Thursday, 27 December 2007

Christmas cheer

Every Wednesday I participate in a meditation group. We always start with a guided meditation from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. We read pairs of sentences at intervals of five minutes or so, and reflect on them using our breathing to access the deeper meaning of the words.

Last Wednesday was Boxing Day and it so happened that some of the sentences very much resonated with me. In particular, these:
Experiencing the pain of fear in me, I breath in.
Smiling to the pain of fear in me, I breath out.

Experiencing the feeling of insecurity in me, I breath in.
Smiling to the feeling of insecurity in me, I breath out.

Experiencing the feeling of sadness in me, I breath in.
Smiling to the feeling of insecurity in me, I breath out.

Experiencing the feeling of joy in me, I breath in.
Smiling to the feeling of joy in me, I breath out.

The idea of these reflections (it seems to me) is to look deeply and truly at our selves and our experience, and to come to terms with every aspect of our current state. This process is a truthful process, for we see ourselves as we are. It is also a liberating process because, by smiling, we are freeing ourselves from the domination that our pain and other feelings can have over us. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his explanation of this exercise: “We must learn to recognize, acknowledge, and welcome each [feeling], and after that to look into its emotion… Mindfulness allows us to be calm throughout the appearance and disappearance of feelings.”

This could not be more out of sync with the usual Western experience of the Christmas period. Throughout this period we are bombarded with images of Christmas cheer: of people eating and drinking and making merry together; of families gathering together in warm homes and opening presents; of herald angels singing, merry gentlemen (let nothing them dismay!) and joy to the world.

And yet we all know that these images correspond very poorly to the average experience. For many people Christmas is a time of loneliness, of family arguments, of drunken foolishness and regrets. In short, Christmas is like every other time of year – inducing a mixture of every human feeling. And yet so strong are the media images that, despite knowing better, we too often fall for the propaganda and feel obliged to put on a happy face.

The result is that we flee in terror from feelings of fear, insecurity, sadness and anger, while we grasp desperately at any hint of joy, almost fearing its departure before it has properly arrived. Our family times can seem a pastiche of jolly scenarios, between which we lurch in desperate fear that the whole shebang might soon be exposed as a sham.

Oh to be free of the obligation to be happy – how much happier we would be! But Christmas is just the worst of it. Media propaganda is routinely couched in terms of happiness: We need to be cool, to be young, to be in a big happy beautiful gang, to go to parties and stay up late, to have a beautiful (wo)man on our arm.

You might be thinking, “oh but tell me something I don’t know.” And too true, the vacuity of media images is apparent to anybody who takes the time to stop and think about them. But even if we do this (and many don’t), we are not necessarily free of their power. I had a salutory lesson in this some years ago when I left the city of Perth and went to live in an aboriginal community in the desert in Australia. My lesson was in the question of beauty - when I first arrived out bush, it did not even occur to me that there was physical beauty to be found in the people around me. So deeply was the notion of what is beautiful implanted into me that I could not see what was before me. After six months of living free of a media obsessed with skinny, hairless teenagers in bikinis, the scales had started to fall from my eyes – and life became a whole lot more spicy.

Our (often inadvertent) consumption of images of the mass media prevents us from seeing the world around us clearly. We don’t just run in fear from our own emotions, we also cling to notions which are destroying us – and, in the process, we miss out on true joy and true beauty. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we meditate in this way:
Experiencing the feeling of attachment in me, I breathe in.
Smiling to the feeling of attachment in me, I breath out.

In a world saturated with misleading images, it is vital that we meditate regularly in this way. For, if we do not, we will inevitably find ourselves attached to a myriad of notions that stunt our growth and that severely limit the depth and meaning of our experience. We need to look deeply into ourselves to see where these notions are rooted and, as we smile at them, to watch them weaken.

Thursday, 15 November 2007


The email below is included here as a recommendation for people to read Hardt and Negri's "Multitude"... One caveat: Note that a lot of the words used in the email - e.g. empire, imperialism, multitude, democracy - mirror the very specific usage of Hardt and Negri. This may be misleading if you haven't read the book...

Dear Professors Hardt and Negri,

I have just completed your book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire which I found deeply insightful and very inspiring. You are no doubt far too busy to be reading every passing critique of your work but, for what it's worth, I thought I'd provide some constructive feedback. It will help me clarify my thoughts on the current state of global war if nothing else.

In your book you characterise the enemy of empire as a network, a swarm. You posit that in order to fight this network the military of the empire must also become a network. Your argument to back this up is contingent on two unstated hypotheses which are, I believe, very important in understanding the current situation - for they are true, but only partially.

[1] The enemy really exists.
[2] The empire wants to win the war.

I would contend that the global state of war has at least two fronts. One of these is mythical and it is in empire's interest for that war to continue ad infinitum; the other is substantial and here the empire is intent on victory. The two fronts are often deliberately conflated by the mouth pieces of empire, and I feel that your analysis would have benefited from a more clear distinction between the two.

The first, mythical front is (currently) that of terror and its associated notions of civilisations. When I describe this front as mythical I do not mean that it is entirely without substance but its substance is secondary; the role it plays in global geopolitics can be discerned by the way empire speaks of it. This front is continually emphasised in imperial propaganda; battles are said to be won and lost (the empire periodically manufactures a victory for mass consumption) but the empire warns against hoping for an early victory. This is a war that empire wants - I don't need to explain why, it has everything to do with Orwellian notions of subjection and manipulation; Adam Curtis' The Power of Nightmares explains it well I think.

The second, substantial front is that of poverty and the associated cahiers de doleances which you list. This front has content and this battle strikes at the heart of what empire is about - in contrast to the mythical terrorist enemy which, while it purports to strike at empire, is really an entirely complementary structure. The substantial front is continually under attack by empire as it is a serious hindrance in empire's efforts to extract maximum production from its subjects (as you describe beautifully).

Now you might argue that the above distinction is really a return to the previous notions of imperialism, which no longer apply. The key point seems to be that the empire wishes to absorb everything within it and thus the existence of a terrorist enemy is not in the interests of empire. My argument is that empire has, in fact, already absorbed the terrorist enemy into its fabric and this enemy plays a vital role. In fact it plays several:

First it distracts from the substantial enemy. It allows the other front to become forgotten, or overwhelmed. I don't just mean by the media and such like - the poor don't need the media to tell them that they are poor! Rather I mean that the poor are misguided into thinking that their real enemy is someone else. And what's more that that enemy is being engaged by empire and, one day, maybe, things might change. In other words it provides an appearance of movement in the political and social fabric. People know that the status quo is wrong but, if they can be convinced that things are being done to change it, then they will put up with it.

In fact, of course, empire is intent on moving things in a direction of ever increasing injustice. As you describe, geopolitics today is one of crisis - conflict between multitude and imperial power. There are only two ways for this situation to resolve itself - either the project of the multitude takes shape and diffuses this crisis; or, empire manages to prolong this crisis indefinitely. The only way that this can be done is by distraction and disingenuation. If that's a word. This is the first role of the mythical enemy.

It is very important to clarify that empire contains no potential for a resolution of geopolitical crisis. The fundamental activity of empire is to extract production from the multitude and this action will always be antagonistic. In general empire deals with this antagonism by forcibly crushing dissent, however it is also useful to have some method for diffusing this antagonism - enter, stage right, the terrorist.

The mythical enemy also provides distraction in another way. By conflating the two wars, empire is enabled to more easily undertake the militarisation of society (a process which I won't define now, but which has many elements). So not only is the illusion of movement created, but an actuality of movement also - except that, as I said, the movement is in an opposite direction to the project of the multitude.

Yours sincerely, etc

Thursday, 8 November 2007

A picture paints a thousand words...

We passed this guy the other day, as we were headed to Chennai central train station for a week-end away.

If you're looking at this picture on the internet, chances are you don't earn your daily bread by sorting through other people's rubbish. Spare a thought for those who do.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Queue jumping

Last week-end Katie, me and an Indian friend went off for a holiday in a small town called Koonoor in the Nilgiri hills. Away from the heat and dust of Chennai, we went walking through tea plantations and rejoiced in cool, fresh air.

At the end of our three days away the time came for us to catch the bus back down to the plains, from whence we would catch an overnight train to Chennai. We wandered through Koonoor to get to the bus stop and joined the hundred-odd people patiently waiting for the next rickety old hulk to arrive.

We sat down on a bench next to a couple of wizened old men who’d settled in for the long wait. On seeing Katie and my white faces, one old man gestured to us and pointed across the road. There was a vehicle there that was also heading down the hill he said. For 50 rupees (about 60p, and about five times the price of a standard bus fare) we could get there in double quick time.

Feeling slightly guilty we left the gathered mass and went searching. Sure enough the old man was right and ten minutes later we were pulling out of Koonoor in a garish silver mini-bus decorated inside with plush seating, and a carpeted ceiling impregnated with an array of twinkling multi-coloured LEDs. We whooshed past the bus stop and left the poor plebians in our wake.

