The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, October 30, 2003

IDS out

It's cheap and easy for those of us who have always hated the Tories to gloat over the current mess in the Tory party. The party that bestrode the 80s like Godzilla has reduced itself to one that can't mobilize even its natural base of scabs, spivs, spies and kulaks, possibly because it's hard to say 'scabs, spivs, spies and kulaks' while drunk. A party whose sole defining policy, hostility to the Euro and the European Union, is actually quite popular well inside Labour lines, but which has made Eurosceptics look like somebody conversing with a litter bin while rummaging in it for food. A party that replaces a man who looks as if he's been replaced by his own waxwork with a man who looks like he sleeps in a coffin. A party that can't effectively oppose the most distrusted Prime Minister in living memory.

But -

But nothing. As I said, it's cheap and easy for those of us who have always hated the Tories to gloat over the current mess in the Tory party. So go ahead and enjoy yourself.
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Quite spry for a dead white guy

This witty and perceptive 'interview' by Donald Sassoon with the shade of Marx is worth a hundred tedious and tendentious 'introductions'. Of course it's Sassoon speaking, not Marx, but Sassoon is a serious historian and (if I'm not mistaken) former communist. His ventriloquy catches some at least of Marx's authentic timbre.

Here's Karl responding to the same question that every socialist gets asked (usually, in my experience, yelled from a distance of six inches): 'What about Russia?'

[...] What the Bolsheviks were doing was accomplishing the bourgeois revolution that the Russian bourgeoisie was too small and stupid to carry out. The communists used the state to create a modern industrial system. If one must call this the "dictatorship of the proletariat," well, so be it.

DS: But the purges, the crimes, the blood....

KM I did say that capital is born dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

DS: I mean communism not capitalism.

KM The Russian revolution was not a socialist revolution waged against a capitalist state. It was a revolution against a semi-feudal autocracy. It was about the construction of modern industry, modern society. Industrial revolutions always occur at great cost whether led by communists or pukka bourgeois. Your modern political accountants, as they scavenge through history to make the case for the prosecution, have they totted up the deaths caused by colonialism, and capitalism? Have they added up all the Africans who died in slavery on their way to America? All the American Indians massacred? All the dead of capitalist civil wars? All those killed by the diseases caused by modern industry? All the dead of the two world wars? Of course Stalin and co were criminals. But do you think that Russia would have become a modern industrial power by democratic, peaceful means? Which road to industrialisation has been victimless, and undertaken under a benign system of civil liberties and human rights? Japan? Korea? Taiwan? Germany? Italy? France? Britain and its empire? What were the alternatives to Lenin and Stalin and the red terror? Little Red Riding Hood? The alternative would have been some Cossack-backed antisemitic dictator as cruel and paranoid as Stalin (or Trotsky; frankly I have no preference), far more corrupt and far less efficient.

DS: So was it all inevitable?

KM That I don't know and neither do you. But don't you dare to reproach me with one drop of blood or one writer in jail. May I remind you that I was a political exile because I defended freedom of speech, that I lived all my life in shabby conditions and that I died in 1883 when Lenin was 13 and Stalin four. I could have written a bestselling "Black Book of Capitalism" and listed all the crimes committed in its name. But I did not. I examined its misdeeds dispassionately, in a balanced way as I would examine now those of communism. Much as I like polemic I knew capitalism was better than anything that preceded it and that it could lay the basis for the realm of true freedom, freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom from the state, which is what communism is. Take the piece I wrote on the Indian revolt of 1857 in the New York Daily Tribune. English soldiers committed abominations: raping women, roasting whole villages. Did I use this to score some petty points? I did not. Nor did I wax sentimental over the destruction of idyllic native communities. These I denounced as the solid foundations of oriental despotism and tools of superstition. I explained that British imperialism was bringing about a social revolution and celebrated it, but I saw no reason not to lament the devastating effects of English industry on India.

