Tuesday, 1 June 2021

How did it happen that what Michelangelo and Shakespeare did, got downgraded in education?

 I've written a bit about this before, so excuse me if it sounds familiar. It's on what we mean by 'interpretation' and 'knowledge'.

In loose talk, we are mostly sure what knowledge is: it's knowing 'stuff'. We see it displayed on TV all the time in terms of quiz shows with 'Mastermind' and 'University Challenge' being top of the tree. We also have a sense that there are some top people in society who must have a lot of knowledge and these are expressed or described when people use phrases  like 'brain surgeon' and 'rocket science'. These suggest that we have a common sense view that the people being brain surgeons or doing rocket science know loads of 'stuff' or even the most 'stuff' out of all of us. 

Let me park this for the moment and consider what runs parallel to this. If we stick with common sense and conventional wisdom for a moment, and ask what do people talk of as the greatest art, or the 'highest' art, it's not long before we reach the names of, say, Michelangelo or Shakespeare. (Please remember, this is not my hierarchy. I'm giving their names as examples of how these names are often given as examples of 'great art'.)

So the picture I'm painting here is of two parallel common assumptions: there is great knowledge and great art. Pressing on with these two 'great artists for the moment, we know that both of them devoted a huge amount of time and effort to interpreting other art in order to produce their art. Michelangelo's painting and sculptures, Shakespeare's plays frequently represent stories they knew or read or were told. Please take it as read that they each fed in their ideas and feelings and views of people they saw and knew around them into these re-tellings, re-picturings of other stories. 

We have elevated these two artists as having done great things. Understood.

In education, we prioritise the amassing of knowledge. I've read many justifications for this and I'm not arguing about this here and now. I'm raising a question: why is it that we praise and elevate what I'll call 'great interpretation' but we don't give it space and weight in education? Do we think that only a few people can do it? Do we think that when young people do it, it has no value? Or very little value? 

Further, when it comes to looking at stories - the kinds of stories that Michelangelo and Shakespeare interpreted - we do have a sense of what is appropriate to do with stories like that: we write essays, we do comprehension, we do 'unseens'. We don't create new art in the way that Michelangelo and Shakespeare did. Of course, there's a kind of irony in that schools are more likely to be places where we use essays and comprehension as a way of interpreting Shakespeare's interpretations (!) than doing painting, dance, ceramics, poetry or even drama. 

Lying behind this discussion, then, is a question about knowledge. Do people who interpret one art form with another art form use their knowledge of the first art form? Do they acquire or even create knowledge as they create the second art form? I'm someone who thinks so. I also think that we have grown to exclude this from kind of work from the curriculum without really thinking why we've done it. Now, with universities facing a 50% cut in arts subjects, I can see that if that happens, it will have a knock-on effect in secondary and primary schools: in effect, schools will say that that it isn't worth spending time on the arts because there's no visible or immediate outcome in higher education. (Of course not all arts are the kind of 'interpretations' that I've been talking about here. )

So this is meant as a provocation. Why have we reached a point where we have downgraded what is regarded as a high level activity when 'great artists' do it? How did that downgrading happen? Why did it happen? Does it matter? 

Free verse: what is it? What's it for?

People sometimes ask, what is the point of free verse? One answer I can give is that it's enabled me to write about difficult things in fragmentary thoughts, feelings and observations which a reader can then join up to make an in-close narrative as with my book 'Many Different Kinds of Love' or as single narratives as with 'Chocolate Cake'. Free verse also enables me to do what I call 'talking with the pen': write what are in effect spoken-word scripts for me to perform. They can be full of expressions and sounds we use in speech but don't use very often in formal prose or formal poetry.

Poems with meter are described as having 'feet'. These are units of meaning and sound that are repeated; the most famous in English is 'iambic pentameter' meaning there are five iambs per line, where an iamb is the sound of the word 'today'. (one unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable) So, 'today, today, today, today, today' is a line of iambic pentameter. Shakespeare wrote a lot of these lines but he is often irregular with it, as with 'To be or not to be that is the question.' (the '-tion' is extra!)
(There are of course many other patterns, some repeating the same foot, or using a combination of feet but relying on a steady beat, sometimes varying from line to line, and so on. Other names for feet include, dactyl, trochee, anapaest, spondee. )

Clearly free verse isn't like this because there is no regular pattern and no discernible 'feet'. So how to describe it?

