Archive for the ‘Netherlands’ Category

A Common Sense Exorcism from a Sceptical Medieval Monk

October 12, 2020

The view most of us have grown up with about the Middle Ages is that it was ‘the age of faith’. Or to put it more negatively, an age of credulity and superstition. The scientific knowledge of the Greco-Roman world had been lost, and the Roman Catholic church retained its hold on the European masses through strict control, if not an outright ban, on scientific research and fostering superstitious credulity through fake miracles and tales of the supernatural.

More recently scholars have challenged this image. They’ve pointed out that from the 9th century onwards, western Christians scholars were extremely keen to recover the scientific knowledge of the ancients, as well as learn from Muslim scholarship obtained through the translation of scientific and mathematical texts from areas conquered from Islam, such as Muslim Spain and Sicily. Medieval churchmen had to master natural philosophy as part of the theology course, and scholars frequently digressed into questions of what we would call natural science for its own sake during examinations of theological issues. It was an age of invention which saw the creation of the mechanical clock, spectacles and the application of watermills as pumps to drain marshland and saw wood. There were also advances in medicine and maths.

At the same time, it was also an age of scepticism towards the supernatural. Agabard, a medieval Visigothic bishop of what is now France, laughed when he was told how ordinary people believed that storms were caused by people from Magonia in flying ships. The early medieval manual for bishops listing superstitions and heresies they were required to combat in their dioceses, the Canon Episcopi, condemns the belief of certain women that they rode out at night with Diana or Herodias in the company of other spirits. Scholars of the history of witchcraft, such as Jeffrey Burton Russell of Cornell University, argue that this belief is the ancestor of the later belief that witches flew through the air with demons on their way to meet Satan at the black mass. But at this stage, there was no suggestion that this really occurred. What the Canon Episcopi condemns is the belief that it really happens.

The twelfth century French scholar, William of Auvergne, considered that demonic visitations in which sleepers felt a supernatural presence pressing on their chest or body was due to indigestion. Rather than being a witch or demon trying to have sex with their sleeping victim, the incubus or succubus, it was the result of the sleeper having eaten rather too well during the day. Their full stomach was pressing on the body’s nerves, and so preventing the proper circulation of the fluids responsible for correct mental functioning. There were books of spells for the conjuration of demons produced during the Middle Ages, but by and large the real age of belief in witches and the mass witch hunts came in the later middle ages and especially the 16th and 17th centuries. And its from the 17th century that many of the best known spell books date.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently is G.G. Coulton’s Life in the Middle Ages. According to Wikipedia, Coulton was a professor of medieval history, who had originally studied for the Anglican church but did not pursue a vocation. The book’s a collection of medieval texts describing contemporary life and events. Coulton obviously still retained an acute interest in religion and the church, as the majority of these are about the church. Very many of the texts are descriptions of supernatural events of one kind or another – miracles, encounters with demons, apparitions of the dead and lists of superstitions condemned by the church. There’s ample material there to support the view that the middle ages was one of superstitious fear and credulity.

But he also includes an account from the Dutch/ German monk and chronicler, Johann Busch, who describes how he cured a woman, who was convinced she was demonically possessed through simple common sense and folk medicine without the involvement of the supernatural. Busch wrote

Once as I went from Halle to Calbe, a man who was ploughing ran forth from the field and said that his wife was possessed with a devil, beseeching me most instantly that I would enter his house (for it was not far out of our way) and liberate her from this demon. At last, touched by her prayers, I granted his request, coming down from my chariot and following him to his house. When therefore I had looked into the woman’s state, I found that she had many fantasies, for that she was wont to sleep and eat too little, when she fell into feebleness of brain and thought herself possessed by a demon; yet there was no such thing in her case. So I told her husband to see that she kept a good diet, that is, good meat and drink, especially in the evening when she would go to sleep. “for then” (said I” “when all her work is over, she should drink what is called in the vulgar tongue een warme iaute, that is a quart of hot ale, as hot as she can stand, without bread but with a ltitle butter of the bigness of a hazel-nut. And when she hath drunken it to the end, let her go forthwith to bed; thus she will soon get a whole brain again.” G.G. Coulton, translator and annotator, Life in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1967) pp.231-2).

The medieval worldview was vastly different from ours. By and large it completely accepted the reality of the supernatural and the truth of the Christian religion, although there were also scientific sceptics, who were condemned by the church. But this also did not stop them from considering rational, scientific explanations for supernatural phenomena when they believed they were valid. As one contemporary French historian of medieval magic has written, ‘no-one is more sceptical of miracles than a theologian’. Sometimes their scepticism towards the supernatural was religious, rather than scientific. For example, demons couldn’t really work miracles, as only God could do so. But nevertheless, that scepticism was also there.

The middle ages were indeed an age of faith, but it was also one of science and rationality. These were sometimes in conflict, but often united to provide medieval intellectuals with an intellectually stimulating and satisfying worldview.

Old ‘Financial Times’ Review by Caryl Phillips of Books on Afrocentrism and Black Identity

August 1, 2020

This is another very old clipping from my scrapbooks. Titled ‘Burdened by white men’s perceptions’, its a review by the Black British writer Caryl Phillips of the books Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes by Stephen Howe, and Masks: Blackness, Race and the Imagination by Adam Lively. Its from the Financial Times’ edition for August 15th/16th 1998, and so nearly a quarter of a century old. Nevertheless, these are issues that are still present and which are still strongly influencing contemporary racial politics and motivating activist movements like Black Lives Matter.

