Archive for August, 2009

Little Towns

This is probably my favourite Paul Simon song. It was recorded with Art Garfunkel for the latter’s Breakaway album, and was apparently intended as an antidote to Garfunkel’s gentle whimsy. It jars with the rest of the tracks on that album, which is mostly cheaply potent sentimentality, exemplified by Garfunkel’s gloopy cover of Bruce Johnston’s Beach Boys song Disney Girls, which itself is a sort of depoliticising riposte to the music produced by the social unrest of the late 1960s. It originally appeared on the over-rated Beach Boys Surf’s Up.

I’m guessing Johnston’s song more or less consciously borrows the idea of returning to more innocent times from Carole King’s Goin’ Back, which I think was first covered by Dusty Springfield back in 1966, where the singer professes a preference for seeing the world ‘the way it used to be’. But whereas King’s lyrics are primarily concerned with a way of seeing the world through the eyes of a child so as to confront a world full of lies, Johnston constructs a realm of fantasy and escape in a a ‘turned back world/with a local girl/in a smaller town’, through a litany of homely turns of phrase.

By contrast, Simon’s lyrics are caustic and mordant, rejecting the romantic but fundamentally reactionary image of the little town as a source of innocence and goodness in implicit contradistinction to the nightmare of the metropolis. On the contrary, the town is a stupid, dull place in which God is a watchful figure of authority, leaning on the singer as he pledges ‘allegiance to the wall’. The basis for the little town’s existence, the factories, seem to produce the ‘dirty breeze’ in which his mother hangs out her family’s shirts, which is the only detail about his mother the singer feels it relevant to mention. Such is the monochrome existence that all the colours of the rainbow are black, but, in flight from reality and in resort to cheap positivity we imagine pervades the place, that’s because they lack imagination.

If the last verse

In my little town
I never meant nothin
I was just my fathers son
Saving my money
Dreaming of glory
Twitching like a finger
On the trigger of a gun
Leaving nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town

had been written recently by a nobody on youtube, it would have a SWAT team sent round to the author’s house.

‘Intellectual Cowardice’

Some decent comments by Michael D Higgins in his piece in today’s Irish Times.

Economic debate has not included idea of citizenship – The Irish Times – Sat, Aug 22, 2009

The word “crisis” and the pronoun “we” are thrown around as pieces of language in the manner of snuff at a 19th-century wake. One article after another, whether one begins with the shortfall in the Government’s estimates of receipts necessary to meet current expenditure, the non-availability of liquidity to keep firms in the real economy in business, the excessive rate being paid by the Irish Government for international borrowings as a result of the immense damage of a reputational kind visited in Ireland as a result of a small clique of speculative gamblers who called themselves bankers, the assumption is the same – we have moved into a crisis and we, the Irish public, must regard ourselves as some form of collective “we”, one that is responsible for what has come to pass.


Evasive terms like “the politicians” or “the political class” are as evasive as they are safe for those who use them, but in reality constitute a form of intellectual cowardice.

Do The Hustle, Irish Times Style

It hardly takes a Nostradamus, but my prediction yesterday that

the run-up to the vote will be used as an opportunity for the right wing media in this country, otherwise known as ‘the media’, to demonise and denigrate those left wing parties and individuals who will campaign for a No vote. It will be a marvellous opportunity, in the midst of a full-blown economic crisis, now that the far-right opportunists of Libertas have vanished, to place leftists in the same bracket as the aborted baby-fetish fascists in Coir, denounce them as unreasonable antediluvian freaks

got some fairly rapid confirmation today, in the form of Patsy McGarry’s piece in the Irish Times.

Strange bedfellows of the anti-Lisbon campaign – The Irish Times – Fri, Aug 21, 2009

Ah yes, Cóir and Éirígí. Isn’t it a sad day for the Irish language that whenever we now see any new political organisation with an Irish name those same two words, “isolationist and backward”, spontaneously come to mind? Cóir, for instance, give the impression that neither the pope, the Vatican nor the Irish (Roman) bishops are Catholic at all when it comes to the EU. Éirígí, for its part, when not hijacking protests by the Shell to Sea campaign or by Thomas Cook workers, would be identified by many as among supporters of “traitors to the island of Ireland”. That was how Martin McGuinness described the murderers of soldiers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar and PSNI constable Stephen Carroll in Northern Ireland earlier this year.

My bad, I missed the ‘murderers’ bit. In flagrant ignorance of my advisory tweet last week:

Twitter / Hugh Green:

My rules for efficient newspaper column reading. No 1: stop reading as soon as you encounter ‘but hey’.

I persisted, for shame.

Well, well. Of course, it is a little embarrassing that Sinn Féin should find itself sharing this consistently anti-EU stance with members of Éirígí and those other great lovers of Ireland and all things Irish, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and hard-line UK Tories. But hey, politics makes for strange bedfellows.

