Monday, 16 November 2015

A Prayer for Paris

Last night I lay awake thinking about the massacres that happened in Paris two nights before. And those that happen elsewhere almost every day. Although I am familiar with Paris and have friends there, and here is a very interesting thing about how that works:

And I also thought about the invocations to Pray for Paris and Pray for Peace that I’ve seen. I know that all or almost all of those invocations are well-meant and from nice people. And that it’s hard to know how to react to such events when they make one feel so impotent, and are indeed intended to make one feel impotent. No doubt praying makes some people feel more potent. Yet as I thought about what I would say in my prayer I felt even more impotent. Especially as, against all intentions and expectations, an actual prayer took form in my mind. Well, I say form. It was late and I was feeling emotional. Here is the prayer, pretty much as it formed or deformed in my mind in that moment. (I took some notes down at the time and then transcribed them today.)  

Dear … 

Um. Okay. I’ve just realised I don’t actually know how to address You. You know, whether You are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or whether You are Aphrodite, Zeus, Odin, Thor, or the Sun. And I don’t want to offend You or anything, or to reveal to You that I’m in the wrong God Squad. I certainly don’t want You Smiting me Down or throwing a big hammer at me or anything! Lol! Seriously, though, I’ve read some of Your books and You do seem to get angry a lot. You really ought to look into what that’s about. Especially as it kind of contradicts the Mercy I’m told You are full of. Might be a bit bi-polar there, as well having some anger management ishoos. There are people who can help You, You know.   

Anyway, right. I could take a guess about how to address You, but obviously with Your Omnipotence You’ll know that I’m just trying to fool You, and apparently You will not be mocked. Actually, to be fair to You, I haven’t been struck by lightning or anything since I wrote the above, so I’m guessing You’re in a Merciful mood today and so are cool with if probably unamused by my silly jokes, especially as they are leavened with sycophancy about Your Almighty Power. And indeed I’ve also noticed that it’s kind of a big deal for You to have Your Almighty Power validated in this way on a regular basis. Again, You really probably should look into what that’s about. 

Oh, all this is very awkward, isn’t it? As You’ll be aware, with the old Omnipotence and everything, I haven’t actually prayed to You in many Earth decades. That’s not very long in the Eternal terms that You are accustomed to, but it is nevertheless a significant portion of the three score years and ten that I am granted here below, assuming You spare me the attention of those who claim to be Your personal assassins, as You haven’t done others who are no less deserving of your Mercy than me. Or spare me an early heart attack or cancer or whatever else I might be Struck Down with in what I would otherwise hope to be the middle of my life. 

Anyhoo, as I say, You’ll know I’m not exactly a devout worshiper of You. And indeed You will know that it all began when You did not answer all the prayers I sent You when I was a small child. Well, it seemed at the time like You answered some of them, but I couldn’t quite understand why You didn’t answer others. Perhaps You were torn between my prayer for something and someone else’s for its opposite. Admittedly, that must be a tricky, even for You. Although I later figured out that the balance between the prayers You answered and those You didn’t were pretty much correlated with the laws of probability, but that was probably just a coincidence. I should of course have Faith that there is a Reason for everything. But, I have to admit, it did kind of stop me bothering with the praying thing after a while, even though I am given to understand by those who love You the most that You like it very much when people get down on their knees and beg You for things. You should definitely look into what that’s about as well.  

You may also remember that another moment that ended my praying career happened very early in my education. That time when I asked my particularly devout primary school teacher, Mrs Jewiss (which is a brilliant name for an evangelical Christian—good one, You!), why there are wars? And, well, You remember what she said: “Perhaps it’s God’s way of keeping the population under control.” She said. You may remember that I was pretty taken aback at the time, to say the least. Surely, I thought, even back then—SURELY—there is a better way of keeping the population down than wars? And later on indeed I thought, hey, condoms! Can’t You make condoms grow on trees? Surely You can! After all, You Created all the trees and everything else in six days, so it would only take a minute or two of Your eternal time to give us such a thing as Condom Trees! It would look weird, I know, all the Condom Trees, but surely their existence would be less offensive to Your Creation than all the horrors of war: the terror, the blood and guts, the sight and stench of bloated corpses, the trauma of survivors, the grief for the fallen, and the endless criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s inadequate bowing.

I know or at least I have been told that You have Ishoos about sex, and that this might make You a bit leery about the Condom Trees. But then again You did Create sexual reproduction, and indeed gave Your Creations rather more interest in it than is strictly necessary for reproduction (You really need to talk to some of Your Catholic priests about that, by the way). So it doesn’t make much sense to me that You should do that and then get all Forbiddy about replacing wars with Condom Trees. But I’m told You are the Almighty One, and so I guess You know what You are doing.   

Yes, so, anyway, as You can see, and as indeed You knew anyway, this story has stayed with me a long time. Indeed, beyond giving up on praying, it is one of the first moments that I started doubting You, and indeed remains one of the main reasons why I stopped believing in You altogether, despite the evangelical efforts of the many people You sent to indoctrinate me and all my fellow small children. Including, of course, the very pious Mrs Jewiss. Incidentally, if she’s up there with You now, as she confidently anticipated she one day would be, then You really ought to give her a massive bollocking because she totally lost You one when she said that population thing. It’s going to take a fucking lot of Condom Trees to undo her work, I can tell You.