Phillips begins his review with the book on Afrocentrism. This is a Black historical view that sees ancient Egypt as a Black African civilisation and the true source of the western cultural and intellectual tradition, which was appropriated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. He then moves on to the second book, which is about the issue of Black identity in majority White culture and the effects of White perceptions. Phillips writes

Stephen Howe’s candid book goes right to the heart of one of the most vexing of contemporary America’s problems: the question of “Afrocentrism”, and its legitimacy as an alternative system of thought to the “white racism” which has dominated American intellectual, social and political life. Howe (who is white) quotes the African-American professor, Manning Marable, who defines Afrocentrism as a system of thought which “looks to a romantic, mythical reconstruction of yesterday to find some understanding of the cultural basis of today’s racial and class challenges.” Howe agrees with Marable that Afrocentrism is not only romantic and mythical, but he sees it as ultimately dangerous.

His book is divided into three parts. In the first section Howe looks at the “roots” of Afrocentrism, rightly identifying the writings o the 19th-century writer Edward Wilmot Blyden as being perhaps at the head of this tradition. In 1866 Blyden travelled to Egypt, determined to see evidence of great Black achievements. He was overwhelmed by a sense of racial pride on first seeing the Pyramids: “This, thought I, was the work of my African progenitors … Feelings came over me far different from those I have ever felt when looking at the mighty works of European genius. I felt that I had a peculiar heritage in the Great Pyramid built … by the enterprising sons of Ham, from which I am descended …”

In the second part of his book, Howe focuses largely upon the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-86), identifying him as the originator of many of the ideas that form the basis of modern Afrocentrism. Diop believed that the biological origin of humanity took place in Africa, and that Egypt was the cradle of a Black civilisation that was appropriated by the Ancient Greeks. His writings and scholarship all speak to a need for those of Africa to see beyond the obfuscation created by European racism and colonialism,  and reclaim their glorious past.

The final part of Howe’s book looks at the current manifestations of Afrocentric thought, particularly in American academic life. He rightly castigates the anti-Semitism of Afrocentric “scholars”  such as Leonard Jeffries and Tony Martin, and is tough but even-handed in his case against Molefi Asante (whom Howe calls the “Godfather of Afrocentrism”). The pseudo-scientific racism, the homophobia, and the lack of any serious scholarship which underpins the work of modern-day Afrocentrism is laid bare in a devastating, and at times humorous manner.

This book performs a great service for all who are interested in the intellectual study of race and racism in the US. Howe builds his case upon facts, which most Afrocentric “scholars” seem incapable of doing. However, what Howe does not do is to ask the pressing question which arises out of his book: why is it that so many African Americans both leaders and followers, are prepared to invest in such an ahistorical sense of their world and their history?

The first half of Adam Lively’s book provides some kind of an answer, castigating as it does the European attempts to place Africa and people of African origin at the bottom of the evolutionary chain. Lively traces what he terms “the invention of race” in the modern world, and looks at racial theories in 18th and 19th-century Britain, examined how they clashed with Christianity, and Darwinism.

The second half of the book turns to the US. Lively announces his shift of locale and time, by stating that in the earlier period “If the African answered back, the European didn’t hear. In America by contrast … the American Negro could and did answer back to the White man.” This is not strictly true. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiographical narrative published in 1789 went into eight British editions, and was also published in German, Dutch and Russian. Equiano was but one of a host of contemporary Black writers who were undoubtedly heard by Europeans.

The American half of Lively’s book is largely composed of readings in 20th century American literature which support his central thesis that the contemporary imagination has great difficulty coping with a blackness that has been so deeply demonised by theories which originated in earlier centuries. However, whereas the first half of his book is underpinned by solid research, the second half becomes more speculative.

The book concludes with a short epilogue entitled “Beyond Race?” Unfortunately, here the text collapses into the infuriating academic doublespeak that the author has so eloquently avoided. “The idea of postethnicity accords with the modern tendency to see ethnicity as performative than essentialist. Blackness becomes a cultural style, a signifier that has floated free of its moorings in pigmentation. Stripped of any deterministic associations, its gift is the freedom (or, negatively, the alienation) of the mask.”

Blackness is not, and never will be, simply “a cultural style”. Being Black in the western world still means that one is burdened by White people’s perceptions of  one as either an object of taboo or one of sentiment. To scamper off into an imagined past of Afrocentric “achievement” is as foolish as the attempt to construct an imagined present of redemptive cultural equality based around baggy jeans and rap music. Lively ends his book with the following sentence: “The racial past cannot be erased, but it can be rendered impotent.” Neither Lively’s faith in postmodernism nor the Afrocentric’s “fake” history, will produce any viable solution to a problem that will dog us far into the next millennium.

I hope this prediction is far too pessimistic, and that this millennium won’t be as burdened with issues of race and racism as the previous. Regarding Afrocentrism, there is a serious point behind the romanticism. Egypt is geographically part of Africa, and the ancient Egyptians certainly portrayed themselves as darker skinned than the European peoples to the north. They traded extensively in the Mediterranean, including as far west as Spain, and did influence Greek and Roman culture. The White Afrocentrist historian, Basil Davidson, states that he believes that the Romans took their intellectual culture from Egypt because the Romans themselves said they did. On the other hand, it appears that the ancient Greeks took their mathematical knowledge from the ancient Near East, particularly Phrygia, rather than Egypt.