DS: How about your early writings on alienation? The 1844 manuscripts were popular in the 1960s. People saw their relevance to the modern world.

KM Nonsense. The reason I did not publish such stuff is that it was inconsequential claptrap. It is typical that the disaffected petty bourgeois intelligentsia would have lapped this up. I have no time for them.

(Via MaxSpeak)
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Northern Lights over South Queensferry

Last night around midnight, on my way back from the very successful Writers' Bloc Hallowe'en gig 'How the West Went Weird', I noticed what looked like a very odd-shaped moonlit cloud at the zenith, on a moonless night. Misty and complex at the centre, with great straight streaks radiating from it, some of them all the way to the horizon. For the second time in my life I was seeing the aurora borealis. The first time was when I was a small child in Lewis, carried out wrapped in a blanket by my parents. I could never have described what I saw, beyond a vague impression, but I knew last night that I was seeing what I'd seen then. I'd been half-expecting aurorae as a result of the current solar storm, and rather startled my daughter, who'd been at the gig with me, by saying 'Look at that!'

We were almost at our house and dragged out Mrs Early and Master Early, already in their dressing-gowns. Ms Early and I watched it for much longer than they did. After about half an hour it faded a bit, but not before some faint but breathtaking shifts and flickers and pulses.
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Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Why do they hate America?

Americans, that is. Some Americans.

Via Media Whores Online (scroll down) this astonishing report and picture. The only heartening thing about it (apart from the much larger counter-demo) is that the poor wee lad holding the 'God Blew Up the Shuttle' sign looks thoroughly ashamed of himself. I bet he cried when the Columbia crashed.
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Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Creationist Bible skeptics

Creationists who merely proclaim that the universe was created in six days six thousand years ago are little more than a bunch of Bible-doubting dupes of secular humanism if they fail to proclaim that The Earth is Not Moving!. It's not just Darwinism we have to worry about, it's Copernicanism! That's where the rot set in.

Oh, and guess what, it's all down to the wicked Jews.
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Monday, October 27, 2003

More on John Sullivan

A memorial meeting for this British socialist, satirist, and scholar has been arranged for Saturday 17 January 2004 in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London, England. Some of his writings on the national question can be found, for now, at his own website. They display the same sharp mind and sharp tongue as his satirical pamphlets on the sectarian far left.

I recently received this email, which I reproduce with permission:

Thanks for the link on your site re John - he was a long time friend of
mine and I shall particularly miss the bookbuying trips to Hay On Wye
with him and Al Richardson, editor of Revolutionary History. John always provided a mixture of erudition and grim humour about the left and much else whether it was a biography of Shelley or South Park.

I remember discussing " The Star Fraction" with him and as one would
expect the humour of it greatly appealed to him although surprisingly he was critical about the remarks about the greens - this was a bit like hearing Trotsky criticising a comrade for being too harsh about liberals.

John always tried to keep the left alive to the international and historical dimensions of the struggle organising for example meetings on Rosa Luxemberg with Normas Geras when the movie of her life came out or a meeting at Transport House In Bristol on the Spanish Civil War with a comrade of George Orwell, Staff Cottman, speaking and veteran
communists who had expelled Staff 50 years earlier turning up.

Mostly we will miss the jokes like the one about internationals being devices for filtering out reality on a world scale and the time at Bristol Trades Council when in the midst of a discussion on the "Off the Shelf" campaign to get pornography out of newsagents John got up to speak, standing just over 5ft 3in, and gravely instructed everybody that this was a serious issue worthy of debate as he himself had become embarassed at asking women taller than himself to get the magazines down for him.

The trade unions in Bristol and the left in general were inclined to
be resentful of his relentless and accurate piss-taking but those who
can't take a joke have no business trying to change society.


Dave Bennett ( UNISON ).
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Freedom under socialism and capitalism

Report on Uzbekistan from yesterdays's Sunday Herald:

Like a scene from a bad movie, the CIA men and off-duty US military personnel sat slumped watching scantily-clad Russian women gyrate in front of them.