Yes, okay, right, this actually brings me to my point. Paris. You knew that was coming, right, being Almighty and Omnipotent? So, to put it in less than Biblical language: wtf? And of course wtf about all the other massacres just like this one that are happening in less wealthy corners of Your Creation? You may indeed wish to consider most especially that more of them tend to happen in places where people are particularly devoted to You. Of course Your followers and all the followers of False Yous will say that You work in Mysterious Ways. Well, they’re certainly right about that. Or that You just started the world and then let us run it. But then those same followers also tell us that You are Omnipotent and Almighty and that we should therefore pray to You as if You really actually might stop them from happening again. Which doesn’t make much sense to me, either. Nor of course does me praying to You when I Believe You don’t exist. But then Paris made no sense to me. A lot of what happens in Your Creation makes no sense to me. But I’m told You are the Almighty One, and so I guess You know what You are doing.


P.S. Why didn’t You make me gay? Because then I could marry a guy named Adam, and that would be funny.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Ten Reasons Why Empathy is better than Religion

We are often told that religion teaches us how to care about our fellow human beings. Never mind that empathy (by which here I simply mean the instinct to see and treat others the same way you want others to see and treat you, rather than any complex philosophical conception of its socially constructed and mediated dimensions) predates the evolution of homo sapiens by a length of time that is uncertain, but is certainly a reeeaaally long time before the invention of modern monotheism between the Bronze Age and the early medieval era. Pointing out these scientific and historical facts to religious fundamentalists is less effective (though only by dint of coincidence) than praying to a Big Invisible Man Who Lives in the Sky to satisfy one’s material needs, or to fulfil one’s dreams of fame and fortune, or to grant one’s desperate and quite possibly last wish to avoid the ministrations of a machine-gun-wielding maniac who is unexpectedly rampaging through your immediate vicinity and who is clearly very much lacking in empathy despite the depth of his religious beliefs.

For that reason, the sheer pointlessness of it, I don’t usually bother to criticise religion. Also because most religious people of all creeds aren’t fundamentalists at all and are in fact perfectly harmless and in many cases very nice. Also out of a politically correct but above all empathetic desire not to offend anyone needlessly. But, after the events in Paris of last night, the evening of Friday the 13th (would you believe?) of November 2015, I, as a non-religious person who thinks of himself as perfectly capable of empathy, am feeling pretty offended by claims of religion to engender a special kind of kindness towards other human beings.

Of course the events of last night have many causes. But they were nevertheless perpetrated by a small band of people who are not only religious but extremely religious. And of course events like those of last night happen elsewhere besides Paris and have happened many times before. And of course not all atrocities or other miseries and general stupidities are caused by or even in any way associated with religion. But enough of them are to cast a vast amount of doubt on religious claims to special authority regarding human decency. Enough to make one think that a simple reliance on unadulterated human instinct would lead to a far kinder and better world than any kind of religious state. Hence this little list of Ten Reasons Why Empathy is better than Religion.      

Empathy is a naturally occurring phenomenon that does not require indoctrination to survive or reproduce.

Empathy only requires you to believe in the value yourself and other human beings, rather than all the effort entailed in believing in the omnipotent supremacy of an invisible entity.

Empathy does not discriminate on the grounds of sex, sexuality, race, or any other socially constructed category, including religion.

No one has ever mutilated anyone’s genitalia in the name of empathy.

No one has ever sacrificed a virgin in the name of empathy.

No one has ever burned a “witch” in the name of empathy.

No one has ever tortured or killed anyone in the name of empathy for believing in the wrong kind of empathy.

No one has ever perpetrated genocide in the name of empathy.

There have never been any Wars of Empathy. 

There have never been any co-ordinated bombings and machine-gun massacres of innocent and defenceless people in streets, cafés, restaurants, and concert venues carried out by empathetic extremists.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Secular Straw Man. A comment on some of the Charlie Hebdo "debate"

The day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks I wrote of encouraging signs of a constructive debate about freedom of expression and toleration in a democratic society. Some of the subsequent debate has lived up to those signs, some of it hasn’t. A friend of mine sent me via Facebook a Guardian article by Giles Fraser entitled “France’s much vaunted secularism is not the neutral space it claims to be.” Being the Guardian and being Giles Fraser, I expected a constructive contribution to the debate. It wasn’t one. My friend asked me what I thought if it, so I answered at considerably tedious length. So much tedious length in fact that I thought I’d copy and paste into this blog post.  A link to the Giles Fraser article is below and my response is after that.

I agree with you [I said to my friend] both about laicité being a fine principle but also a blunt instrument. And I’d even say it can be a horribly sharp instrument when used as a means of suppression and discrimination, as in the examples given in Giles Fraser’s article here.

As for the article, I generally like Giles Fraser, and he makes some good points here, but he’s also guilty here of the kind of distorting of the principles of secularism and of other people's views on it that’s been all-too-common in some discussions of recent issues. As when he conflates the principles of secularism with abuses of those principles, as he does when quotes Marine Le Pen using secularism to support what is actually fascist bullying, and neglects to say that it's perfectly possible and indeed more consistent to be secularist and still offer schoolchildren choices of food—as in fact all other French schools do. And as he does when he points at the 18th-century French state using secularism to promote violence against churches and clerics, and neglects to mention that secularism promoted freedom of as well as freedom from religion, or that secularism was offered as a solution to post-Reformation sectarian wars of religion.

