Recent Articles

Symmetrical Outrage at Asymmetric Warfare

by Keith Kahn-Harris     February 29, 2008 at 6:09 pm

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inexorably hotting up again. In summer 2006 the flashpoint was northern Israel/southern Lebanon, now it is mid-Israel/Gaza. The dynamic of the current conflagration is similar to the previous one: Hamas/Hezbollah firing missiles at civilians in Sderot and Ashkelon/northern Israel; Israel responding with missiles and a ground invasion that causes many civilian deaths. In the current flare-up only a ground invasion of Gaza is lacking and that could well be about to happen.

This style of conflict reveals the sheer hopelessness of this kind of ‘asymmetric warfare’ in which the weaker party fights with crude weapons and has not a hope of total victory of the battlefield. Hamas’s crudely produced rockets cannot beat the Israeli military machine but can and do cause terror, injury and death to the people of Sderot and now Ashkelon. Israel’s mighty army can cause devastation for the people of Gaza on a greater scale than Hamas can manage, but it cannot prevent the rockets (it’s worth remembering that rockets were fired, albeit on a smaller scale, even when Israel was occupying Gaza). The hopelessness lies in the impossibility of victory for either side. Insofar as Hamas has a realistic political strategy, it is that decades of low-intensity warfare will perhaps weaken Israel’s desire to fight. Israel’s more realistic leaders admit that re-occupation of Gaza presents no ultimate solution. continue reading… »

A Question of Priorities

by Keith Kahn-Harris     January 9, 2008 at 8:28 pm

The climate change denial blog has an interesting post from Roman Krznaric entitled ‘Does The Left Really Believe in Climate Change’. Krznaric recounts his attendance at a leftist conference on Latin America that he attended last year in London. He recounts that not only did none of the speakers mention climate change as a factor to be considered in Latin American politics, but support for Chavez in Venezuela appears to condone his reliance on oil to fund the ‘Bolivarian revolution’.

Krznaric says that

I can’t help concluding that the Progressive Left doesn’t yet really believe in climate change.

He gives the following reasons for this:

One factor concerns hope. For the first time in years there is a sense of hope about Latin America amongst the Progressive Left. Neoliberalism is in retreat and left-leaning governments are being elected throughout the region. Chavez is challenging the US and the multinationals, and having an impact on poverty reduction. Bolivia has its first indigenous President. But none of this, I believe, is an excuse for ignoring climate change.

A second factor is that many activists and policy-makers continue to keep human development issues separate from what they think of as ‘environmental’ issues. If you are interested in tackling poverty in the favelas of Rio, it is quite normal not even to consider that climate change is a related issue. I think there is a real need for development agencies and activists on the one hand, and environmentally-oriented organisations and campaigners on the other, to merge their thinking to create a new Ecological Humanism, so that climate change and social justice are considered interdependent issues.

A third, possibly deeper factor, is psychological denial. As individuals, we have an extraordinary capacity to shut our minds to the realities of issues that we think are frightening or insurmountable. Climate change is one of them. The good news is that people in rich countries are starting to overcome their denial and accept that climate change is not only happening, but will change their own lives, and that they have to adapt to and embrace the changes. The bad news is that most of them remain in denial when it comes to the world’s poorest countries. As a recent Oxfam report points out, the rich world is sorely lagging behind in its response to the need for developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change link..

The time has come for us to take our struggle against denial a stage further, and recognise that climate change is a reality not only for ourselves, but for the world’s poorest people in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions.

This article is absolutely right that in many left wing and liberal circles, climate change is nowhere near higher enough up the agenda. It’s also right to skewer the neo-Bolivarians for their short-termist relianceon petrodollars. But I can’t help thinking that the source of the problem isn’t so much denial or the other reasons Krznaric gives, so much as a more intractable problem with politics itself.

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Our Missed Deadline

by Keith Kahn-Harris     December 16, 2007 at 9:30 pm

Predictably, the post-Bali conference fallout is one of claim and counter-claim. Is it a disappointing cop-out? A great day for the environment? The best that could be hoped for under the circumstances? I’ll leave this one to the multitudes who claim to be experts on this topic. What I am struck by though, is the increasing number of commentators who argue that whatever the deal reached in Bali, whatever action we take, we are too late to avoid a period of considerable climate change-related turmoil.

I was very disturbed by a recent article by well-regarded writer on climate change Ross Gelbspan. Gelbspan’s message is harsh in the extreme:
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What did we do to you?

by Keith Kahn-Harris     December 10, 2007 at 6:30 pm

Not that I feel sorry for her, but Melanie Phillips is an easy target for ridicule and incredulity from the left (including on Liberal Conspiracy here and here). Her fearsome seriousness, her apocalyptic pronouncements and above all her journey from Guardianista to neo-con positively invite the ‘Mad Mel’ jibes (not that I approve of them – abuse is a poor tactic in political discussion). It’s quite a journey from the liberal left to defending intelligent design and denying man-made global warming. But however shocking Phillips’s journey has been and however far-right her current ideas are, I don’t think that those of us who criticise her have fully appreciated the depths of her disillusionment.