An American businessman leaning on the bar explained lazily that the girls had been classically trained in dance schools that survived the end of Communism.

But with no more state-sponsored culture, the only way to earn a living is dancing in seedy Tashkent nightclubs. He pointed out one woman whose idealistic parents had escaped from Greece to live in the proletarian paradise of Soviet Russia, then another sad-faced girl in a thong whose parentage was Korean - her family was deported by Stalin and dumped in Soviet Central Asia.

There were two kinds of Americans: shaven-headed agency men with trademark goatee beards relaxing from missions in next door Afghanistan, sitting quietly in a corner; and noisy young airmen, mostly from the Midwest, on weekend leave from the giant military base in the south.

And in the FM bar, as in the rest of central Asia, it’s the Americans who call the shots now. The Russian gangsters have learned to sit at the back and make do with less attention, like the expatriate entrepreneurs losing their shirts in Uzbekistan’s faltering economy.


One foreign observer said: 'Most Uzbeks are thoroughly fed up with Karimov, fed up with the hopeless economy, and fed up with being poor.

'For most people things were better in the Soviet days. They could travel where they liked within the USSR and prices for basic commodities were cheap.

'Now they can’t travel anywhere because they can’t afford to.

'They would like to organise into political opposition but they can’t - anybody who tries to set up an opposition is persecuted.'

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Sunday, October 26, 2003

The One-State Solution

Daniel Lazare contemplates the one-state solution to the Palestine conflict (via American Samizdat, which provides a link to an even more challenging critique of Zionism as a failed project).

Rather than struggling to find just the right compromise between two nations claiming the same piece of territory--all but impossible under the best of circumstances--[Marc H. Ellis, in his book Israel and Palestine: Out of the Ashes: The Search for Jewish Identity in the Twenty-First Century]believes in rendering such claims irrelevant. The goal is not some delicate, Lebanese-style power-sharing arrangement between competing warlords but a modern democracy structured in such a way that citizens do not see themselves primarily as Jews, Christians or Muslims but as workers, farmers, shopkeepers and so on. In their religious capacities, individuals might still look upon Israel/Palestine as sacred. But as citizens of a secular democracy, they would expect their state to serve the entire population irrespective of religion or ethnicity--and would complain bitterly if it did not.

The problem, of course, is how to get there from here, which is where Ellis stumbles. By basing his argument on Judaism's longstanding ethical tradition, he fails to recognize how ambiguous that tradition really is. While the Old Testament says some humane things about protecting widows and orphans, it contains enough tales of massacre and vengeance to fuel the fantasies of the most homicidal West Bank settler. To quote the historian Christopher Hill, the Bible is "a huge bran-tub from which anything might be drawn"--hatred no less than tolerance, war no less than peace, theocracy no less than democracy. If democratic secularism is Ellis's goal, then secular politics are the only way to achieve it. Instead of immersing themselves in separate religious traditions, Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians must join in a common tradition based on internationalism, secularism and democracy. Instead of burying themselves in ancient texts, they must understand the irrelevance of those texts to modern politics.

More religion, no matter how progressively construed, is the last thing this God-soaked piece of terrain needs.

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Saturday, October 25, 2003


I've been asked to take part in a live preview discussion about the cinematic re-release (and digitally remastered director's cut) of Alien for BBC Radio Scotland's 'Arts Show' on Wednesday 29 October 2003. The nice people at Radio Scotland asked me to go to a press screening of it, which I did yesterday.

Press screenings are easier to get into than I'd expected. No checking, no pass or special ticket required. If I'd known, I'd have brought the family. Another thing I didn't know is that the time given for the screening is twenty minutes of advertising before the film actually starts, just like a regular screening, except that instead of film trailers and mildly entertaining full-screen versions of telly ads you get a much-repeated sequence of still ads for colleges, Chinese restaurants, and cinema advertising. Perhaps viewers of press screenings are thought to be a key target demographic for all three. Of the other three people in the auditorium, one was already a student and the other two already had something to eat.

