Capitalism and Religion (Redux)

September 2, 2013 at 10:44 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

Now after the televangelist scandals of the eighties and beyond died down, I confess I didn’t really keep track of those wacky snake oil salesmen. But when the story is plastered over the front page of the Toronto Star, I had to read it.

Joel Osteen, arguably America’s best known preacher is coming to Toronto. and he has a special message for you: God loves the rich.

“When God started Christianity, the man he chose was Abraham, the wealthiest man in the East,” (Toronto Star September 1, 2013)

Now, I’m not a Christian, but that doesn’t sound quite right to me.  I’m not certain Abraham was the “wealthiest man in the east,” but the notion that God thought, “Hmm, I know, I’ll started a religion called Christianity, and use a Greek word  (Christos – the saviour) to name it, even though that part will come a bit later, and I’ll start with those rich people too. They need saving.”

None of this namby-pamby easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven nonsense, God loves a winner:

“There’s the teaching that we’re supposed to be poor to show that we’re humble. I don’t buy that. I think we’re supposed to be leaders. We’re supposed to excel.” (ibid.)

Osteen has a $10 million house with three elevators.  If Jesus existed, I suspect he would be appalled.

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My Encounter with the Italian Left

July 20, 2013 at 7:04 am (Uncategorized) (, )

One of the reasons people travel is to see new or different things. So what would a trip to Italy be without meeting representatives of the Italian left?

if that sounds flip, it shouldn’t. The Italian left in its many forms has a long-standing tradition, even if, in my opinion, it has not lived up to it.

The tradition is little known outside of Italy except through Lenin’s screed Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder. In it, Lenin castigated the Italian and the Dutch- German lefts for their opposition to his ideas. After their expulsion  from the Communist International, both trends underwent political evolutions while ignoring each other: the Italians saw the Germans as anarchists, while they were viewed at leninists. In truth, both had something to learn from the other. (The ICC has published two quite excellent books on this subject and history, and are recommended.)

But enough history. I met with comrades of the International Communist Party for a short chat at their office. We talked about the origins of Internationalist Perspective and. its evolution, their party, the unions, the party and the process of revolution. There wasn’t much agreement between us.

The ICP has a theory they refer to as invariance. Essentially, they hold that Marx and his followers have completed the communist programme and that the task of the PARTY is to win people to it.  To my mind, this has more in common with religious propaganda than Marxism. I argued that the world in which Marx wrote was a different one than today, but got little track. It was important for them that they were consistent with Marx and Lenin. And there is a logical consistency to their ideas, but they are wrong. IP recently published the first part of a major article on our relationship to the communist left which can be found on our web site.

language problems prevented a fuller discussion; I probably came across as an anarchist, they as more Leninist. I’ll likely return to this point later.

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Ken Coran: A Working Class Hero is something to Be

June 30, 2013 at 2:43 am (Uncategorized) ()

In Ontario last year, in an effort to prove who knows what, the Liberal government turned on its teacher allies. For years, since the days of Mike Harris’ Conservatives, the Liberals could count on education unions endorsing and giving money to their candidates and providing foot soldiers for their campaigns.

So it must have been a bit of a shock then, when the government announced they wanted teachers to voluntarily accept wage freezes (actually roll-backs), and other concessions. Well, OK, but the government added a kicker: if the unions didn’t accept this deal, the government would pass a law making them. In other words, commit suicide or we’ll kill you.

After a war of words, but very little in practical terms, the law was passed, the conditions the government wanted were imposed and that was that. In the meantime, the premier, Dalton McGuinty, resigned and a new leader was chosen.

The Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers Federation played a shrewd game. While Elementary were the radicals apparently about to break the law in illegal wildcats (they didn’t), OSSTF engaged in rhetoric but did very little. Nevertheless OSSTF leader Ken Coran publicly took responsibility for driving McGuinty out of office and for Liberal defeats in by-elections last September. It was curious to some then that OSSFT still gave money to various Liberal leadership candidates. Not as strange as the news today that Ken Coran who is, until the end of June, still OSSTF leader will be running for the Liberals in a by-election.

