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The Oslo Synagogue Ring of Peace and Its Detractors

February 23, 2015

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I want to make a couple of observations on Breitbart choosing to report that events outside the Oslo Synagogue are a “media hoax”. I want to comment on it, because it is being shared by a lot of people I respect – which surprises me, as hitherto I had considered Breitbart to be something like The Onion, but without the wit. But, I guess, there’s no bias like confirmation bias.

So, Breitbart reports that Reuters, AP, AFP and all other traditional outlets got it wrong when they reported that 1,000 Muslims formed a ring around the synagogue. Breitbart says it was more like 20, “according to an eyewitness” a number to which they keep returning to. “Photos pulled off of social media”, says Breitbart, “appear to corroborate the narrative that only twenty or so people formed the “peace ring.”” So, I tried to find what was Breitbart’s source for the original eyewitness account. It wasn’t easy, but after several clicks I found the original source. It is one anonymous commenter on a reddit message board.

What is more, the eyewitness account doesn’t even say what Breitbart report it as saying. He says: “It actually was 1300 people in total, of which most looked like ethnic Norwegians. They [the police] had set up barriers in front and allowed 10-20 muslims inside the barriers to hold hands.” He continues: “I don’t know how many muslims were present, but I’d estimate about 100 Arabs/Africans.”

Therefore, when AP reports that “More than 1,000 people have formed a “ring of peace” outside Oslo’s main synagogue at the initiative of a group of young Muslims”, they are, in fact absolutely correct and totally consistent with the eyewitness account. I guess you could quibble about the geometrical shape, if the crowd did not go all the way around the Synagogue. Maybe it should have been reported as a “barrier of peace” or a “semi-circle of peace”.

Ultimately, Breitbart’s aim seems to me to be not to discredit the reports, but to somehow fling mud on a very noble initiative. Because, ultimately, as a symbolic gesture of solidarity, why would it matter if this was 20 or 100 or 1,000 Muslims? It wouldn’t. Unless one is promoting a narrative of all Muslims as bloodthirsty jihadists, in which case you would want to suggest this is an exception to the rule and make the exception as small as possible.

As this story appeared more and more on twitter and Facebook timelines around me, I began to wonder whether that was a narrative people are increasingly comfortable to sign up to. “More power to them [Breitbart]”, read one comment; “it does show how poor mainstream journalism has become, no independent verification, no fact checking, the news is now basically Chinese whispers!” When I explained that the primary materials for the Breitbart piece were, at best, sketchy and, at worst, misrepresented, the response came: “We all know how the press distort the truth, anyone remember the Hillsborough disaster?”

I guess, post-Hillsborough we can all choose whatever stories to believe without the application of any critical function. I thought the Hillsborough lesson had been entirely the opposite – check sources, put brain into gear.

Apparently, demonstrators chanted: “No to anti-Semitism, no to Islamophobia”. The only way Breitbart can make sense of this is by mocking them for “conflating criticism of Islam and hatred of Jews”. Because nobody could actually be critical of more than one type of prejudice.

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Some Less Healthy Suggestions for Singles on Valentine’s

February 14, 2015

I am what you might call “actively single”. I generally feel pretty perky about my status, even with 14 February upon us. I consider the lack of a partner a necessary cut in these times of austerity. I mostly blame the mess we inherited from Labour.

A number of newspapers and magazines, however, have taken to publishing lists of healthy ways for singles to spend the day. They include delightful, therapist-approved suggestions such as, I kid you not, “take yourself out on a date”. Take myself out on a date… That’s their suggestion? That on the very day restaurants are filled to the brim with fawning couples, I should be in the midst of them having dinner alone. Which will, presumably, be followed by seducing yourself, spooning yourself, cooking yourself a romantic breakfast then promising to call yourself but bitterly disappointing yourself.

I have a counter-proposal for anyone who considers this to be the best route to mental health: Why don’t you skip the date altogether and just go &#!% yourself? I have compiled my own list of alternative suggestions:

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1. Imagine that you are in a relationship with someone truly vile (like Mel Philips or Jeremy Clarkson) and you are, in fact, successfully hiding in order to avoid them.