One of the reviews quoted in the publicity for this re-release says something like: 'Make no mistake - if you haven't seen Alien in the cinema, you haven't seen Alien.' It's true. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure if I did see Alien on its first release. I've certainly seen it several times since on television or video. That's just a way of wearing out your response to it.

Almost all of the action takes place in enclosed spaces. Seeing it on the big screen puts you there. You also see a lot more detail. One of the joys of Alien is the saturation of the background with details. Some of them are so tiny that I've never noticed them before, such as a glimpse of a tacked-up picture of an alien: a sketch taken from a UFO close encounter report. As far as I know Alien was the first film to show a starship as a workplace, and its crew as workers. The details are what makes that believable.

Alien obviously takes place in an alternate universe. The laws of physics are slightly different: gravity, for a start, is not as we know it. This explains why planets are so close together that you can see them lined up like billiard balls, why a planetoid 1300 kilometres across has a surface gravity of .86 g, why interstellar distances are traversable in months, and why hauling twenty! million! tons! of mineral ore across these distances is economic. It probably also explains how all this happened by the 1970s. You can tell it's the 1970s by the computer and electronic hardware. It's wonderful.

The story's pretty good, too, but you know that.
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Poet of a Better Nation

On Sunday 19 October BBC2's new series of Artworks Scotland kicked off with a programme about Edwin Morgan. Now in his eighties, Edwin Morgan is one of the greatest living Scottish poets. He is also a man who inspires, and deserves, admiration and affection. In interviews with other Scottish writers, including Ron Butlin and Liz Lochhead, this came across as strongly as the good reasons for it did in the interview with Morgan himself.

Despite having led what was in some respects a double life for many years - he came out publicly as homosexual at the age of seventy - there is very little of the famous Caledonian antisyzygy in Morgan's poetry. There is great variety, in manner and matter, but instead of contradiction there is coherence. He contains multitudes, but doesn't contradict himself. It's as if he accepted his then-illegal identity very early on like a dedicated secret agent conscious that he is in the right. No wrestling with Presbyterian conscience or Catholic guilt or Communist angst for him. He is, as far as can be ascertained from what I've read of his poetry, a modern pagan. No stranger to pain, in life or in his work, he affirms the possibilities of pleasure.

And progress. Whether it's hailing the reconstruction of Glasgow in the 1960s in 'The Second Life' or looking forward to 'the smoke of useful industry' rising over Scotland's empty (emptied) lands or rubbing Cardinal Winning's nose in the repeal of Section 28 ('you are not winning') his poems often carry a cheerful modernist charge that too many today might regard as quaint.

Some of his best-known poems ('The First Men on Mercury', 'The Coin', 'In Sobieski's Shield', etc) are science fiction, or are about space travel. I can't think of any other widely-recognised major poet who has written so well, and so unapologetically, in SF. And he is in SF. I don't know if he reads much of it, if any, but he speaks it like a native.

I once asked him if SF fandom had ever been in touch, asked him to a con, or to speak to or read at a meeting, taken him out for a drink ... Nope. Not a note, not a dram.

It's time to repair this omission. He's getting on. He's still working. Now is good.
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Wednesday, October 22, 2003

"This fascistic glorification of death and violence"

Shadia Drury is interviewed on the influence and ideas of Leo Strauss, who is, she claims, the philosophical guru of some at least of the neocons:

Only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and 'creature comforts.' Life can be politicised once more, and man’s humanity can be restored.

This terrifying vision fits perfectly well with the desire for honour and glory that the neo-conservative gentlemen covet. It also fits very well with the religious sensibilities of gentlemen. The combination of religion and nationalism is the elixir that Strauss advocates as the way to turn natural, relaxed, hedonistic men into devout nationalists willing to fight and die for their God and country.

