Monday, 27 June 2016

How Brexit Broke Britain

There has been a lot of analysis of the Brexit vote; this article is one of the best.

What is missing is the peculiar dynamics by which the position of a party that scored less than 13% of the vote in the 2015 general election and only won one seat was able to secure over 50% of the vote in a referendum on the position they were advocating.

The Tories won about 37% of the vote in 2015 so even if every Tory voter was actually opposed to the EU, this still does not add up to the 52% Brexit vote. Take away the pro-Euro Tories and a substantial fraction of voters for parties who are pro-EU voted the opposite way to the party line. Some blame Jeremy Corbyn for not taking a strong pro-EU line in the referendum campaign. But his position – that the EU was flawed but it was better being in to fix it than out – is not much different from David Cameron’s and the only real difference is that Corbyn stated that view honestly rather than pushing hard to a yes vote, implying that he was more strongly in favour of the EU than he really is.

Even so, it is not usual that party supporters break ranks like this. Most parties can rely on their core base to vote for them no matter what – for example through the sort of change when Blair reverse much of Labour’s traditional policy position or when the US Democrats effectively switched sides with the Republicans on many major positions. With the Republican-Democrat switch, there was a switch in where the parties drew support: the Democrats used to be the party of the South. But this switch in support based took a long time and some very dramatic events like the Civil Rights movement (and even through that, some deeply racist Democrats did not switch sides: George Wallace of Alabama remained a Democrat despite a run for president as an Independent Party candidate, and only saw the error of his ways much later in life, when he ended his political career as an opponent of racism).

So let us study the dynamics of the thing – how Cameron got himself into such a mess.

With Europscepticism a major force among the Tories, he was able to secure his leadership as well as shore up votes in the marginals by promising a referendum. His calculation: not many people really wanted to break with Europe so by pandering to them, he could retain the leadership of his party and shift enough anti-EU voters his way in marginal seats to prevent UKIP from winning and to tilt such seats away from Labour.

The problem is that when the referendum came up, it was at a time when there was mood for shucking off the establishment – the same mood that gave Jeremy Corbyn Labour leadership, that made Bernie Sanders unexpectedly successful and that has kept Trump not only in the race but has made him the Republican candidate (presumptive but in reality, it would be pretty hard to change that now).

What is weird about all this is that the “anti-establishment” mood crystallizes around such different positions.

Trump and Sanders stand for completely opposed values yet a substantial fraction of Sanders voters are more willing to voter for Trump than Clinton.

Meanwhile, parliamentary Labour is revolting against Jeremy Corbyn, as if he is solely responsible for the Brexit vote. Labour MPs, listen up. The public voted Corbyn in because they found you revolting. Labour has failed to tap into the anti-establishment mood since Corbyn’s election not because of him but because of the rank and file who desperately hoped he would go away and they could return to the failed world of Blair and Brown.

The point of the anti-establishment mood is that people are tired of business as usual. That creates a need that can be fulfilled by sane politicians offering real alternatives – like Corbyn and Sanders. But of course their sort of alternative is not very palatable to the plutocrats behind the scenes so when politics as usual fails, they back unpleasant, irrational alternatives like the Tea Party in the US and UKIP in the UK. Out of this, Trump is something of an anomaly as he is not so much a representative of plutocrats as a representative of plutocracy: he does not stand for class interests but rather for himself.

The EU was in many ways a flawed creation – but one that blurred inessential differences and encouraged a rights-based view of difference. Splitting off the UK risks further splits – the Scottish independence movement is revitalized for example. If that goes ahead, it adds impetus for other separatist movements. The end result could be a Europe of much smaller countries and with no unifying framework. That takes us back to the 19th century.

If you really are opposed to the establishment – good. It needs shaking up. But do not be conned by voices of bigotry and hatred. This is not shaking up the establishment. It is about destroying the values that have made a world-wide civilization possible – one that respects difference but does not demand shallow capitulation to imposed values and identities.

Such a civilization does not exist yet, but there is a possibility of one – and the EU hinted at what was possible. The alternative in a world with advanced technology is mini-states hostile to difference and belligerent to those less fortunate than themselves; not an attractive prospect.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Vegetarian Panna Cotta

The secret to good panna cotta is powdered agar-agar. Agar-agar is a gelling agent derived from algae (usually seaweed). You can also use gelatin, though gelatin is made from animal parts and can also be tricky to work with.

Here is my formula; scale it down if you want a smaller quantity. Some recipes substitute milk for some of the cream.
  • 1 litre milk
  • 300–400ml sugar, depending how sweet you like your dessert
  • 5ml (level teaspoon) agar-agar powder (you can use flakes but the quantity is much harder to measure)
  • half a vanilla bean
Split and scrape the half vanilla bean into the sugar in a saucepan and add the agar-agar. Mix thoroughly so the agar-agar is evenly distributed and won’t form lumps. Mix in the cream and heat to boiling. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2–3 minutes.

