Saturday, 26 January 2008

Music matters

Ah, the joys of the blogosphere where, despite the troubles of the big round, one can always take a mood-moment to muse and meander in a little off-the-wallness, sometimes in flighty epiphany or keyboard frippery, sometimes on the wave of a poetic note or, in this case, musical whimsy.

For all those who stood up and were counted
For all those for whom money was no motive
For all those for whom music was a message
I want to thank you for making me

A little more sure
A little more wise
And courageous

So goes the wonderful opening lyrics to Music Matters, by Faithless.

I'm kind of lost in the ethereal beauty of this piece, featuring Cass Fox's soaring, sensuous vocals, alongside Maxi Jazz's dub-rap poetry which runs through the second pumped-up section like a grooving incantation.

It sits smilingly in my head as one of the tracks that accompany a body balance class I partake in, a little oasis of good feeling and peaceful meditation, caringly overseen by our talented instructor. Why are the 'simple' things in life always the most rewarding?

Cultivating physical and emotional harmony is something of an artful endeavour. And music matters as spiritual stimuli to those vibrant feelings and the pursuit of balanced contentment. It can also charge our cerebral impulses and well-being, potentially encouraging, in turn, our capacity for human empathy.

We are what we hear.
We are what we say.
We are what we read.
We are what we feel.

So, if we feel and hold hate and anger within, we become hate and anger personified, with all the consequential negatives that suggests.

In a recent docu-film of Faithless performing in Moscow alongside a Russian orchestra, Maxi sagely observes that, by the same logic, if we "feel amazing", we must "be amazing". I rather like that little zen-type coda.

Those quintessential Faithless lyrics and haunting beats track a darker furrow of human existence in Bombs:

We think we're heroes, we think we're kings
We plan all kinds of fabulous things
Oh look how great we have become

One bomb, the whole block gone
Can't find me children and dust covers the sun
Everywhere is noise, panic and confusion
But to some another fun day in Babylon
I'm gonna bury my wife and dig up my gun
My life is done so now
I got to kill someone

So much heaven, so much hell

So much love, so much pain
So much more than I thought this world could ever contain
So much war, so much soul
Moments lost, moments go
So much more than I thought this world could ever hold

The words and video images here register a chilling message of how tenderly human life clings-on amid the spectacle of war and violence; how terrifyingly invasive power and brute force can be when it bursts into our lives.

More often, it's 'their' lives at stake, the lives of 'others' in 'foreign' places, whose suffering through war and occupation 'our' politicians prefer us not to think too hard about. And the calculated indifference of 'our' political, military and corporate elite reminds us of the stark uselessness of hate, anger and greed, the usual motivations for mercenary taking of life through war.

The primary reference in Bombs is to the wanton Western crime being perpetrated in Iraq. But it serves as a wider allusion to violent behaviour in general and how we need - contra the warmongers and their delusional accomplices - to act in a spirit of true human consideration.

Bombs is a challenging love song, no-less, with its sumptuous, soulful voices urging a politics of care and compassion. It's notable that MTV refused to air the video to this track, with its juxtaposed scenes of happy family life and elite-sponsored war.

This is a music that faithfully engages such matters. A music for all those for whom money, profit and violence is "no motive". A music for mind, body and soul. A music for those trying to keep a little faith in our common ability to care.

Hey, so much for the 'escapist' muse....

Anyway, check out these great live renditions of Bombs and Music Matters.

Peace and love.


Friday, 18 January 2008

Israel's friendly network

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, with the West Bank demoralised and Gaza subject to a feudal-like siege, there's an historical continuity to how the Palestinians' plight is being willfully ignored by the 'international community' and a servile media.

Gaza has been bombed again today, bringing this week's murder count to 37 civilians. But, it's treated as a sideshow by politicians and media in the West, with no serious effort to call Israel to account for its despicable actions.

In 1948, Western governments also stood idly-by while David Ben-Gurion's Zionist forces systematically murdered a population, forcing no less than eighty-five per cent of Palestinians to flee their towns and villages as refugees. (1)

The savage truth of this barbarous programme has been brilliantly documented by the Jewish historian Ilan Pappe in his latest book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Two recent lectures given by Pappe at Oxford provide additional verbal testimony on how that ethnic cleansing unfolded:

Pappe notes here how Palestinians who tried to raise awareness of the disaster at the time were treated as liars and propagandists. Instead, a contrived Israeli narrative became accepted in the West, promoting, among other distortions, the peculiar notion that the Palestinians had 'voluntarily' left their own homes to make way for supporting Arab armies. No serious questioning of such a claim came from the British state or its 'critical' media. Indeed, this fictional narrative remains largely unchallenged even today.