I never imagined when I wrote my first book on Strauss that the unscrupulous elite that he elevates would ever come so close to political power, nor that the ominous tyranny of the wise would ever come so close to being realised in the political life of a great nation like the United States. But fear is the greatest ally of tyranny.


To my mind, this fascistic glorification of death and violence springs from a profound inability to celebrate life, joy, and the sheer thrill of existence.

To be clear, Strauss was not as hostile to democracy as he was to liberalism. This is because he recognises that the vulgar masses have numbers on their side, and the sheer power of numbers cannot be completely ignored. Whatever can be done to bring the masses along is legitimate. If you can use democracy to turn the masses against their own liberty, this is a great triumph. It is the sort of tactic that neo-conservatives use consistently, and in some cases very successfully.

Strauss warned the elite that they should dissemble, because if the truth about their views and aims came out they would face the persecution of the masses. Let us hope he was right. Witch-hunts, purges and show trials are essential weapons of democracy: witch-hunts to detect anti-democratic conspirators, purges to smoke them out of the state apparatus, and show trials to expose their crimes before the public.
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Monday, October 20, 2003

Iraq Water Treatment

A correspondent has taken me to task for omitting the following paragraph from my quotation of of a DoD document below. He thinks it sheds a different light on what I quoted.

Judge for yourselves:


As far as I can see, all it shows is that they knew damn well what they were doing.

I've fixed the link, by the way.

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Not yet, anyway

The workers' and peasants uprising in Bolivia has accomplished the resignation of the wildly unpopular President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, and his departure (with entourage) to Miami, where he is making helpful announcements such as:

He said feared a "narco-labour government" taking power in Bolivia.

While the situation in Bolivia is calmer, it remains unstable. For an insight into one of its causes, see this article on
the US war on coca.

You see, because of the American drug problem, we can no longer grow coca, which was part of our life and our culture long before the United States was a country. This is why many of the people protesting in La Paz and other cities are peasants whose families have cultivated coca for generations.
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Saturday, October 18, 2003

Breaking News

More on Bolivia from the BBC.
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I don't normally shout, but -

The biggest piece of news you are probably not reading or seeing (but will, very soon) is that a massive popular insurrection has begun in Bolivia, and the situation is moving very fast (so fast that this article is already out of date).

Already there are scenes reminscent of the Spanish Civil War:

We have received a message from Bolivia which reports the following events: "This morning they stopped a march of miners in Patacamaya, 100km from La Paz. There were journalists who broadcast the confrontation live. 10:32 the army and the police surrounded them and started shooting at the tyres of the trucks the miners had arrived in and tear-gassed them. Then the soldiers jumped onto the trucks, and while the miners were fleeing in all directions, they started to loot all the rucksacks and bags they could find, tearing up the miners' clothes and throwing away their food supplies, and then they put everything in a pile and burnt it. The journalist was reporting all this risking his own life. Then he was shot in the back, but continued to report with noise of shooting in the background. The miners tried to fight back and charged throwing sticks of dynamite, forcing the soldiers, and even the tanks, to withdraw a few meters. Then a plane appeared in the sky and started to machine-gun them from the sky. It seems that the dynamite ran out and the army counter-attacked and followed the miners into the houses. It was a massacre. The journalist stopped reporting and an hour and a half later when he managed to get connected again he said there were three miners dead in hospital and some 20 wounded, but that he also saw the army carrying away some of the wounded. There have been more than 77 killed and 400 wounded in 24 days".

Here are some suggestions about what to do.

(I don't necessarily agree with everything said in these articles from the useful website In Defence of Marxism but when miners are battling tanks with dynamite I am not going to quibble.)
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Wednesday, October 15, 2003


The Independent yesterday (Tuesday 14 Oct) carried a long investigative feature by Andrew Gumbel on touch-screen voting in the US. It's good to see this scandal moving out of the blog world (see left, especially Avedon and Charlie) into print. The people who need to know about it most aren't necessarily likely to read blogs.