One solution is to think of each line as a 'foot'. The poet makes a decision at the end of a line to start a new line. So in that sense, each line is a unit of sound and meaning. There are no rules about this. Most poets I know of do this by a mix of memory of other poems and thinking that it's 'time to start a new line' - and that comes mostly from the sound of that line (the 'prosody')but also from the look of it on the page. 

I said earlier why I find this a useful way of writing when I'm writing about difficult things but I also find it useful if I'm telling anecdotes or looking at things closely, or trying to say something ironic or pithy. It doesn't stop me using repetition, alliteration, some rhyme, some rhythms within the poem. Far from it, I often do. It is after all 'free verse'!

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Cummings, Covid, herd immunity and eugenics

For me the significance of Dominic Cummings' testimony today is first a feeling in the guts. He has conjured up a terrifying picture of this government, mired in incompetence, arrogance and hate. Of course he was part of this but we are looking at one of those rare moments in history when a member of a gang of government wrong-doers splits and spills the beans. Whatever that person thinks, it doesn't absolve them from what happened and the testimony may well be tainted with the same crazed ideology that infected the gang as a whole.

Another way to look at it, is to think of him as the mafiosi who sang. So, for me, what counts is the truth. We don't need to be distracted by Carrie's dog, and whatever levels of pique Cummings suffers from, following his exile to the wings. 

Now to the substance: for me, what counts the most is the herd immunity question. I have been tweeting and saying since at least February this year that we can deduce from statements in the public domain that this was the government's policy for January, February and the first two weeks of March 2020. Others have argued long before me, that this was the policy. Government advisers came on to TV and Radio in mid-March 2020 to urge the government to pursue that policy and they said it with the authority of people being listened to. Robert Peston appeared to be saying so in mid-March 2020 too. 

I'd like to make a slightly different point. It's about ways of thinking, what ideology informed the government's actions, what ideology informed their inclination to go for herd immunity? 

The clues are hiding in plain sight: Johnson's Greenwich speech in early February 2020, and the presence of two advisers partly influenced by eugenicist ideas, working close to the government.  In the speech, Johnson used a very strange phrase but he made clear what he meant by it: he said he was against 'market segregation' as a method of fighting the Coronavirus. He meant that he was against a public health response involving restrictions to trade. 6 weeks or so later, he had to eat his words big time. By then, the virus was embedded in the population. 

The two people with a touch of eugenicist ideas are Andrew Sabisky and Dominic Cummings (1). Many of us have said for decades that seemingly harmless comments about intelligence being inherited come from a sinister source. They are corrupted by an attitude to people, humanity, us. It sees us as divided permanently, inevitably, incontrovertibly by something deep in our bodies - our genes. And this hidden code renders some people inferior to others - and amongst the superior others are always the people telling this story about us. 

This is not of itself 'fascist' but following the behaviour of fascistic and totalitarian regimes - locally or nationally - we know that this is what has underpinned racism, attitudes to the disabled, the mentally ill and indeed anyone deemed to have a 'condition' that a regime doesn't like. It's a way of segregating us into desirable and undesirable, the human and the sub-human. 

To my mind, it's small wonder then that a 'solution' in the face of the pandemic that appealed to significant figures in government, was one that junked people deemed as less necessary, people who could be described as not needing our sympathy if they (we) died: the old, the sick, people with 'underlying health problems' (UHPs). What a great let-out that last phrase is. In one sense, we all have underlying health problems in that when confronted with one virus, some people are susceptible and when confronted with another, other people are susceptible. 

This use of language has been pernicious. It has become 'reasonable' for people to say, on hearing that someone died, 'Oh well, she was getting on a bit.' Or as the journalist Carole Malone put it to me, '...but you were 73' (when I got Covid). What?! What is 'but' about being 73? What is this world where being 73, is a 'but' or something 'less than'? That's how low we've sunk at a moment of crisis. 