He also conflates secularism and atheism—a common discursive and distorting tactic among the Reverendry to which Fraser belongs—and neglects to mention that while all atheists may be secularists, by no means all secularists are atheists, or that most 18th-century secularists were in fact religious, or that one of the principles of secularism was and is to guarantee equality of all beliefs (and no belief) as opposed to the discrimination which is inherent in the existence of an Established church in a non-secular state.

He also conflates the modern French Catholic church’s lack of intention to overthrow the state with a lack of intention to exercise power in other ways, and neglects to mention (for just one example) the Catholic church’s (too-often successful) legal campaigns against Christian images in advertising, and other attempts to undermine secularism that Charlie Hebdo attacked.

He also conflates Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons with an attack on Islam as a whole and even as an attack on "a beleaguered, economically fragile Muslim community”, and neglects to mention that the cartoons were intended as attacks on one small religious sect’s attempts to impose its own interpretation of Islamic blasphemy law, complete with the death penalty (exactly the kind of attack on Saudi-style clericalism that he says Charlie Hebdo should do), or that the murderers killed Muslims in the process of imposing their self-proclaimed law, or that an associate of theirs, far from acting on the idea of religious freedom, assassinated Jews for being Jewish.

He also conflates what is probably France's biggest social-economic problem with secularism in concluding that the only way to deal with the issue of “young, disaffected Arab immigrants on the sink estates” is to rethink what he seemingly contemptuously calls France’s “precious laïcité”, and neglects to mention that a more necessary and indeed desired alternative might be more effective investment in such secular things as education, infrastructure, and jobs.

The dispiriting thing is that Giles Fraser is a clever and well-meaning man who therefore ought to know better than to write much of what he writes here, but the disturbing thing is that some of the debate has become this poisoned and poisonously distorting.  He’s not the worst. I’ve been genuinely shocked and pretty upset to see some people misrepresent the views of others (including my own) so they can accuse those they wilfully misrepresent of being “disingenuous”, hypocritical”, and “vacuous”. The debate is an important one and deserves better than this. In fact, there can be no useful debate at all with people who are just attacking the straw men they've constructed.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, free speech, offence, and allegations of Islamophobia

Sunday 11 January

A lot has happened since I wrote the post below the day after the Charlie Hebdo killings. The killers have been killed, and so has an associate of theirs, though not before murdering four Jewish people ... for being Jewish people. There has also inevitably been a lot of reaction to these events. Most of it that I've seen has been enlightening (and not just the reactions I agree with). But, with tragic and tedious inevitability, some have associated and even blamed all Muslims for the crimes of a few, and some have attacked mosques, or nearby kebab shops, despite the (thankfully) spontaneous, immediate, and consistent condemnations of the murders by many Muslims, despite the fact that Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim police officer, was killed trying to defend his fellow citizens, and despite the fact that Lassana Bathily, also a Muslim, risked his life to save others in Hyper Cacher grocery store. On the other hand are those who exhort us to remember the context of imperialist historical injustice, current global politics, and social-economic injustices in modern France, which there's nothing with, except when the exhorters assert or imply that doing so is somehow incompatible with unequivocal condemnation of the terrorist acts at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters and the Hyper Cacher, and is incompatible with support for freedom of expression. Some even say that the slogan Je Suis Charlie somehow represents a continuation of colonial oppression, despite the fact that many Muslims have expressed this sentiment too.

I can understand some of the consternation about “Je Suis Charlie”, especially about how it could become used coercively, as a means of forcing a particular consensus and isolating those who prefer, for any number of good reasons, not to express their views that way. Some no doubt intend to use it to coerce and to isolate, even though such a thing could not be more Not Charlie. But that is certainly not the only or the overwhelming reason for its evocation. People are complicated and Je Suis Charlie means different things to different people.  Saying that it means or does one thing and one thing only is exactly the same sort of reductionism (though obviously with far less serious consequences) that blames “the West” for imperialism and blames “Islam” for terrorism.   

For me, saying “Je Suis Charlie” is a way to express sympathy for all the victims of the murders and their families and friends, as Le Monde’s “Nous Sommes Tous Américains” headline did on 12 September 2001. It’s also a way for me peacefully to express my indignation at the imposition of one interpretation of blasphemy law not only on the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo but on all of us, and correspondingly it's a way for me to express my support for freedom of expression.    

Today I shall be joining many, many others of all kinds and creeds and no creed to march together in indignation but also in support and celebration. I will not be giving my support to imperialism or neo-imperialism, or to the social-economic conditions that create poverty and alienation in the banlieues, and I will not be trying un-Charlieistically to coerce anyone into thinking or saying anything. I will be marching in support and celebration of the best French and western but not exclusively French and western traditions: of freedom of expression, of freedom of and freedom from religion, and of mutual, peaceful understanding and acceptance.  With my pencil in my hand.