To appear on the same side of the argument as someone else on something ain’t all that. As Patsy McGarry no doubt would agree, if he were to read this piece by porn magnate Larry Flynt, whose denunciation of the ‘ruling class‘ in America, observing that

So arrogant, so smug were they that, without a moment’s hesitation, they took our money — yours and mine — to pay their executives multimillion-dollar bonuses, something they continue doing to this very day. They have no shame.

bore strange echoes of a similar piece written recently on this side of the Atlantic.

Ruling class average in all but vanity – The Irish Times – Fri, Aug 07, 2009

Their extraordinary vanity would be hilarious were it not so ludicrous, as illustrated through the inflated salaries and outrageous expenses they believe are their due, making us poor suckers the laughing stock of the developed world.

written by Patsy McGarry.

Now I’m not implying that Patsy McGarry spends his spare time reading Barely Legal and Asian Beaver. But hey, journalism makes for strange bedfellows.


Image via Wikipedia

Never let it be said that I am not willing to admit my mistakes. I changed the name of this site a few months ago to the most mundane and boring thing imaginable. As I said at the time, it came to me while I was doing the dishes. But I got sick of it, it was an awful name, and I have changed it again.

The name is a reference to a quote from Francis Hutcheson, who, from humble beginnings in Drumalig, which is somewhere near Lisburn, which is somewhere up the M1, went on to become a formative influence on the thought of Adam Smith, a student of his, who referred to him as “the never to be forgotten Dr. Hutcheson.”  In his superb account of the role of classical political economists in primitive accumulation, The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation, Michael Perelman cites Hutcheson as follows:

“If a people have not acquired an habit of industry, the cheapness of all the necessaries of life encourages sloth. The best remedy is to raise the demand for all necessaries….Sloth should be punished by temporary servitude at least.”

Perelman assesses:

The menacing “at least” in this citation suggests that the never-to-be-forgotten professor might have had even sterner medicine in mind than mere temporary servitude. What else might the good doctor recommend to earnest students of moral philosophy in the event that temporary servitude proved inadequate in shunting people off to the workplace?

This attitude, of course, is not unique to classical political economy. We might ask, was there ever a nation in which the rich found the poor to be sufficiently industrious?


I have shamelessly plundered Perelman’s book for my tagline too. It is a quote from John Bellers, the ‘famed Quaker philanthropist’, who remarked that “Our Forests and great Commons (make the Poor that are upon them too much like the Indians) being a hindrance to Industry, and are Nurseries of Idleness and Insolence”.

Leda’s Place, Swan Burgers 10c Each

If Cameron takes his cues from Black Swan man, the Tories are in trouble | Larry Elliott | Comment is free | The Guardian

Nowhere is the intellectual confusion more apparent than in Cameron’s source of economic ideas. A few months ago the buzzword was “nudge”, a reference to a book co-authored by the economist Richard Thaler, which argued that with help from government and private organisations, individuals could be persuaded to make better lifestyle choices. Cameron’s championing of Thaler was meant to show that there was a softer alternative to Labour’s big state approach to every problem.

That was then. Now the phrase du jour is Black Swan, the title of a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Cameron shared a platform with Taleb earlier in the week and said the book “confirmed his own prejudices”. We can only speculate on which prejudices these might be, since they have a distinct pick’n’mix quality. Taleb is an interesting thinker, but he has an entirely different view of the world to Thaler and would not last five minutes in the new, soft-focus, all things to all people Conservative party.

Let me tell you about the dream I had the other night. I was in a public toilet, standing at the urinal, and I looked down to see the image of a small black swan about six inches north west of the drain. I was very worried about the consequences of hitting the black swan, so I ended up making an embarrassing mess.

Let Your Yes Be No

Oh, the Lisbon Treaty referendum is back. Let me record my thoughts for posterity. A few months go I suggested that everyone who planned on voting No should organise to vote yes, so as to produce a Yes in the proportions of a Saddam-era vote in Iraq. This was and is unlikely to happen. I still think that the result will be a Yes, though I am not as sure as before, and that the run-up to the vote will be used as an opportunity for the right wing media in this country, otherwise known as ‘the media’, to demonise and denigrate those left wing parties and individuals who will campaign for a No vote. It will be a marvellous opportunity, in the midst of a full-blown economic crisis, now that the far-right opportunists of Libertas have vanished, to place leftists in the same bracket as the aborted baby-fetish fascists in Coir, denounce them as unreasonable antediluvian freaks, and attempt to shore up the neo-liberal consensus that prevails in the country with a series of phantasmagoric predictions of fear and destruction should the people make the wrong decision. Bright young professionals, CEOs and celebrity chefs shall appear on the airwaves and online, railing against the shrivelled breast of hibernian isolationism and glorifying the bounteous breast of ‘Europe’, from which all good things do and shall flow.

