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Guardian America

I didn't notice this, but the Guardian has launched an American service called (wait for it) Guardian America. After the Guardian's foray into Americana in 2004 with letters to Clark County, there was criticism of its attempt to influence the American political agenda ('Dear Limey assholes') and so it is perhaps a surprise to see them heading across the Pond.

I don't think, though, that this is necessarily an attempt to build an extension of the Guardian's imagined community in America; rather, I think that someone has looked at the server logs and seen quite a lot of hits coming from the US and decided to launch a tailored site, both in terms of content to draw more visitors and advertising package to draw more money. The Guardian's various non-UK mainstream offerings do quite well, I think - the stable includes Guardian Weekly, Guardian Monthly and Money Observer - and its online offerings are probably the best amongst the media in the UK and certainly on the left in the UK, with the great GuardianUnlimited website, Comment is Free, Guardian Abroad and G24.

I hope that Guardian America will be neither the Guardian for America, nor America for (UK-) Guardian readers, but what Americans who, if they were British would read the Guardian, would read. It is, of course, a bolt-on and not a replacement, but it will be interesting to British and other audiences to see things from an AmericoGuardianista's perspective. The lack of fanfare over here suggests so.


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disRESPECT - the disunity coalition

I have read in various places that RESPECT is having problems. It seems that George Galloway and the SWP have fallen out and now there are letters flying around. I suspect that some poor sods are having frequent 'emergency meetings', or whatever the correct term is, at unsociable hours.

I had the misfortune to come across the SWP through the Stop the War Coalition at LSE and learnt what should have been an obvious lesson - the only aims that the SWP and SWSS have in participating in things like RESPECT and the StWC are to increase the membership of the SWP. I'm sure that the motivation behind it is actually honest, founded on a belief that only the SWP way will save us all. Unfortunately, it knackers anyone else's attempts to do anything. The 'we are all Hezbollah now' posters are a case in point - they are pretty crap PR unless you're trying to show just how militant you really are and attract people who are already half-converted.

There is a point to this post - rather, a couple of questions. Firstly; why don't the SWP contest elections as the SWP and secondly; why is the SWSS kept so separate from the workers of the SWP-proper? I'd genuinely like some enlightenment.


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The Independent on 'our health crisis'

The Independent runs with a story on its front page on Julian le Grand's proposals to deal with the unhealthy state of the country. One of the suggestions is
The exercise hour

Companies with more than 500 employees would be required to designate an hour in the working day as the "exercise hour" and to provide facilities to enable workers to take exercise. Employees could then "opt out" by choosing not to participate, rather than opting in as they have to do now.

I've come across ideas like that before, in a previous employer. I remember completely voluntarily and of my own accord 'opting out' of taking the statutory twenty-minute lunch break and the eleven hours' rest per working day (as per SI 2002/3128). I think I probably signed away the 48-hour week when I started there. In a lot of companies, it simply wouldn't work; there would be no commensurate reduction in workload and 'the exercise hour' would mean you'd be home an hour later.





My love-hate relationship with Tate Modern continues with the new large-scale work in the Turbine Hall, Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo.

The Turbine Hall is a fantastic space that allows for some large-scale works that couldn't happen anywhere else. The excellent second work in the Unilever series, Double Bind by Juan Muñoz, was sadly underrated, but some of the other installations - notably the Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson and the Flaying of Marsyas by Anish Kapoor were recognised as being very successful. Their success is in part because they are large, dramatic and accessible; they offer plenty to be read into them and bring people in because they are unusual. They are easy to engage with but are not banal, facile or obvious. I'm afraid that Shibboleth is.

It would perhaps be useful to provide a description of Shibboleth. It is, of course, a crack, starting at the top of the main entrance to the Turbine Hall on the ramp and descending, while widening, deepening and branching along the length of the room. Looking into the crack, you can see the wire-reinforced concrete construction of the floor and the sides of the crack are not parallel, giving a convoluted and turbulent depth to its wider sections.

My suspicion is that we are meant to understand that racism can tell us something about our society by looking into the disfigurement it causes; that some people are very close to the split in society while others are so far way from it that it will not impede their course; and that the foundations of our society are shaky.

In reverse order, while the foundations of our society may or may not be shaky, the presence of a crack in the floor of Tate Modern has in no way affected the structural integrity of the building. I stood on the roof with nairy a tremor. Indeed, it gives the opposite meaning to the artist's intentions, saying that society can continue despite major damage to its foundations or that racism isn't really that big a deal.

Secondly, the position of the crack suggests that there are varying distances from racism or, indeed, any similar division in society. While people may not perceive themselves as affected by racism, its potency is in that it cuts across society; if you are not aware of it or do not believe it exists, you are even more likely to be stumbling across it while if you do 'see' it you cannot be removed from it. Equally, racism is not the only social schism and if such divides must be represented two-dimensionally on the floor of a gallery, a series of islands, some linked by bridges, formed by cross-cutting cracks would be more appropriate.