60 years on, the same complicit denial can be seen in the West's failure to highlight and denounce the starvation siege of Gaza. As in 1948, the bearers of uncomfortable truths about Zionist crimes are being marginalised or ignored. Predictably, mainstream Western reaction has been to portray the US/EU-backed sanctions policy as a 'reactive' punishing of Hamas 'terrorism'.

There's a similar indifference towards Israel's de facto 'transfer' policy, an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Israel which most Western governments and media seem to regard as a 'practical state solution' to an 'internal civil problem'. Israeli and other Jews opposing these kind of apartheid policies are treated, more particularly, as 'self-haters' prepared to compromise Israel's national 'security'.

In Pappe's case, this comes with added vilification from within the Israeli establishment. But the demonisation of Pappe as a traitorous recalcitrant cannot be so-easily defended by his accusers. Unlike the shunning of those who told the world about the ethnic cleansing in 1948, Pappe has a wider and more informed global audience. And his message about the present Occupation comes with this vital and uncomfortable truth: that in order to understand the current apartheid and transfer policies of the Israeli state, one has to recognise its roots in the formative ethnic cleansing.

Pappe's book is more than a piece of 'revisionist history'. It's a forensic documentation of systematic killing and expulsions. Indeed, Pappe has 'borrowed' the considered legal and moral definitions of ethnic cleansing employed by the US State Department to show how they fit like a "hand to a glove" in the case of Palestine. (2) Except, of course, that the State Department singularly refrains from including Palestine on its actual list of ethnically-cleansed people.

As Israel celebrates six decades of its founding, it must live with the dark truth of how it murdered and cleansed so many human beings in order to make that state possible. And it must live with how it did so just three years after the discovered horrors of six million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust.

In his talks, Pappe acknowledges that the early 19th century Zionist movement contained honourable elements intent on sheltering and saving the Jewish people from European persecution. He also notes how the Holocaust gave new impetus to the Zionist project's selection of Palestine as a homeland. But, with that fateful choice came ideological presumptions about a Jewish ethnic state and ruthless decisions about how to effect it.

Friend or foe

That Zionist agenda has been consistently denounced by Orthodox Neturei Karta Jews. Following one of this week's IDF operations in Gaza, in which 20 Palestinians were killed, a spokesman for the religious grouping said:

"We are appalled by the terrorist massacre performed by the Zionists in Gaza. This ferocious act is just one in a long line of oppressive acts of ethnic cleansing performed against the Palestinian people since 1948 by the evil Zionist movement".

The statement goes on:

"The anti-Zionist Jews denounce the violent, bloodthirsty actions made in the name of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion...We fail to understand why the world powers allow the Zionists to commit such crimes against the Palestinian people, by using F-16 warplanes, battleships and tanks...When will the world finally control the Zionists and give the Palestinians in historic Palestine their rights back?"

This is a savage indictment from 'within'. As Jews for Justice in Palestine also assert, Israel does not speak for many Jews appalled at what Olmert and his predecessors have done 'in their names'.

Despite all this condemnation, internal and external, the ethnic purging of Palestine is still widely rationalised within Israel as an exercise in necessary survival. There's also the related charge of 'anti-Semitism' commonly levelled at those questioning this Zionist logic - an argument which has been ably exposed by Chomsky and significant others. A further aspect of the Zionist-exploited discourse is the defensive deceit that one is either a friend or foe of Israel as it struggles to fend-off Hamas and the 'Muslim menace'.

The main articulation of this comes from the Jewish lobby in the US (AIPAC et al), who work assiduously to maintain the 'good reputation' of Israel as a country 'threatened on all sides'. The US-sided version of the lobby encapsulates elite interests across the political establishment (liberal and conservative), corporate sector and the nascent Christian-Zionist alliance, a 'defensive offensive' giving Bush and his cabal a cover role as 'peace-maker friends' seeking 'fair resolutions' to the conflict.

But, the 'friendship network' is also underpinned by an assertive Israeli lobby here in Britain, perhaps most decisively by Labour Friends of Israel, a grouping of parliamentary notables, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and elite business-connected donors like Lord Sainsbury and the controversial David Abrahams.