And suddenly it hit me: Rich people are nothing more than queue jumpers. Perhaps this truth is so self-evident you wonder why I bother to record it. I guess I’d always known it, but it was only at that moment that I truly understood. I’d just finished reading Orwell’s Coming up for air, which perhaps reinforced the effect; but really the conclusion was inescapable. The little self-deceptions that I practice every day as a rich Westerner living in India simply weren’t up to the occasion…

So here’s the main fact: the people at that bus stop had less money than me. What’s more they’d no doubt worked harder, and suffered more, for the pittance they had. The realisation made me feel sick. Even sicker to think that that old man had seen our white faces and known exactly what the score was. We weren’t going to sit and wait with the Indians, when we had a ticket for the front of the queue in our pocket.

It’s a ticket that’s in our pocket every day of the week. In a thousand little ways money eases our way through India, indeed through life. It smoothes the hard edges, improves the food, softens the beds, and shortens the queues.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Corporate publishing houses: Building boundaries and breaking insights

For all the bad press that they receive, a lot of people still believe that Western corporations are making some sort of contribution to improving the lot of people in the third world. Let me present a counter-example.

I'm currently working in a mathematical institute in India and the example that I want to focus on just now concerns academic journals. The institute where I work is one of the few in India (we're talking less than ten) which has access to the most up to date research in mathematics. A very big chunk of the Institute's budget is spent in buying access to these journals - both online access and subscribing to the paper copies. I don't know what the exact size of the chunk is but I'd guess that it's around 50%.

This money is mainly paid to the big mathematics publishers, namely Reed-Elsevier, Springer-Verlag-Birkhauser, Kluwer etc etc. All of these publishers are very proud of the work they do in providing high quality scientific publishing; they trumpet the benefit that their work brings to humanity. Elsevier's tagline is Building Insights. Breaking Boundaries. It's a tagline that, with a little reworking would aptly desribe the real situation for these publishers are in reality hell-bent on Building Boundaries and Breaking Insights. Here's why:

1. Their service is next to non-existent. I am the author of a small number of academic papers. Here's how the system works (at least in the field of mathematics). Let's suppose I submit to a Reed-Elsevier journal...
- I create some maths, write it up, submit it. I do this FOR FREE.
- An academic editor receives my submission and decides where to get it referee'd. The editor will be an academic working in the field and she works (usually) FOR FREE.
- The editor sends the article to a referee who reads it, makes comments and a recommendation for publishing (or not). I've been a referee on one occasion so I can confirm that the referee works FOR FREE.
- Let's assume the referee says the article is OK. The editor then writes back to the author and asks him to make whatever edits are required. Often this will also involve making sure that the typesetting is consistent with the format of the journal. Yes, that's right, in maths the author does the typesetting.
- The final version is sent in by the author and gets passed by the editor to the Reed-Elsevier employees who run the journal. They will check the type-setting of the article, and arrange it with the other articles to appear in the given volume. This will be printed in a paper version and appear on web. These employees will also have to chase up paper work like the transfer of copyright. Yes, it might seem absurd, but if I want to publish in their journals then I must resign myself to the fact that Reed-Elsevier becomes the owner of my work.

It's pretty clear that Reed-Elsevier are getting an awful lot for free and not contributing a great deal themselves. I don't want to denigrate the work of their employees who are, in my experience, very professional. But we need to give the work they perform a proper weighting - it is important, but it is by no means the whole game. And a lot of their work is involved with protecting the interests of Reed-Elsevier. They chase copyright transfers, they run secure web servers with credit card payments for subscribers etc etc.

2. Their prices are horrendous. And they're getting worse. In 2006 the American Maths Society (AMS) surveyed mathematics journal prices for the years 1994 - 2004. A useful summary of the results is also available. The summary compares commercial journal pricings with the price of the Annals of Maths, perhaps the most prestigious maths journal in the world, which is published by Princeton University Press. The comparison is illuminating. For instance, the Annals of Maths, at that time, cost around 10 US cents per page. Commerical journals ranged in price up to $5.30 per page, with fifty of the journals surveyed costing more than $1 per page. The annual price increase for many of the journals was in excess of 10%.

In absolute terms an annual subscription to a mathematics journal is likely to cost well in excess of $1000, often more than double that. The AMS survey includes a list of more than 270 journals although this is by no means exhaustive. It is pretty clear that if an institution wishes to have up-to-date access to cutting-edge mathematics research then they are going to have to spend a lot of money. That money is simply not available in developing countries like India. It's not even available to many institutions in rich countries.

Think about the implications of this! Whole sections of the globe (most of humanity, in fact) do not have access to the body of human knowledge. We proclaim our benevolent intentions to aid development and provide assistance to the third world and yet, at this most basic level, we are denying people the tools to help themselves. And to what purpose? Simply so that the share holders of two or three big corporations can grow wealthy on their ill gotten gains.

3. We can do it ourselves. There is no reason why journals need to cost the reader anything - online access to research articles should be free. And for most mathematicians online access is all that they need. Many journals ouside the clutch of the big corporations provide free online access already and there is, frankly, no reason why we should support journals that don't provide this service

So here are are some suggestions for action:

- Authors should not submit to journals owned by Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Kluwer etc. Indeed, they should only submit to journals which allow free on-line access. There are lots of these and, a lot of the time, they are the most prestigious! People who are asked to referee an article should refuse if the journal is not free.
- If you must submit a paper to a journal owned by one of this horrible lot then make sure you put your paper on the arXiv - so at least people may find it if they're on a search. And make sure the copyright of the journal allows you to keep it on the arXiv once it's published.
-If you're an editor, resign! Or, better, get the whole board to resign! It's been done already - the board of Topology recently resigned en masse. A little later a new low-cost journal appeared - the Journal of Topology - with a very similar editorial board. More power them!

In fact the arXiv has been showing us the way for a long time now. All that is lacking is a system of peer-review - and we don't need a big corporation to make that happen. A journal simply needs to run a web server where authors can upload their papers automatically like on the arXiv. Editors then take responsibility for the review process (as they do now) and when everything is approved the article can be made public and given a unique identifier. The Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, for instance, already works in a similar way and there's no reason why all the rest shouldn't follow suit. Academics need to get their act together.

A final thought. Each day when I come to work in this institute I pass a whole army of auxiliary workers toiling away to keep the place going - cleaners, security men, catering staff, receptionists etc etc. Unfortunately, for all their good work, their wages are lousy - it'll be a long time before they can aspire to membership of the fabled Indian middle class. Indeed their annual salary would not compare well even to the hourly rate of Crispin Davis and his coterie of executives at the top of Reed-Elsevier, who take home millions of pounds every year.

Perhaps the comparison is too naive, too emotive to be valid. And yet on some very real level these two sets of people are connected - for starters, both their wages are paid by academic institutions. And, speaking from experience as an academic, I know which group has been of more benefit to me.

[P.S. I'm not the only person who thinks this way...]

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

The Petraeus Report

To understand the Petraeus report to congress it is important to also understand the subsequent report to be given by President Bush. Bush will brief the US congress with regard to the eighteen benchmarks that the congress has set as a measure of the performance of the Iraqi government.

This military occupation is, you see, a very political project. It is aimed at specific political outcomes over and above merely military considerations. Too often the question of whether the troops should stay in Iraq is couched in terms of "making Iraq safer." This, it is thought, is the primary question; more precisely, it is thought that troops remain in Iraq in order to make Iraq safer for Iraqis. In fact this interpretation is not consistent with the facts.

Let me give one example. In July, President Bush presented an "initial benchmark assessment" to Congress, as he was obliged to do under the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act, 2007 (Public Law 110-28).The third of these benchmarks starts as follows: "Enacting and implementing legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources to the people of Iraq..." So far, so noble. But the sting is in the tail. The final sentence of this section reads as follows: "Prime Minister Maliki intends to submit the Revenue Management Law to the Council of Ministers soon, for subsequent consideration by the Council of Representatives along with the framework Hydrocarbon law. "

This Hydrocarbon law has largely passed beneath the radar of the Western press, but its significance for the future of Iraq is immense. According to the NGO,War on Want, the law "would allow long-term contracts to be signed with foreign oil companies, with terms that may not be changed by future Iraqi governments for decades to come. The oil companies will be immune from accountability in Iraqi courts."

Now according to the US congress, the passing of this law is considered a measure of the performance of the government of Iraq. But what do the people of Iraq think? A recent survey, found that "Iraqis oppose plans to open the country’s oilfields to foreign investment by a factor of two to one." And that view is shared across all ethnic and sectarian groups - "there are no ethnic, sectarian or geographical groups that prefer foreign companies." Or, as the Guardian put it, Iraq says No to Oil Theft.