Here's the original post from a few days ago--

Like most people I suppose, my first reaction to news of the murders at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris was dread. Dread for the victims and their families and friends. Dread for the implications for liberty of this attack on free expression. Dread for the implications for toleration in the all-too-likely event of lashings out against the vast majority of Muslims who had nothing to do with this hideous crime. But there are more hopeful signs emerging. The immediate condemnations of the murders from all communities. The social networking and evening vigils throughout France and in other countries for solidarity and non-violence. Even the beginnings of an ecumenical discussion of the implications of the event for freedom and toleration in democratic societies. The point of this developing discussion is not that everyone will agree with everything everyone else is saying. The point of it, hopefully, is that we can exchange and maybe even change each other's opinions without anyone suffering murderous retribution, which would be the best possible tribute to the dead and the best possible reproach to their killers.  

I agree with some of the critical points in the developing discussion. For example, that, while I’m glad to see many Muslims condemning the killings, demanding that they do so carries a grotesque assumption that somehow all Muslims are responsible for them. I also agree that comments about recent terrorist attacks in Europe that forget that Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway for being “left wing” and “soft” on Islam displays a deeply disturbing tendency to assume that terrorism is peculiarly Islamic. Here is historian Chris Millington on how terrorism in France is neither new nor limited to those doing it in the name of Islam or any other religion: I agree easily enough, then, with these points about toleration. (Actually, I don’t like the negative-sounding term “toleration”, and only use it because it’s the accepted and understood one. What I mean is something more like mutual, happy acceptance of our commonalities and differences, short of differences that entail committing oppression and murder.) 

It’s the discussion of where freedom of expression seems to come into conflict with toleration and respect that’s inevitably rather trickier. When liberty clashes with other things, I tend towards defence of liberty. Not on every single thing no matter what, but it is my default position until persuaded otherwise. So I find myself disagreeing with those who, while unequivocally condemning the murders, say that Charlie Hebdo was Islamophobic and was therefore too offensive. Here are my responses, given in the spirit of free discussion.

My first response is the same as that of an article I read in Al Jazeera America this morning: Most pertinently that Charlie Hebdo “tried hard to offend everyone — right and left, Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Jew, male and female, Western and non-Western,” and was thus an “equal opportunity offender”. (I hope the article’s past tense is not portentous.)

To those who say that its caricatures of Mohammed were especially offensive and indeed Islamophobic as there is an Islamic interdiction against pictures of the Prophet, I’d say that it’s that claim of specialness that was satirised, particularly as they were accompanied by death threats that now prove all-too-real. The drawings were not an attack on Islam. They were an attack on an attack on free speech. Most precisely, they were an attack on blasphemy laws, which are oppressive enough even for those within a religious affiliation. But when blasphemy laws are extended to non-believers, and furthermore to non-believers in a democratic, tolerant, and constitutionally secular nation, they are nothing less than an absolute fucking outrage (and no, no other words will do). Such an action deserves to be disrespected and defied. I’m not fond of gratuitous attacks. But when a small minority of people claim a right not to be offended, and do so with murderous menace, an attack back is not gratuitous; it is necessary. I’ve seen Charlie Hebdo accused of punching down on the oppressed for its Mohammed pictures. No, this is the punching up at authority for which the magazine has been rightly praised. There are few things more oppressive than assuming the authority to make religious laws that non-consenting others must obey on pain of death. Few things that could be more justifiably punched and punched hard. An irony of this criticism of Charlie Hebdo is that those who associate attacks on the extension of one interpretation of Islamic blasphemy law with attacks on Islam itself are themselves guilty of a form of Islamophobia. However unconsciously taken, this position associates intolerance with Islam itself, rather than with a minority sect within the diversity of the Muslim world—which is exactly the divisive, dangerous, and poisonous position of Marine Le Pen and others of her kind.

My final point, though, is that all of the above is beside the point in the current circumstances. It’s generally fine, healthy, and indeed necessary to have discussions of the rights and wrongs of Charlie Hebdo, of what is offensive and what isn’t, and even of the limits of free speech itself. But in the particular instance of these murders, all of that is not, in my view, the point. The point is, that whatever Charlie Hebdo published, even if it was offensive, even if it was Islamophobic: no one should have been murdered for it. Some of those offended by Charlie Hebdo have responded to the slogan of the moment by saying Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie. Fair enough; that’s their right. But for me the right to offend, the necessity to offend, is far greater than individual instances of offence caused by its exercise. As I admitted earlier, I’m pretty difficult to offend. But even if its cartoons had offended me, Je Suis Charlie néanmoins.  