A Labour advert in the Jewish Chronicle notes that:

"Since 1997 a record 57 Labour MPs have visited Israel, mostly with Labour Friends of Israel, swelling the number of MPS willing to ensure balance on the Middle East in the House of Commons. More Labour MPs have visited Israel than from any other party."

A less 'respectable', but significant, part of that network is also engaged in more subversive activity against academic and media critics of Israel, as in the attempt to smear the campaigning journalist Jonathan Cook.

Concerned at growing international awareness of its crimes, the recently-appointed Israeli Ambassador to Britain, Ron Prosor, has adopted a more campaigning role, seeking-out 'unfriendly' university venues and any other available public platforms to proselytise his 'firm-but-friendly' Zionism.

Israel's friendship network extends, likewise, across a large swath of media and cultural life, the Daily Mail's Melanie Phillips being, perhaps, the most notable, and virulent, journalist speaking in Zionism's intellectual defence.

But she's far from alone in serving to popularise Israel's 'good-standing' and special friendship with Washington. The Mail's City Editor, Alex Brummer, also lauded Bush as "a true friend of Israel" during his recent trip to the region, a sentiment based on the zero-sum logic that anyone protecting Israel's gains, even those acquired through land theft and murderous ethnic cleansing, must be worth applauding.

Of course, Brummer clearly sees, like those who oppose his self-serving views, that Bush and Blair can, indeed, be relied upon to act as dependable, last-resort friends of Israel as it seeks a 'peace deal' that secures everything it has stolen from the Palestinians.

With similar intent to courting MPs, senior British journalists and editors are being taken on all-expenses PR trips to Israel, ensuring that Tel Aviv's 'side' of things is being 'fairly aired':

"A UK-based pro-Israel lobby will bring a delegation of senior journalists from major media outlets to Israel on Sunday. Fourteen editors and senior journalists will visit for six days - including senior editorial staff from the Times, Independent and Sun newspapers and broadcasters from the BBC and Sky News, in a trip organized by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) to show them events from Israel's point of view. Many of the journalists have written on the Middle East for years, but are visiting Israel for the first time. All play a large part in determining the editorial policy at their respective organizations."

Meanwhile, the true victims of this prolonged injustice are still being, effectively, airbrushed from serious view. The typical media response to this week's killing and ethnic cleansing in Gaza is one of 'unfortunate escalation' as Israel 'retaliates' against Hamas 'militants'. The symmetry of words from journalists and politicians is despairingly obvious.

In that vein, here's a copy of the letter I've sent to Charles Ramsden, Secretary of the Parliamentary Committee on Standards in Public Life, in response to a heartfelt appeal for just recognition of the crisis in Gaza:

Mr Charles Ramsden
Secretary to the Committee
Committee on Standards in Public Life
35 Great Smith Street
London SW1P 3BQ

Dear Mr Ramsden,

As Secretary to the Standards Committee, you will, I hope, be alert to the formal and not-so-formal ways in which political lobbying helps shape government policy.

You will also, I trust, be fully aware of the illegality of Israel's Occupation of the Palestinian Territories, as defined under multiple UN resolutions. There is, in addition, the illegal construction of the 'security' wall, as judged by the International Court of Justice in 2004, and the daily abuses of Palestinian human rights, contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Geneva Convention.

As eminent figures like Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have stated, the situation in the Occupied Territories is closely akin to the evil of apartheid South Africa. I have been to the West Bank in recent months (with fellow-members of Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign) and witnessed some of the daily suffering and humiliation of Palestinian civilians at the hands of Israeli forces.

With all those international statements and opinions well-documented, one is inclined to ask why the UK government has failed to act decisively against Israel? More immediately, why is it standing idly-by while a crisis siege in Gaza continues to inflict death and suffering on innocent people?

You may respond that these are Foreign Policy issues. However, at the heart of this lies a more particular question for the Standards Committee itself:

Has the lobbying influence of groups like Labour Friends of Israel helped limit proper Parliamentary scrutiny of these issues?

While perhaps not the immediate job of the Committee to recommend direct action against Israel (though, members can always still personally support the current call for boycott, divestment and sanctions) it is very much within its remit to ask probing questions about leading parliamentarians' political and social affiliations with Labour Friends of Israel and other such bodies and to what extent this is inhibiting due discussion of, and action on, the crisis in Gaza.

I'm most keen to hear your thoughts on whether the Seven Principles of Public Life, promoted by the Standards Committee, are being upheld in this case.