My problem with Afrocentrism is that, at its extreme, it just becomes a form of anti-White racism, the mirror image of White racist views of Black and African history. In the view of Afrocentric writers like Garakai Chengu, ancient Egypt was a superior Black civilisation that bestowed culture and learning on the backward White tribes of Europe. The Moors of Islamic Spain were ‘obviously Black’, and through their conquest brought backward, superstitious White Europeans enlightened philosophy and science. This isn’t history so much as a Black racist fantasy of imperialism and benign colonialism projected into the past. Chengu has apparently taught at Harvard, but when Counterpunch saw fit to publish a piece by him on their website the standard of scholarship was so poor that I really wondered how he got the job.

Ancient Egypt and the other great civilisations of Africa are awesome, inspiring and worth studying along with all the world’s great cultures. But this needs to be done without the grotesque distortions of racism, whether by Whites or Blacks.

The Reasons for the Toppling of the Statues of Columbus and King Leopold of Belgium

June 13, 2020

It isn’t just in Bristol that people are pulling down the statues of those, who were racist, imperialist or connected to slavery. In America protesters have pulled down more statues of Confederate generals. According to the Beeb, they also pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus. Back across the Pond in Belgium, a statue of King Leopold II was also attacked.

Columbus and the Genocide of the Amerindians

Many people are no doubt surprised and shocked that Columbus should be the centre of such controversy and anger. Again, this is because most people largely don’t know much about him. All most people are taught are that he discovered America, as in the rhyme ‘In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’. He was an Italian in the service of the king of Spain. Many may also believe the myth begun by Washington Irving, that until Columbus found the New World, everyone believed that the Earth was flat and you’d fall off the edge if you sailed far enough. In fact people at the time had know perfectly well that the world was round, and had done since at least late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Columbus himself was seeking a new route to the wealth, and particularly spices, of India and China. The overland trade routes had been blocked by the Turkish conquests, so Columbus was seeking a new route to these countries by sailing around the world. In doing so, he failed to realise that the world was actually larger than he believed. When he landed in the Caribbean, he thought he had landed in Asia. It was only towards the end of his career that he began to suspect that he hadn’t, and had discovered an entirely different, new continent instead.

Although it opened up a whole new world for Europeans, and especially the Spanish, it was a catastrophe for the indigenous peoples. Columbus described the Caribbean peoples he met as ‘gentle and mild’, and they welcomed their strange, new visitor. After Columbus returned to Spain, the situation changed with the Spanish conquest. The indigenous peoples – the Taino, Arawak and Caribs were enslaved and worked to death mining the gold that the Spanish and Europeans craved. If they failed to produce enough gold for their European masters, they were killed and mutilated. One of the contemporary sources for the conquest of the New World states that one of the punishments was to amputate their hands, and then hang them around the victim’s neck. Indigenous women were raped and sexually exploited. Indigenous populations were also devastated by the diseases Europeans brought with them, such as smallpox. The population of the Americas had reached several million before Columbus’ arrival. I forget the estimated number – it might be something like 8 million. That number had dropped considerably after the European conquests. The Spanish pushed further, overthrowing the Aztec and Inca empires and conquering the Mayan city states. And across the continent the indigenous peoples were devastated by disease and war, and enslaved on the vast estates carved out by the conquistadors. Other Europeans followed them, who were equally brutal – Portuguese, French, Dutch and ourselves.

The carnage of the European conquests means that Columbus is very definitely not a hero to the New World’s indigenous peoples, nor to the Black populations who succeeded them. Transatlantic slavery emerged because Europeans replaced the Indian workers they’d exterminated with African slaves. Nearly thirty years ago, in 1992 there were demonstrations and denunciations by indigenous Americans and Blacks at the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. For the Amerindian peoples, the festivities were a celebration of their genocide and enslavement. Black Americans also condemned them as a celebration of slavery, an accusation that was repeated by Black Britons three years later when this country celebrated John Cabot’s discovery of Newfoundland.

Leopold of Belgium and the Congo Atrocity

Centuries later, at the end of the 19th century, Leopold was also responsible for genocide on a scale comparable to the Nazis in Zaire, the former Belgian Congo. He’d acquired the area as his own personal property, and decided to exploit his new territory through rubber production. He set up his own, private police force, the Force Publique, and forced the indigenous peoples to cultivate and produce it. The indigenous Congolese were given quotas, and if they failed to produce the set amount of rubber, they were beaten, mutilated and killed by the thugs of his private police. Tony Greenstein in an article he has published on his blog a few days ago estimates the number of killed at 10 million. I don’t know if that’s the generally accepted number, as it seems he prefers the upper end of the estimates of European genocide. But it wouldn’t have been far off. There’s a very good popular book on slavery produced by Buffalo Books. I think it’s called just Slavery, and covers all of its forms, including the infamous Coolie Trade in Indian indentured migrants and the enslavement of Pacific Islanders to serve on the plantations of Fiji and Queensland. This also covers the Congo atrocity. It’s profusely illustrated with contemporary pictures, cartoons and photographs. I came across the book when a copy was given to the Empire and Commonwealth Museum, where I was doing voluntary work cataloguing the Museum’s holdings on slavery. One of the photographs was of a Congolese man forlornly looking at his severed feet. Slavery is an horrific subject, and there were a number of very graphic illustrations. But that was one that definitely made me feel ill.

The horror stopped because of the public outcry created by its exposure by several brilliant, crusading European and American journos. The Belgian government took it out of Leopold’s hands and turned it into a state colony. For many years the whole subject was something most Belgians wished to forget. However, in the late 1990s or early part of this century, Belgium began reexamining its relationship with its colonial past. There was an exhibition at the country’s national museum around the exhibits from the Congo. This included new works from contemporary artists and performers about the exhibits and the issues they raised.

