Archive for September, 2008

The Spike Lee School of the Falsification of History?

September 30, 2008

I’ve just been reading this story in the Times, about the reaction of Italian partisans to Spike Lee’s forthcoming film Miracle at St Anna. The partisans are outraged about the representation of events at Sant’ Anna di Stazzema, where 560 men, women and children were masacred in August 1944 by SS troops. According to the story, the film seems to blame the partisans for bringing the Nazis to the village, then abandoning the villagers to their fate, and shows one partisan as a collaborator. This is in direct contrast to the accepted Italian version, where the presence of the partisans served as a mere excuse.

The film is Spike Lee’s attempt to tell the neglected tale of black soldiers during the Second World War. His interest in this subject has recently led to a squabble between him and Clint Eastwood over the absence of Black soldiers in Clint’s Flags of our Fathers, so it is perhaps ironic that the Italian veterans are now accusing him of failing to accurately reflect history. The Italian criticism has raised the question of the memory of World War II, and the received Italian version that the partisans redeemed the sins of fascism. Although the author of the novel Lee’s story is based on, a black veteran of the war, has been conciliatory, Lee has not:
“I am not apologising for anything”. “I think these questions are evidence that there is still a lot about your history during the war that you [the Italians] have got to come to grips with.

It seems to me – at a time when Italy has neo-fascists in government, Rome has a fascist mayor, and leading footballers are declaring themselves fascists – that Lee has inadvertently raised some important questions about Italy’s relationship with its fascist past. The decline of the PCI from one of the major political, intellectual and cultural forces in Italian society has weakened the defences against the falsification of the fascist past. Berlusconi’s government has red-baited judges, praised Italians who fought with the Nazis, and there is a real danger that the horrors of the past are not only being ignored but glorified. The rise in immigration has led to a great deal of racist agitation and violence, as well as the growing neo-fascist vote all point to this. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of the massacre, it seems to me a good thing that young Italians will be reminded of the true nature of fascism and the need to combat it by any means necessary.


When A Plan Doesn’t Come Together; Or, Ideas Still Matter

September 29, 2008

The House of Representatives has just voted down the Bush/Paulson rescue plan. Republicans voted against the package by a majority of two to one. It’s hard to know what to make of this, or how to react. On the one hand, there is joy at the prospect of some of the corporate banks going under, and seeing the masters of the universe ending up in the poor house. On the other hand, a sense of reality dictates that the people who will really suffer will be the ordinary workers whose debt – especially mortgages – is controlled by these banks. It seems inevitable that a crisis in the financial sector – so dominant in Britain and America – will spread into a more general economic crisis. Why then have the Republicans voted like this?

I saw one Representative on the TV arguing in the debate that government guaranteeing banking debts was the first step on the slippery slope to socialism. The absolute belief in the power and necessity of the free market is far from dead and buried in the Republican Party. At the same time, the rhetoric of balancing the needs of Wall Street versus Main Street coming from the McCain camp has suggested that much of the opposition is to the specific deal, rather than such massive government intervention in principle. So where do we go from here?

I expect some form of the deal to be passed. What should be included in the American deal and any equivalent in the UK (or anywhere else for that matter) is not just a cap on executives’ pay, or a phased release of funds, but also higher corporate taxes and a government share in future profits. However, I can’t see that being included in America, and doubt Brown has the courage to push for it in the UK. I imagine that the American plan will ultimately involve the banking sector appearing to take more of the risk, whatever the reality. A few more might be allowed to go to the wall, so that the government can back a smaller number of healthier superbanks.

What is motivating some of the Republican response I suspect is the same desire to punish the banks that came out in George Osbourne’s remarks at the Tory conference today about the “age of irresponsibility” in banking. Once there is a feeling that enough of the fat cats have suffered, I reckon the deal will be done. There is too much political and financial interest at stake for the governments ultimately not to fold before the banks.

First as Tragedy, then as Farce

September 28, 2008

The Sunday Tribune reports that so bored are two-thirds of southern school children studying the north that a government report has recommended that comedians be used to engage their interest. I suspect that the authors of this report fail to realise the utter contempt that “interesting” lesson plans provoke amongst those subjected to them, but of more concern than the attitude of bored schoolchildren should be the attitude of the history teachers themselves. Among the reasons given for not wanting to teach the history of Northern Ireland by teachers was that they did not know enough about the subject.