Now there will be some who argue that Coran will be better in a position to influence policy from the inside. Most though will see Coran as a traitor to the cause. Me? No, I don’t see him as a traitor. A traitor is someone who betrays you. Who was your friend and joins the other side. Nah, Ken Coran was never the friend of the teachers, and neither are the unions. They are the cop in the workplace. There to enforce the rule. Oh sure, they squawk a little about certain things, but fundamentally they are no different. Opportunist. Sure. A hypocrite in light of his earlier rhetoric, absolutely. A traitor not for a long time.

Plus ca change.





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WSWS on Rob Ford

June 8, 2013 at 3:44 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

Ah, I’ve been thinking about writing something about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford for a while now. Ford was a suburban Toronto councilor who for years has advocated a ‘respect the tax-payer’ populism and projects himself as an everyman standing up for the little guy (even though much of this is made possible by the fact he is independently wealthy). Ford won the 2011 Mayoralty election on this basis, but has stumbled through blunder after blunder even as he has pushed a predictable austerity agenda.

But it’s this last that’s interesting. While the city’s powers-that-be don’t disagree with Ford’s goals (despite a few irrationalities), they seem to be deserting Ford in search of a , well, smoother, less controversial man who doesn’t threaten the broader goals simply by being himself.

Still, maybe some people can profit from this. If I were a comedy writer, I would never want Ford to go away. US late night TV hosts are having a field day over Toronto’s alleged crack-smoking gaffe prone mayor. And there are opportunities for leftists too. A few weeks back at the Montreal anarchist bookfair, an IWW comrade suggested half-jokingly people should sell “Free Rob Ford” t-shirts. Not a bad business venture; the irony mindful left could buy them, and Ford’s supporters too.

Until then, here’s a column from the World Socialist Web Site.


Toronto elite ostracizes right-wing mayor who served as their hatchet man

By Dylan Lubao
8 June 2013

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford—a right-wing populist, “law and order” advocate, and champion of the police—continues to be dogged by a drug scandal and politically shaken by defections from his administration.

The city’s big business elite, which promoted Ford as their hatchet man in slashing public services and attacking city workers, has signaled that they now view him as a political liability, whose hotheadedness and multiple scandals have become an impediment to prosecuting their class war agenda.

Expressing the prevailing mood among the ruling elite, Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne said last week that she was “worried about the situation” and vowed to monitor it “very carefully” and intervene “as appropriate.” Dwight Duncan, the recently retired Ontario Liberal finance minister-turned-businessman, called for the mayor’s resignation in no uncertain terms, citing the potentially harmful effect of the scandal on the Toronto economy.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and provincial Tory leader Tim Hudak, both prominent Ford allies, have maintained an embarrassed silence. Tory House Leader Jim Wilson distanced the party from the mayor’s older brother, City Councilor Doug Ford, who was recently “outed” in an exhaustive Globe and Mail exposé as an alleged drug dealer in his youth. Responding to the elder Ford’s much-discussed intention to run under the Tory banner for a seat in the provincial legislature, Wilson declared, “He is not our candidate.”

Underscoring the kinship between the Ford administration and the Harper government, Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, another Ford ally and family friend, reportedly met the mayor in private last weekend to counsel him on “personal” matters. Flaherty and the late family patriarch Doug Ford Sr. served together as Tory members of the provincial parliament in the late 1990s under arch right-winger Premier Mike Harris.

Ford—who was accused last month of having been recorded smoking crack cocaine while spouting racist and homophobic epithets in an video peddled by “Somali gangsters” to local and online media outlets—has witnessed his political support at city hall shrivel. Councilors Doug Holyday and Gary Crawford, who serve on Ford’s executive committee, have publicly said that they believe the video exists. Holyday previously led half of the executive in demanding that Ford respond “openly and transparently” to the allegations against him.

In the last two weeks, about a third of Mayor Ford’s staff have resigned or been dismissed. Ford fired his chief of staff Mark Towhey, reportedly because he had suggested the mayor go into rehab. Five other staffers have resigned. Ford has brought in replacements, including Eric Provost, Towhey’s former second-in-command, who has been elevated to chief of staff. Provost, a Liberal campaign specialist, has worked for former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, a fact that speaks to the essentially porous border between rival camps of the Canadian political elite.