So then, by the standards of democracy, a better benchmark of the Iraqi government's performance in this area would be their opposition to US efforts to get this law passed! Indeed one can go further. Subhi al-Badri, head of the Iraqi Federation of Union Councils, has said that "the law is a bomb that may kill everyone." In other words, US efforts to push this law through the Iraqi legislature have the potential to fuel, rather than reduce, the violence gripping the country.

And this demonstrates exactly the absurdity that lies at the heart of the reports being tabled by General Petraeus and President Bush. They purport to outline progress towards a stable democracy. In fact, they merely demonstrate the occupiers' continued commitment to their own political goals, which they pursue regardless of the wishes of the Iraqi people. The reports purport to outline progress towards making Iraq safer and more secure. Yet the political aims of the occupying forces are consistently at odds with the safety and security of ordinary Iraqi people. And so, inevitably, the occupation will continue to fuel violence and tragedy in Iraq until the troops finally leave.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

India and the Tao Te Ching

We've been living in India now for about three weeks; a mixed experience so far. Most days have started with breakfast and then a session of meditation on Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching - reading one chapter each session we've reached number ten. It turns out that this has been an excellent discipline to help us cope with a pretty serious cultural adjustment...

Therefore having and not having arise together (Tao Te Ching 2). Indeed they do and, in India, having and not having arise right next to each other. We live in an entirely adequate flat with the luxury of a lap top and an internet connection. Since we've been here we've spent some 20 000 rupees (about £250) on "essentials" like a couple of bikes, some Indian clothes, a pair of trainers, a guitar, a couple of days out... Now that we've got what we "need" we've started to tighten our belts a little but even so we are having some difficulty keeping to our daily income of 500 rupees (about £6).

And yet 80% of Indians live on 20 Rupees (25p) a day. How they do this I have no idea. I presume it must involve being hungry every day; it must involve having to work, scrounge, hustle every day; it must involve indignity and discomfort every day. And worse, of course, for many it involves illness, disability, a hugely diminished quality of life and, ultimately, an early death (the healthy life expectancy here is more than fifteen years less than in the UK).

I knew all this long before I got here of course - in my head. But in the West we rarely encounter poverty in such a spectacular way. There is severe poverty in the West but it is ghetto-ised; we have marginalised people not just socially, economically and politically, but geographically. Middle-class Westerners are rarely forced to encounter the poor. Indeed we've separated having and not having so successfully that a lot of good middle class folk feel distinctly irritated if some poor bugger has the temerity to break the illusion and ask them for 50p...

For of course our having and their not having are intimately connected - and that's eminently obvious here. Each time I want to go to the shops here I have to cross a stinking canal (a relic of British rule) on the banks of which live a number of utterly destitute families. The same little children smile at me each time I pass; I see the same old lady sitting under her hut (several pieces of corrugated iron) but she doesn't smile as much as the children.

How am I to respond to this?

If nothing is done, then all will be well (Tao Te Ching 3). Oh really?! I wonder what that old lady would say if I were to run this by her...

A little bit of reflection has opened my eyes a little though. Two things occur to me. Firstly I need to understand how to do nothing. By which I don't mean not doing anything. Doing nothing is an active process - it won't just happen by itself! Perhaps the nearest verb that I can use to describe it is "emptying". At the end of a process of emptying one has less than when one started, but that doesn't mean you've not been doing anything...

So perhaps the sage means that to act truly I must act from a place of nothingness. In particular I'm not acting from a place cluttered by myself and my needs - I'm not achieving, I'm doing only what is to be done.

Contrary to first impressions, this is intensely practical! I have to make sure that any response to my situation here is considered and appropriate. I cannot be in the business of assuaging my Western guilt - that is not the point. I must respond in a way which affirms life for its own sake.

However I'm still not sure what form that response will take...

The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies (Tao Te Ching 3). And this is the second thing that has occurred to me. One of the beautiful things about the Tao Te Ching is that a lot of it appears to be bullshit! What is this bloke on about?

And yet herein lies the nub of its wisdom. Lao Tsu knows the danger of truth - a danger so great that he often avoids truth altogether. Rather his language is one of suggestion, implication, even plain nonsense and contradiction. The responsibility is on the reader to sort through his hints and suggestions, to make sense of his absurdities... and to jettison the bollox!

This might appear odd at first but of course it is really the responsibility that every reader has every time they open a book or a newspaper, most especially a book which has the status of a religious text. The fact that too many readers don't do this is evidenced by the fundamentalist nutters who trot about the place spouting hate. But I get the feeling that it's kind of hard to be a fundamentalist Taoist and thank God, Allah and most especially, thank Lao Tsu for saving us from that.

And of course in the light of such demonstrable wisdom from Mr Tsu, the reader of the Tao Te Ching would be well-advised to think carefully before she really does decide he's talking bollox. So the wise rule by stuffing bellies, eh? Think on that...

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Mathematics and mushrooms

I wrote this a few years ago. I came across it again recently so thought I'd lob it on this blog...

Ever since I read Aldous Huxley's ``The Doors of Perception,'' I've been fascinated by the idea that the use of drugs could offer insight into every day life. Huxley's descriptions of the world as it appears under the influence of the hallucinogen Mescalin lead to thoughts on religion, meaning and art. Well I too am an artist - a pure mathematics student - and it struck me that the same process could be applied to that particular branch of learning, if someone were to only try...

My ambition was further strengthened after reading of Carlos Castaneda's experience with drugs, including mescalin, while under the careful guidance of a Yaqui Indian Man of Power, don Juan. In Castaneda's account of his apprenticeship to don Juan, ``The Teachings of don Juan,'' the final experience proves so terrifying that Castaneda decides to leave the apprenticeship for good and steer clear of the mind-bending drugs that are part of Yaqui culture. As it happens he changed his mind some years later and continued the process. However, this aside, it was not the terror of the experience that most impressed me (though it was genuinely fearsome,) but the truly awesome insight that Castaneda gains from his experiences - understanding which survives his return to the conscious plane and which, don Juan assures him, will eventually lead to him becoming a Man of Power.

There was only one thing to be done then. Apprenticeship to Men of Power is restricted to a chosen few and they don't live in England. Likewise, it might have been acceptable for a distinguished thinker like Huxley to indulge in a bit of Mescalin, but your average student Joe might not be looked on so kindly, even if it was possible to get hold of the stuff. What your average student Joe CAN do though, is go to Amsterdam. He won't find Mescalin but for a handful of Euros he can buy a packet of copelandia magic mushrooms, he can chew on them and he can see what happens. This, reader, is what I did and here are some of my thoughts...

Let's start with that archetypal hippy image of the happy day tripper staring fascinatedly at some ordinary object and exclaiming at how cool it is! For Huxley it was his trousers, for me it was the pavement - the same pavement I can look at any day which was now, not just more colourful, but much more highly patterned. Where usually I would see random chaos, now I could see symmetry and relations; an abstract structure underpinning the matrix of blue stone. One aspect is worth a particular mention - I became quite alarmed, at a certain point, about a strange covering that seemed to have been laid down on the ground and which caused my toes to curl! Looking more closely, though, I realised that this covering I was seeing was `the gaps' or the space between the objects strewn on the pavement. I was seeing what a mathematician may call a `complementary image' to my usual vision. The same information was being encoded by my eyes, but my rewired brain was decoding it in an altogether different, if equivalent, manner.

Both this search for symmetry, this perception of abstract structure beneath surface form and this reinterpereting of information to allow it to be analysed in a different way are valuable mathematical priniciples. In fact, in some sense, they completely describe the mathematician's task and method. The Game Theory, for instance which John Nash (subject of the film ``a Beautiful Mind'') dreamt up, and for which he won the Nobel Prize, is an analysis of the abstract structure underlying the interactions of a number of competing or co-operating interests pursuing dependent goals. The significance of his work was that he was able to see these situations in a new, `re-wired' way.

But it's not just in the philosophy of the working mathematician where the tripping hippy may bear a resemblance, the actual activity of doing mathematics can appear very similar: In his biography of the great Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erd\"os, ``The Man who Loved Only Numbers'', Paul Hoffman relates how one day, while trying to solve a particular problem, Erdos and a colleague were sat next to each other in a public place for an hour of cogitating silence. The silence was only brought to an end when one of them said, ``It is not naught. It is one.'' Much rejoicing followed! Who knows what strange mindscape of abstraction, Erd\"os and friend inhabited for that hour?

The case of Erd\"os brings with it, in addition, a somewhat more unusual link to the chemical world; For this most prolific of mathematicians spent his last twenty-five years working nineteen hours a day on the back of a heady cocktail of Benzedrine, Ritalin, strong espresso and caffeine tablets. This is a parallel that will not withstand generalization however!