I find the whole thing almost literally unbelievable. How the hell can a great nation hand over control of its voting, for crying out loud, to corporations? Corporations who are deeply partisan? And deeply interested in the outcome of the elections? Hello? Some of them run by people who believe in theocracy? WTF?

Touchscreen voting with no verifiable paper trail is to real voting what McJobs are to real jobs. You don't have votes, you have McVotes.

This is something that you wouldn't put in a science fiction novel, unless it was a blatant knock-about satire - you know, some squib about a world where Mickey Mouse runs for Governor of Florida, or Arnold Schwartznegger for Governor of California. It's too unbelievable. A good editor would call it a plot hole.
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Sunday, October 12, 2003

Full Degradation of the Water Treatment System Probably Will Take At Least Another Six Months

Some time ago, I wrote:

The rulers of the world should be regarded and resisted as if they were giant lizards from another star, which as far as humanity is concerned they might as well be.

I must confess that I stole the expression from this article on the war on Yugoslavia by the eloquent capitalist-libertarian David Ramsay Steele, who said:

These brave soldiers will be maintained in self-contained biospheres, like giant lizards from another star, which given the moral status of their behavior, they might as well be.

I guess we both watched V or read Harry Turtledove.


What made me suddenly see the enemy this way (and realise that they see us reciprocally, as mammalian vermin) was this premeditation of murder by a decade of sanctions:



DTG: 221900Z JAN 91

18 ABC





This, in case you didn't know, is a war crime:

Protocol 1
Additional to the Geneva Conventions, 1977
Section 1: General Protection Against Effects of Hostilities
Chapter I: Basic Rule and Field of Application


Article 54: Protection of Objects Indispensable to the Survival of the
Civilian Population

1. Starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited

2. It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects
indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as
foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops,
livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation
works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance
value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the
motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move
away, or for any other motive.

I used the last two above quotes in an argument on the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.fandom. The total lack of response (whether in criticism or support) resulted in my silent abandonment of this useful newsgroup in favour of blogging, which at least allows me to say what I think without getting into futile arguments with liars and fascists.
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The West gets its own West Bank

This the story of a war crime. (In case it disappears behind The Indie's paywall, you can read the gravamen of it here.)

US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops.

The stumps of palm trees, some 70 years old, protrude from the brown earth scoured by the bulldozers beside the road at Dhuluaya, a small town 50 miles north of Baghdad. Local women were yesterday busily bundling together the branches of the uprooted orange and lemon trees and carrying then back to their homes for firewood.

Nusayef Jassim, one of 32 farmers who saw their fruit trees destroyed, said: "They told us that the resistance fighters hide in our farms, but this is not true. They didn't capture anything. They didn't find any weapons."

Other farmers said that US troops had told them, over a loudspeaker in Arabic, that the fruit groves were being bulldozed to punish the farmers for not informing on the resistance which is very active in this Sunni Muslim district.

"They made a sort of joke against us by playing jazz music while they were cutting down the trees," said one man. Ambushes of US troops have taken place around Dhuluaya. But Sheikh Hussein Ali Saleh al-Jabouri, a member of a delegation that went to the nearby US base to ask for compensation for the loss of the fruit trees, said American officers described what had happened as "a punishment of local people because 'you know who is in the resistance and do not tell us'." What the Israelis had done by way of collective punishment of Palestinians was now happening in Iraq, Sheikh Hussein added.

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Saturday, October 11, 2003

Socialism on One Planet

The current (Issue 176 - November 2003) issue of Fortean Times contains a fascinating article on the late Juan Posadas, a veteran Trotskyist and former professional footballer who developed some unique (as far as I know) political positions. One of them was advocacy of a Soviet nuclear first strike. Another, slightly less deranged, was that UFOs were clear evidence of the existence of communist civilizations elsewhere in the Galaxy.