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

My REF story; or, Confessions of a REFFail and REFugee

This Thursday, 18 December 2014, at the end of a long term and just in time for Christmas, sees publication of the results of the Research Excellence Framework (formerly called the Research Assessment Exercise). If the name doesn’t immediately tell non-academics precisely what this thing is, as indeed it may not, then it’s a survey of the quantity and quality of research done by academics in UK universities. Except for the fact that it isn’t. But it pretends to be, and based on that pretense it does a vast amount to damage to many individual academics, to most universities, and to all of UK Higher Education in general. It diverts research and writing away from the risky and the long-term in favour of the safely and the rapidly publishable. Even then, problems with assessment of “outputs” means that many results are wrong, enough of them to call the whole vastly time-consuming and expensive exercise into question. Yet those results will nevertheless be used to justify career-ending decisions for some academics by senior managers who are exempt from the REF by virtue of being senior managers, and institution-breaking decisions by ministers who are either ignorant of or hostile to academia or both. Follow the following link to see Derek Sayer of Lancaster University explain in detail what a hilarious-if-it-weren’t-so-serious farrago the REF is:

One of the points that Professor Sayer makes is that the REF has become such an all-consuming monster that universities now run on-going internal REFs throughout the five-or six-year intervals between censuses to determine who will be entered in those national censuses. These internal REFS are, as Professor Sayer says, “highly divergent,” but a common feature in the run up to 2014 is that universities use your own departmental colleagues, and a “critical friend” from outside, to peer review your putative entries (of which there must be four—books or articles, whichever, but the key thing is there must be four of them), and then grade them on a scale of 1 to 4 to determine your REFability. The problem is that this involves “frequently ad hoc and generally anything-but-transparent staff selection procedures [by] individual institutions.” As Professor Sayer explains, this means “peer” reviewers are often not, and indeed usually not, actually peers.  They may be colleagues whose fields are closest to your own, but usually not close enough that they would be asked to review your book or your article for an academic journal. The institutional pool is just too small. And the “critical friend” from outside may happen to be in the same field as one or two members of the relevant department, but cannot possibly be qualified to comment on the quality of the work of every member of any department or even subsection of a department (medieval, early modern, or modern). Plus, book and article reviewing for publishing houses and academic journals, besides being done by actual peers who know your field, is normally also done double-blind, to prevent any kind of abuse. Not for internal REFs, though, where you don’t know who the reviewer is—but they do know who you are.  In short, then, your REFability rests on the judgments of people who are mostly inexpert in your field and who may have something against you personally or more generally against your sex, gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, religion, class background or whatever else. And that REF judgment may affect your future career development, even to the point of determining whether you have a future career or don't.  Yet, as Professor Sayer also says, the process’s “victims are often reluctant to speak on the record and universities hide their selection practices behind firewalls of confidentiality.”

It was this point, and the Times Higher Education twitter hashtag #MyREFstory, that got me thinking I should tell my REF story.  Professor Sayer tells his, from the point of view of someone who was all set to be a REF success, but, to his enormous credit, requested not to be entered into an exercise he considers so flawed as to be a fraud--his university denied his request and then rejected his appeal against the denial, so he was entered after all.  My REF story, though, is different.  It is one of a REF reject, one of the REF Riffraff, if you will.  One of the victims who has been reluctant so far to speak on the record.  But Thursday’s coming, and there are many who are still too vulnerable to speak out.  I’m not vulnerable any more, for reasons explained below.  So this is for all the REF Riffraff who still are and who can't speak for themselves. 

My former university adopted exactly the same internal REF procedures described above, with all its inherent problems. I submitted my publications to it: an eight-volume edited collection of documents about the British-American Empire published in Pickering and Chatto’s Major Works series; an article published in a well-rated journal in my field; and a monograph published by Palgrave Macmillan. The problem with the document collection was a problem with the REF in general—that edited document collections don’t fit into the REF definition of research publications. In fact, the collection required a lot of research, has three historical essays in it, headnotes for every document, explicatory footnotes, and it’s a published thing; eight things in fact.  But whatever....  So I was on the back foot there already. The article got a 3, which made it REFable.  But the book was rated a 2 by the internal reviewers, not REFable for most universities, including my former employer. And here’s where problems with the internal reviewing system begin.  First, the article, which got a 3, was based on some of the same material as one chapter of the book, although the book and indeed the relevant chapter in the book took a different approach, with more research included and wider conclusions drawn than was the case with the article. Yet the book got a lower mark of 2.  But these anomalies are often the outcomes of subjective judgments (a subjectivity that is admitted in the REF rules, but only, as Professor Sayer shows, as a pretext for disallowing appeals against decisions).  So I want to leave that aside now and focus instead on the processes by which judgments, whatever they are, are arrived at. 

As is generally the case (I am not singling out my former institution), my peer reviewers weren’t peers. In a department of just over 30, with expertise ranging from classics and ancient to contemporary history, the early modern cohort to which I belonged numbered seven. Include the nineteenth century, into which my book went, and we’re talking 10 people max.  None of them are specialists in American history, none of them would be asked to review my work for book publishers or journals, and yet two of them gave my book that non-REFable score of 2, with all the career-threatening possibilities that carries with it. Career-threatening for me, that is, not for them: they will gain a marginal career advantage for gamely collaborating with the REF. And, as above, as is common, they did this anonymously. At best, this creates a work environment that is utterly inimical to collegiality—you don’t know who among your colleagues did this to you, so you can’t trust anyone.  Except of course that you pretty much do know who did it.  You can’t be absolutely sure, but in a field of 10 at most--where you can eliminate some on the grounds that they had other roles that precluded peer reviewing and others who you know are too honorable to ignorantly do a “number two” on anyone else’s career prospects--then you’re not left with many candidates to choose from.  The department and university cannot guarantee the anonymity it promises to even its closest collaborators, and anyone who thinks it can is being very foolish indeed.  No matter how much paper-trail burning they are urged to do to protect themselves from the Freedom of Information Act (as detailed in the Sayer article), the departmental world is simply too small to hide in.  