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2. Dress yourself in an adult diaper and run around the West End, chasing terrified couples with a real bow and real arrows.

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3. Sit on the floor next to a coffee table, listening to Madame Butterfly, switching a table lamp on and off, rocking gently back and forth and muttering to yourself “I won’t be ignored, Dan”.

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4. Walk into an expensive restaurant and identify a particularly annoying couple. Approach one of the two victims and say “I thought you were at a conference”. Meet their protestations with a thoroughly unconvincing “My apologies, I must be mistaken”. As you walk out, turn and mouth the words “CALL ME”.
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5. Drink so much whiskey on the 13th that you do not wake up until the 15th. You may wish to refer to this as “Ballantine’s Day”.
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6. Make a detailed spreadsheet of all the money you would have spent if you weren’t single (new outfit, dinner, gift, flowers, card). Use the money that you have saved on something constructive. Like a donation to Amnesty International. Or cake. I think mainly cake.

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7. Go to Samoa, which is 12 hours behind, then hop on a plane to Fiji, which is 12 hours ahead. With carefully planned flights, you can avoid 14 February altogether and get a tan.

WARNING: If you’re thick enough to execute these suggestions, there is a good chance you may end up in prison, where dates will be – I am sure – plentiful. A win-win, really. Happy Valentine’s!

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This piece first appear in the Huffington Post.

Troika – The EU’s Frustrating Gatekeeper

January 29, 2015

This, I think, is the most important development in Greece and it is being lost in the white noise. Trying to shoehorn a lot of narrative into preconceived forms makes for easily digestible, but largely opaque reporting.

Greece is effectively refusing to negotiate with the troika (the triumvirate of European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) or separately with Germany – as first and sole ports of call. This is a distinct break from the past – it is what every incoming Greek government has done in the last few years (and to an extent, Spanish, Irish, Portuguese, Italian governments), under threat of penury.

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This attitude does not mean Greece is eschewing its obligations or destabilising the union, despite what some hysterical reporting would have you believe. It simply means Greece will discuss its obligations and the best way to discharge them through democratic EU structures (Council of Ministers, European Parliament), rather than bureaucratic EU structures. Which is entirely proper. That it will treat Germany as an equal partner, with say proportional to their influence. Which is entirely proper. That it will discuss the mandate, democratically handed to a new government by the Greek people, with other democratic representatives. Greece is simply reclaiming its seat at the adults’ table.

If there is a feeling that Greece (and Spain, Italy, Ireland or Protugal) does not deserve this seat – and I understand why there might be that feeling from certain quarters – then let the rest of the partners relegate it. Openly, democratically, officially. Not by administrative guile.

We should all take note of how this is presented as strange and radical. We should take note of how uncommon it has become. The troika is the unquestioned EU gatekeeper in such matters. It is in place, evidently, only to assess progress. More often than not, however, it acts as the jobs-worth who says “computer says no” to any request for flexibility – however circumstances may have changed – and even refuses entry to those with the authority to discuss it. We should take note at how rarely this position of absolute power of three entirely undemocratic structures is questioned.

I said a few days ago, that Greece had much more support than analysts estimated. That a lot of entities were quite pissed off at Germany’s and the troika’s autocracy. Many derided me. Within the last few days, a former IMF director, the Bank of England and the US President, are all shaking the pom-poms of Keynesian economics, like lovestruck cheerleaders, at Tsipras. Yes, austerity may not have been the way to go, they all concede. They do now, anyway. Had the Greek people not voted for change, would they?

All these shows of international support and softening of hard positions are partly theatre, of course. If Tsipras fails with the whole world against him, the result will be more anger, more riots, more instability. If Tsipras fails with the whole world rooting for him, then the Greek people only have themselves to blame (again) and progressives everywhere should take careful note. They want him to be a cautionary tale; not a martyr.

The truth remains that dealing directly with each other as partner nations is what all EU member states should be doing, on all top level matters, all the time. Voting things through the European Parliament, ditto. Running directly to Merkel, Juncker, Draghi and Lagarde, as soon as one is elected, to kiss papal rings and plead for mercy and then trust that them to impose whatever was agreed behind closed doors by force on all the other partners, is precisely what is at the heart of rising anti-EU sentiment across this continent.