Panna Cotta Moulds – I ordered a set like this
and will update the article to review them.
Leave to cool, then remove the vanilla bean pod and decant into 6–8 moulds. Chill for at least 2 hours to set.

If you can find a mould with a removable end (see picture) so the panna cotta can be pushed out from the smaller end of the mould, it should be easy to unmould.

Applying heat to loosen it from the mould is tricky – you can easily end up unsetting the contents; if you are less concerned with being fancy, set it in the serving bowl.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Of Clubbing Springboks and Other Unspeakable Crimes

What does the assassination of UK MP Jo Cox have to do with South Africa and our government’s increasing paranoia about protest?

The suspect in Jo Cox case, Thomas Mair, has links to the far-right Springbok Club, an organization that sports the old South Africa flag on its Facebook page and which equates the era of colonialism and racist rule in Africa to “civilization”.

No doubt murdering an MP in broad daylight fits their definition of “civilized”.

Such is the horror of bigotry: attitudes despising the “other” lead to distain for the value of “other” life. Ms Cox stood for the UK’s inclusion in Europe; that made her subhuman in the mindset of the extreme bigot.

Back to South Africa today, the apparently “new” South Africa with a different flag.

Over the last year, there have been about 14,000 service delivery protests, 20% of them violent. There has also been a growing tide of student protest: #RhodesMustFull, #FeesMustFall and, lately, rape culture.

Last year, the response of universities was attempting to contain protest, while agreeing with the goals – at least partially. The effect was to deflect protest to government where it belonged, at least with the fees issue. The result was dramatic: the protest movement forced a change from government that 20 years of polite conversation had failed to achieve.

So where are we now?

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande published a paranoid diatribe on Daily Maverick (14 June 2016), claiming that student protesters are a tiny privileged minority out to create mayhem and who belong in jail.

I strongly oppose the kind of protest that doesn’t value life and that destroys infrastructure. But that does not mean there is no valid protest and that all protest should be criminalized, which is where we are headed. There is a line between militant protest and unacceptably violent protest and a rights-oriented society has to be very careful to place that line accurately. We also need to be very careful about using “lawful” as too strong a stick to prevent inconvenient protest. In the UK in 2008, Greenpeace activists who were accused of unlawfully damaging a coal power station were exonerated because the outcome of their protests had a higher public good than the damage they caused.

When we reach a situation where bigots and supposed progressives are speaking with the same voice, we have to be very, very worried that we have not placed that line correctly, that we are edging towards police-state conditions and that the underlying causes of the protest have become too uncomfortable to address.

On bigotry, what does Comrade Blade have to offer? Consider this:

It is a narrative of anger, of ears sealed against rational debate, eyes shut tight against reality, including the nature of the real challenges facing us as a country as we change for the better. It is a narrative initiated during the 1999 election by another minority party, one which had absorbed most of the Broederbond-fuelled members of apartheid’s ruling National Party, and much of its ideology. A narrative under the simple catch phrase, “Fight Back.”

This, of course, refers to the DA and its predecessor, the DP, which merged with the National party to form the DA. What he fails to mention is that the Nats demerged and their leadership decamped to the ANC.

It is with this background that I return to the dangers of cozying up to bigotry.

In South Africa, the legacy of racism has an obfuscatory effect. When the ANC aligns itself with bigots, the old divisions of race make that less apparent than it should be. That both old-school bigots and the ANC only see criminality in protest makes them odd bedfellows. For this reason, this is a rather fractious alliance, one that must be punctured by the odd Penny Sparrow incident to bring things back to normal – the ANC is the party of opposition to bigotry.

Then an inconvenient protest breaks out – the bigots and the ANC line up – oops, someone has to post a racist comment on social media to bring things back to normal.

What is increasingly being laid bare is that the ANC is not itself immune to bigotry, even if it has the option of beating a comfortable retreat to moral outrage about racism. The danger that this presents is that the ANC can march deep into bigot territory and cover its retreat with the race flag – with the actual damage to rights the government has inflicted lost in the resulting righteous anger over racism.

Take the question of rape culture. Here at The University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR), after anti-rape protests broke out, the ANC Women’s League sent a delegation to express concern. Where were they 10 years ago during the Zuma rape trial when they supported him to the hilt despite his atrocious attitudes to women that emerged in court?

Given that rape is supposed to be a serious crime and we have evidence that it is not being handled adequately, are we attempting to remedy that? Possibly – but not as intensively as the government, with the connivance of universities, is attempting to criminalize protest. While naming someone as rapist is attacked as a contravention of the right to due process, Comrade Blade says that protesters deserve only one thing: jail. No hint there of a requirement of due process.