Finally, it is wrong - dead wrong - to depict society as a flat surface disrupted by the scar of racism. Racism, if it is anything, is the search for that very monoculture and I would not want to live in such a barren and featureless society that we can only learn more about it through its fractures; moreover, I do not believe that is so and those aspects of the Tate that deal with the fullness of the human condition are testament enough to that.

In short, the interpretation of racism and colonialism that Shibboleth gives us is simplistic. 'The history of racism', Salcedo writes, 'runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side'. This immediately implies that racism is not prior to modernity; given that the existence of nations implies national conflict, there is a good argument to say that racism existed well before modernity that is reinforced by looking at, say, the views held of the Macedonians by the Attic Greeks.

If we overlook that, Shibboleth still falls down. Racism is not a single divisor; nor is it just between the west and the rest. I won't go into any great length, but the complex racial relationships in the Spanish empire, with complex hierarchies of pensinsular, criollo, mestizo and indio1. To say that racism is just that is not only ignorant but dangerous - it allows no conceptual space for anti-Semitism or brown-on-black (and vice-versa) racism.

As I said at the beginning, the visions of racism, division and society that Shibboleth gives us are banal, facile and obvious. They are also wrong.

I would not for a moment say that Shibboleth should not have been attempted but it reminds us that the price of good art is bad art.

Sorry, Doris.




Songs in the key of B

I have stumbled and mumbled my way onto a meme on Chris Dillow's website - top ten songs beginning with a letter of the alphabet. I'm choosing the letter 'B'.

1. Brown Eyed Handsome Man - Buddy Holly and the Crickets
2. Bridge Over Troubled Water - Simon and Garfunkel
3. Blue Suede Shoes - Elvis Presley
4. Bleed Like Me - Garbage
5. Blitzkrieg Bop - Ramones
6. Bummer - Scarling
7. Ball and Chain - Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Company
8. Baby Please Don't Go - Muddy Waters
9. Bela Lugosi's Dead - Bauhaus
10. Berliner Messe - Arvo Part

The last one is cheating slightly, as it's in eight parts, but I'm having it anyway.


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Dear Mr Milburn

Dear Mr Milburn,

I've heard things of late. Apparently, you're not happy. Indeed, you're so unhappy that you're thinking of breaking your silence and saying how unhappy you are.

It would appear that a few days, perhaps a couple of weeks, of poor polling and difficulties for the Prime Minister mean that you feel ht need to declare, publicly, your dissatisfaction. Not long ago, the polls were strongly in our favour. Are we seriously to believe that just a short-lived and temporary phenomenon has caused you, relatively soon into Gordon Brown's premiership and with perhaps two years until a General Election, to break ranks, or do we believe that you are taking this, first opportunity to present itself to oppose the leadership of the party?

I would take this moment to remind you that many of the problems the Conservative Party have had since 1997 are due to senior figures within that organisation not being prepared to accept outcomes that do not precisely align with their expectations. Your pronouncement could be couched positively, but instead you attack, split and damage. It is my belief that further statements of the kind accompanying your website, 2020 Vision, would damage Labour in the way that the Hard Left did with their total unwillingness to compromise in the 1980s.

I have some experience of how the media work and I've come across that magical word, 'leaking'. I think you've leaked to the media your sentiments in the hope of drumming up a story. I don't know why; perhaps you've too much time on your hands and you're trying to recapture past glories when people paid attention to what you said or perhaps you are just incredibly tribal, with loyalties to a lost leader who will no more glad mornings see. Either way, I don't care; the drip, drip of such stories will damage and is damaging the Labour Party.

A period of silence on your part would be welcome.

With every best wish,

Dave Cole.

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Tasteless money-grabbing

The Tories have failed to prevent an £8.3m bequest to them being overturned on the grounds of mental illness. The details are unimportant; while I feel that it's unfortunate that the Conservatives felt the need to contest what seems, prima facie, a clear, if tragic, case. It is not, though, the Conservatives that, in this instance, I am accusing of 'tasteless money-grabbing'; rather, it is the system that forces parties to go after every last penny.

I am no advocate of state funding of parties, but the financial situation of the parties is parlous, opening them to undue influence from single individuals. A good start would be for the parties to stop advertising on billboards. Quite apart from, as Adlai Stevenson put it, that "the idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process", I'm not sure that it's effective; the image a party presents is developed over the parliament preceding an election, not in the few short weeks leading up to it. It may even be self-defeating, as people are probably smart enough to realise that if political parties believe they can secure votes with a clever logo or a catchy slogan, they're probably not going to be doing detailed, community-based policy formulation.

A rather better solution would be for the parties - all parties - to focus on membership. We could all learn a useful lesson from Howard Dean, who, with average donations of less than US$80 in the famously moneyed world of American politics, beat the previous Democratic record for single-quarter donations by US$4.5m (the previous record of US$10.3m having been held since 1995 by one William Jefferson Clinton). Beyond the financial factor, I am of the opinion that one friend saying that they are a member of a party and are voting for it is worth more than a party political broadcast and that a knock at the door - which requires motivated people to do the knocking - is worth more than an election address.

Of course, to do that, you have to show that it's worth the party member's while; I'd suggest, for various reasons that we're all familiar with, that this is not happening at the moment.


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