Archive for August, 2008

Robin Ramsay’s Guest Post: Politics & Poetry – Cut to the Quick by Gisela Hoyle

Sunday, August 31st, 2008




 I have been puzzled and then disturbed by the AQA’s paradoxical decision to remove Carol Ann Duffy’s Education for Leisure from the GCSE syllabus and yet to do so in a controlled and slow way, so as not to create extra work for any teachers but on the other hand not to expect anyone to step even for a moment out of their comfort zone. Since when was ‘comfort’ a criterion for quality education – or fear of work?  Does this strike anyone else as ludicrous? If the poem is putting young people at risk – why wait a whole year before it is removed (in fact – why don’t we burn all the anthologies – but more of that later).

We are told that while AQA ‘acknowledges that when taught sensitively [this poem] enables schools to explore the contemporary social context and the psychological context surrounding the narrator of the poem alongside its literary merits . . . [AQA] cannot be certain that all teachers are comfortable with the poem and, as with any literary text, [AQA] can never be sure that the subject matter will not affect some readers adversely.’

Surely then we should also be removing Hitcher and Salome – both poems about chilling violence. Are we to assume then that, while we are anxious about knife crime, all teachers are comfortable with violent and terminal sex? Are we comfortable with gratuitous violence against strangers who choose a different lifestyle to our own – as long as it does not involve a knife? Not likely.

What exactly has this decision been based on, then? Is it real concern for rising violence and criminality amongst the youth? Clearly not as we are, more or less comfortably – for the sake of teaching one less poem – putting ‘at risk’ the cohort of 2009.

What are the chances that this decision stems merely from a fear of litigation when at some unstipulated time as yet, a parent, distraught at the loss of a child to knife crime, claims that the school syllabus is to blame for that child’s death?

What a hideous way to look at this issue – what a terrible failure of courage. Child dead: school cannot be blamed. Tick. And surely the only box this approach can ever tick.

Are we really to teach in a world in which what people are comfortable with is more important than good poetry? Or the pursuit of truth?  Or courage? The courage to discuss crime, violence, poor education and the courage to stand in the face of whatever consequences such a discussion might bring. Surely the consequences of a failure to discuss such things are equally terrible – does inaction mean we stand free from blame? Is that the bit which should concern us?

This decision becomes even more contradictory in the light of the new Key stage 3 Syllabus, which hopes to turn out creative, thoughtful, caring and compassionate citizens. Is it another one of these strange attempts to build a guarantee into education, to take the risk out of the riskiest business in the world – the development of the human mind – which surely can only diminish all of those capacities in pupils and teachers alike?

No doubt the concerns of the public (oh, the convenience of the word, which covers so much but means so little) are real and serious but avoidance is almost certainly not the way to deal with them.

What is so chilling about this removal (we are advised to destroy the old anthologies by 2010) is the thought of the other kinds of authorities that have felt it necessary to destroy books, to curtail what is taught and so to curtail how and what people think. The agendas of such governments were (I hope) very different – but the result (I fear) will be the same: fear.  And what hope is there for the flourishing of the youth’s humanity if those who should be guiding it fail in their courage with such alarming regularity.

We teach now in a climate of fear – not of the big and legitimate fears of mortal existence: those of calamity, loss and pain – but the craven fear of the failure of having filled in the risk assessment accurately and therefore of being held responsible for what happens. It is not what might happen that we are encouraged to fear – but being blamed for it!

Because let’s face it, removing Education for Leisure from the syllabus is not going to prevent one actual crime is it? It is merely rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – albeit in an orderly and ‘thoughtful’ way. Sad ironies multiply as those we have entrusted with the guardianship of the quality of English education fail to rise to the challenges of this poem, which is not only about knife crime.


Britain and America: Georgia

Friday, August 29th, 2008

 David Miliband, the current Foreign Secretary, we are told by a section of the media, is a clever man (as well as more telegenic than Gordon Brown). Well, I like clever, and I want someone clever to process the data before making big decisions. But where’s the beef? What has he ever done or said to deserve his reputation? Take his contribution to the Wag-the-Dog-for-real, the help-elect-McCain-president exercise being run in Georgia. Like some latter-day Palmerstone he warns Russia not to do this and that. Presumably he didn’t write the speech. Presumably the speech was the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Another bunch of clever people, apparently. So why do they do this stupid shit? What is it that the British state gains from its subservient relationship with America?
Well, your guess is probably as good as anyone’s because this is one of those things never discussed in public. My guesses would include the following:

1. They get to hang out with big boys. They get to go to many conferences and powwows. They get phone-calls from the big players. They get exciting and congenial overseas postings. Yes, being the school bully’s best friend is a demeaning role but you do get to watch the bully at close quarters and occasionally you get to kick someone.

2. They get some intelligence from the American intelligence-gathering system they couldn’t get themselves. (Though what good it does them is unclear to me.)

3. They get to use the NSA to do their illegal domestic surveillance (and the Americans get to use GCHQ) and thus both sides have plausible deniability.

