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An open thread for commenters to recommend their favourite books of 2016.
I’ll start with Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable (Allen Lane).
Trying to understand my country in the light of the EU referendum vote, I picked up a copy of Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable: The Experience of Class. I’m glad I did. Hanley is now an academic at Liverpool John Moores and lives a life shaped by the culture and expectations of Britain’s middle class, nourished, as she explains, by a diet based on mackerel and pulses. But this isn’t where she started. Life began on a vast working-class estate on the edge of Birmingham, Chelmsley Wood, a place to where many families had been decanted as part of the post-war social democratic experiment, and where they’d stayed. The book is about social class and social mobility, about getting from there to here, and about the “walls in the head” that make the transition a matter of profound anxiety and which stop many people from leaving at all. It is also about divisions within the working class, between those who cope with their subordinate status by keeping up appearances, and those who don’t, between those who read the Mirror and those who read the Sun. As Hanley puts it in the introduction: “Changing class is like emigrating from one side of the world to the other, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if your are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life.”
The world is watching the denouement in Aleppo, with stories emerging of massacres, particularly of young men (and probably by young men). A story I read from Patrick Cockburn in the Independent reported that such is the shortage of manpower for the Syrian army that other young men, emerging from eastern Aleppo, are being immediately conscripted into the Syrian army. A Syrian refugee I heard speaking the other day said there was no choice but to leave because you would either be killed, or you would be forcibly enlisted and forced to kill others. And many of the young Eritreans who find their way to Europe are also fleeing conscription (they face indefinite military service). This is hardly a new thing. The last major exodus of Americans fleeing the jurisdiction of their state was of young men who were evading the Vietnam draft.
James C. Scott, in his wonderful The Art of Not Being Governed writes of state conscription as one of the main reasons why the subjects of states flee to the hills, to a zone outside of state control. There are few such zones today, and those that there are may be governed by forces even less appealing that the states that conscripts are fleeing from.
This all got me thinking about some of the media narrative on refugees over the past few years. The preponderance of young men has been treated by those who want to keep refugees out as a reason for suspicion. The “genuine” refugees for the newspaper columnists are mothers and children. It is the toddler drowned on the beach, like Aylan Kurdi, who elicits public sympathy. But young men are often the ones with most reason to flee. It is they who face the starkest choice between killing and being killed. No wonder they predominate.
Fidel Castro is dead at 90, so let me adapt some words I wrote when he retired back in 2008. Doubtless, there will be commentary, particularly from within the United States, that is unbalanced and hostile, and, of course it is true that Castro ran a dictatorship that has, since 1959, committed its fair share of crimes, repressions, and denials of democratic rights. Still, I’m reminded of the historian A.J.P. Taylor writing somewhere or other that what the capitalists and their lackeys really really hated about Soviet Russia was not its tyrannical nature but the fact that there was a whole chunk of the earth’s surface where they were no longer able to operate. The same thing goes Cuba, for a much smaller area, and it hurt them particularly to be excluded from somewhere that plutocrats and mobsters had once enjoyed as their private playground. (Other countries, far more repressive, got a pass from successive US administrations.) So let’s hear it for universal literacy and decent standards of health care. Let’s hear it for the Cubans who help defeat the South Africans and their allies in Angola and thereby prepared the end of apartheid at a time when the United States favoured “constructive engagement” with white supremacy. Let’s hear it for the middle-aged Cuban construction workers who bravely held off the US forces for a while when the US invaded Grenada. Let’s hear it for more than half-a-century of defiance in the face of the US blockade. Hasta la victoria siempre!
The other day, an article by Chris Deerin, a writer for the Scottish Daily Mail, appeared on my twitter timeline, retweeted and endorsed by several people I respect. The article argued Trump and Brexit mean that “liberal progressives” have lost and that “the model that has more or less dominated Western politics for the past three decades is defunct. It could not be more dead.” “We” misused that hegemony and are responsible for our own downfall:
We used our hegemony to take down barriers and borders, to connect and build, to (yes) line our own pockets and smugly luxuriate in the goodness of our ideas and intentions. Meantime, we forgot about those who weren’t able to take part, who weren’t benefiting, to whom free trade and open borders meant greater hardship and uneasy cultural compromises. Or, let’s be honest, we didn’t forget – we just chose to conveniently ignore. We stopped asking for their permission, ploughed on through the warning signs, and fell off the end of the road.
Now “liberal” is a funny old word, mostly used as an insult these days by the Jacobin crowd on the one hand and conservatives on the other. Still, I can’t help but feel that my politics is being condemned here as infeasible and dead whilst wondering whether it is in fact true that I’ve enjoyed such “hegemony” for the past 30 years, because that certainly doesn’t gel with my experience. [click to continue…]
We Timberites have been chatting amongst ourselves about our comments threads. Recently, and perhaps even not so recently, our threads have been dominated by a few commenters who are rude, abusive and dismissive to one another and others. This creates an environment where other commenters get squeezed out and where many of us feel reluctant to post on the blog because it isn’t fun exposing yourself to such gratuitous hostility and because housekeeping comment threads (and arguing about housekeeping decisions) is frankly exhausting. We want to create an environment where we feel more willing to write for the blog and where a wider spectrum of people feel encouraged to participate in discussions. There are no perfect solutions here. Abolishing comments threads altogether is an option, but that excludes people who have been good citizens at CT over the years.
Here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to enforce our comments policy more rigorously (including the requirement that you supply a valid email address), and not just the part about comments that are racist, sexist or homophobic, but also the part about comments that are personally insulting. Specifically, commenters should abjure ostentatious displays of contempt towards other participants in the thread and commenters should not write in a manner that clearly presupposes that they do not believe the person they are engaging with is deserving of intellectual engagement. To pursue this policy, we’re going to try out putting everything into moderation by default. This will requires more work on our part to scan potential contributions as well as making it more difficulty for people to engage in the kind of to-and-fro that is characteristic of good conversation. That’s a pity, but may be the price we have to pay. We’re planning to review our policy in a couple of weeks, to see how it is working.