Everyone needs to understand this. Especially those four.

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Three Little Twitter Night Contemplations on Caring for A Parent with Dementia

January 27, 2015

*

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What a headache, I said

You brought a glass of olive oil
A pack of gum
And kissed my forehead

The soul urges action
The head forgets method

**

imageSome nights
the quiet is too loud
the wine not quick enough
the smile skin-deep

I feign participation
Tomorrow will be better

I tell myself

***

imageAs the soul winds down
And Morpheus seduces
You’ll visit me again
(why do you come so often?)
Whole like you used to be
Efficient, thrifty, comforting
Mother, once more

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Greece, debt default and ‘moral hazard’

January 27, 2015

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A few very quick words on this, as I have had this conversation many times and it seems sensible to pin it down. Do not expect subtlety – this isn’t an essay.

Hysteria over a Greek default, restructuring, haircut – whatever you want to call it – is in part manufactured and in part stoked by ignorant and sensationalist media. We’ve been told several times over the last few years that the world is about to stop turning. It hasn’t and won’t. Such alarmism is deeply unhelpful and entirely counterproductive. We really shouldn’t feed that particular beast.

Debt default, restructuring or partial write-off (a haircut) is, of course, not a good thing. But neither is it the end of the world. It is completely part and parcel of lending. It is explicitly expressed in the rate of interest. The reason entity A can borrow at 5% while entity B can only borrow at 20% is because B is seen as much more likely to default than A. That is how it works. So, let us not act like it is some unprecedented act of economic vandalism. It isn’t.

Then there is the issue of ‘moral hazard’ – the idea that if entities can take risks with no consequences this would act as incentive for more reckless risk-taking. This is a massive red herring in the Greek context. The idea that anybody might look at what has happened in Greece in the last six years and think “yeah, I’ll have me a bit of that, let’s borrow lots of money” is manifestly ludicrous. The consequences have been dramatic. Greece is, if anything, a cautionary tale on unbalanced budgets, however the remaining debt payments are now handled.

So, let’s keep a cool head and not propagate tabloid-style analysis full of chewing-gum terms, simply because it sounds good and gives a boring moment in our lives a little frisson.

Love. Peace.

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Some very preliminary observations on the Greek election

January 25, 2015

Here are some scattered and very preliminary observations on what looks, from exit polls, will be a very convincing victory by Syriza (which may or may not fall just short of an absolute majority).

Obviously, not all of this (or any of it) is universally applicable.

1. The centre-left vote turned out to be very susceptible to collapse when challenged from the left. Pasok has gone from largest party a few years ago to barely making it into parliament. From 44% in 2009 to 4.4% today. Syriza from non-existent to government. (UK Labour, beware. The Greens are coming to get you.)

2. Negative campaigning only works when it is reciprocated. If one side is left to predict doom and the other concentrates on its own message, the negative campaigner ends up sounding hysterical and the campaign feels like blackmail. (Again, lessons for UK.)

3. We need to stop fooling ourselves as to the number of bigots who exist in our societies. We made so many excuses for Golden Dawn voters: “They don’t fully understand. They’re just frightened. They’re voting out of protest. The dog ate their homework.” Many of Golden Dawn’s MPs are now in jail, charged with violent crimes. Raids on their homes uncovered swastika flags and nazi memorabilia. You’d have to have lived at the bottom of the sea to not know this. People voted for them in similar numbers as last election.

4. There are limits to the Shock Doctrine. YA GOTTA LEAVE THE PLEBS WITH A LITTLE SOMETHING TO LOSE. Otherwise you lose.

5. The EU is not The Troika. The EU is not Angela Merkel. If either Troika or Merkel act as if they speak for all member states, others will start to worry. While it is fair for membership of the Eurozone to come with rules, they have to be rules as to result, not method. You can demand a balanced budget. You cannot demand low taxation and private health. That bit is up to each country, not Angela.