The Globe, the traditional mouthpiece of Canada’s banks and investment dealers stepped up its attacks on the mayor, in an editorial this week that labeled Ford a “toxic political liability” and called for a less polarizing, “fiscally conservative” candidate to run for mayor in the 2014 civic elections. Giving voice to the ruling elite’s hopes to use the scandal enveloping Ford to fashion a more effective right-wing administration, Globe columnist Konrad Yakabuski admonished the mayor for failing to implement the full gamut of social spending cuts expected of him, including steeper cuts in city workers’ wages.

In the face of dwindling big business and Conservative support and much public outrage, Ford remains defiant, “absolutely” vowing to weather the scandal and run for reelection in 2014. Reports indicating that the infamous video has now “disappeared” seem to have emboldened the mayor, who has claimed to be the victim of a smear campaign by media “maggots.”

The right-wing Toronto Sun tabloid, a devoted Ford enthusiast, has remained largely silent since imploring him to step aside if the allegations of drug use were true.

The conservative National Post, which backed Ford in 2010 and initially expressed dismay at Ford’s failure to provide a “serious explanation” for the accusations, now seems guardedly ambivalent about his clinging to office, despite reports from a right-wing insider that “Bay Street has abandoned him (Ford)” and are “looking for a new conservative candidate…to put their money behind.”

Several names have been advanced within ruling class circles as a suitable successor to Ford, with both “right” and ”left” candidates being groomed to take on the job of imposing austerity on working people, while pushing through the transportation infrastructure upgrades needed to make the city’s economy a reliable producer of profit for big business. The potential candidates include the aptly named former Progressive Conservative leader John Tory and New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Olivia Chow, who assisted her late husband, Jack Layton, in presiding over the NDP’s further lurch right.

Notorious for flouting city rules, shirking official responsibilities, and insulting immigrants, gays, the homeless and city workers, Ford has survived two earlier charges of wrongdoing. In January, a conflict of interest conviction that resulted in his being ordered to step down as mayor was overturned on a technicality. The next month, he received a slap on the wrist for overspending on his election campaign.

The consensus among the ruling elite, indicated by copious testimony in the corporate press, is that Rob Ford, the multimillionaire who fashioned a political persona as a spokesman of “working Joes,” has long passed his best-before date.

While the specifics of Ford’s unraveling are surprising, Toronto’s elite has long been aware of Ford’s ignorant and reactionary views and of his cavalier and petulant behaviour—behaviour that had alienated him from much of the right-wing faction at city hall during his ten years as a city councilor. But determined to push politics sharply to the right, the elite promoted Ford, seeking to use him to build a popular constituency for a socially regressive agenda aimed at redistributing wealth to the most privileged sections of Toronto’s population through tax and social spending cuts.

Ford and the austerity agenda that he has championed have faced mass working-class opposition throughout his tenure as mayor. But the official left in Toronto, the unions and the social-democratic NDP, and their liberal allies are utterly opposed to any mobilization of the social and independent political power of the working class. Their opposition to Ford has centered on scandalizing the public with exposures of his petty abuses of power and critiques of his buffoonish behaviour. To call attention to Ford’s class war policies, would call attention to their own complicity in carrying out the agenda of big business.

Rob Ford’s predecessor, the NDP and trade union-backed David Miller, presided over a dramatic infusion of wealth to the city’s financial elite through a series of generous property tax breaks, grants, subsidies and grossly undervalued business land assessments handed over to big commercial developers. In 2009, Miller forced a concessions-laden contract on 30,000 striking city workers. None of the city’s nominally progressive councilors raised a voice to defend the workers, whom the press vilified as “selfish” for fighting to safeguard their modest salaries. Campaigning in the 2010 election, Ford harnessed widespread popular anger against declining living standards by promising to lower taxes, while shamelessly lying that any cuts would only affect the “gravy train” on which city employees reputedly gorged. He was elected by only a quarter of total eligible voters.

When Ford moved to impose sweeping budget cuts and gut city worker contracts, the unions and “left” mounted only token opposition. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) deliberately separated the city workers’ struggle against the destruction of job security—a critical step toward the privatizing of public services—from the fight against the budget cuts. Then, with Ford threatening to hire strikebreakers to break any strike against the city’s concession demands, CUPE signed a concessions-laden agreement and told city workers that they would be “isolated” if they dared vote it down.