I look forward to your considered thoughts on the matter.

Best wishes,

John Hilley

Gentlemanly friendship

One can but speculate as to how far Friends of Israel 'reaches into' the Committee itself. Parliamentary Committees often like to 'demonstrate' their nominal 'autonomy' and prescribed powers of scrutiny, a usually delusional, if not always insincere, belief in serving members' desire to hold ministers and senior executives to account. In practice, this is just a very gentlemanly way of challenging without intent, a kind of 'probing inaction', which helps keep any criticism moderate, muted and safely distanced from the actual policy-forming process.

Whatever the reluctance of Parliament to act morally in opposing Israel's apartheid policies, there's a growing need to recognise how these friendship linkages are keeping Britain's Zionist connections safely intact, thus serving to maintain the UK's shameful part in the persecution of Gaza.



1. Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p 179.
2. Pappe speeches at Oxford.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Great expectations - and utopian dreams

So, the 'festive' period is, thankfully, over.

It's all been said before, of course, about the season of 'merry' exhortation: the financial stresses and emotional strains of Christmas; an event supposed to be about religious, rather than commercial, deliverance.

I try to maintain a kind of 'convivial detachment' from it all - a more balanced 'participation' laced with rejection of the High Street madness. Maybe it's my low expectation of the event which makes it seem manageable.

My lovely wife and friend, whom I lost to cancer just over two Christmases ago, used to delight in the present-wrapping ritual around the tree. For her, it wasn't about crass consumerism, but the simple art of making others feel nice; that more human little act of giving and receiving we can all still partake in without resorting to craven materialism. A gift in itself, which she had in happy abundance.

In that life-affirming spirit, I note a pleasing number of more maternal expectations this coming year among family and friends. Maybe it's the greater appreciation of life one sometimes gains through personal loss, but I rather delight these days in news of imminent bambinos. I also recently learned of an old, lost friend who has just become a mum. And it lifted my heart to think of her happiness at the lovely event and of all her experiences of parenthood to come.

Sadly, safe and happy delivery are much less likely for expectant mums in places like Gaza and the West Bank, many having miscarried after being detained at checkpoints and refused timely medical attention. Things that are expected and taken-for-granted in the affluent West are never so certain for women living under oppressive occupation.

Yet, whatever the difficulty, there's something quite wonderful about the untainted arrival of innocent life and observation of infant development. I witness it in my own little grand-daughter as she surveys the world of a five-year-old, from the simplicities of painting happy flowers at her easel to the complexities of market life around her.

I also hear of other parental expectations seemingly sullied by disappointment and concerns over the behaviour of kids. Much of this is typical fare; all those little life 'crises' where parental anxieties and youthful delusions often collide in a kind of emotional explosion - usually without too much 'collateral' damage. An ongoing learning curve for all concerned. When all said and done, nothing, from my experience, at least, is a better lesson than experience itself.

And yet, what a challenging set of market-driven pressures and competitive social messages our kids have to negotiate these days. The pressure to 'excel' at school. The pressure to be an early-teenage 'adult'. The pressure to binge drink and do other narcotics in search of confidence, escape and kicks. The peer and media pressure to be attractive and desired. The pressures to attain economic 'status' and be 'successful', increasingly measured, for many, by the 'high-peak' of 'celebrity'. And, overarching it all, the pressure to 'realise' that most elusive of life goals: 'happiness' itself; a state of being increasingly conditional on 'securing' much of the above.

These kind of pressures have always been around in one form or another. But there's a deepening intensity to which people, and young people in particular, are feeling the harsh, stressful pressures of what Oliver James calls "Selfish Capitalism".

Of course, capitalism is, by its very 'logic', driven by selfish impulses. The market system prevails not just as a mechanism of competition and profit, but elimination and greed. Which is why even Adam Smith's notional "invisible hand" of 'market efficiency' has been appropriated by arch free-marketeers as the leitmotif of unrestrained capitalism.