It is at the point of paradox that the respective paths of mathematics and mushrooms most clearly diverge. Towards the end of my copelandia experience, sometime after I became aware that I was a single human entity who was neither mad nor dead (all facts of which I'd been very unsure), I found myself in a very warm, calm, beautiful state of mind in which the universe was understood and meaning accessed. This occurred through a series of `moments of clarity' in which statements of paradox were the fundamental unit. Time after time I saw truth yet knew that truth lay in its opposite also - in chaos, there was order; in mortal futility, enduring meaning. There is no place for such statements in mathematics.

In this regard, the mathematical process can be though of as the assumption of a collection of axiomatic first principles from which are deduced, using logic, a structure of `therefores': facts which must be true given our assumptions and our previous `therefores'. This process is unambiguous and is verifiable - I have heard a professor of mathematics say ``The great thing about mathematics is that you can convince people!'' Mathematicians give proofs for their arguments. This is in contrast to social scientists or even physical and life scientists who, though they use logic and argument to draw conclusions from data or suppositions, must accept that internally consistent arguments for conflicting positions may be put. No one will ever prove or disprove that drugs prohibition never works or that humans are descended from the apes, but it can and has been proved that there is no projective plane of order 6.

It may not be going too far to say that mathematics could be characterised in this way: as the study of truth that can be proven. But the implications of such truths tend to spill out beyond this boundary of proof. That the truth is beautiful, for instance, is a statement that few mathematicians would dispute but none can prove. The happy fact is that when conscious beings penetrate the abstract thought structures that underpin reality, they find crystalline structures of logic that can move the heart. In the same way that I can't explain why the colours that swirled in front of my eyes that crazy Dutch evening were so lovely yet terrifying, perhaps this much at least will always remain a mystery.

Sunday, 29 July 2007


Ten days ago I visited the ex-concentration camp, now museum, at Auschwitz. The experience was a sobering one, as you might expect. My reason for visiting is perhaps best summed up by the beautiful poem which prefaces Primo Levi's memoir, "If this is a man":
You who live safe
In your warm houses;
You who find on returning in the evening
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a bit of bread
Who dies because of a yes and because of a no

Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
Without enough strength to remember
Vacant eyes and cold womb
Like a frog in the winter:

Reflect on the fact that this has happened:
These words I commend to you:
Inscribe them on your heart
When staying at home and going out,

Going to bed and rising up;
Repeat them to your children:
Or may your house fall down,
Illness bar your way,
Your loved ones turn away from you.

Levi's injunction for us to remember what happened at Auschwitz is reason enough to visit the camp if given the chance. It is also reason enough to read Levi's book which is a beautifully written and extremely moving account of Levi's experience as an inmate at Auschwitz. The companion book "The Truce" describes his tortuous journey back to Italy after he was rescued from Auschwitz. I will list at the bottom of this entry some other books that are worth reading on this subject, as part of the "remembering" which Levi demands of us.

With regard to the experience of visiting the camp I want to mention just two things. Firstly the thing which shocked me the most: It was not, as I'd expected, the hideous conditions of the camp or the tragic tales of those imprisoned there. These things were of course inconceivably tragic but for some reason the thing which most shocked me was the slogan over the main gate. In metal letters the Nazis had inscribed "Arbeit macht frei" - Work brings Freedom - a slogan which, since it was a manifest lie for all those condemned to live in Auschwitz, cruelly mocked the daily struggles of the prisoners there.

I won't describe anything else about the camps - see the end to find much better places to read about Auschwitz than on this blog. Rather I want to mention an incident that happened as we left the camp. A bus load of teenagers arrived (there were a lot of people visiting that day) to tour the camp; as they mustered in front of the main entrance I noticed that a good portion of them were wrapped in the Israeli flag. I'm not sure that they were from Israel but they were obviously Jewish.

The sight of them gathered there caused me some consternation. For me the lesson I take as primary from Auschwitz is that I must take the responsibility to think for myself. The tragedy of Auschwitz is also the tragedy of a (largely) complicit German population. My response to this must be that I constantly engage my critical faculties and independence of thought to ensure that I never allow myself to participate in injustice of any kind, that I never let the mob mentality overcome basic morality.

Now by this I do not mean to suggest that I should reject good advice or should disrespect sources of moral authority. Someone recently commented that in this blog I seem to reject all forms of authority - I want to correct this impression now. My aim is to be open minded and to listen and learn from many and varied voices - but part of doing this responsibly is understanding that I am obliged to question everything I hear, to test the integrity of those sources which inform my world view.

One of the voices which I most distrust is that of the nationalist. Too often nationalism seems to suppurate into some level of moral blindness - national (or religious) flags often seem to act as some sort of moral blindfold and the consequences are often horrendous. And yet, on the other hand, groups of people are rightly keen to celebrate cultural identity.

There is, therefore, a difficult, but vital, line to tread. Those Jewish teenagers have every right to be proud of the astounding contribution which Jewish culture has made to human history. In addition their personal connection to the tragedy of anti-semitism is also part of their very identity and it is especially important that they too follow Levi's injunction to remember. Is this what was happening the other day at Auschwitz? Or was it the sinister inculcation of blind nationalism?

I must have some faith of course in the ability of those young people to think for themselves. But I am also aware that teenagers have a tendency towards experiencing the world very intensely and with a sense of great import. Experiences such as a visit to Auschwitz can generate a strong loyalty towards particular ideas or principles or group identity, a loyalty that can leave people vulnerable to cynical manipulation. All the more reason that we value the notion of thinking for oneself as I describe above...

One final comment. It is exactly this kind of cynical manipulation that lies at the root of the notion that the Holocaust is over-remembered. Some readers may point out that the Holocaust has a very high profile in mainstream European culture, while other issues of gargantuan tragedy do not. (Examples might be tragedies such as Stalin's gulags; the international slave trade; the Indonesian genocide in East Timor; CIA backed atrocities in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala during the 80's, King Leopold II's genocide in the Congo etc etc).

I do not accept that the Holocaust is over-remembered - instead two phenomena are at work, both reflections of the principle that history is written by the victors: Firstly the other tragic events are under-remembered. Secondly the history of the Holocaust is consistently misused, in the cynical way I describe above, by governments, media and other groups. Typically it is misused either to generate support for the policies of the government of Israel, or to justify the use of force in the face of tyranny - I may write some more on this some other time...

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Some other books about the holocaust that I can recommend...

Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" is another survivor's account but with a difference; Frankl moves from his experience at Auschwitz to a formulation of the pschiatric theory of "logotherapy", a theory based on the idea that man's primary drive is to find/ create meaning in their lives. This theory contrasts with Freud's idea that sex is the primary drive or Adler's ideas that power is the primary drive. (These are gross simplifications - psychiatry aint my area of expertise...)

William Styron's "Sophie's Choice" deals directly with the issue of the Nazi concentration camps - the character Sophie is a non-Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. The book is a scintillating read and deals with a wide range of profound issues - in relation to the holocaust perhaps the main focus is on the tragic experience of the survivors of Auschwitz, all of whom were horrifically scarred by their experiences.

One step removed from the issue of Auschwitz is Anne Michaels' book "Fugitive Pieces" which is a beautiful account of the life of a Jewish survivor of the Nazis. Anne Frank's diary is also a fascinating read - and so well known I don't need to describe it here.

There are a few other books on the issue that I haven't read but would like to, most notably Tadeusz Borowski's "This way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" - another survivor's account.

Friday, 29 June 2007

Peace camp in Parliament Square

Last week-end I toddled up to London to participate in a peace camp in Parliament Square. The camp lasted from noon Saturday until noon Thursday, straddling the death throes of the Blair administration and the early wailings of the Brown era (“The King is dead! Long live the… errrm. No, actually, down with the next king too!”)

The camp was entitled “War is still the issue". The aim was to ensure that our focus remains very much on the tragedy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the change of administration. Blair/ Bliar has been the central bogeyman in UK protests against Iraq and we need to ensure that now he’s gone we don’t let his successor off the hook.

The camp was also designed to support Brian Haw who has camped outside Parliament Square for more than 2200 days. His protest is an ongoing inspiration to peace activists, a high profile reminder to thousands of passing tourists and a significant irritant for establishment politicians.

There has been substantial coverage of the camp on IMC UK (as well as some in the mainstream media). I want to highlight two significant things that came out of the camp for me.

Firstly the fact that there was very little police interference. The camp was illegal as it contravened SOCPA. In particular all protests within 1km of Parliament Square require permission from the police – this permission was never sought by the campers. (The one possible exception to this is Brian Haw’s support camp. The legal battles continue but, because his camp predates SOCPA, he has been able to successfully argue that he is exempt from its provisions).

I for one fully expected the police to come and clear the camp way very quickly – they have been very heavy handed about enforcing SOCPA to this point. This did not happen and it suggests a sea change in the thinking of the police and the government. Indeed a recent article from The Times suggests that SOCPA may soon be repealed – a significant victory for freedom of speech.

Incidentally at one stage the police released a statement in which they stated that, as far as they were aware, permission had been sought for the camp. Don’t believe a word of it!