Having at every step facilitated Ford’s “victories,” the unions and NDP have invoked the right-wing threat represented by Ford and his provincial ally, Ontario Tory leader Tim Hudak, to intimidate the working class. In particular, they have invoked the Ford-Hudak tandem to justify their propping up a minority Ontario Liberal government that is slashing billions from social spending and has imposed sweeping concessions on the province’s teachers through legislative fiat.

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From Saving a Park to 5,000,000 Workers on Strike: Background to the events in Turkey

June 6, 2013 at 12:43 am (Uncategorized) (, , )

Report on the events in Turkey

Today, 5th June 2013, there is a ‘general strike’ in Turkey. It is expected that about half a million workers will take part in the strike, which has been organized by five of the ‘left’ unions, KESK (public sector) DİSK (private sector), EĞTİM-SEN (educatıon), TTMOB (chamber of engıneers), and TOB (chamber of doctors). Since last Friday there have been hundreds of demonstrations in 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, millions in the streets, at least two people killed, and thousands arrested.

How did this situation emerge in a less than a week? How did a small demonstration against development in a park in İstanbul become a blaze that has burnt across the whole country, and brought in such a huge amount of people. To understand it is necessary to look at some of the background detail.

Of course, it is not the building of one supermarket that has inflamed the whole country. The events in Gezi Park have acted more like a spark to an already existing tinderbox. There are five main causes behind the current conflagration.

• Police Brutality: Probably the most immediate cause was the brutality used by the police in evicting the anti-development protestors in Taksim. The Turkish police have a long history of brutally attacking demonstrators, and of launching into incredibly violent attacks even on tiny peaceful demonstrations. Over the last few years, this seems to have become even worse with gas and water cannon now being the preferred method of dealing with situations as different as huge Mayday marches, unruly football fans, and small environmentalist protests. It is the reaction to this sort of violence that seems to be the thing that ignited the situation.

• Taksim: Taksim square itself has a special place in the history of the working class and the left in Turkey. It is the centre of İstanbul, the traditional location for Mayday marches, and it was here in 1977 that 42 people were shot dead, and 220 injured on Mayday. In recent years, with one notable exception marches have been banned from The square, and there have been large scale street battles as people attempted to reach it. Taksim has its place at the heart of the Turkish left, and perhaps even worse than the building of a supermarket there is the governments intention to construct a mosque.

• Creeping Islamicisation: The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the direct descendent of the Welfare Party (RP), which was forced out of office in 1997, in what is known in Turkey as a post modern coup. The following year, the party was banned for violating the constitutional principles of secularism. It has been in power, increasing its majority in each election since 2002, and in the 2011 elections, it scored an overwhelming 49.8% of the vote. Over this period, it has slowly whittled away at the secular system. The most well know example has been headscarves in universities, but recent examples including restrictions on the advertising of alcohol, and its sale in shops, lowering the age of admittance to religious schools, and announcements on the Ankara metro warning couples about kissing in public. There is widespread feeling across the country that the government wants to turn Turkey into another Iran. Another thing that has deeply upset members of Turkey’s largest religious minority, the Alevis is the name that has been chosen by the state for the new Bosphorus bridge. The name of the new bridge, which is so controversial that even the company building the bridge has been reluctant to use it calling it merely ‘the third bridge’ is to be the Sultan Selim bridge. Sultan Selim, known as ‘Selim the Grim’ in English, was responsible for widespread massacres against Alevis and other Shia Muslims. It is almost the equivalent of naming a bridge in Iraqi Kurdistan the Saddam Hussein Memorial Bridge.

•Regional Policy: Probably the two most important facets of Turkish policy have been the peace deal with the PKK, and the support for the Syrian rebels. Of course secularists are unhappy with the governments support for an Islamicist opposition against a secular state, and stray missile, bombs, and masses of refuges have brought this home. The government’s peace deal with the Kurdish nationalists has also brought disquiet to Turkish nationalists of both the left and the right wing varieties. The Turkish Communist Party’s Central Committee statement of June 4th makes it clear that the Turkish national flag is ‘in the hands of the people’, that the Kurdish nationalists shouldn’t make a deal with the AKP, and that they should become a part of a ‘united, patriotic, and enlightened people’s labour movement’ presumably waving this blood soaked flag as they do.