One of the more obnoxious manifestations of rape culture at UCKAR is a venerable tradition known as “seal clubbing”: a contest among senior students to have sex with as many innocent first years as possible. That this practice has such a repulsive name would be enough, you would think, to make it a target for eradication. But no: the university’s response is to warn new students of the practice, rather than target the problem at source. Has anyone said that anyone promoting this “tradition” belongs in jail? No?

Meanwhile, bigots applaud the university administration, in concert with the ANC government, for standing up to “unlawful” protests.

So here’s the real divide: those who truly want an inclusive, progressive society and those who have common cause with bigots. Let us stop pretending otherwise; if not the Springbok Club may find themselves in the awkward position of welcoming the ANC into its ranks.

Friday, 22 April 2016

How Justice Fails

At the university apparently still called Rhodes over the last week, there have been some disturbing events. A group of students published a list of 11 names of alleged rapists, and attempted to ferret them out of university residences. Protesters also invaded lectures and barricaded streets.

When vigilante justice arises, it is usually a consequence of the failure of regular justice. So you need to track back to the point of failure to stop it from happening.

Rape is notoriously hard to prosecute; this is true also in South Africa despite progressive legislation.

Where does this leave the victim, who is in a weak position versus the perpetrator? Do you report it to the police, undergo an invasive investigation, then find the perpetrator not only walks free but is able to threaten you?

Whether it is rape, sexual harassment or abuse of a position of power, there is an enormous amount of hypocrisy in our society. Remember Bill Clinton? His behaviour was at very least abuse of power, expecting sexual favours from people who looked up to him as president. And this was dismissed at the time as a right wing plot to discredit him (spot the irony: it was Clinton who pushed the Democrats well to the right of centre).

Then there is the mysterious case of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn whose rape case was not prosecuted, yet the alleged victim was given a massive out of court settlement. This too was alleged to be a “political conspiracy”. Rape is not a civil matter; in the not too distant past, in this country and in many others it attracted the death penalty. Who ever heard of an out of court settlement for a serious crime?

To South Africa: in 2006, then-deputy president Jacob Zuma was tried for rape. The case has all the hallmarks of a person of power crushing a vulnerable accuser. Even if he was not guilty of rape (as claimed by the judge), he was at very least seriously abusing his position and his attitudes to women were revealed to be deeply problematic.

So what did those at the progressive end of politics, the natural home of feminism, do? They rallied around him. Every formation of the ANC including the Women’s League and Youth League supported him, as did the Communist Party. Cosatu’s support was the weakest, with a statement that the law must take its course, but even they did not break with him once his attitudes were a matter of public record and joined the rest of the alliance in welcoming his acquittal. Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was also accused of rape in 2013, a charge that was reduced to sexual harassment, But what was most bizarre about this was how Cosatu claimed they were considering pursuing a rape charge against him. Excuse me? Aren’t criminal charges a police matter? Why is the organization involved in any way?

Once again, a rape or sexual harassment charge is framed as a political vendetta rather than something that must be dealt with in the strongest terms as a matter of course.

We cannot excuse EFF leader Julius Malema from this malaise; when he took control of the ANC Youth League 2 years after the Zuma trial, he backed the Zuma version of events.

With this sort of thing happening at the apex of progressive politics in South Africa, why is anyone surprised that there is a rape culture amidst a general culture of patriarchy? Where is the leadership? Answer: at the core of the problem.

Back home, a student today told me that one of the 11 on the notorious list was well known for his predatory attitudes by his fellow residence inmates. Why did they not call him to account? If you know someone is like this and say nothing (or worse, encourage this behaviour), you are complicit.

So what is to be done?

The real problem is that post-apartheid, we did not reconfigure civil society and interpersonal relationships to fit a new progressive democratic order. We have a great constitution, generally good laws and excellent public institutions – on paper. But these things do not work the way they are designed.

What is really needed is a new social compact, and one that is built from the ground up, not top down. One that is based on a new discovery of each other, that each person is entitled to self-worth and being treated as of equal value by all, that no one should be denied their dignity and that we do not build ourselves by tearing others down.

Ultimately we must change the apex power structure – but it will not help to replace those at the top with others who found their way there by the same logic. A grassroots campaign to establish the new normal – that predatory behaviour is not acceptable, that you do not define a person by their availability for sex, that everyone is entitled to physical and emotional integrity will make it impossible for those at the top to behave like self-serving jerks because they will be out of step with the rest of society.

We can start today. Whenever we hear someone talking up predatory behaviour, making light of rape, belittling someone else – or generally behaving as if any of this sort of behaviour is acceptable – call them to account. “Normal” is established as much by peer pressure as anything else. We can do it.

We can define the new normal.