The second significant thing for me came out of a discussion amongst participants in the peace camp around the notion of “loving your enemies”. As I mentioned above the anti-war movement has (rightly) targeted Tony Blair as being personally responsible for the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. My feeling is however that the structure of mainstream politics in this country is such that any prime minister would have made decisions within parameters that are utterly unacceptable. Perhaps a different prime minister would not have gone to war against Iraq but it is almost certain that any other prime minister would have continued the policy of sanctions and would have reserved the right to use military force to defend the elite’s economic interests.

So my gripe is with the system and culture of mainstream British politics and this is something on which I want to remain very focussed. I do not want to be distracted by personality politics (a constant preoccupation of the mainstream media) when there are much deeper issues to consider.

Thinking around this also caused me to reflect on my fundamental opposition to the two wars, in particular to the war on Iraq. There have been many arguments put against the war – people have pointed out that it is illegal due to the lack of a Security Council resolution, that Blair et al lied to the parliament and the people on a number of significant issues, that strategic planning for war was ill conceived etc etc. I suppose those opposing the war are well advised to put across all the arguments at their disposal. Nonetheless were none of the above true I would still oppose the war!

My objection to the war on Iraq (and the war on Afghanistan) is on moral and humanist grounds – I believe that we have no right to kill people for pretty much any reason whatsoever. I don’t believe in dropping exploding lumps of metal from the sky.

Perhaps it is conceivable that a people may be so dreadfully oppressed they feel compelled to take matters into their own hands (and in this case who am I to condemn?) but this is clearly not the situation of the UK government. For them the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan have been, from the start, wars of aggression. And they are wars which continue to destroy lives with every passing day. We must oppose them in every way we can.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Victory: Reed-Elsevier gives in

The Morning Star published a version of this article a couple of weeks ago. It describes the successful campaign against publishing house Reed-Elsevier's involvement in the arms trade.

In March this paper ran a story about the publishing house Reed Elsevier and its connection to the arms trade. Reed is one of the biggest publishing groups in the world, publishing over two thousand scientific, medical, and educational journals. They also have a history of organising some of the biggest arms fairs in the world, including the biennial DSEi arms fair in London, Shot Show in America and a number of others.

Reed has come under heavy attack from academics, authors, scientists and doctors who make use of the journals which Reed publishes, but who disapprove strongly of Reed’s involvement in the arms trade. It has taken some time but that disapproval has finally registered: On Friday Reed announced that they were withdrawing from the arms trade. Sir Crispin Davis, Reed CEO, said:

“[I]t has become increasingly clear that growing numbers of important customers and authors have very real concerns about our involvement in the defence exhibitions business. We have listened closely to these concerns and this has led us to conclude that the defence shows are no longer compatible with Reed Elsevier's position as a leading publisher of scientific, medical, legal and business content."

Reed’s announcement has been warmly received by the academic and medical community. In an email to The Scientist magazine, Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians said "This will safeguard the reputation of the Reed Elsevier publication The Lancet and no longer undermine its role in improving health and healthcare worldwide."

The group Campaign Against the Arms Trade which coordinated the campaign against Reed said that they “welcome the decision and applaud the board of Reed Elsevier for recognising the concerns of its stakeholders.”

The financial sector has been less delighted: Reed’s announcement halted a week-long surge in their share price. It is unlikely that this decline will last long however. Arms fairs represent just 0.5% of Reed’s turnover, as compared to medical and science publishing which is around 14%. It is precisely this arrangement which had given campaigners a sense that they could win the day.

From the start the strategy of the campaign was to use Reed’s primary dependency on the scientific and medical communities as a source of leverage on the issue of arms fairs. The aim was to convince Reed that they were in danger of alienating their primary market unless they withdrew from the arms industry.

In other words the campaign succeeded because it managed to effectively link ethics with economics. Reed stood unrepentant at repeated scandals regarding cluster bombs and torture equipment being promoted at their shows; they brushed off accusations that invitees to their shows included some of the most repressive regimes in the world (most recently it emerged that the defence minister of Sudan, the representative of a regime accuse of genocide in Darfur, was invited to the Reed organised Idex fair in February); but if Reed were unmoved by these revelations, their customers were not.

Indeed, with every scandal, the level of condemnation grew. A series of scathing editorials were written by major medical journals including “The Lancet” (which is Reed published). Letters were written by prominent authors, academics, scientists and physicians to journals and to national newspapers. An online petition attracted more than 1900 signatories from the scientific and medical communities; a smaller number also pledged to exercise a publication boycott of all Reed journals. A regular weekly vigil was maintained at Reed’s London offices to ensure the issue remained prominent in the minds of Reed employees.

All of these actions reinforced Reed’s fear that they were alienating their own market. The result is that, despite Crispin Davis stating that the Reed arms exhibitions are “a high quality business, with strong management and good growth”, Reed will withdraw from a business that last year turned over more than £20 million.

Unfortunately it is not all good news. Reed’s decision to withdraw is very unlikely to affect their organisation of this year’s DSEi arms fair in London in September. This will be one of the biggest arms fairs in the world and, if past DSEi’s are anything to go by, will play host to human rights abusers of the very worst kind. As in past years DSEi 2007 will be targeted by protestors seeking to disrupt this vital link in the industry of war.

Additionally there must be concern as to exactly how Reed are to effect their withdrawal from this industry. Were their decision an ethical one, Reed would be honour bound to close down their arms fair business for good. Presumably though their profit motive will ensure that they simply sell the business to the highest bidder.

Should this turn out to be the case, that bidder will have to contend with opposition which has tasted victory once, and which has great hope that it can win again.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Kebele, Compassion, Community, Revolution

I just published this on the Bristol IndyMedia newswire.

Two recent discussions on this newswire have got me to thinking. The first was in response to an (overpriced) lecture on “happiness” which readers tended to think was expensive middle-class wankery; the second was in response to a promotion of Kebele’s chess club which readers tended to think was an indication of Kebele’s hard core going soft.

Clearly there is a lot of concern when people are seen to be “taking their eye off the ball” and indulging themselves. In the face of a relentlessly oppressive social system we must not lose any opportunity to work for revolution…

Fair enough, but clearly there are times when we should take a step back from non-stop action and campaigning in order to consider some of the implications of what we are trying to do. So, in no particular order, here are some of my recent thoughts:

1. One of the things I like about Kebele is that when I’m there I don’t feel guilty if I’m not doing anything. There is time and space there to enjoy myself with friends, without feeling obliged to join in every damn campaign. I don’t always have the head space for campaigning and it's good to meet activists who are happy just to hang out with no purpose but good company. The cultivation of good relationships is as vital to the revolution as any demonstration.

Criticism of people just hanging out in Kebele reminds me of George Orwell's characterisation of some of his Socialist comrades: "Sometimes I look at a Socialist... and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody... [but rather] a hypertrophied sense of order. The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery... but because it is untidy." (p156, The Road to Wigan Pier)

If the world we're struggling for doesn't have time for a game of chess then I want no part of it. More power the chess club!

2. I recently read David Edwards’ “The Compassionate Revolution”. His preoccupation is with the generation of compassion. Edwards asserts that compassion is the phenomenon which drives a commitment to radical politics (when it's not a hypertrophied sense of order); more controversially though he suggests that compassion is a phenomenon which requires deliberate cultivation. People don’t just feel compassion out of the blue, instead it grows in them with nurturing. The absence of compassion often leaves people baffled and indifferent to the cries of the oppressed and to the arguments of those campaigners who would advocate for the oppressed.

I find this idea really interesting – and clearly it is an idea which activists should take some time to understand. As Bob Dylan said “How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?” Well, perhaps the answer is more than two! We won’t convert people to our cause, we won’t persuade people to care about the poor and oppressed, if the seeds of compassion are not already inside them.

It is Edwards’ contention that Buddhism provides one key to unlocking this door of indifference. As a creed one of its defining characteristics is a commitment to the cultivation of compassion; the Buddhist canon contains a wealth of reflection, of discussion and of practical technique to enable this process to take place in the heart of the practitioner.

I suspect a fair number of people reading may instinctively recoil at the idea that religion can provide a source of insight into the revolutionary program. That recoil is a fine protective mechanism but don’t let it obscure the main issue! Clearly there is a question here which we need to answer, whether we turn to Buddhism or not. In seeking the source of compassion (as we must) it seems clear that we must examine concepts of community, spirituality, human relationships, beauty, art, happiness...

3. I’m half way though Paulo Freire’s “Cultural Action for Freedom” (borrowed from Kebele’s splendid library). Everything I’ve ever read by Freire has inspired me and this is no exception.

Freire is a Brazilian educator who worked for many years on the issue of adult literacy in the Bravilian favelas. Like Edwards, Freire is concerned with how the structure of a society is connected to the experience of the humans within it; in particular how the educational process affects that connection.