Conclusion

For most ordinary people, at least in Britain, the attacks on these statues are astonishing. They’re yet another example of the violent iconoclasm and assault on history and White identity of the BLM movement. I doubt many people in Britain know enough about Leopold and his personal crimes against humanity to care what happens to his statue. But there are good reasons why Blacks, the American First Nations and their sympathisers should hate these statues and want their removal. Columbus and Leopold were monsters, and like Colston brought suffering to unimaginable millions. The attacks are shocking because we aren’t taught about the consequences of the European conquests in school history, although it is certainly not hidden or covered up. You can read about the Spanish conquests and the genocide of the Amerindians in books on South American history, as well as the classic treatment of the dispossession and genocide of the North American peoples, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

It’s why the BLM and Black and Asian activists are justified in calls for the dark side of British and European imperialism to be taught in history.

 

Boris Sentences More People to Death from Coronavirus

June 3, 2020

On Monday our murderous clown Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, casually sent more people to their deaths from the Coronavirus. Ignoring all the scientific advice to the contrary, he has decided to lift some of the lockdown restrictions. He’s insisting that some schools should reopen, and has allowed some nonessential business to do the same, provided they observe some measures on social distancing.

It’s far too early in this country for the lockdown to be raised, even partially. Both Mike and Zelo Street have published articles showing how Boris’ decision is yet another catastrophically wrong move in his halfhearted and utterly inept attempt to deal with the disease. Mike in his article reported that, according to the DEFCON type scale Johnson had invented for dealing with the disease, we were still at level 4. This means that the virus is not contained, the R level – the rate at which the virus is infecting new people – is above 1 in some regions, but hospitals aren’t overwhelmed. However the recommendation is still that the lockdown should be maintained. But as he points out, Boris is behaving as if we’ve reached level 1 and the crisis is over and everything can be reopened. But this won’t happen until a vaccine has been developed.

Mike’s put up a series of Tweets from people condemning his decision. One Tweeter, TheLockdownHeron, contrasts the situation in Spain and Britain. In Spain, 96 new cases were reported. In Britain, we had 8,000. But Spain is still determined to keep their lockdown in place, while we lift ours. Zelo Street’s article quoted Derek James, who tweeted that Spain had also had only fourdeaths from Covid-19 in the previous three days. Britain had had over 1,000. And the country was massively behind the rest of Europe as well. Bryan Smith tweeted out these figures for other European nations and his comments on them:

Deaths yesterday across Europe: Spain 2 … Italy 87 … Germany 24 … France 52 … Turkey 28 … Belgium 42 … Sweden 84 … Portugal 14 … Ireland 6 … Poland 13 … Romania 13 … Hungary 8 … Netherlands 28 … UK … 324 … There’s no way we are ready to ease lockdown & open schools”.

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the SAGE advisory group, stated that the decision to ease the lockdown was political and that many scientists would have preferred the incidence of the disease to have declined to lower levels before doing so. His colleague on the committee, director of the Wellcome Trust Jeremy Farrar said that the disease was spreading too fast for lockdown measures to be lifted.

Of course Boris’ decision to raise the restrictions is political. He has never liked them, and put off imposing the lockdown for as long as possible in order to ‘get Brexit done’ and preserve the economy, all while indulging in lethal, eugenicist fantasies about the British people acquiring herd immunity. His poll ratings have plunged, so that Labour’s Keir Starmer has an approval rating of +21 while BoJob’s is -1. Labour’s also risen five points in the polls and the Tories had dropped four, so that from a lead of 15 points ahead they were down to six.

https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/05/lockdown-boris-versus-experts.html

Some parts of the British public are already chafing at the bit, hoping for some return to a semblance of normality. That was shown by masses of people heading off to the coast at the weekend to enjoy the summer sun. BoJob and the Tory media are trying to defend his decision partly by pointing to some of the foreign countries lifting their restrictions, like Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany. But these all have much lower incidences of the disease. When France tried it, there was a spike in about 90 new cases across la Patrie. And many people in this country are afraid of the same when the second wave of infection hits. Another of the Tweets Mike shows on his page is this ominous prediction:

Sarah 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿🏍️@Frecklechops

Who else thinks we’ll have a second wave in a few weeks and be back in full lockdown in July?

BLACK LIVES MATTER@socialistbangrs

Second wave but no lockdown, they just let it kill everyone it will kill and infect everyone as originally planned because they’re Tories

Absolutely. Cheltenham hospital is already sending its routine cases to Gloucester in preparation for a new wave of Coronavirus.

As for the Tories, Black Lives Matter is right: the Tories will let it kill and infect everyone because it is destroying the ‘useless eaters’, who use the NHS and are supported by the welfare state, two institutions they want to dismantle for the sake of themselves and their wealthy donors.

Johnson does not care about people’s health, only about corporate profit. And so by passing this decision, he has condemned countless people to an unnecessary death.

Viktor Orban Uses Pandemic to Become Dictator of Hungary

April 2, 2020

The onward march of the extreme right in eastern Europe takes another fateful goosestep. Viktor Orban, the already very authoritarian president of Hungary, has used the Coronavirus crisis as the pretext to pass legislation destroying the last vestiges of the democracy there, establishing him as the country’s virtual dictator.