Yet, while James rather-too-simply idealises those countries he sees as preserving a kind of "Unselfish Capitalism," he is correct in identifying Selfish Capitalism's (read, neoliberalism's) more corrosive effects on society. Selfish Capitalism, for James:

"stokes up relative materialism: unrealistic aspirations and the expectation that they can be fulfilled. It does so to stimulate consumerism in order to increase profits and promote short-term economic growth. Indeed, I maintain that high levels of mental illness are essential to Selfish Capitalism, because needy, miserable people make greedy consumers and can be more easily suckered into perfectionist, competitive workaholism."
From middle class insecurities to underclass despair, economic hope and expectation plays an obvious part in how able we are to lead relatively happy lives. Anyone who claims otherwise is negating the most standard evidence correlating poverty with poor health, mental illness and early mortality. But, as James also asserts, this is quite distinct from the delusional promise of material happiness and the 'failure' of individuals to realise it:

With overstimulated aspirations and expectations, the entrepreneurial fantasy society fosters the delusion that anyone can be Alan Sugar or Bill Gates, never mind that the actual likelihood of this occurring has diminished since the 1970s. A Briton turning 20 in 1978 was more likely than one doing so in 1990 to achieve upward mobility through education. Nonetheless, in the Big Brother/ It Could Be You society, great swaths of the population believe they can become rich and famous, and that it is highly desirable. This is most damaging of all - the ideology that material affluence is the key to fulfilment and open to anyone willing to work hard enough. If you don't succeed, there is only one person to blame - never mind that it couldn't be clearer that it's the system's fault, not yours." (Ibid)
Here, in stark, yet incisive, contrast, is how Matthieu Ricard seeks to understand happiness:

By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. This is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being. Happiness is also a way of interpreting the world, since while it may be difficult to change the world, it is always possible to change the way we look at it." (1)
Yet, all that can seem such an idealistic indulgence when we're busy negotiating the 'real' world of market-inspired living.

And hyperbolic marketing knows no limits in that process of expectant dreams. Thus, a housing development on the south side of Glasgow invites prospective buyers to come live in 'luxury' apartments built by Utopia. Maybe one of Thomas More's relatives will be the first to snap-up a set of penthouse keys.

Nothing, these days, is regarded as pristine or off-limits by developers and the politicians who follow them as market visionaries. To object is to be seen as some kind of time-warped recalcitrant, resistant to that most standard private sector expectation: that everyone, from governments to town councils, be 'open for business'.

This 'promise' of developmental nirvana can be seen in Donald Trump's current plans to build a billion dollar elite golf course and hotel complex on a protected beach area in Aberdeenshire. Overturning the regional department's legitimate planning refusal (with it's honourable vote-casting chairman sacked, in the process), the Scottish Government has "called-in" the Trump Corporation's application for 'closer inspection', claiming that it's potential economic 'benefits' are too large and important for it to be 'judged locally'. In short, big money talks - and it expects to be listened to.

In similar vein, take a close look behind the 'shimmering vista' the market seers have in mind for Penang.

This is the ideology of growth which automatically equates market opportunities with social and economic improvement. And it's propagated as the societal norm against which we're encouraged and expected to understand and pursue personal economic 'well-being', or, to borrow from our 'visionary' builders, 'Utopian happiness'.

The selling of branded lifestyle is, of course, the very stuff of corporate psychology. But the more predictable outcome is dystopian unhappiness, a state of mental delusion and disillusion, a constant cycle of expectation and dejection as we seek and fail to find that notional happy state.

For Ricard and other Buddhists, the principal reason for that despondency and disappointment lies in our conditioned inability to recognise, accept and embrace all emotions and life experiences:
"There exists a way of being that underlies and suffuses all emotional states, that embraces all the joys and sorrows that comes to us...The Sanskrit word for this state of being is sukha [which] manifests itself when we have freed ourselves of mental blindness and afflictive emotions." (2)
This, as Ricard reminds us, is the cultivation of an inner mindfulness that vastly surpasses ephemeral moments and passing pleasures:
"Genuine happiness - as opposed to contrived euphoria - endures through life's ups and downs." (3)
Ricard offers this useful Tibetan proverb to simplify the point:
"To know how to be satisfied is to hold a treasure in the palm of one's hand."(4)
Encouragingly, we are hearing kids talk in more informed and earnest ways these days about environmental calamity, the desperate problems of the third world and the West's crimes against humanity in places like Iraq. And it suggests very strongly that while we have become browbeaten and inured to the 'reality' of market relations at every level of our lives, we still retain the capacity to reject its delusional language and promises of happy deliverance.

Maybe 2008 will see a gathering expectation and relative realisation of peace, justice and inner contentment for more in our war-torn, greed-ridden world. Always, as they say, expect the 'unexpected'.

Happy new year to all.


1. Matthieu Ricard, Happiness (2007: Atlantic Books), p 19.
2. Ibid, p 25.
3. Ibid, p 163.
4. Ibid, p 174.