• Workers’ Struggles: the last few years have been relatively peaceful since the large movement centred around the TEKEL struggle in winter/spring 2010. However, recently there has been a marked increase in militancy, which has seen important strikes in the textile sector and south coast ports. Turkish Airlines have been on strike for two weeks, and even before these events exploded, KESK’s 240,000 members were due to strike today anyway. In addition to this the 110,000 strong metal workers union is due to hold a strike towards the end of the month.

When all of these things are wrapped together in Tayip’s autocratic abrasive style of semi-imperial rule, it is not a surprise that things erupted as they did.

From Gezi Park to General Strike

After the initial attack by the police in Gezi Park demonstrations spread quickly across the country. In the beginning spontaneously with people just coming out into the streets. Newspapers and TV channels close to the government played down or even barely reported on the issue, but word spread quickly through Twitter and the Internet, prompting Prime Minister Tayip Erdoğan to call social media ‘the worst menace to the country’. Twenty four people have since been arrested for the ‘crime of posting on Twitter.

The main opposition party the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) organized a large demonstration to march to Taksim, and other protestors, not put off by the closure of the metro, marched across the Bosphorus bridge in their thousands to join the protests. On the morning of June 1st Tayip was declaring that the police were in Taksim to stay, but by 15.45 of the same day they started to withdraw from the square leaving the protestors in control. In other cities the protests turned increasingly violent with police in Ankara dropping tear gas from helicopters, and killing at least one protestor when trying to move demonstrators from the central square.

Other major cities across the country have also seen massive demonstrations with at least one more fatality, in Antakya. In Tunceli there is also a rumor that a protestor has been shot dead. In Izmir the AKP offices were set on fire, and the entire country from major cities, not only in the centre but also in the suburbs, to smaller towns.

The protests seem to be a cross-class movement bringing in all of those who feel anger against the regime. All sorts of political groups are represented there from the far left to the far right. In Taksim square banners with pictures of imprisoned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcelan have been unfurled as well as people waving Turkish flags, and even making the Grey Wolf (Turkish ultra-nationalists ) salute.

What of the Working Class?

Of course a mass movement such as this one can’t move forward without the power of the working class. Calls for a general strike for Monday started to circulate on Twitter and Facebook on Sunday night though there never seemed much of a chance that they would be taken up although some universities in Ankara and Istanbul did start a strike on Monday along with some hospitals in Ankara who declared they would only deal with emergencies and demonstrators.

The ‘left’ unions met on Monday to decide upon there response. KESK changed its already organized one day strike to a two day strike on Tuesday and Wednesday, and DİSK, EĞTİM-SEN, TTMOB, and TOB agreed yo join them on Wednesday with large scale demonstrations being organized in the three biggest cities, İstanbul, Ankara, and İzmir. Although these organization between them claim easily over one million members it seems reasonable to expect around half a million people to be actually on strike today. An opposition group within the main TÜRK-İŞ union confederation has also issued a statement calling on their members to support the struggle by a long list of methods, the last of which is actually striking.

In the protests around the TEKEL dispute three years ago, it seemed that the movement lost its momentum after the general strike. Workers struggled for months occupying the centre of Ankara, and organizing countless demonstrations, to force their union to call a general strike. When it finally happened, it seemed like nobody had any plans to take the movement forward. With today’s general strike as with that one the real question is what happens tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

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Puff Goes the Weasel

May 18, 2013 at 8:28 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming

Well, it wasn’t the alignment of the stars that roused me from my slumber, it was the continuing political farce in Canada that is the Senate. For those who don’t know (or care) about such things, in Canada, the Senate is appointed by the governing federal party and essentially, whatever, its pretensions, it serves as a retirement reward for political insiders and party functionaries etc.

Periodically, calls come for the Senate’s abolition (the NDP) or reform (the current Conservative government), but little happens in the Red Chamber.

Currently though, the Senate is a little more interesting. A number of Senators (1 Liberal ad 3 conservatives – all of whom have quit their respective  caucuses) are under investigation for expenses related frauds.

