and early teenage years playing football in the desert of Kuwait’ where his father was working and had never heard a classical music concert in his life. He is now a leading cellist and teaching other talented children in Lebanon about the joys of musical performance.

Music more than any other art form can unite people across cultural, religious and ideological boundaries. The sad reality is that both Barenboim and the Divan orchestra still have to struggle against considerable hostility and opposition, despite their world-wide renown. Some still see them as traitors, anti-Israel and/or enemy collaborators.

Both Barenboim and Mariam Said, Edward’s widow, who are the chief mentors of the initiative, are fully aware that the orchestra can only represent a beacon of hope, offering a small example of what could be if people were encouraged to interact and discover their common humanity rather than imprisoned by fear, ignorance and prejudice.
John Green

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Inventing a Socialist Nation – Heimat and the Politics of Everyday Life in the GDR 1945-1990
By Jan Palmowski

Pubs: Cambridge University Press
Hdbck £60.00 (342 pps)
Apart from the price, the jargon, too, places this book very much outside the range of a general readership.
The author looks at the concept of ‘Heimat’ (a uniquely German word, inadequately translated as ‘Homeland’) and the attempt to build socialism in the GDR.
The author, a Westerner -as the so-called experts, granted the oxygen of publicity, invariably are - approaches his subject with predictable pre-conceptions: socialism was ‘imposed’ and the Party attempted, in a devious and sinister manner, to hijack the concept of Heimat to gain people’s co-operation. He conveniently ignores the widespread desire throughout Germany shortly after the war for a more equitable and even socialist society. That the SED didn’t fulfil those expectations in the GDR for a variety of reasons would be a separate, but more rewarding area of research.
He states that his book is about ‘…how nationhood was constructed and contested [and] is fundamentally about how socialist elites impose their power on the subordinate masses, and what strategies the masses develop to resist these impositions.’ This clearly reveals the formulaic approach of an ‘outside ideology being imposed’.
Not long after the fall of the Wall and the virtual take-over of the GDR by West Germany, many felt they had indeed lost their Heimat and missed aspects of the life they had in the GDR, but Palmowski ignores this. He says that the GDR’s leadership failed to successfully introduce a socialist culture. However, just one example: the Jugendweihe – a secular form of coming-of-age ceremony, introduced by the GDR did, despite resistance from the church, become a widespread and popular ceremony.
New Labour tried to re-engender a sense of patriotism and ‘feelings of Heimat’ in Britain in order to achieve social cohesion, and the Conservatives have always beaten the patriotic drums and flaunted union jacks; all political leaderships attempt to gain people’s allegiance by invoking patriotic symbols. Why should the GDR be different?
Much of Palmowski’s factual evidence is culled from the fifties and early sixties – the height of the Cold War – and a difficult period of consolidation for the GDR. He quotes incidences of sabotage - the cutting of rail tracks and the burning down of schools - but gives credence to wild assertions that the Stasi did it to incriminate innocent villagers! If the population was so overwhelmingly anti-socialist, as the author implies, why did they not all leave before the Wall was built in 1961?
Palmowski’s research is based on two small, rural areas and villages in the former GDR– largely conservative and hardly representative of the country as a whole. Virtually all his sources are either from official documents or western academics. GDR experts are given no voice. His work is reminiscent of those early anthropological studies by westerners of ‘primitive’ jungle tribes. And his conclusions revert to the tired formula of a Stasi-dominated state within which corners of private freedom were carved out.
One wonders who in the English-speaking world will be interested in this rather arcane subject matter, but even if there are, they will find here little enlightenment either about socialism or the GDR.
515 words
John Green

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Wasted – why education isn’t educating
Frank Furedi
Hdbck. £15.99
Pubs. Continuum (246 pps)