Freire’s “fundamental thesis is that there is no such thing as a neutral education. Education is either for domestication or for freedom.” His philosophy is that “man’s vocation [is] to be more – more, that is, that what he is at any given time or place.” (Both quotes are from Joao de Veiga Coutinho’s introduction; apologies for the patriarchal language.)

Freire denounces the existing social system (especially the educational system) as one of conditioning and domestication, designed to keep the masses in check. Anyone familiar with Chomsky’s propaganda model of the media will have no trouble in understanding exactly what he means. The counter to this domestication is an educational process which opens the participants’ eyes to the conditioning which they are experiencing. This process is a distinctively human one:

“… man, essentially a conditional being, is also essentially a being capable of knowing what conditions him… the key to “perception of perception” and hence to the recuperation of hidden or mystified reality, is problematization. Problematization… means both asking questions and calling into question and is therefore a challenging attitude.”(p9)

Clearly, in order for social change to take place, the humans within the society need to be awakened, to be challenged. Or, in Freire’s words, participants in change need to be “de-conditioned” before they can “be more”. This deconditioning is a process that happens in human gatherings that are open to a new way of being. Perhaps this new way is what we mean when we talk about community.

Just as Edwards connects compassion with revolution, so Freire connects education and community with revolution:

“the literacy process must relate speaking the word to transforming reality, and to man’s role in this transformation.” (p31)

4. Let’s problematize The Broadmead! Perhaps one practical way to engage with these notions is to consider the place of The Broadmead shopping centre in the average Bristolian’s experience. For me it looms large as a festering pustule draining the life out of our community. But this is clearly not how the average Saturday shopper sees it.

At the recent Kebele Info night on the oppression in Oaxaca I was struck by the call for communities to resist the invasion of power. The Broadmead is a clear manifestation of this invasion as corporate monoliths steal space from the heart of our community.

How can we challenge this theft? People are conditioned into thinking that mass consumption is the path to a happier life, how can we speak the word so that deconditioning can take place? How can we generate such compassion for the child labourer that people’s blind greed for cheap produce will be overpowered? I saw some graffiti on the side of the Broadmead a while ago, “Build community, not capitalism”; so then, let’s do it!

Friday, 1 June 2007

Arms trade developments

There have been two recent developments in the arms trade that will be of interest. The first is a stunning piece of good news. The publishing giant Reed Elsevier has recently received a huge amount of scathing criticism in relation to its continued participation in the arms trade.

But the tide has turned: In a communication released today from Sir Crispin Davis, Reed-Elsevier CEO, has announced Reed Elsevier’s withdrawal from the defence industry (sic). Here is the relevant paragraph:

Over the last year or so it has become increasingly clear that growing numbers of important customers and authors, particularly in the science and medical markets, have very real concerns with our involvement in this sector. They believe strongly that our presence here is incompatible with the aims of the science and medical communities. I am also very aware this is a view shared by a number of our employees. We have listened closely to these concerns and we have concluded that the long term interests of Reed Elsevier as a leading publisher of science, medical, legal and business content would be best served by withdrawing from defence exhibitions. We intend to complete the withdrawal during the second half of 2007.

Brilliant news! The final sentence suggests that Reed will continue with its organisation of this year’s DSEi arms fair in London, but nonetheless this is a significant and very welcome development.

The second development was the recent appearance of an article on the BBC website discussing Tony Blair’s current visit to South Africa. Apparently the last time Blair was in South Africa was in 1999, when he visited twice. The article suggests that the primary reason for those two visits was to help “a leading British arms supplier” (BAe Systems) to win a multi-million dollar arms contract; a contract that was signed that same year.

This contract has since become mired in controversy – with allegations of corruption at very high levels. Indeed the article states that “it has been reported that the UK's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has asked its South African counterpart, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), to help it track down more than $139m in "commissions", allegedly paid by BAE to eight South African businesses and a political adviser.”

Now as you are probably aware the Serious Fraud Office has had quite a lot to do with BAe Systems recently – primarily focussing on a massive contract that the Saudi government signed with them.

Quite apart from the fact that it produces weapons designed to murder human beings, BAe Systems is once again exposed as being utterly corrupt. As for the prime minister the BBC has this to say: “While there is no suggestion that the prime minister knew of or participated in any wrongdoing, his role in supporting the BAE bid has never been fully explained.”

Let me be the first to make the suggestion! There is no possible way that the prime minister could have supported this bid and been ignorant of BAe’s standard mode of operation. Corruption at BAe is a matter of historical record. The payment of “commissions” has been standard practice for as long as BAe Systems has been in existence. Once again the mainstream press are letting Blair off far too lightly. Once again he has blood on his hands.

Monday, 14 May 2007

On terrorism

This blog is fast becoming just a respository for rejected letters - and here's another one... I wrote to Howard Jacobson last week because I found his article in the Independent somewhat irritating. No response has been forthcoming. I've taken the liberty of making a couple of improvements to the version that I sent to Mr Jacobson...

I should note that, in my response, I use the word "terrorism" in the same way that the popular press uses it: To refer to small "extremist" groups who carry out violent attacks on civilian populations. In fact this use of the word is misleading: Firstly, it implies that governments are not capable of terrorism (war, apparently, is not terrorism) and, secondly, it reinforces the notion that to be in opposition to the prevailing political and economic elite is to be "extreme" (in which case, moderation be damned). For more details, read Chomsky!

Dear Mr Jacobson,

I enjoy reading your articles in the Saturday Independent - they are always entertaining and stimulating, even when running contrary to my own opinion. However your last article irritated me a little. I felt that you were making use of a standard, quite underhand, trick to make your point; namely, you misrepresented the position of those with whom you disagree (in this case those opposed to the War on Terror) in order to shown them to be absurd.

I count myself as one of those whom you misrepresented so I thought I would take the opportunity to state my position.

I do not deny the existence of terrorism. Clearly there are nutters walking the streets of Sussex who wish to inflict pain on random strangers. I maintain that there are not many nutters in Sussex - perhaps not nearly as many as the government would have us believe - but let us put that to one side for the moment. Instead let us ask what are we to do?

There are, it seems to me, two main approaches. The first is to deny a potential terrorist the MEANS to inflict terror - this is the stuff of the War on Terror. This approach involves focussed policing, greater surveillance, possibly a tighter border control, maybe racial profiling, maybe lengthened detention of suspects etc etc. Inevitably liberties must be sacrificed in order to implement this approach.

The second approach is to remove the MOTIVE from the potential terrorist. This of course depends a lot on what that motive is (not on what the terrorist perceives it to be, but on what really motivates him/her). Generally acts of terror are perpetuated for very clear reasons that have an element of (albeit very twisted) logic to them. If terror erupts because of a government policy then clearly a change to that policy may be one way to avoid further terror - this course of action being balanced against the virtue of the policy in the first place, as well as the obvious and reasonable unwillingness to "give in to terror".

Both of these approaches are inevitably limited. When the cause of a terrorist is to denounce drunk women in nightclubs we're not going to get far on the motive front. If we are to effectively remove the means for any prospective terrorist then we will potentially remove the means for any prospective dissent; we will also divert great quantities of political and social energies into the task of hunting the terrorists down - and that is a price too high.

A price too high because, although terrorism exists, the scale of it is not as terrifying as the government would have us believe. Don't get me wrong, acts of terrorism can be catastrophic - I have come mighty close to a panic attack on the tube just thinking about the events of 7th July 2005. And every death in London that day was a tragedy which brought distress, even despair, to many.

However, despite this, even were I to believe every government statement on the issue, terrorism simply isn't the major issue that it's made out to be. For what was the major cause of human suffering on 7th July 2005? It was the same cause as on 11th September 2001; indeed it was the same cause on every other day in the last one thousand years - poverty and hunger. By some estimates 50 000 people die every day from poverty-related causes, and that's not to mention the millions for whom poverty is a daily source of acute misery. It is inconceivable that terrorism will ever cause one tenth, even one thousandth of the deaths that poverty causes.

When we speak of the "threat" of terrorism we mean, I presume, that terrorism threatens our lives, our happiness, maybe even our social order. And yet it is clear that our lives and our happiness are under far greater threat from poverty. It is clear also that our social order must be rotten if it is perpetuating the tragedy of mass poverty. Terrorism is not a solution to that rotten social order; nonetheless it is worth reflecting whether we really want to put so much energy into maintaining that order when, perhaps, the real task is to dismantle it.

I would be interested to read any reply that you may have.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Well aimed words from The Lancet

My mental image of “The Lancet” medical journal has the Lancet as a tiny candle shining out from within the immense inky blackness of its publisher, Reed-Elsevier. For, as much as I detest Reed and everything it stand for, the Lancet manages to deliver regular doses of enlightenment to its fortunate readers…

In the last month or so two articles have caught my attention. The first was not, strictly speaking, in the Lancet at all; but the author was the editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton. Writing in the Guardian, Horton discusses the government’s response to the Johns Hopkins study on Iraq civilian mortality; this study was published in the Lancet last October and created headlines with its estimate that 650,000 Iraqi civilians had died since the American and British led invasion in March 2003.