On Monday, Zelo Street posted a piece based on an article in the Groaniad, reporting that Hungary’s parliament, dominated by his xenophobic Fidesz Party, was expected to grant him sweeping powers. These will give Orban the ability to rule by decree. Elections will be banned. The speaker of the Hungarian parliament and parliamentary groups will be informed of the government’s actions. However, spreading false information will become a criminal offence punishable by a long prison sentence. It will be prerogative of Orban’s Fidesz MPs to decide when the emergency is over. Orban has said that when it is, he will surrender all his powers without exception. However, there’s absolutely no guarantee of this, as the laws he passed in 2016 against asylum seekers, which were also supposed to be temporary, are still in place. It’s therefore possible that a compliant parliament will allow Orban to hang on to some or all of them.

Zelo Street stated unequivocally that the EU should expel Hungary because of this seizure of power. The Sage of Crewe pointed out that when the EU was the EEC, and only consisted of France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries – Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, the dictatorships to the east and west of the bloc stood absolutely no chance of getting. This meant the Fascist dictatorships of Portugal and Spain, Greece under the military rule of the colonels, Ceausescu’s Romania and the DDR (East Germany) under Erich Honecker. He remarks that Hungary’s continued membership of the EU has been a test for its remaining member states, one that they have so far failed to tackle. He concludes

‘Viktor Orbán may be more Chaplin than Hitler. But if the values of the EU are to mean anything, the Union cannot permit a dictatorship within its club. So expel the SOB.’

See: https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2020/03/eu-must-now-expel-hungary.html

Zelo Street describes this legislation as an ‘enabling law’. The reference is to the Enabling Act which formally made Adolf Hitler dictator of Germany and suspended parliamentary democracy. And the Nazis, and the Italian Fascists before them, also seized power in response to a crisis. Fascist governments are crisis regimes. In the case of Italy and Germany, the crisis was first of all the breakdown in parliamentary democracy, as the pillars of the liberal regime in those nations stopped cooperating. In Germany this led to the president, Hindenburg, ruling by decree. This was succeeded by the recession caused by the Wall Street Crash and the massive uncontrolled inflation that saw the Mark as worth far less than the paper it was printed on. This discredited capitalism for millions of Germans, leading to a surge in votes for the Nazis and the Communists. And finally there was the Reichstag fire, which allowed the Nazis to declare a state of emergency and begin rounding up subversives. Which meant anybody who didn’t cede power to Hitler, and particularly Communists and the democratic socialists of the SPD.

Fidesz is extremely xenophobic and, like many political parties in the former eastern bloc, in particular anti-Semitic and islamophobic. I’ve no doubt Orban would be overjoyed if he could somehow blame the pandemic on Gypsies, Jews, homosexuals and Muslims. And I’m afraid that where Orban’s gone, other countries will follow, such as Poland under the Law and Justice Party. Or even Britain, where Boris has also passed legislation granting him extraordinary sweeping powers to deal with the pandemic emergency.

The EU’s failure to do so is an indictment of the hypocrisy of its leading politicos. Years ago Private Eye published an account of the EU’s dictatorial attitude towards the states then seeking membership in its ‘Brussels Sprouts’ column. The terms and conditions were very detailed and were not open to negotiation. Or at least, not very much. One of the countries joining was the Czech Republic. It’s president, Vaclav Klaus, was so outraged by his country’s dictatorial treatment, and told the EU negotiating team that his country had not suffered such treatment for nearly 30 years. This was in the late ’90s – early 2000s, so he was probably referring to the Russian invasion which ended the Prague Spring, the attempt by Czech premier Anton Dubcek to make Communism popular and democratic. This infuriated two of the EU’s team, the French former radical, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and a German MEP. They immediately climbed on their high horses and started angrily shouting about how the EU was the opposite, and was the champion of democracy. And I can remember how, about ten years ago, the EU managed to leave many people highly unimpressed when it sanctimoniously awarded a peace prize to itself, claiming that it had successfully kept the peace in Europe. Well, possibly. But I also think NATO and a general fear across the continent of another war had played a major party. If the EU is unable, or unwilling, to do anything about Orban’s seizure of power, then all the verbiage about defending democracy is simply empty, vacuous nonsense. As readers of this blog will know, I am absolutely no supporter of Brexit. But it is true that EU is an immensely flawed institution.

It’s too much to claim that the EU is some kind of authoritarian superstate, an EUSSR, as the Kippers and Brexiteers liked to describe it, or some kind of successor to the Third Reich or Napoleon’s empire. But with Orban seizing dictatorial power, it is true to say now that the EU is no bulwark of democracy either.

 

‘I’ Article About Research into Artificial Wombs and their Morality

January 8, 2020

This is another science story from yesterday’s I for 7th January 2020. It’s about current research into developing artificial wombs. At the moment, these would be for very premature babies, but they could in theory go much further, which raises some serious ethical issues.

The article by Alla Katsnelson, ‘Baby in a bag: could humans be grown in an artificial womb?’ runs

Critically preterm babies face an uncertain future. Although a foetus is considered viable at 24 weeks of gestation, only about 60 per cent of babies born so young will survive, and many will experience life-long complications.

For those born a couple of weeks earlier, the statistics are even more dire: just 10 per cent of babies born at 22 weeks are likely to survive.

building a so-called artificial womb could potentially save these babies. In October, researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands announced that they had received a grant for E2.9m (£2.5m) to develop a prototype of such a device. But the project isn’t the only artificial womb on the horizon. In 2017, researchers in Philadelphia transferred foetal lambs, aged between 105 and 115 days of gestation (equivalent to about 28 to 30 weeks human gestation), into a so-called biobag filled with artificial amniotic fluid. After several weeks in the bag, the lambs developed normally. And in March 2019, an Australian and Japanese research team kept younger lambs, about 95 days’ gestational age, alive in a different system.