Furedi, for those who don’t know, was a founder member of the so-called Revolutionary Communist Party, which began as an avowedly ultra-leftist party, before mutating to become a libertarian one. He now occupies a place akin to Christopher Hitchens - a man who professes to be of the Left, but who adopts many contradictory and obtuse right-wing positions. Furedi, for instance rejects economic sustainability, denies global warming and defended Sarah Palin’s attempt to become vice-president of the USA on the spurious grounds that to attack her was to undermine women’s rights.
His latest book is an attempt to examine what is wrong with British education. His main thesis is that we have a crisis of authority; both in society and in the field of education; adult authority has been and is being corrosively undermined. ‘When grown-ups become disconnected from the young they cease to play an adult role,’ he says, and argues that education must involve the passing on of cultural experience and knowledge to the next generation, something that cannot happen without authority. He feels education has become too much of a political football with policies based on short-term point scoring rather than on long-term objectives. He castigates the policies of consecutive governments and calls for what he calls the ‘depoliticization’ of education.
He appears to be advocating a return to ‘old-fashioned teaching’ of set academic subjects and eschews the trends towards a so-called child-centred pedagogy and wht he sees as the deification of modernity with the introduction of ‘trendy’ popular subject matter. He sees education as something other than learning, which is an ongoing process throughout one’s life, but education is about passing on traditions, history, culture and values. He feels schools are becoming more centres of child behavioural management and are ignoring the basics of a real education which would enable all children to engage with their country’s history, culture and tradition. While his book certainly raises a whole number of provocative and interesting questions about the role of education in society, he remains frustratingly nebulous when it comes to the hard choices facing educators and governments in the real world. He doesn’t mention the corrosive role played by the private school sector in Britain and the consequent drain on the state sector, nor does he mention academies or the mushrooming of faith schools. Surely it is impossible to discuss education in a meaningful manner without doing so? His is very much an academic approach, which by no means invalidates his arguments, but it does leave them somewhat up in the air. He is undoubtedly correct when he argues strongly that the ‘crisis’ in schools is not an educational issue as such but a societal problem transported into schools. ‘The aim of this book,’ he says, ‘is not to condemn the conduct of individual adults, because the problem lies with the inability of society as a whole to give meaning to the exercise of generational responsibility.’ Certainly a thought-provoking read, but it demonstrates that it is always easier to criticise than offer realistic solutions.

Nanoethics – big ethical issues with small technology
By Dónal P. O’Mathúna
Pubs Continuum (235 pps)
Pbck. £12.99

The author’s own preface is not encouraging when he thanks all those who helped him, including: ‘God, who gave me the gifts…’ (I don’t think he’s being ironic). I can only comment, that it is a pity the man in the sky didn’t endow him with more. Nanotechnology for those who aren’t too sure what it means is the understanding, control and use of matter at very small dimensions on the molecular or atomic level. The possible uses of such technology are mind-blowing, but it is still in its infancy. The possibilities it could open up would have enormous repercussions on human biology, longevity and medicine to name but some of the areas.
This book is so littered with source attributions that any authorial ideas there might be are obscured; instead of developing his own thought, the author seems content to quote others at every stage. He has also adopted the idiosyncratic idea of interweaving examples from science fiction into his attempt to delineate nanotechnology and its impact. He polemicises against posthumanism but doesn’t define it in any meaningful way. There is little discussion of the real ethical implications and how these may differ from previous scientific breakthroughs. He leaves out the central ethical question of who controls such technology and how it will be used in a capitalist context. He concludes that: ‘The underlying problem is that no amount of nanotechnological or genetic manipulation will enhance the human heart and spirit’! Need I say more to underline the confused philosophy?

Monday, 7 December 2009

Afghanistan - victory for democracy!

So the West in now committing thousands more troops to Afghanistan to 'finish the job'. We saw the recent farcical process of a so-called democratic election in Afghanistan in which the incumbent Karzai was re-elected to lead the country. Even his close friends (USA and UK among others) who imposed him on the country in the first place, were disconcerted about the level of fraud involved to get their man in. Nevertheless, it was later described as a victory for democracy. So despite having a 'democratically elected' government, it has not been consulted about the new influx of troops - so much for democracy! Despite making up reasons for the original invasions of both Iraq and Afgahanistan, the real reason is to provide a bridgehead and firm base for the US and western allies in the volatile Middle and Far East. Afghanistan is close to both Pakistan and Iran and as a base can be used to pressure both countries to 'toe the line'. The spurious reason for invasion was to counter the terrorist threat, but all the know terrorists up to now have come from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan and been trained in Pakistan not Afghanistan.
The fact that the most sophistacated and well-armed forces cannot defeat a poorly armed guerrilla force (with old Kalashnikovs and a few rocket launchers)tells us more about teh character of this war than anything else. No such rag-taggle army could hold down the wetern allies unless they enjoyed widespread support among the people - that is a trusim about all gurrilla struggles: without genuine popular support they are doomed to fail, but with it they can never be defeated. Why do historical experiences have to be remade time and time again?
The money spent on waging the war in Afghanistan would be enough, if given to the people, to make every Afghani a wealthy person. Instead the country is bombed back into the stone-age, thousands killed and maimed and women more oppressed than they were under the Taliban. It is more than time to get the troops out and let the Afghanis run their own country.