Not even these, however, can prepare one for the indescribable quality of Posadas's prose, of which some small samples are given in the article. Having read a few of his demented rants myself (picking up a copy of Red Flag was sometimes the highlight of a demo) I can only say that the samples are representative, but that you miss the hallucinogen-like effect of reading an entire screed.

Strange to relate, the Posadists never really gained much support, except among Bolivian tin miners, who are among the most oppressed and most militant workers in the world.

(I once heard that 'There's a shepherd in Shotts who's a Posadist.' This may tell you all you need to know about Shotts.)

In Britain the Posadists were entrists in the Labour Party. As Go Fourth and Multiply (see below) points out, they tended to play down their distinctive positions when canvassing.
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Friday, October 10, 2003

Sidelight on Turkey

I didn't know this:

The US forces did not think twice about detaining the so-called liaison officers of the Turkish special forces operating in the Kirkuk and Mosul area, and they were photographed being interrogated with sacks over their heads. The humiliation of these crack troops caused indignation in the Turkish military and among the jingoistic press, but the politicians, fully aware of their limited options, tried to play down the incident.

Go Fourth and Multiply

In the same paper, an obituary of the socialist John Sullivan who was, it seems:

the pseudonymous author of quite a legendary piece of satire on the British left, published in a variety of formats, including as a pamphlet titled As soon as this pub closes.

[And as Go Fourth and Multiply.]

This series of humorous sketches of the various tendencies is extremely witty and very sharp - not in the sense of vulgar mockery, but rather in using elements of Marxist insight to highlight the often absurd antics and contradictions that marred leftwing politics in the 1980s, when it was written (and unfortunately still do today).

No better guide to the British far left was ever written. Over the years it must have saved hundreds of minds and prevented countless follies.
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Thursday, October 09, 2003

The Brave Little Barbecue Goes to Mars

Francis Spufford, Backroom Boys: the Secret Return of the British Boffin, Faber and Faber, 6 Nov 2003,
£15.99, 0571-21496-7 (Proof copy received)

This is one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year, and the one most likely to appeal to SF fans. I mean, how many books start with a wartime pub scene of the London members of the British Interplanetary Society cheering as the near-miss plaster falls around them because they recognise instantly what an explosion followed by a strange rising boom means for their dreams?

Even many SF fans, I suspect, will be as surprised - and gripped - as I was by the tale of the British space programme. I honestly didn't know that ... (no spoilers from me). Likewise, I didn't know the backroom stories of Concorde, computer games (pioneered by libertarian SF fans), mobile phones, the human genome project, and Beagle 2 (the barbecue-shaped British-built space probe, due to land on Mars on Christmas Day this year).

Spufford does more than tell engaging tales. He painlessly puts across a wealth of information about science and engineering. To cover six very different areas of technology and science in such an intriguing way, and to catch the distinctive style of each field's native geek, is a rare achievement. Above all, he tells a coherent story, of industrial decline countered - in part at least - by ingenious adaptation to the 'post-industrial' world. It sharply evokes a lost world of Dan Dare, Look and Learn, and Meccano, and goes on to show us how that world was never lost: that it is, in fact, part of the secret history of today.
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Sunday, October 05, 2003

Seismic Testimony

While rummaging around I came across a link to this interesting Christian site on the subject of creation and evolution. If you're at all interested in that subject, don't let the site's odd-looking front page put you off. If you dig a little deeper you can find a lot of fascinating information about the innumerable failings of 'Flood Geology'. Glenn R. Morton is a graduate of the Institute of Creation Science who discovered when he went to work in petroleum geology that much of what he had been taught - and some of what he'd written himself in 'creation science' journals - was false. The most incontestable facts of geology are massively inconsistent with the notion that the record of the rocks is one of a single, recent, global cataclysm. He testifies:

Nothing that young-earth creationists had taught me about geology turned out to be true. I took a poll of my ICR graduate friends who have worked in the oil industry. I asked them one question.