Dr Matthew Kemp, who led the latter work, admits that researchers don’t fully understand foetal growth in the womb, which makes replicating it a challenge. The Dutch group noted plans to roll out a clinic-ready prototype in five years, but Dr Kemp says it will probably take much longer. And because the technology is so costly, it’s unlikely to be widely available any time soon.

So far, what researchers call artificial wombs are essentially souped-up incubators. They provide a fluid-filled space in which a foetus can receive nutrients and oxygen through a ‘placenta’. From there to full-on ectogenesis – incubating foetuses outside a human for the full duration of a pregnancy – is an enormous leap.

But many bioethicists note that technology moves quickly, and proactively thinking through the possibilities is important.

In this more futuristic vision, artificial wombs can do a lot for society, says Dr Elizabeth Yuko, a bioethicist at Fordham University in New York. It could allow people who can’t carry a pregnancy for whatever reason – illness, infertility, age, or gender – to do so. It might also shift some of the childbearing responsibilities carried by women. But it also raises concerns. For example, ex-utero gestation would probably turn reproductive rights on their head, says Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Manchester. If a foetus can gestate outside a woman’s body, the choice fo whether or not to have the baby might be deemed out of her hands.

Another issue is that our legal rights are predicated on having been born alive. “I don’t think that a gestating subject in an artificial womb necessarily meets that requirement,” says Romanis. “That raises some questions about human entities ex-utero that have never existed before.

There have been newspaper articles about the development of artificial wombs since the 1980s, at least. The Absurder published one c. 1985, and I think the Independent also published one in the 1990s. And the whole area of artificial reproduction has been a live issue since the first ‘test tube’ baby created through in vitro fertilisation in the 1970s. But it also raises the spectacle of the kind of dystopian society Aldous Huxley portrayed in Brave New World, where humans are bred in hatcheries, engineered and conditioned for their future role in society. The Auronar, the telepathic race to which Cally, one of the heroes of the Beeb’s SF series, Blake’s 7, also reproduced through artificial gestation.And one of the predictions in Brian Stableford’s and David Langford’s future history, The Third Millennium, is that during this millennium this will be the preferred method of human reproduction, at least in some extraterrestrial colonies. And over a decade Radio 4 broadcast a series in which various intellectuals created fictional museums. One was ‘the museum of the biological body’, set in a post-human future in which people were neuter cyborgs born from hatcheries. This is obviously very far off, and I doubt anywhere near the majority of humans would ever want to reject gender and sexuality completely, whatever certain sections of the trans community might believe.

As with cloning and Dolly the Sheep, it raises very profound and disturbing questions about humanity’s future and how far technology should expand into the area of reproduction.

The Labour, Pro-Working Class Arguments for Brexit

December 22, 2019

The decisive factor which swung 14 million people to vote Tory in the general election two weeks was Brexit. Labour’s programme of reforms was popular, despite the predictable Tory attacks on it as impractical, costly, too radical, Marxist and so on. 60 to 70 per cent of the public in polls supported the manifesto, and the party received a slight boost in popularity in the polls after its public. The areas in Labour’s heartlands in the midlands and north that turned Tory were those which voted ‘Leave’. Craig Gent in his article for Novara Media on the lessons Labour must learn from this defeat lamented this. By backing Remain, Labour had ceded Brexit to the Conservatives, allowing them to shape the terms of the debate and the assumptions underlying it. But Gent also argued that it could easily have gone the other way.

Indeed it could. Labour’s policy, before the right-wing put pressure on Corbyn to back a second referendum, was that Labour would respect the Leave vote, and try for a deal with the EU that would serve Britain the best. Only if that failed would Labour consider a general election or second referendum. This is eminently sensible. The referendum was purely on whether Britain would leave the European Union. It was not on the terms under which Britain would leave. Despite Johnson’s promise to ‘get Brexit done’, he will have no more success than his predecessor, Tweezer. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has stated that the negotiations are going to take far long than the eleven months Johnson claimed. The people who voted for him are going to be sorely disappointed.

The right-wing campaign for leaving the EU heavily exploited racism and xenophobia. Not only had Britain lost her sovereignty to Brussels, but it was because of the EU that Britain was being flooded with immigrants taking jobs and placing a burden on the social and economic infrastructure. In fact, the Black and Asian immigrants entering Britain were permitted, as Mike showed on his blog, through UN agreements covering asylum seekers. Moreover immigrants and foreign workers were a net benefit to Britain. They contributed more in taxes and took less in benefits. But with this was drowned out, along with other, vital Remain arguments in the Tory rhetoric of hate.

But there was always a part of the Labour movement that also distrusted the European Union for democratic, socialist reasons. The late Tony Benn devoted an entire chapter to it in his 1979 book, Arguments for Socialism. One of his primary objections to it, as he outlined in a 1963 article for Encounter magazine, was

that the Treaty of Rome which entrenches laissez-faire as its philosophy and chooses its bureaucracy as its administrative method will stultify effective national economic planning without creating the necessary supranational planning mechanisms for growth and social justice.