We don't actually have a word for this. We have useful words like 'racism' and 'sexism' for labelling forms of discrimination based on other kinds of segregation and prejudice. There's the clumsy 'age discrimination' phrase but because of the rubbish about 'underlying health problems' this wasn't only about the old. 

So when it comes to Cummings, I haven't seen in his words or in commentators words any anxiety about this. I haven't seen a commentary on what corrupting ideas have spread through our society that has led people to think of the old, sick and that ever-widening circle of UHPs. I hope that it won't turn out to be significant or a watershed moment. I fear that it might. 



Monday, 24 May 2021

You say parody, I say satire, let's call the whole thing off

Some years ago there was a court case in the US where the owners of 'Dr Seuss' sued someone for using 'The Cat in the Hat' in order to create a satire (or a parody?!) about O.J.Simpson. (I'll post the reference at the end.)

The law in the US distinguishes between parody and satire for these cases. One is 'fair use', the other involves unfair use. Here's one part of the Judge's summary:

For the purposes of copyright law, the nub of the definitions, and the heart of any parodist's claim to quote from existing material, is the use of some elements of a prior author's composition to create a new one that, at least in part, comments on that author's works.... If, on the contrary, the commentary has no critical bearing on the substance or style of the original composition, which the alleged infringer merely uses to get attention or to avoid the drudgery in working up something fresh, the claim to fairness in borrowing from another's work diminishes accordingly (if it does not vanish), and other factors, like the extent of its commerciality, loom larger.

Id. at 580, 114 S.Ct. at 1172 (citations omitted). The Court pointed out the difference between parody (in which the copyrighted work is the target) and satire (in which the copyrighted work is merely a vehicle to poke fun at another target): "Parody needs to mimic an original to make its point, and so has some claim to use the creation of its victim's (or collective victims') imagination, whereas satire can stand on its own two feet and so requires justification for the very act of borrowing." Id. As Justice Kennedy put it in his concurrence: "The parody must target the original, and not just its general style, the genre of art to which it belongs, or society as a whole (although if it targets the original, it may target those features as well)." Id. at 597, 114 S.Ct. at 1180. The Second Circuit in Rogers v. Koons, 960 F.2d 301, 310 (2d Cir.1992), also emphasized that unless the plaintiff's copyrighted work is at least in part the target of the defendant's satire, then the defendant's work is not a "parody" in the legal sense:

1401*1401 It is the rule in this Circuit that though the satire need not be only of the copied work and may ... also be a parody of modern society, the copied work must be, at least in part, an object of the parody, otherwise there would be no need to conjure up the original work.... By requiring that the copied work be an object of the parody, we merely insist that the audience be aware that underlying the parody there is an original and separate expression, attributable to a different artist.

Similarly, the American Heritage Dictionary defines "parody" as a "literary or artistic work that broadly mimics an author's characteristic style and holds it up to ridicule."

What is interesting for me here is that in the US 'fair use' is parody because it is equivalent to a literary commentary (at least in part) on the original writer's work. Satire uses the original in order to make a commentary on something else altogether. 

Hold that distinction  in your mind and apply it to the case of the tweet which used a Getty image of Jeremy Corbyn reading 'Bear Hunt' to some children. In so doing, it doctored the image of 'Bear Hunt' by replacing a page of the book with the words 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' and in the text of the tweet as a whole, it printed a parody (or satire?) of the words of 'Bear Hunt'. 

Applying this American judge's ruling, we would have to work out whether the tweeter was parodying Rosen and Oxenbury's work or using it to satirise Rosen and/or Corbyn. If it was a parody (ie a commentary on Rosen's literature and/or Oxenbury's art - according to US law, 'fair use'. If it was a satire (ie not commenting on Rosen and Oxenbury's work) then it's unfair in US law - and therefore liable to be a breach of copyright. 

I'm not really concerned about the breach of copyright in the Rosen case (UK) partly because the lines that have been parodied are public domain. My text is based on a folk song. Other parts of the book are my copyright. However, the book as a whole IS copyright - as shared by Oxenbury and me. 