I would like to say I’m stunned by this, but I’m not. It reflects the dominant attitude in the south over several decades, which was to try and ignore the north as far as possible. The report asks “If students do not learn about modern Irish history in a school context, will they be skilled enough to interpret what they see in the media outside school?” And “If in senior cycle, teachers are not supported to take on sensitive issues, are they abdicating an important duty to give impartial information on topics? If we wish to deal with post-conflict situations and empower upcoming generations, we cannot ignore the difficult and sensitive events that have impacted upon us”.
Ignoring the dereliction of professional duty inherent in the attitude of “I don’t know about that, so I’m not teaching it” (were they all experts on, say, Nazi Germany before they did the reading for teaching it?), this raises the question of what education is for, especially in a rapidly-changing society. The Republic, like the UK, France and elsewhere, been trying to deal with the question of educating children drawn from different cultural and religious traditions. In the North, we have seen the damage a badly-organised and divisive education system can wreak not only on individual children but on society as a whole.

Ireland, north and south, needs an education system that meets not just childrens’ educational needs, but also those of society. The education system is a powerful tool in shaping attitudes. As Ireland north and south becomes an increasingly diverse place, the education system must be changed to meet these needs. A secular and progressive education system teaching the virtues of equality has been one of the central planks of republican ideology throughout the world in the last few centuries. This is the model Ireland needs north and south. To teach children that all are equal, all part of the same community of citizens, with equal rights and common interests.

One of the great failures of the Blair government has been education. The promotion of faith schools, academies, and the abject failure to deal with the inequalities created by a massive private sector all condemn New Labour. As does its failure to live up to its rhetoric on citizenship classes, and its failure to inculcate an egalitarian vision. It is important that teachers in the Republic teach pupils about Northern Ireland, all the more so with the recent influx of immigrants. The consequences of prejudice, sectarianism, bigotry and hatred must be taught to all. Elsewhere, the paper reports on a school class with only one native child. The parallels of northern sectarianism with southern racism must be central to explaining to southern children why they must learn about the north. They are more likely to understand why the north is important when being taught in these terms than from watching Patrick Kielty torture his audience with the same old jokes.

Roger Casement, 1916 and Modern Ireland

September 26, 2008

Roy Foster’s review of Séamus Ó Síocháin’s new biography of Roger Casement raises interesting issues about modern Ireland’s relationship with Casement’s sexuality and the Easter Rising itself.
Foster comments that:

“Until recently, those ecstatic descriptions of homosexual fondling and penetration in discreet public places throughout the world had to be eliminated from the hagiography of a secular saint. Nowadays, when an about turn in attitudes has made the law on same-sex relations more liberal in Ireland than most European countries (including Britain), Casement’s sainthood can be extended to represent the redemption of a whole new constituency of the once excluded and oppressed. But this approach may be as anachronistic as the most ingenious forgery theories of a half-century ago.”

In these couple of sentences, Foster hits on many of the most important changes that have taken hold in Ireland over the last several decades (and analysed in his Luck and the Irish ). The decline of the Catholic Church, the desacralization of Irish nationalism, and the rapid transition to a secular society in line with the rest of Europe, except on the question of abortion. However, the transformation of Irish nationalism has not meant it has slipped out of existence, as some have assumed as traditional Catholic nationalism waned. The popularity of the government celebrations of the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising demonstrated that. (I have commented previously on the debates on Irish historical revisionism here .)

So what type of 1916 is being celebrated – and is it an anachronistic view as Foster suggests? The 1916 that people are increasingly thinking about and celebrating today is not the 1916 of blood sacrifice and anti-democratic militarism so beloved of Ruth Dudley Edwards and Eoghan Harris – instead it is presented as a blow for modern, liberal, democratic and secular principles. This was the 1916 described by Mary McAleese in 2006 (even if she couldn’t help emphasising the Catholicism of many of its participants), and it is the 1916 that Foster acknowledges will result in acceptance of Casement’s homosexuality. In fact, it seems not unlikely that far from being a cause of shame and denial among nationalists for much of the twentieth century, Casement’s homosexuality will become a cause for celebration; it will be used as “proof” that the leaders of 1916 were more enlightened than many of their contemporaries and descendants.

This is a view that I have some sympathy with. It is clear that Connolly was easily the most progressive and internationalist political thinker Ireland had seen since the United Irishmen, and that many of the other 1916 leaders also held extremely progressive political views. Pearse’s The Sovereign People represented his final statement on Irish freedom, and is infused with progressive politics, something ignored by those who seek to portray him as a suicidal nutter. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the refusal to face up to Casement’s sexuality spoke volumes about the reactionary nature of extremely significant sections of Irish society.