At the time the government rubbished the report. Horton writes:
…the prime minister's official spokesman said that the Lancet's study "was not one we believe to be anywhere near accurate". The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that the Lancet figures were "extrapolated" and a "leap". President Bush said: "I don't consider it a credible report".

It now emerges that the government - and President Bush - were, as usual, lying through their teeth. For this is the advice that experts were giving the government at the time:
The Ministry of Defence's chief scientific adviser said the research was "robust", close to "best practice", and "balanced". He recommended "caution in publicly criticising the study"… The prime minister's adviser finally gave in. He wrote: "The survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones".

I do not know why I continue to be astonished at government duplicity but, well, I just do. I must keep reminding myself that governments have far less loyalty to the truth than the average citizen – why should a government bother to try and just massage the truth when a servile media will allow it to ignore the truth altogethr?

The other Lancet article that caught my attention has already been highlighted in a recent IndyMedia article. Those interested should refer to that article however the key point is that the Lancet has called for the defeat of the current Australian government citing, inter alia, “Prime Minister John Howard’s indifference to the academic medical community and his profound intolerance to those less secure than himself and his administration”.

The Lancet editorial coincided with a recent report on the health of aboriginal Australians. The Sydney Morning Herald summed up the report this way:
The health of Aborigines lags almost 100 years behind other Australians and they are the sickest indigenous people of all the wealthy nations, a report by the World Health Organisation says.

A change of government may not help matters much in Australia, but it sure as hell wouldn’t make things worse.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Reed-Elsevier: Publishing Journals and Selling Bombs

The following is an update on my earlier article about Reed-Elsevier. More damning revelations have emerged about Reed's activities as you will see...

Reed-Elsevier are one of the biggest publishers of mathematics journals in the world - they list 102 mathematics journals on their website including the likes of "Topology", "Journal of Number Theory" and "Journal of Algebra". What is less well known is that Reed also organises arms fairs.

Through their subsidiary companies, Reed Exhibitions and Spearhead Exhibitions, Reed-Elsevier are responsible for organising some of the biggest arms fairs in the world including the biennial DSEi arms fair in London, the Idex Fair in Abu Dhabi and Shot Show, a North American small arms exhibition.

Reed's defence of their involvement in the arms trade is that they are involved in a legitimate business operating under tight regulation. But consider some of the facts. The list of invitees to DSEi 2005 included seven of the twenty countries on the UK Foreign Office’s list of regimes which commit the most severe abuses of human rights - such notorious regimes as Indonesia and Colombia were amongst those present. And picture the delights that were promoted at DSEi: small arms (responsible for 500,000 deaths every year), torture equipment (including leg irons, stun guns and stun batons), cluster bombs and the list goes on...

The sale of cluster bombs in particular brought a storm of criticism from the public. Human Rights Watch estimates that cluster bombs were responsible for more civilian casualties during the invasion of Iraq than any other military tactic. The public outcry at their sale at DSEi resulted in Reed’s company secretary rushing out a statement that “there were no cluster bombs at DSEi. They were not displayed and not offered for sale…”

But they were. It was subsequently revealed that p.182 of DSEi’s official catalogue openly listed components for “aircraft deployed cluster bombs” amongst the products on offer. This page is missing, along with a bunch of others, in the copy of the catalogue on DSEi’s website: an embarrassing reprographical error for a publishing company like Reed Elsevier! And if you wanted more than just cluster bomb components you could always speak to representatives from the 14 cluster bomb manufacturers who attended DSEi and who would happily flog you the whole bomb.

Controversy has arisen again in relation to this year's Idex arms fair. It has just emerged that the Sudanese defence minister was one of those invited to Idex, despite being the representative of a regime that stands accused of genocide by the United States. Once again cluster bombs were promoted at the show - a Reed spokesman was forced to concede that although cluster munitions were supposedly not marketed at Reed's arms fairs there was an "incident" of this happening at Idex 2007.

Finally let me mention Shot Show 2006. As at DSEi, torture equipment was for sale at the Shot Show, this time including electroshock batons and stun guns made by the company Security Equipment Coroporation whose tagline is "Making Grown Men Cry Since 1975."

Unsurprisingly Reed’s arms fairs have attracted the wrath of a number of different groups. Because of Reed’s “other role” as a publishing house, their services are used by many people for whom the arms trade is anathema. The medical community has led the way - in September 2005 the editorial board of The Lancet, arguably the world’s most prestigious medical journal and one which is published by Reed, issued a scathing condemnation of Reed Elsevier’s role in the global arms trade. They called on the company “to divest itself of all business interests that threaten human, and especially civilian, health and well-being.”

In the last three months the British Journal of Medicine and the Royal Society of Medicine have also published excoriating editorials with regards to Reed's involvement in the arms trade; Richard Smith wrote in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that the people in the strongest position to take action against Reed-Elsevier are "the authors and readers of The Lancet and the 2000 other journals". The most recent issue of The Lancet included three pages of letters about Reed's connection to the arms trade; correspondents were unanimously appalled.

Other groups have joined the chorus of dismay: In 2006, on the eve of the London Book Fair, also organised by Reed, thirteen internationally renowned writers – including 2 Nobel Prize winners and 6 winners of the Man Booker prize – issued a public letter criticising the company’s arms fairs. The writers included AS Byatt, JM Coetzee and Ian McEwan.

And now the academics are getting in on the act. Close to 140 academics recently signed an open letter to Reed Elsevier in which they called on Reed to cease all involvement in arms fairs. The letter was printed in the Times Higher Education Supplement; amongst other things the correspondents wrote that that Reed’s involvement in the arms trade “is entirely at odds with the ethical and social obligations we have to promote the beneficial applications of our work and prevent its misuse, to anticipate and evaluate the possible unintended consequences of scientific and technological developments, and to consider at all times the moral responsibility we carry for our work.”

The letter was signed by some of the most respected minds in academia - including a number of very prominent mathematicians. Mathematicians have also joined other academics, including such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, in supporting an on-line petition against Reed's involvement in the arms trade:

Many have gone further and have joined an on-line boycott against publishing in Reed-Elsevier journals:

One of the boycotters, Prof Sir Michael Atiyah, one of the greatest mathematicians of the last hundred years, recently commented that "science and technology offer enormous opportunities for the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately these potential benefits are overshadowed by the exploitation of science for military ends.”

Professor Atiyah’s words echo sentiments of Albert Einstein expressed some seventy years earlier: “Concern for man himself and his fate must always be the chief interest of all technical endeavours... in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind.”

Reed Elsevier is effectively exploiting the respectable and worthwhile work of mathematicians and other academics to mask its sinister and deadly role in the global arms trade. This exploitation is indeed a curse for millions of victims of the arms trade the world over. As the letter, petition and boycott show, mathematicians will not accept this and are prepared to speak out. It is to be hoped that, sooner or later, Reed Elsevier will get the message.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Trident Letters

The following letters were written last Thursday after parliament voted to renew Trident. The newspapers in question didn't publish them.... so I am!

To The Guardian:


Last December I joined the Faslane365 protest, blockading the Trident
nuclear submarine base in Scotland. I intend to do similarly this June - I
will participate in an academic conference discussing nuclear disarmament
while blockading the road into the Trident base.

Perhaps those MPs who voted for the renewal of our "nuclear deterrent"
should come and attend; for they will learn that the only thing Trident
will ever deter is peace. It will certainly not deter decent ordinary
people from struggling for a world free of the threat of a nuclear

To The Independent:


The decision to renew Trident is a moral, political and financial
disaster. There can be no justification for spending any amount of money,
let along £20 billion, in order that we have the option of killing vast
numbers of people.

To The Times:


I've been arrested once for opposing the Trident nuclear system and I
fully expect to be arrested again. The one thing Trident will never deter
is resistance.

Friday, 16 March 2007

Corruption in the Defence Industry

Last night a very interesting couple of talks took place in the Redlands Friends Meeting House, organised by the Bristol Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT).

A history of Corruption and the MOD

Nick Gilby, of the National CAAT group, gave a potted history of the "Ministry of Defence and the Bribe Culture" (his speech constitutes a very abbreviated version of his upcoming book...) Nick has spent many long hours in the national archives reading old memos and other documents of the MOD. He described a culture of massive bribery over very many years.

Up until 1975 the MOD had been an active and enthusiastic participant in the bribes culture. Harold Hubert was the MOD's main seller of weapons. His strategy was to inflate the prices of his weapons to cover the cost of a slush fund used for bribery. He would pay "agents" public money to fix deals with various countries around the world. These agents had access to the highest echelons in the countries in question and they would pass on these funds in order to guarantee that the sale went ahead.