So, you ask, why does this little scandal, which is admittedly juicy, hold interest for a left communist not usually concerned with the intricacies of capitalist corruption? After all, it really doesn’t matter too much which way the capitalist class maintains itself rule (although on a certain bourgeois democratic level, the Canadian senate on paper looks better than the British House of Lords. At least here, you have to grovel to current politics  rather than have had your ancestors do it for you)

Well, the thing that caught my interest wasn’t

1. That Pamela Wallin racked up $375,000 in travel expenses in a period of 2 and a half years (that’s $12,000 a month or over $400 a day if you’re doing the math)

2 That Mike Duffy claimed 90,000 in housing expenses, when he lives in Ottawa (his principle residence is allegedly a cottage in Prince Edward Island where he is currently hiding out)

3 That the money which Duffy still insists he did no wrong to claim was repaid by the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff  and was in fact a gift (something under which Senate rules, so unclear according to Mr. Duffy, is illegal)

5 That said Prime Minister claims not to know about this although he is notorious as a control freak, but in any event defends his Chief of staff

6. Not even that the aggressively obnoxious Patrick Brazeau, currently charged with domestic assault and sexual assault as well as the expense claims, is going to fight to “clear his name.”

No no, actually as someone who has taken out loans and is still paying a mortgage (the bank and I have  lovely little house together), I’m sure that like many others, I wonder how the fuck I can get a job in the senate. It would be great to have those kind of friends. and I’d be sure not to make those mistakes!

Who was it said, the wealthy and the powerful don’t mind socialism, as long as it’s only for them: the rest of us get capitalism. Tell that to your bank manager, landlord or bill collector next time they come calling.

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Happy May Day 2013

May 1, 2013 at 11:02 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

International Workers Day. 2013. Gone are the tanks that marked the state-capitalism of eastern Europe. Largely gone are the welfare-statist social democracies of western Europe. What does remain is the dream. A couple of times I’ve been to May-day celebrations organized by the Worker-Communist Parties or Ira n and Iraq (names changed now, but it doesn’t matter) Now I don’t agree with the odd Leninist politics of the group, but the food was good and the evening always had the Internationale  sung in English, Farsi, Arabic, French, Kurdish and probably something else at the same time. Solidarity.

I know some people don’t like this version, and I’m not fond of Bragg’s politics, but at least he tries to look forward in this rendition from the celebration of Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday.

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Internationalist Perspective at the Platypus Convention

April 20, 2013 at 3:08 pm (Uncategorized) ()

Recently IP participated in a number of panels at the Platypus Society conference in Chicago. Follow these links to see the presentation/discussion

Differing Perspectives on the Left

Marx and Wertkritik

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What Margaret Thatcher Did for Pop Music

April 9, 2013 at 6:56 pm (Uncategorized) ()

OK OK, last words on Thatcher.

This article appeared yesterday on the New Musical Express, and is an interesting assessment of the musical response to the Thatcher years. At the height of the Thatcher years, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover  was a cinematic response to the polices and attitudes her regime had produced. John Doyle in today’s Globe and Mail makes a similar point about TV.  I’ve cut out the video links, but they’re all from You Tube. The original column can be found here

What Margaret Thatcher Did For Pop Music

Matthew Horton / April 8, 2013

The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death this morning (8 April) has seen the expected outpouring of mixed emotions. On one side, the feeling that no one should be rejoicing over an old lady’s passing; on the other, well, all that rejoicing’s hard to ignore. For every observer turned off by the gloating, there’s another who’ll point out lives ruined, industries flattened, jobs swept away with the flick of a pen. Let’s prise something positive out of the whole argument – the notion that great art flourishes in unlikely circumstances. And Thatcher’s government certainly created a hostile terrain. From cutting subsidies for the British film industry to progressively reducing arts funding in general, the Tory government of the 1980s appeared set on blunting the sharper edges of our culture. Of course that had to fail, and particularly with music. The greatest political music builds a bulwark against the enemy, and rallies engaged fans to the cause. This is Thatcher’s contribution to pop music.

The forces mobilised quickly. The Specials knew their history and drolly re-set Bob Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ as a soca-meets-supper-club-jazz sneer at the incumbent PM at the end of 1980. That “she says she’s fifty-four” lyric didn’t even need to be changed – well, it was a couple of months out, but come on. Elsewhere, “National Guard” becomes “National Front”, but the song stands as a protest without too much tweaking. They were beaten to the punch though by fellow ska revivalists The Beat, whose ‘Stand Down Margaret’ made the top 30 in August 1980. It was telling that the more marginalised fragments of UK culture were the first to rear up.