But it’s all worse than this anyway. One-way anonymity, no matter how imperfect, still allows for all sorts of abuses. Or at least suspicions of abuses, which is still deeply corrosive.  I’m not saying I was judged on anything other than the real or perceived quality of my work. I accept that my “peers” genuinely believe my book is shit. But if they wanted a “professional” disguise with which to stiff a “colleague” for some other reason, they had the perfect opportunity to do so. And in turn they handed the perfect opportunity for the non-anonymous then Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research to stiff someone he has more than once referred to as a “Midlands peasant,” had he wanted to.  Of course I am not saying he did anything other than simply follow the guidance of my peers in the internal REF, or that his comments about my background were anything other than mere inconsequential banter. 

To my particular ex-university’s credit, senior managers promised that REF entry (and presumably non-entry) would not affect people’s future careers. Given the same senior managers’ form for changing their policies, however, and given that they know that we know they move goalposts all the time and do it with impunity, these promises have no more practical (or moral) value than barefaced lies.  And indeed already my former colleagues are being asked to include their REF entries on Professional Development forms, and have been told that promotion boards can take these forms into account.

So, anyway, predicting these changes, I was not accepting that 2 for my book.  Luckily for me, the department’s “critical friend” had recommended a 3 (though, given their equal inexpertise, this is of no more worth than the 2s), and so had the two members of the department charged with overseeing the internal REF (both among the department’s early modernists and nineteenth-century historians, but still not Americanists). The Head of College confirmed the 3, and that’s the matter of record, but I was out of the REF anyway--due to some crossover between the article and book (notwithstanding that this happens in the normal course of academic publishing, and notwithstanding there being differences between the article and book anyway), and due to the inability of this massive and vastly expensive Research Assessment Framework to categorise an eight-volume document collection as a research publication.

As a result of being a REF reject, I could now be facing a very uncertain future.  But because of REF, and for other reasons I’ve blogged about here before, I decided a while ago to seek academic work overseas.  Happily for me, this year I was able to parlay my records of research, teaching, and administration into a professorship in a university in France.  So much for the disaffirmation of the REF.  Of course not everyone can escape as I have.  But I hope my REF story adds a little bit to the due discreditation of this appalling exercise, or Framework, or whatever stupid thing they call it in the future.  I hope others will add their stories.  And then, as much as I can’t believe this thing has gone on as it has as long as it has, equally, I cannot believe it cannot be stopped.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The idea that arts and humanities are “useful for all kinds of jobs . . . couldn’t be further from the truth”, says Nicky Morgan, the UK Education Secretary.

I have blogged several hundred times on the issue of “employability” in UK Higher Education. The latest effort, just last week, is here, and at the start of it are links to the several thousand other posts I’ve written on the subject:

But in case you don’t want to read these several million posts I will sum up the key arguments now.  1. “Employability” is not about getting students into jobs. If it was, the time and resources put into it would be invested in University Careers Offices in which there are people who are experts on how to get jobs, as opposed to people who are experts on other things and have other things to do, such as teaching, researching, and writing. The policy of “embedding employability” in academic curricula thus suggests that 2. “Employability” is actually about indoctrinating students in neo-liberal economic ideology and behaviour, an “agenda” even more amply revealed in attempts to embed “entrepreneurialism” in curricular and even in extra-curricular activities. And 3. While there is nothing wrong with helping students get jobs via teaching “transferrable skills” such as how to write, speak, and make arguments more effectively etc., and via writing references for them and so on, there is something deeply wrong with embedding employability and entrepreneurship in places where free thinking is supposed to be. Something that in my view betrays the very principle of education, a betrayal that in turn corrodes the foundations of a free and democratic society.

Of course there are many people who don’t agree with me. Some reject my arguments because they think that embedding “employability” and “entrepreneurship” is just about jobs and isn’t about neo-liberal ideological indoctrination. Others might agree with the arguments but reject the conclusion that the employability and entrepreneurship agenda should be explicitly and loudly resisted because there’s little they can do about it, and in any case they must obey as the current HE environment explicitly and loudly threatens them with unemployability (though I know many of these people are quietly subverting the agenda by simply requiring students to think in various ways anyway). And others may agree with my arguments but reject my conclusions on the grounds that employability and entrepreneurship are the very essence of free thinking and are the actual foundations of a free and democratic society.

Now, there is no point in me addressing the people in category three. These free-market Stalinists are as unpersuadable of my views as I am of theirs. And, of course, as an advocate of free-thinking, I have to admit that they are entitled to their stupid opinions. To the others, though, there is one more argument against “employability” and “entrepreneurialism” I would offer. Or, rather, I’ll let the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan argue it for me, here (though you’ve probably seen it already):

Here, the UK Education Secretary is quoted as saying: “If you wanted to do something, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do, then the arts and humanities were what you chose because they were useful for all kinds of jobs. Of course, we know now that couldn’t be further from the truth – that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths).”