Like right-wing Eurosceptics, Benn also objected to Britain joining the EU because of loss of national sovereignty and democracy through inclusion into a European superstate. He was also worried about the threat from Brussels to British industry. The European Union hated Britain’s nationalised industries, and Benn said that he was told by Brussels bureaucrats that investment, mergers and prices in the former British steel industry would have to be controlled by them. Every issue of state aid to British manufacturing industry would have to be subject to the European commission. He was very much afraid that British manufacturing would be unable to compete against the better financed and equipped European firms, and so close. And he also argued that membership in the European Union would create higher unemployment through the EU’s economic policy, which was exactly the same as that tried by Conservative premier Ted Heath’s first government. He believed that EU membership would leave British workers with a choice of either being unemployed at home, or moving to Europe to seek work. Only the directors and shareholders in European companies would profit. He then gives the statistics showing how much Britain was paying to the EU for policies like the Common Agricultural Policy, that penalised Britain’s highly efficient farming system in favour of that of the continent, and the disastrous effect EU membership had had on British industry and jobs. The devastation caused to some sectors of British industry and agriculture also formed part of Conservative attacks on the EU. The former Mail, now Times journo, Quentin Letts, bitterly criticises the EU in his book, Bog Standard Britain, for the way the common fisheries policy drastically cut back our fishing fleet to a fraction of its former size.

It also seems that Ted Heath also used some very underhand, dirty tricks to rig the initial referendum to give the result he wanted: that the British people agreed with him and wanted to join Europe. This was the subject of an article in the parapolitical/ conspiracy magazine, Lobster some years ago.

I’m a Remainer. I was as shocked by the Tories’ victory as everyone else on the Left. I expected that they would win because of the vast propaganda and media resources they had poured in to attacking Labour and Corbyn personally. But I was astonished by how large the victory was. I believed that the continuing failure to secure a deal with Europe would have made Brexit less popular, not more. The result of the original referendum was so narrow that I believed a second would reverse the decision. How wrong I was.

Some of the Eurosceptic arguments against Europe are overstated or simply wrong. The EU was a threat to our nationalised industries, but it seemed nothing prevented the French, Germans and Dutch from retaining theirs and buying up ours, as the Dutch firm, Abellio, was awarded the contract for some of our rail services. Britain’s entry into the EU did not result in us losing our sovereignty. We retained it, and all law passed in Brussels had to become British law as well. And I believe very strongly that leaving Europe, especially under a no-deal Brexit, will badly damage our trade and economy.

But understanding Brexit and the arguments against EU membership from the Left from people like Tony Benn, may also provide a way of winning back some at least of the support Labour lost at the election. Labour can show that it understands the fear some people in those communities have about the loss of sovereignty, and the effect EU membership has had on trade, manufacturing and employment. But we can also point out that the Tories are using the same set of economic principles as the EU, and that this won’t change so long as Boris is Prime Minister. And any trade agreement he makes with the Orange Generalissimo will be worse than staying in the EU. It won’t secure British jobs or support British industry, manufacturing or otherwise. Indeed, it will cause further damage by placing them at a disadvantage against the Americans.

A proper Brexit, that respected British workers and created a fairer, better society, could only be brought in by Labour. But the Thursday before last, 14 million people were duped into rejecting that. But Labour is learning its lesson, and people are getting ready to fight back.

Labour can and will win again, on this and other issues. Brexit may have got Johnson in, but it may also be the issue that flings him out. 

Scots Government Considering Nationalising Railways

December 19, 2019

But only in Scotland, of course. Today’s I carries a piece by Chris Green, ‘Scotrail may be nationalised after franchise cut short, reporting that the Scottish government is considering nationalising the rail contractor. Here’s a snippet from the article

The public sector could soon take over the running of Scotland’s railways after ministers decided to terminate the current ScotRail contract with Abellio three years early.

Abellio has been operating the service since 2015 and its contract was not due to expire until 2025, but it has faced growing anger over cancellations, overcrowding and delays.

The Scottish Government announced yesterday that it had activated a break clause in the contract, meaning that it will come to an end in March 2023.

The decision clears the way for a public sector bid for the franchise, which would honour a commitment made by the SNP ahead of the last Holyrood election in 2016.

Transport Secretary Michael Matheson told MSPs that after examining the Dutch firm’s plans for the remainder of the contract, he was “not satisfied” it would provide value for passengers.

Mr Matheson said that the current franchising system had “failed” and called for the UK Government to devolve total control over the railways to Scotland, which would allow for full nationalisation.

The article goes on to report that the Tories are accusing the SNP of trying to duck out of its own failure in awarding the contract to Abellio in the first place. It also says that changes to rail franchising system were recommended by the Williams Review commission, but the government’s response has not been published. It also gives the response of Abellio, which states that it has invested more than £475m in train services, added 23 per cent more seats and created more than 500 jobs. This is supposed to be the greatest investment in trains and stations in over 150  years.

I hope the Scots go through with it and nationalise the service. This would show the rest of the UK that nationalisation really is a realistic long-term option. Failing railway companies in England have been nationalised several times over the past decade or so, but they’ve always been handed back to a private contractor. But the problems continue. It’s time that this ended, and we had a proper, nationalised railway.

Bring back British Rail!

Labour’s Green Transport Pledge – Electric Buses

December 10, 2019

This is another story from Saturday’s I. The Labour party has also promised to introduce electric buses if they come to power. The article about this, written by Hugo Gye, ran

Labour has promised to replace every bus in England with an electric vehicle if the party wins the general election.

All of the country’s 35,000 buses would be powered by electricity rather than diesel or petrol by 2030 at a cost of £4bn, Jeremy Corbyn said. The pledge is the latest in a string of promises on public transport, partly funded by cutting the amount of money spent on road improvements.