Electronic music got a look-in too. Gary Numan was an early supporter of Thatcher and the new Conservative government – something of a lead balloon for his career, at least in the eyes of the music press – but he just managed to squeeze out the immortal frigid-pop of ‘Cars’ and ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’. An exception perhaps, although the dystopian visions didn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for the status quo. Meanwhile, Heaven 17’s ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ turned up in 1981 to make great clanging statements from the other side of the ballot box, taking down Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to the strains of vital, burbling electro-funk. Dance music would still be standing defiant a dozen years later as a future Conservative government tried to shut down the rave scene.

Pop really got its opposition front bench together with the creation of politico-cultural organisation Red Wedge in 1985. With heavyweight support from then-Labour leader Neil Kinnock, the collective aimed to get the kids into the voting mindset for the 1987 election. Musically, Red Wedge were led by The Style Council – then righteously tearing into the government with ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ (“You don’t have to take this crap…”) – and Billy Bragg, who made his name with stark, gravelly attacks on the Tory administration, from ‘Between The Wars’ (“I’ll give my consent to any government/That does not deny a man a living wage”) to ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’, minting a new British protest folk built on the firmest of foundations: adversity.

Onto the personal, it’s a sentiment to make you wince today, but Elvis Costello’s 1989 track ‘Tramp The Dirt Down’ represented the unfettered vitriol of the time. Folky and ironically elegiac, it has the veiled bite but doesn’t quite pack the punch of ‘Shipbuilding’, his earlier swipe at the wrongheadedness of Thatcherite policy, made famous by Robert Wyatt. Costello certainly felt the fires burning when he turned on Thatcher – take, too, the quiet rage of ‘Pills And Soap’, recorded as The Imposter in 1983.

Let’s wince too at Morrissey’s ‘Margaret On The Guillotine’. “The kind people have a wonderful dream… when will you die?” It falls to Morrissey to sum up the feelings of one half of the internet, but doing so with a lilting ballad in the spring of 1988 doesn’t so much celebrate death as call for a political head. Just a few months after another whopping election victory, it’s sung more in hope than expectation, but ‘Margaret On The Guillotine’ was a suitably malevolent end to Morrissey’s first solo album, showing the old dog had lost none of his bite even if he’d lost his band. This was anti-Thatcherism as a badge of commitment.

And all that without mentioning Hue & Cry’s blue-eyed, double-edged funk assault ‘Labour Of Love’ and The Blow Monkeys’ equally blue-eyed ‘(Celebrate) The Day After You’, which admittedly brought some genuine funk with the guest-starring Curtis Mayfield, an American who might have wondered what he was doing laying into Thatcher. Although that didn’t stop Aimee Mann on ‘You’re With Stupid Now’.

In terms of quality, it’s a mixed bag. The anti-Thatcher canon embraces the sublime – Billy Bragg’s richer lyrical turns, The Style Council’s firebrand soul, The Specials’ grassroots polemic – but also the clunky – Morrissey’s grand guignol, Costello’s more browbeating moments, tune-avoiding hotheads like The Redskins. Whatever you think of the results, this political environment fed a pop scene that was diverse, angry and motivated. When the era came to an end after the Tories’ own Night of the Long Knives in autumn 1990, there was just one voice singing from a different hymnsheet – Jonathan King, with ‘We Can’t Let Maggie Go’. You can’t pick your friends in this game

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S-21 Photo Exhibition

March 11, 2013 at 8:25 pm (Uncategorized) ()

S-21 was the name given to a former high school in Cambodia transformed into an execution centre by the Khmer Rouge. The camp operated between 1975 and 179 when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by the Vietnamese army.  An estimated 20,000 people were executed there.

Yesterday, I went to the Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibition of photographs from the camp. Unlike many of the camps, S-21 maintained detailed photo archives of its prisoners although the identities of the majority are unknown.

It’s eerie looking at the photos. In some ways they resemble nothing more than standard police mug shots but there’s a chilling sense as you realize that within a few months of these pictures being taken the subject would be brutally murdered. What’s strange though is the lack of emotion in the pictures. Only one man has anything like a smile. Most wear what might be called resignation.

It’s said that like Saturn a revolution devours its own children, but the gluttony for murder seems unsurpassed.

The exhibition closed yesterday, but the photographs can be seen on-line at the Tuol Sleng site

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