So, there it is. The argument I haven’t made yet is easy enough to see from this: there is no point in trying to appease or collaborate with the promoters of “employability”, at least for the arts and humanities. For all the efforts made at my former UK HE College of Arts and Humanities and other similar institutions to promote employability and to be seen to be promoting employability, and there has been *a lot* of effort, the Education Secretary—the Education Secretary—still says that the idea that the arts and humanities are “useful for all kinds of jobs . . . couldn’t be further from the truth”. You don’t even have to agree with me that employability and entrepreneurialism represent a neo-liberal ideological plot to see that it is highly dangerous to flirt with an undeniable instrumentalism in which a degree is seen as a route to work rather than (and not as well as) a pathway to intellectual growth and good citizenship. And it’s clear enough that obedience to these doctrines is not going to promote the survival of these disciplines or the employment of those who work in them.

So what can you do? Keep on subverting surreptitiously for sure. But perhaps it’s time for more open resistance to this ideological agenda, or at the very least to this instrumentalist fundamentalism. Maybe lobby heads of department, heads of colleges, and even senior managers and Vice-Chancellors. Possibly lobby the union not only about defending pay and pensions (important as they are) but about defending what universities are supposed to be for. Maybe join and act with The Campaign for the Public University []. Or even perhaps write trillions of blog posts or letters to and articles in newspapers about the value of free education. It’s alright for me, you might think, as I’ve fled to France from these and other developments in modern UK HE, and of course it’s harder to kick against a system you’re still in. To be fair, though, I did write about a bazillion blog posts before I left, and I was prepared to risk being unpopular with certain people for something I believe in so strongly (or madly, if you prefer). After the Education Secretary has spoken the words above, however, I’d suggest that the biggest risk now lies in staying silent.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Ooh, ha ha, look at the French economy! (Don't look at the British one!)

There has been a lot of France-bashing lately. One notable recent example involved Andy Street, boss of Penguinosexual retail outfit John Lewis. And there’s another one in today’s Sunday Telegraph. Here:

Let’s leave the Street incident behind, in part because his words reveal him to be a ludicrous buffoon who deserves no further attention, and in part because although the other one comes from the Telegraph and would normally therefore deserve exactly the same amount of further attention, it is actually written by a French person, namely Anne-Elisabeth Moutet. We can therefore be sure that the opinions therein are not merely the unpleasant emissions of a xenophobe, and we can take them seriously as a genuine critique of the state of things. Moutet is very clearly a Sarkozist, an ultra-Sarkozist, actually. Her one criticism of the former and probably next President of the Republic is that his “reforms and cuts” were “timid”. Her critique, then, is an ideological one, not a bigoted one. Great, good, and fine, but it doesn’t make it a truthful one.

That’s not to say there isn’t truth in some of Moutet's words. François Hollande is, she writes, “a graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the incestuous, elite civil service school that shapes most French political and economic leaders.” Fair enough. And, apart from the risible comparison to an unelected, despotic Soviet regime, she may be right that “The Brezhnevian intricacies of the tight circles of power in France” in which the “énarque” Hollande “only hired other énarques in his cabinet” and “even narrowed it down to giving three dozen top jobs to the friends he had made in his very own ENA class, between 1978 and 1980” is a serious problem for France.

Yet there is also contradiction and confusion here, as her support for David Cameron is apparently undiminished by the Bullingdonian intricacies of the tight circles of power in England, in which the Etonarque Cameron only hired his chums from Eton and Oxford (apart from the one who went to Westminster school and who the others thus call oik, and never mind that the British private school elite is by all accounts a good deal more “incestuous” than the French ENA one).

There is also omission and the trickeries it tries to hide. While Moutet is right that the French have a problem with too many voters attracted to the far right, including many working-class voters, she nevertheless makes no mention of Britain’s identical problem. Presumably because the explanation may at least in part be that Hollande and self-styled Blairite Manuel Valls have lost touch with their grassroots supporters in the same ways that Tony Blair and Ed Miliband have. By moving to the right. But, of course, pointing out that there is no genuinely socialist alternative to the main parties in their modern centre-right manifestations does not fit well in a thesis that blames the Left for the popularity of the Far Right.

There is also, if you’ll excuse the technical terminology, total bullshit. Such as Moutet's claim that “The French, especially in the public sector, go on strike on the flimsiest of pretexts.” No. No they don’t. No one gives up pay, inconveniences others, and risks their jobs on “the flimsiest of pretexts.” Not even the French. They may strike more often than the British, though not as often as many British and even some French people think they do. But when they do, it’s to stop their wages and working conditions being driven down to, say, British levels. And that's no flimsy pretext at all. Moutet may not like their 35-hour weeks, decent pay, and job security, but most French people who have them seem to like them very much indeed.

I could go on and on in the vein of the above, and a Sarkozist could go on and on rebutting me, and we could both could go on and on in an endless cycle of reciprocally unconvincing interpretations of the facts as each of us sees them. But my main point here is not about facts anyway; it’s about tropes. Because what Moutet does in this article is pile up exactly the same tropes about the French economy and French society that British French-bashers so often do. And not just the xenophobic British. These tropes are repeated so often that they have become truisms even among thoughtful British people. Which of course is exactly the point of rhetorical tropes. They are axes that you grind until they eventually become axioms. The tropes, the axioms, are these. That France is a soviet republic (if you think I’m exaggerating, I refer you back to the Brezhnev reference). That the French go on strike for the “flimsiest of reasons”, despite only working 35 hours a week and enjoying “golden contracts”. And that for these reasons France has higher unemployment and lower economic growth than Britain, France is sclerotic, France has no future, and the French are angry and alienated.                   