4. The American banks continue to use London rather anywhere else (and it could be anywhere, these days) and thus the big cheques keep rolling into the extended family accounts in the south of England.

And that’s about it, as far as I can see. And maybe it’s enough; maybe it justifies having to say and do stupid things on behalf of the school bully. But isn’t it curious that there are so few British ‘Gaullists’ within the British state and political system, seeking independence from the Great Satan? The last British politician who was willing to say ‘Non’ to the Americans was Edward Heath. Since then it’s been a parade of sycophants.

America, Georgia & Russia

Monday, August 18th, 2008

robin I read somewhere that the average blog is read by 3 people.  So I just need  two more to make it to average . . .

My difficulty with blogging is that whenever I think of something worth saying, a bit of my brain says, ‘ This might be a piece for Lobster’.  I guess I will just have to get used to using the blog as a place for first drafts and stray thoughts.  Of which here’s one.

The Independent had a front page headline last week about the  war?conflict?skirmish? in Georgia: ‘After a war lasting six days in which scores have died’.   Scores?  Of course they have no idea about what is going on down there: no sources other than tainted/propaganda sources; and no reliable figures on deaths. ‘Scores’ is a sub’s bet-hedging guess, I suspect: gotta put something but have no information.

The real point about the Georgia thing is seeing the US and Russian military-industrial complexes getting back on the road – contracts, careers back on track.   Just for a minute there, peace almost broke out!  In this country, where politics has yet to be completely corrupted by money, it is difficult for people to grasp that US foreign policy exists mostly to enrich the military-industrial complex.  As in: why have Poland and Georgia in NATO, given the geo-political damage this will do to relations between Russia and the rest of Europe?  There will be a clause in the contracts somewhere which forces them to buy US weapons systems. That’s the price of entry.

Politics and Paranoia by Robin Ramsay

Monday, August 11th, 2008

robin I was in France for a week, rural central France east of Poitiers, rolling fields and little towns and villages – twenty miles from the nearest Big Mac. What struck me most was the presence, in any settlements of over a few hundred, of the French state. There is the Mairie, the post office and the police. France has not followed the insanity of privatising its public services. France has not yet decided that the state is the problem.

One of the books I took with me was Naomi Kline’sThe Shock Doctrine. This is everything the critics said it was when it appeared in hard back. This a major must-read. The best thing about Kline is her portrait of privatisation as essentially theft. Her most striking chapter is on the privatisation of the Pentagon and US intelligence. Outsourcing intelligence? This is among the most bizarre and stupid political acts I have come across since I became politically conscious 30 years ago; yet it has produced almost no opposition from the Democratic Party or from the affected bureaucracies (presumably because the Democrats are afraid to say anything and the bureaucrats are being paid enough by the private sector to keep their mouths shut or are afraid to lose their jobs). The corporate seizure of hundreds of billions of Pentagon spending is merely the process begun under Eisenhower – only spreading out through the entire military supply operation. The former President of the Dominican Republic, Juan Bosch, who was deposed by a US-sponsored coup in 1965, described this system whereby the Pentagon got its hands on half the US federal tax take as Pentagonism. More recently it has been described as parasitical imperialism (the population being exploited is domestic not overseas).

It used to be thought of as the military-industrial complex – with the presumption that the military half of the term was calling the shots and had satellite corporations providing the hardware. The present system looks remarkably like the roles reversed: there are the big corporations (Halliburton et al) and their residual military wings which exist to do the fighting required to justify the appropriation of the tax dollar. Kline – and Chalmers Johnson, for example – would say that it was futile to try and divide the military from the industrial: they have merged. In a sense this is true; but in any merger one one part may be bigger and more powerful than the other. Which is it in this case? The mercenary/security company Blackwater may be a substantial military force but is insignificant compared to the US Army and its income comes entirely from the American state. Fiscal taps turned on can be turned off.

Like many of the current crop of critics of globalisation, Klein is weakest when it comes to the alternatives to it. For the obvious alternative is nationalism; or, at any rate, nationally-based economics and politics. But like most leftists, Klein thinks that the N word is appropriate for so-called developing societies but not for her own. In the leftist mind the N word is forever contaminated by its association with the right. But what is the alternative?

Which brings me back to the tricolour flying outside the office of the Mairie or the Gendarmerie in the little French towns. Globalisation as presently constructed cannot long survive a world resources and energy crisis. Ryanair, which flies between Poitiers and Birmingham, may not do so for much longer; and even if it does its prices will rise sharply. Without Ryanair (or its equivalent), getting from Hull to central France is a very long day’s drive or rail trip. If any of the eco-doomster’s analyses about the near future are true we are going to need a great deal of state intervention to husband and distribute this society’s declining resources. At present all three major political parties in this country are still adherents of the idiotic belief, so assiduously propagated by the private sector, that the problems in society are mostly caused by the state’s intervention in it and thus the solution is to get the state out of our lives.

Oh, and did I mention that the roads in rural France are as smooth as bowling greens? In a week’s driving around we never came across a single pothole. Vive La France! Vive la belle France!