For my own part I agree entirely with the observations coming from advocates of a No vote that the purpose of the Lisbon Treaty is a consolidation of neo-liberalism within the European Union, that it entails a greater militarisation of that entity, and that for the most part it is a bad thing. At the same time I fear we might see a tendency among No campaigners to gloss over the ugly reality of the consequences of a successful No vote second time round. I am not the best judge of what those consequences might be, but I do not believe that they would be good for the left wing in this country, nor do I believe from this vantage point that a No vote would serve as some sort of beacon for leftist struggle across Europe. That strikes me as wishful thinking. So I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with a No vote but seeing a Yes outcome as easier to deal with. Perhaps the best result would be for people to hear lots of convincing arguments against voting Yes, none of which would have anything to do with corporation tax, abortion, or the retention of commissioners, but to lose anyway. Coming from anyone else, I would probably read these remarks as abject cowardice, but I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt.


Slavoj Zizek, who has previously written some rather dodgy stuff on the Middle East, plays it straight in this piece on Israeli expansionism, and gets it right.

Quiet slicing of the West Bank makes abstract prayers for peace obscene | Slavoj Zizek | Comment is free | The Guardian

The conclusion is obvious: while paying lip-service to the two-state solution, Israel is busy creating a situation on the ground that will render such a solution impossible. The dream underlying Israel’s plans is encapsulated by a wall that separates a settler’s town from the Palestinian town on a nearby West Bank hill. The Israeli side of the wall is painted with the image of the countryside beyond the wall – but without the Palestinian town, depicting just nature, grass and trees. Is this not ethnic cleansing at its purest, imagining the outside beyond the wall as empty, virginal and waiting to be settled?

It continues:

When peace-loving Israeli liberals present their conflict with Palestinians in neutral, symmetrical terms – admitting that there are extremists on both sides who reject peace – one should ask a simple question: what goes on in the Middle East when nothing is happening there at the direct politico-military level (ie, when there are no tensions, attacks or negotiations)? What goes on is the slow work of taking the land from the Palestinians on the West Bank: the gradual strangling of the Palestinian economy, the parcelling up of their land, the building of new settlements, the pressure on Palestinian farmers to make them abandon their land (which goes from crop-burning and religious desecration to targeted killings) – all this supported by a Kafkaesque network of legal regulations.

The idea of extremists on both sides is revealed as a position to consolidate existing power relations. A corollary to this is the image of the US as an honest broker, out to chivvy both sides along to a just settlement. An Irish Times leader comment, praising the award to Mary Robinson of a Medal of Freedom, wrote that Obama had taken an ‘even-handed approach’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that both shared a ‘commitment to political engagement based on human rights and the rule of law’.

There is truly something for everyone in the long list of Medal of Freedom recipients, from Georgia O’Keefe to Charlton Heston, Nelson Mandela to Dick Cheney (who voted against a 1986 resolution calling for the release of Nelson Mandela), Muhammad Ali to Margaret Thatcher. The award is therefore devoid of any significance other than as a reflection of the priorities and concerns of the incumbent administration. But given the facts on the ground as outlined by Zizek above, it appears likely that issuing the award to Mary Robinson is a calculated insult to AIPAC and a conciliatory gesture to the UN in the absence of any substantial change of administration policy toward Israel, since the US will continue to provide Israel with massive military and financial support as it colonises even more Palestinian land. As Tony Judt wrote recently in the NYT:

Op-Ed Contributor – Fictions on the Ground –

If Israel is drunk on settlements, the United States has long been its enabler. Were Israel not the leading beneficiary of American foreign aid — averaging $2.8 billion a year from 2003 to 2007, and scheduled to reach $3.1 billion by 2013 — houses in West Bank settlements would not be so cheap: often less than half the price of equivalent homes in Israel proper.

Many of the people who move to these houses don’t even think of themselves as settlers. Newly arrived from Russia and elsewhere, they simply take up the offer of subsidized accommodation, move into the occupied areas and become — like peasants in southern Italy freshly supplied with roads and electricity — the grateful clients of their political patrons. Like American settlers heading west, Israeli colonists in the West Bank are the beneficiaries of their very own Homestead Act, and they will be equally difficult to uproot.

Despite all the diplomatic talk of disbanding the settlements as a condition for peace, no one seriously believes that these communities — with their half a million residents, their urban installations, their privileged access to fertile land and water — will ever be removed. The Israeli authorities, whether left, right or center, have no intention of removing them, and neither Palestinians nor informed Americans harbor illusions on this score.

Obama’s ‘even-handed’ approach entails huge subsidy of settlement construction along with massive military aid to the expansionary power. This is what the Irish Times sees as a ‘commitment to political engagement based on human rights and the rule of law’.

I on Twitter

August 2009
« Jul   Sep »