I’ve addressed the first and second of these points already and my imaginary Sarkozist interlocutor and I could argue them out all day long. In any case, they’re only the premises for the final and concluding points, the ones about economic performance and the future. And it’s these conclusions that really matter, despite the disproportionate amount of time the French-bashers spend on the premises. In fact, the reason the French-bashers spend so much time on the premises is probably precisely because their conclusions are so very shaky they can’t stand up on their own. Let's look at them a little bit.

First, yes, Britain’s unemployment is lower. (Slightly.) Because successive British governments, the current one and its supposedly leftist Labour Party predecessor, have colluded with business interests in driving down wages (and simultaneously legally disabling trades’ unions so they can get away with it), to the point that many British people with jobs still require state welfare and Big Society food banks to survive. (So much for the anti-statism of the right.)

Second, yes, Britain has higher economic growth. (Slightly. For now.) Because Britain has sold off or is selling off its public infrastructure to the same private sector that is impoverishing poorer working people. And privatisation is even impoverishing the better-off as well. Take my own university sector. British students now pay £9000 a year in tuition fees, and that, plus their maintenance costs and years of lost income when studying, will impoverish large sections of the future middle classes. Except those whose parents are rich enough to pay for their educations for them. And except for those who never earn enough to repay their universities, leaving a massive black hole where the British Higher Education system used to be.

France is sclerotic? The sclerotic metaphor always amuses me, given its implications of poor circulation and movement. Which brings me to transport. Some French-bashers have actually started criticising the French transport system and other of the nation's essential services. Take Moutet: “the country's vaunted infrastructure – trains, even the electrical grid – has started falling apart, because maintenance is neglected in favour of paying a workforce with golden contracts.” Well, the French transport system may not be perfect, but it is not falling apart and it still makes Britain’s look like that of a fourth-world country of centuries ago. You can get caught in traffic jams in France, my home city of Lyon is notorious for it, but you can often drive around for weeks without seeing road works. As opposed to Britain, where you have to allow two hours to go to the bog in case they’ve coned off your hallway. Again. I commute to work on a E1.50 ticket for Lyon's integrated transport network that lets me use all the buses, trams, metros, and trains I can get on and off of in an hour if I feel like it. And the buses, trams, metros, trains, and stations are clean and safe. And there hasn’t been a strike in the 10 weeks I’ve been here. All thanks to the ministrations of a combined state-run and state-regulated private economy. In Britain, on the other hand, it costs a billion pounds for a ten-hour, two-mile journey in a filthy, stinking train full of vomiting drunks that you will thankfully avoid anyway because the service has been cancelled. Again. All thanks to the non-ministrations of a privatised sector in which maintenance is neglected in favour of paying shareholders with golden bonuses. Also, I’d like to ask Moutet who owns much of the privatised British electrical grid. Why, it’s EDF, the French state-run energy corporation.

France has no future? France has its poor people, for sure, but it still has a large well-paid and job-secure working class. If you don’t believe me, I refer you back to Moutet’s and others’ complaints about the over-paid and overly-secure French working class. Also, French students pay about £200-300 a year in tuition fees. Not a big problem for most to pay off. These working- and aspiring middle-class people are the future consumers of the French economy. That's the same future in which more and more British working-class people will not spending money but will be begging for survival at food banks. And the same future in which British middle-class people are not spending the money they earn because so much of it gets deducted to pay off their student debts. And as well as cash, the French people of the future will have capital, because the French state hasn’t sold all the country’s infrastructure off to the greedy and the can’t-be-arsed-to-maintain-or-fix-it. For those bits it has sold off, it forces private buyers to look after workers and service users, rather than sacrifice them for the sake of the limitless greed of shareholders and in fetishistic pursuit of deregegulation. So, France is poorer than Britain for now. But France’s future looks fine once the current economic slump is over (which, lest we forget, was caused by unregulated private enterprise, not by the state or by the poor who the Cameronites and Sarkozists and their many supporters in the media seek so hard to blame). Britain’s future, on the other hand, can most charitably be described as post-apocalyptic.

The French are angry and alienated? Yes, many of them are. And often with good reason. But, also, anger and alienation are the political default positions of the French. Which I think is a good thing, on the whole. Unless they vote in a Presidente Le Pen, in which case it’s a terrible thing. I just hope the Left gets itself organised and recovers enough if not all of those voters who think Le Pen is the only answer to the problems of the many who are unemployed or who aren’t well-enough paid and who don’t have "golden contracts". But I’ll bet even these French people aren’t half as angry and alienated as many Britons are going to be, when those Britons stop reading those distracting articles about how France is a soviet republic, that the French are overpaid, underworked, and always on strike, that France has higher unemployment and lower growth than Britain, that France is sclerotic, that France has no future, and that the French are angry and alienated. When they finally look away from all these “look-over-there, not-over-here” tropes and notice what has become of … Britain.