Nick outlined how Saudi Arabia, in particular, had been a main target for this bribery activity with huge amounts of public money used to pay off members of the Saudi royal family. Nick quoted from a number of memos that openly discussed this process (many of which involved the British Aircraft Corporation, a company which has since morped into part of BAe Systems).

In 1975, the Church Commission uncovered massive corruption in the business dealings of the Lockheed corporation. This led to a rethink of the business of arms sales around the world. In the UK this rethink resulted in a deliberate ostrich policy: Public money was not to be used to pay bribes but, equally, if corporations paid bribes in order to gain contracts then the MOD would not investigate such goings on. In other words the MOD preferred to remain in an official state of ignorance, even though they were (and are) acutely aware of the extent to which the arms trade is riddled with bribery and corruption.

A case in point is Al Yamamah. This is the name of a series of massive arms sales by the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia, which have been paid for by the delivery of up to 600,000 barrels of oil per day to the UK government. The first deal was signed in 1985 and the prime contractor has been BAE Systems and its predecessor British Aerospace.

Nick outlined how the initial deal in 1985 had many very suspicious elements (including a 34% increase in price over a year, which could have been to pay bribes) but which was not investigated by the MOD (in accordance with their ostrich policy). Instead the MOD inquired of British Aerospace whether the deal had been legal and when they received an affirmative response, no further questions were asked!

More on the Al Yamamah deal later...

Corruption in general

The second speaker was Nick Hildyard of The Corner House. His starting point was a desire to incite public outrage at the corrupt practices which go on around the world. Only by ensuring that governments know that the public is watching what they get up to can we give the judiciary the necessary spine to call the government to account over matters of corruption (see the discussion below).

Nick outlined the massive damage done by corruption all around the world. Indeed our own Hilary Benn has admitted that "corruption kills day to day"! The mechanisms by which this happens are numerous. Firstly of course it simply diverts money from worthwhile projects into the bank accounts of unscrupulous individuals.

Secondly, and more subtly, a culture of corruption tends to channel money into developments with the greatest kick-backs. These tend to be macro projects - projects of grand vision and scope which therefore have numerous weak points were funds can "leak away". Thus aid and other money is diverted away from local, community projects (which tend to be more corruption-proof as their small scale enhances accountability) - the very projects which offer the most hope for local people.

Thirdly a culture of corruption results in money being shifted from the legal economy into the black economy. Thus money bypasses legitimate checks and balances as well as bypassing taxation.

There is a popular perception of other countries having an indigenous culture of corruption. Nick pointed out that this is not only inaccurate, it is also racist. Nick outlined the sterling efforts of Lesotho in combatting corrupt corporate practices and noted that Lesotho has received very little help from the West.

In fact in general the West has more often facilitated a culture of corruption in impoverished countries (often in Africa). Through IMF and WTO policies, education and health structures have been stripped back and have left poor people unable to access basic services without resorting to bribery.

Al Yamamah and the Judicial Review

The corrupt practices involved in the Al Yamamah deal have, of late, caught the attention of the Serious Fraud Office. They have been investigating corrupt practices in the period since 2002. However their investigation was discontinued on 14 December 2006 after the Government warned the investiation could "damage national security interests".

In fact the government was more specific: In announcing the decision Attorney General Lord Goldsmith said that both Tony Blair and Defence Secretary Des Browne had argued that carrying on the investigation would harm intelligence and diplomatic co-operation with Saudi Arabia, in turn damaging the UK's national security.

This decision brought a storm of criticism from many different quarters. The criticism was especially strong as the UK is a signatory to the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. Article 5 of the convention states that
"Investigation and prosecution of the bribery of a foreign public official shall be subject to the applicable rules and principles of each Party. They shall not be influenced by considerations of national economic interest, the potential effect upon relations with another State or the identity of the natural or legal persons involved.”

In lay terms this means that an investigation into bribery can only be dropped as a result of the merits of the case - the likelihood, or not, that a prosecution will succeed.

It would seem clear that the government has explicitly violated this convention in its decision to halt the SFO investigation into Al Yamamah. In order to test this out, CAAT and The Cornerhouse (the organisations which the two Nicks were representing last night) have launched a judicial review into the decision. This review is already well underway and is likely to come to a conclusion some time in the next six months.

Action points

As Nick Hildyard described, it is imperative that there is a sustained and vigorous public response to the dropping of the Serious Fraud Office inquiry. The officials conducting the judicial review into the government's decision will need to feel the eyes of the public upon them if they are to take a stand against their political masters. The awareness of the general public needs to be raised in every way including discussions in the pub, letters to the press, public meetings and other events.

One practical measure is to write to your MP and ask that they sign the Early Day Motion on this matter.

To write to your MP go here.

You can also sign an e-petition on the matter.

There'll be those of you reading this who aint believers in this on-line lobbying malarkey. Well, fair enough too.... So maybe you'd just better give CAAT some money! Or come up with your own way to call the government to account on this matter...

To keep updated on what's going on (and to find out who CAAT and the Cornerhouse are):

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Friendship therapy

My work in homeless hostels has brought me into contact with a very interesting guy whom I shall refer to as Eddie. My contact with Eddie has led me to reflect on the therapeutic role which institutions play in today's welfare state...

Eddie is suffering from some very deep emotional, psychological and social wounds. In order to attend to these wounds "the system" has devised a therapeutic process for Eddie which involves a myriad of professional-client relationships. He's got a couple of drugs workers, a hostel key worker, a probation officer, social worker, housing adviser, lawyer, GP plus other doctors, including specialists, and nurses. All of these are very likely good people doing their best to help Eddie deal with his various issues.

And very likely they will help. They will ease his way through the criminal justice system; they will help him with his housing needs and his benefits needs; his physical health will be attended to; even his drug problem will be addressed. Over a period of time Eddie will no doubt make some progress and will develop new skills to help him cope with what life has thrown, and will throw, at him.

It is important to note that, typically, these professionals (and I was one) are not naive. They have a good sense of what their limitations are and they will try and empower Eddie, in so far as they are able, to take responsibility for himself so that ultimately he can survive without professional help.

But they can only take him so far. The limitations of the professional-client relationship (or we could call it the "institutional relationship") constitute an impermeable boundary, beyond which Eddie can not be accompanied. Unfortunately it is outside this boundary that nearly all of "functioning" society find their most important coping mechanisms. For outside this boundary are relationships of friendship and community, relationships that are most people's primary resource in times of crisis.

Eddie, a man whose life is in almost perpetual crisis, has very few such resources. His primary friendships are with fellow drug users; friendships that, for obvious reasons, provide him only a very limited solace. He is also without close family.

More than any professional, Eddie needs a friend. He needs a community, by which I mean some kind of family-structure. He needs structures of human-ness to help him cope when he feels wobbly. Why do I say this? Simply because I know that these are the structures in my own life on which I lean most heavily.

And not only when I am feeling wobbly. Friends and communities also provide a purpose and a meaning which can get me through the day when nothing else seems worth doing. By their nature, friendships are permeable - there is a two way stream along which gifts of time, thought, care and love flow. It is their two way nature that distinguish them so entirely from professional relationships. Eddie needs the opportunity to give to someone else. For what other opportunity can provide such a feeling of self worth as the opportunity to help someone in need?

Institutions in which professional boundaries are inviolable will never provide this most vital human privilege. Eddie will need to look elsewhere and, if he is lucky, he will find friendship and community for himself. If he is unlucky - and Eddie has had a lot of bad luck - he will fail in this search. And this failure may well undermine all of the tender ministrations of those concerned professionals. For, when the shit hits the fan and with no friends to turn to, will Eddie phone his social worker or his dealer?

ADDENDUM: I’ve considered here the effect of the institutional relationship on the client. But what about the professional? The limitations and particular dynamics of the institutional relationship also greatly affect the professional. The primary factor seems to be that the professional is seen to have power over the client and, to quote a phrase, power corrupts!

In an institutional relationship it is too easy for the client to become object, while the professional is subject. While the aim is (or should be) always to empower the client to function autonomously, in reality this is frequently not the case. Rather, the professional has control over the client in a way that can be fundamentally destructive for both parties. Too often I hear stories of people working in the social sector who have come under investigation because the relationships that they have established with clients are abusive or manipulative. The professionals in question are not necessarily abusive by nature; rather, the dynamics of an unequal relationship seem to prove too much for them. The corrupting influence of power is often an irresistible force.

The irony in all this is that the professional boundary, which is the cause of the limitations discussed above, is also intended to be the structure which prevents abuse. With a dissolution of the professional boundaries real concerns over possible abuse immediately arise. While these concerns are of course valid, my contention is that friendships, by their (more) horizontal nature, are inherently more robust than institutional relationships when it comes to matters of abuse. And it is friendship which ultimately offers a far greater therapeutic reward for both of the people involved.