Take this recent post on her blog, in which she satirises Suffolk County Council’s considering ways to remove stiles and other obstacles with the aim of making rural pathways accessible to people in wheelchairs:

Yess!! Obviously thousands of people in wheelchairs, who would otherwise think nothing of bowling along rutted countryside paths studded with tree roots, rocks and boulders, fallen branches, overhanging brambles, mud swamps and other impedimenta to progress which make them such a challenge for the able-bodied, are being stymied by the kissing-gate.

And why stop there? What about dodgem cars? Ice rinks? Bungee jumping? Formation water-skiing? SAS training? How many wheel-chair users can take part in these activities, then, eh?? We should hang our heads in shame.

End rustic disablism now! We need a new methodology of the stile.

This post took my breath away. I’d read about the Suffolk initiative as well and saw it as interesting and well-intentioned, if maybe impractical. Yet Phillips sees this as worthy of the most vituperative ridicule.

There seems to be three main principles behind the scorn:

  1. A conservatism so extreme that any attempt at making life easier for a minority is instantly distrusted.
  2. A deep-rooted belief that social policy should be majoritarian – attempts to cater for minorities should be rejected.
  3. A conviction that the only response to physical and other forms of disability should be stoicism and a refusal to look to the wider society for improvements to one’s quality of life.

I think it is worth trying to grapple with these principles as I don’t think Melanie Phillips is alone in holding them. They represent an absolutely implacable refusal of the idea that life can be improved. They reject the very idea of social policy as anything other than reactive and repressive. How can these ideas be combatted?

The other question that Melanie Phillips’s work raises is: what did the liberal-left do to her? What caused this radical turning away from any kind of belief in a better society? Above all, why do those who turn away from the left end up attacking it so viciously?

Let’s have more honesty in politics

by Keith Kahn-Harris     November 28, 2007 at 4:43 pm

Whatever side you are on in the Martin Amis controversy, it is notable how far his now-infamous comments on Islam depart from the mainstream of political and intellectual discourse in this country. On the left or the right, it is still rare to see hatred, fear and anger expressed this directly by a member of the intellectual or political elite.

Whereas populist, Richard Littlejohn-style discourse freely expresses itself in vivid ways, the mark of elite discourse is its aspiration to rationality and good sense. Although elite discourse is not always polite – far from it – the dominant trend is to not present oneself as a creature ruled by passion and prejudice, but as someone whose passions are harnessed for the good of society.

How far our society is ‘enlightened’ is open to debate, yet the legacy of the enlightenment remains profound. The consensus is still that engagement in politics requires a careful analysis of social problems and a determined attempt to right-wrongs in a way that is good for society as a whole.

Yet the enlightenment consensus, I would suggest, has become a straight-jacket on modern politics.
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Dialogue, debate and political commitment

by Keith Kahn-Harris     November 16, 2007 at 2:16 am

As website titles go, Liberal Conspiracy is pretty damn good: eye-catching, ironic, but not so ironic as not to contain a grain of truth. Of course the liberal-left conspiracy is a figment of the fevered imaginations of the Richard Littlejohns and Peter Hitchens of this world. Yet at the same time, the word conspiracy applies quite nicely to certain aspects of political action.

Any attempt to gather a group of like-minded people and to create change is conspiratorial, even if the word tends to applied most often to nefarious forms of action. So, in principle at least, there’s nothing wrong with being part of a conspiracy. The problem is, how do you balance such sectarian forms of politics with other kinds of politics that require listening, convincing, drawing people in?

This question has haunted me throughout the last year or two. I am a sociologist by profession and, whilst my work has always been politically-oriented in that I have always tried to raise issues of power and authority, I have had little involvement in the more direct and confrontational forms of politics. Much of my recent work has taken place in Anglo-Jewry, where I have had to show considerable acumen as to how to articulate my own leftist views (on Israel and much else) in the context of an often conservative community.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been increasingly frustrated with the discretion I’ve continually tried to show. I’ve wanted to intervene more directly in the political arena; to write for an audience broader than both academia and the Jewish community.

So I’ve started to dip my toe into the choppy waters of public debates. Last year I signed what I thought was a reasonable worded declaration pointing out that Anglo-Jewish communal institutions do not speak for everyone on the question of Israel. The declaration formed the basis for the launch in early 2007 of the group Independent Jewish Voices. The storm of controversy that followed was extraordinary. The declaration was treated as an act of treachery by some and even in more progressive Jewish circles it was condemned as an attack on the community by secular Jews who only identify as Jews to criticize other Jews.
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