"From your oil industry experience, did any fact that you were taught at ICR, which challenged current geological thinking, turn out in the long run to be true? ,"

That is a very simple question. One man, Steve Robertson, who worked for Shell grew real silent on the phone, sighed and softly said 'No!' A very close friend that I had hired at Arco, after hearing the question, exclaimed, "Wait a minute. There has to be one!" But he could not name one. I can not name one. No one else could either.

The personal accounts he quotes help to explain how counterproductive all this stuff is.
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Friday, October 03, 2003

Keeping stories straight

If I had more energy, gumption and time I could maybe aspire to writing something like Left I on the News but as it is I'll simply point to this neat vivsection of the latest spin about Iraqi WMD:

Kay has now fallen back on two stories. One is the preposterous idea that Iraq (usually referred by its first name, "Saddam") was "bluffing" about having WMD. The only minor thing wrong with that assertion is that Iraq proclaimed loudly to one and all (specifically to the UN) that it did not have any WMD. Curious bluff.

But the second story is one where we need to "keep our eye on the ball," because it's a true story. That is, that Iraq "may have retained civilian technology that could have been converted to WMD production capability on short notice." Overlooking the fact that that statement could undoubtedly be made about every industrial and semi-industrial country in the world, the key thing about this claim is that, even if true, it could not possibly have provided a justification for the invasion of Iraq. According to George Bush it was imperative that Iraq be invaded in March with no further delay. No more time for inspections could be tolerated, no more time to gather support for a UN resolution, no more time, period. The people of the U.S. and the world were in mortal danger from Iraqi WMD (not Iraqi WMD "programs" or the possibility that Iraq might one day reconstitute such a capability) and the U.S. had to invade immediately to prevent that danger.

The media should make note of this simple fact every time they mention the new cover story, but of course they won't. Kay and Bush are attempting to take our eyes off "the ball," which is the bogus claim that Iraq had WMD, massive stockpiles of them. "Retained civilian technology" is not the same thing as massive stockpiles of WMD ready to be fired in 45 minutes. Remember Condoleezza Rice's "mushroom cloud"? It appears that the Bush administration thinks we're the mushrooms, to be kept in the dark and fed bullshit. We can't let them get away with it.

In fact, 'Saddam was bluffing' looks set fair to join 'Saddam kicked out the weapons inspectors' as an endlessly recirculated lie.
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Not a Con Report

Last weekend I was GoH at P-Con in Dublin. It was a small but successful con, with good accomodation and facilities in the Ashling Hotel (noted for its fine views across the Liffey of the back of the Guinness brewery). Many thanks to the committee, and particularly to the welcoming and hard-working Padraig and Deirdre. Irish fans - North and South - are an interested and interesting crowd, and the panels were stimulating and mostly well-attended. (Some of them started a little late. There was one alarming moment where the audience was not only smaller than the panel, it consisted entirely of people married to people on the panel. But the moment passed.)

As at all cons, some of the most memorable discussions were conversations in the bar. Late on Friday evening, Nicholas Whyte passed on a joke from ex-Soviet Georgia:

What did we use for lighting before we had candles?


Even later that evening in the bar, James P Hogan had Nicholas, myself, and several other people clutching our heads and googling our brains for FAQ answers as he explained the errors of Darwinism. The following morning, on the 'Marx v. Asimov' panel, he politely declined the right-libertarian role I'd thoughtlessly assigned him. There's more to life than buying and selling, he said. We need to build things, and identify with projects, bigger than ourselves. Look at how much people spent on the Gothic cathedrals, and look at how (proportionately) little we spend on space. On another panel, about AI, he gave a lucid and wide-ranging summary of the state of the art, drawn from his research and interviews for a popular book on the subject, Mind Matters. There have certainly been advances, but the deep problems - 'what's the algorithm for "interestingness"?' - and even something as superficially simple as understanding how we recognise objects, remain as intractable, and as slippery even to formulate, as ever.

As indeed do people, and their minds.
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