In modern Ireland then, the acceptance of Casement’s sexuality does speak well of the development of a more secular and liberal society. But at the same time, the tendency in much of Irish society to gloss over, ignore, and bury the nastier and more corrupt elements of politics and society must be resisted. While we celebrate Casement, we must also remember the lessons of Connolly, and seek to replace a social and economic system that abandons those at the bottom to inadequate healthcare, services, and to low paid jobs.

The God that Failed? Maybe Not.

September 26, 2008

Rowan Williams, the impressively bearded Archbishop of Canterbury, has once again demonstrated his flair for publicity and for alienating his own flock, by saying that the still more impressively bearded Karl Marx had it partly right about capitalism after all, in an article in the Spectator. In an often sharply-worded and perceptive article, Williams details how the trading of debt has been the motor of “astronomical financial gain” over the last number of years. But, even more than share prices, this wealth has been generated by a collectively sustained act of wilful self-delusion  – as he points out, the truth is that “almost unimaginable wealth has been generated by almost equally unimaginable levels of fiction, paper transactions with no concrete outcome beyond profit for traders”.

How has such a situation been allowed to come about? It is here that Williams turns to Marx – “Marx long ago observed the way in which unbridled capitalism became a kind of mythology, ascribing reality, power and agency to things that had no life in themselves”. In other words, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, the belief in the power of the (ahem) “free” market has become unbridled, and this ideological commitment has both underpinned and justified the massive expansion of privitisation and debt that has lain at the heart of finance capitalism for the last decade and a half. US foreign policy under Bush has provided a clear example of this millenarian belief in the power of the market, but we should not forget that it could also be seen under Clinton (in attitudes to South Africa, Yugoslavia, and of course our own wee country) and the consistent attitude of New Labour and other European states, especially in eastern Europe. 

Williams’ article raises a number of important issues for the Left. In some senses we have been here before. In 1998, the growing understanding of globalisation and the collapse of the eastern Tiger economies 150 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto led to much comment about the relevance of Marx’ critique of capitalism. And now we see the same thing. The question for the Left is how to ensure that a serious critique of the systemic instability of capitalism can emerge from the current crisis, and not simply wither on the vine as much of the critique of globalisation did in the 1990s. The recognition of the power of Marx’ analysis must be extended beyond rather brilliant but eccentric prelates. In order to achieve that, we must make the point again and again and again that this is not simply the result of an accident, or of bad choices, or of poor regulation. Rather, it is a result of the predatory nature of capitalism itself. A system based on exploitation will always seek ways around regulation, and seek to exploit the vulnerability of ordinary people in the face of powerful corporate and financial interests. What some historians have described as the “gentlemanly capitalism” personified in the City of London has once again shown itself to be purely piratical, just as it did in the imperialist madness that preceded the First World War.

The struggle for social justice is – more today than at any time since the 1930s and possibly ever – also an ideological struggle. We on the Left must take advantage of the opportunity afforded us by this crisis to promote our message clearly, in the language of today. The Republican Party in the US, in its initial rejection of the Paulson rescue plan, has posed the question in stark class terms – why should Wall Street be privileged over Main Street? Why rescue those at the very highest echelons of the elite at the expense of the ordinary citizen? This is a message that we on the Left can certainly get behind, and giving it our spin, turning it to our advantage is essential. In the battle to stop the Tories being elected in the UK, the Labour Party has a golden opportunity to introduce radical progressive measures such as are (remarkably) being discussed in the States, for example a government-enforced ban on foreclosures. A new language and a new vision for new circumstances should be offered by the Labour Party. Electoral interest points towards it, as do the instincts of many of its members. The only thing that can stop is the belief in the necessity of the market that has been driving New Labour. In its own struggle for survival, we can hope that it will be driven back towards the left. We must consistently point out the reality of free market ideology, of corporations and merchant bankers – leave us free to profiteer when times are good, but bail us out when our own stupidity and the contradictions of our system overwhelm us. Arguments about the ineffectiveness of the state are no longer sustainable. We must push forward our message of the state as an agent of progress. The welfare state is a minimum for socialists, and now we have a chance to reverse some of the damage done to it over three decades if we act boldly enough.

That is the task for the Left. To mobilise our resources, physical and intellectual, behind not only a critique of the faults of capitalism, but a vision of a different future. We may not get a better chance for decades.


September 26, 2008

So, after a long time commenting on other sites like and I’ve decided to start my own blog. I’ll talk about things of interest to me, like (mostly Irish) politics, history and culture. As will be obvious from the absence of proper hyperlinks, this won’t be the most technically sophisticated blog in the world either. Nor is it likely to be updated that often. Or be read by very many people, or anyone at all. Oh well.