Over the next 11 years, every bus in England that is not fully electric would be taken out of service and replaced by an electric vehicle to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

At the moment just 2 per cent of the country’s buses run on electricity. the switch would be paid for by a “green transformation fund”, part of Labour’s plans to ramp up infrastructure spending through borrowing.

Mr Corbyn said: “This policy will bring our bus services into the future and help revitalise our high streets and rebuild local communities.”

Conservative Transport Secretary Grant Shapps responded that Labour would pay for the plan by raiding budgets for vital road upgrades.

Labour said devolved administrations would receive money to enable them to carry out a similar policy.

The air quality in British towns is very poor. There have been a series of articles in the papers revealing that townspeople suffer poor health as a result of the air pollution around them, and some of this is obviously vehicle exhaust. Bristol’s elected mayor, Marvin, wants to improve air quality by taxing the most polluting vehicles, including buses and taxis. However, so that this doesn’t affect ordinary people, he’s allowing older cars to go untaxed. This has proved highly controversial, as it means that public transport in this city will become more expensive. It seems far better to me for the government to replace existing fossil fuel buses with electric vehicles than to place extra taxes on them. Of course, this also calls into question the decision made after the War to scrap the trams across Britain, as these were also run on electricity. Continental cities didn’t, and as a result some of them – I’m thinking here of those in the Netherlands – may be greener.

But I’m convinced that this is no mere empty promise. Corbyn and his team are sincere about their policies they intend to implement. Unlike the Tories, who have consistently broken their manifesto promises and whose present promises to improve public services either have not been costed or would be inadequately funded. Which means the Tories really aren’t serious about honouring them.

And remember how David Cameron declared that his would be the greenest government ever. Which lasted right up to the moment he put his foot inside No. 10. Then all his election promises were forgotten, he took the little windmill from his house, and went ahead with allowing fracking and privatising Britain’s forests.

Unlike the Tories, Labour is serious about the environment and renewable energy. Vote for them.

Bring Back British Rail’s Email Urging People to Vote for Labour or Greens

December 9, 2019

Yesterday I received this email from the pressure group, Bring Back British Rail, which campaigns to have the railway service renationalised. It urges everyone to vote for either the Labour Party or the Greens, as these parties have both pledged to take the railways back into public ownership. It also gives the contact details of the organisations across the UK taking on the Rail Operating Companies, as well as online petitions to have the buses in Glasgow, Greater Manchester and Bristol also taken back under council ownership. They’re also advertising their own merchandise.

Greetings from Bring Back British Rail

As the General Election looms, this is a crucial week for our volunteer-run campaign for publicly-owned public transport, founded in 2009.

Both Labour and the Greens have pledged to bring railways and buses back into public ownership in their 2019 manifestos. This General Election on 12 December could mark the change of policy we need to create the fully-integrated, reliable and affordable public transport network which can re-connect all corners of our county and tackle the climate emergency. So please make sure you get out and vote on Thursday!

We’re celebrating 10 years of campaigning with a #GE2019 Merch Special Offer. If you don’t already have one of our popular Rail Card Wallets, Enamel Badges or Embroidered Patches, now’s your chance to get the set for yourself or a friend. All proceeds support campaign materials and activities. Please share on FacebookInstagram or Twitter. Orders must be placed by end Tuesday 17 December 2019 to receive in time for Christmas.

Merch Special Offer


Taking on the TOCs

In 2019, we’ve been using our national network to continue supporting local groups fighting back against different private train operating companies (TOCs) all over the country through own ‘franchises‘ initiative. Please support:

• Norfolk for the Nationalisation of Rail fighting Abellio Greater Anglia (aka Nederlandse Spoorwegen, owned by the Dutch government)
• Association of British Commuters fighting Govia on Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern (part-owned by Keolis, owned by the French government)
• Northern Resist taking on Northern (aka Arriva, aka Deutsche Bahn, owned by the German government)
• Public Ownership of Scotland’s Railway taking on ScotRail (aka Abellio, aka Nederlandse Spoorwegen, owned by the Dutch government)

If you know of campaigns in other parts of the country, or want to start one yourself, please get in touch: info@bringbackbritishrail.org


Taking back our Buses

In 2019, we’ve also been supporting local campaigns around the UK taking on the private bus companies. If you’re in GlasgowManchester or Bristol, please join:

Get Glasgow Moving In Glasgow? Sign the Petition:
you.38degrees.org.uk/p/takebackourbuses
Follow on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
Better Buses for Greater Manchester In Manchester? Sign the Petition:
www.betterbusesgm.org.uk
Follow on: Facebook | Twitter
Better Buses for Bristol
In Bristol? Sign the Petition:
www.change.org/p/bristol-city-council-take-control-of-bristol-s-buses
Follow on: Facebook
If you know of any other campaigns for publicly-owned buses, or want to start one yourself, please get in touch: info@bringbackbritishrail.org

In my view down here in Bristol, the transport network should never have been privatised. I am very well aware that British Rail was a joke, and there were severe problems with bus services, at least here in Bristol, when they were under council ownership. But they were better run and in the case of British Rail, cheaper and more efficient than today. We are paying more in public subsidies for today’s privatised network for a poorer service. Labour has pledged itself not just to a renationalisation of the railways, but all the public utilities so that they will be better funded, better managed and provide a better service, including the royal mail, water, electricity and broadband.

So I say, vote Labour on Thursday.