6. There is only one prospect more terrifying to the global hegemony than Syriza failing. And that is Syriza succeeding. It is time for the European left to unite and lend its support to Greece. With elections coming in several EU states in the next year, this can have a very dramatic effect on how Greece is treated now. “First they came for the Greeks and I said nothing…” sort of thing.

7. It is possible to be pro-EU and still want to punch its current monetarist policies in the face. The EU as a project is very worthwhile. It has been captured by the very same interests that have captured national governments. The level at which the IMF dictates policy is irrelevant as to the democratic deficit. One might even claim that fragmented state governments are even easier to bully. We need to fight for the Europe we want. The idea that what stands between each of us and a life of prosperity is a hypothetical Romanian cleaner is the most ludicrous one we have ever bought so wholesale. Reject it.

More tomorrow. Or later. Or both.

Some thoughts from Greece, before I enter the polling booth

January 25, 2015

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I have no problem with people voting self-centredly. It is how it works. If you and your kids have food on your plate and a roof over your heads, you should protect that by voting for an option you deem safer. Fine. I have no problem with that. But to somehow elevate your choice to the status of the only moral or sane one and diminish the choices of people who have nothing as stupid, is intellectually dishonest. You choose who you think is best for your kids and others will do the same. Accept this may not be one and the same.

Honestly, the only promise Alexis Tsipras has made that matters to me is that he will try and give “dignity back to everyone”. Of course, he cannot deliver that. Only we can deliver that for ourselves. But even mention of that word – “dignity” – in a political context is striking to me. It is hugely refreshing to have someone speaking that sort of language, instead of the Thatcherite dogma that has destroyed entire countries. A system which collapsed globally and spectacularly only a few years ago. A system which eschews taxation but required unprecedented bail outs from taxation. A system which, somehow, has now gone back to being considered infallible, supreme and self-correcting. To me voting for that is irrational and trying something different, however risky makes sense.

Dignity may be an abstract concept, but its complete absence is a very real and practical thing. Go outside a central Athens supermarket at closing time, to see elderly women, dressed in black, rummaging through the bins for food. Meanwhile the wicked accountant we have for Prime Minister boasts of a surplus.

“I won’t be a sponsor” said to me someone planning to vote for the New Democracy party. A sponsor? A sponsor for whom? Let’s be specific. Are you a sponsor for my mother, for instance? She and her generation built every, tiny particle of the country on which you stand, after a devastating occupation and civil war. She worked two jobs (sometimes three) for over 45 years and raised three kids in the process. Paid every penny in tax, and bought every IKA social security stamp. She invested in the system which promised her dignity in her old age. She now has Alzheimer’s, no medical provision whatsoever and a pension of €400 per month. Are you her sponsor? Or is she maybe yours?

I have played this game too many times. I offer specific policy X, you shoot it down on a practical point and vice versa, so let’s not. I think everyone understands the general debate instinctively. We will either, as a country, continent and planet, put life ahead of money or not. Either the markets, currency, trade, business, state are in the service of utility, of making life better for as many as possible, or utility is secondary (to something – what?). In my view, we have slipped to that latter state. We anthropomorphise the abstract on the news – “markets are sceptical”, “markets are nervous”, “markets are angry” – and offer human sacrifice to the volcano. Free market fundamentalism with a religiosity as extreme as any caliphate.

To me Syriza is part political choice, part resistance movement. I am fully aware they will probably fail – everyone and everything is against them. But this is about putting down a marker and saying “No more. Currency, Markets, the EU, Government – they are all tools in our service; not the other way around.” Ultimately, this is just one battle in a much larger war. This attempt might be unsuccessful, but (judging by the panic emanating from the Troika) the message has been received loud and clear.

Vote for whomever you deem the right longterm choice for you and your loved ones. Vote bravely. Most of all, vote.

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UPDATE: 9:43am

“That was quick!”, said the man guarding the ballot box.

“Well, very few choices and very clear ones”, said the lady crossing names off the register, as she handed me my identity card.

I smile, inscrutably, and say “Καλημέρα σας”. I step outside the school, into the morning petrichor. The island seems brighter, cleaner, after the night’s deluge.

What a day.

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