Imagine if we were in the US and I tried to use this distinction between 'parody'  and 'satire'. Presumably, I would claim that it was a satire, had breached the copyright of the book as a whole. What's more it had done so in a way that was hurtful to me. It is in effect what Americans call a 'racial  slur'. 

What do  you think? 

Please feel free to comment on this at twitter or Facebook. 

Here's the link to the Dr Seuss case: 


Sunday, 23 May 2021

Your mob, your cult...

I notice that one of the ways to criticise people who agree with me on twitter is to call them a 'mob' or a 'cult' and that if I tweet something and people agree with me,  that's because I've caused a 'pile-on', got my followers to...etc etc

It's an interesting picture. The 'mob' bit is a piece of dehumanising. A 'mob' is not a group of individuals with their own reasons for thinking or doing things. It's an unthinking mass. A 'cult' is another  unthinking 'mob', the reason being that they are such devotees that they can't think rationally or logically. Then, if it's me (or anyone else) who 'causes' a 'pile on' or who 'gets his followers to...' it's as if I or anyone else has magical powers to enlist the support of others. This denies every single one of such people any agency, any will of their own to think or do anything because they choose to.

It's not clear how I or anyone else has these magical powers particularly as these powers are seemingly exerted through the medium of twitter, a place devoid of instruments of compulsion. 

It's also a great way to deflect from talking about the substance of whatever is the subject of the discussion. Just complain that a few people are agreeing with someone else: dehumanise them and deny their agency. 

If someone found a picture of Corbyn reading one of Judith Kerr's Mog books...

 I wonder if someone found a picture of Jeremy Corbyn reading one of Judith Kerr's Mog books what they might have done to it...(the late Judith Kerr came from a Jewish family who fled Berlin and wrote many lovely children's books including some about a cat called Mog). Maybe someone who is sure that Corbyn is antisemitic could create a photomontage image by putting the title of 'Mein Kampf' over a Mog book and writing a text that parodied the text of eg Judith's book, 'Mog the Forgetful Cat' ...

Then when someone from Judith's family objected, loads of people who think Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic could defend the photoshopped image.
(For anyone wondering what this refers to: it's the story of a photoshopped image of Jeremy Corbyn reading 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'. The image shows the page of 'Bear Hunt' with the title of 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' on it. 'The Protocols' is a notoriously antisemitic (and fraudulent) text which fed into Nazi propaganda. The photoshopped image is accompanied by a parody of the text of 'Bear Hunt'. I resent the linking of me to the 'Protocols'. I've asked for the perpetrator to apologise to me. That's all. Nothing more. So far, no reply. But some people who think Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic have spent many hours on twitter defending the photoshopped image and telling me that because the overall picture of Corbyn reading the book to children is 'satire' then that's what the picture is 'about' and so I am wrong for thinking that 'my' part of the image is anything I should object to. Another reason why I am wrong to object is that the perpetrator is a Director of Labour Against Antisemitism. Apparently this is a get-out card for doing anything that could be construed as being antisemitic, though one of the Directors of Labour Against Antisemitism tweeted at the BBC to demand that I be taken off air because I am, he said, a 'racist ****er' (his asterisks) and another Director tweeted that he 'booed' me in the street but if his wife hadn't been there he didn't know what he might have done. All OK there, then. )

Saturday, 22 May 2021

Double Standards: a case of selective outrage

 Chapter 2 (Chapter 1 follows this)

A doctored image appears on twitter. The image is one from several years ago of Corbyn reading 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' by me and Helen Oxenbury published by Walker Books. The doctoring leaves everything intact, apart from the book, on to which is superimposed the words 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion'. Accompanying this is a parody of some of the words from the book. I reacted by calling it 'loathsome and antisemitic'. For people interested in knowing why these obscure words matter so much, please read the wiki entry on it or take my word for it that this was a highly influential antisemitic text fraudulently claiming to be by Jews who aimed to take over the world. Henry Ford published half a million of them, the document still circulates. It is possible to argue that it fuelled pogroms and the propaganda machine of the Nazis, including 'Mein Kampf'. 

I didn't say that the person who did this tweet was 'an antisemite'. I said that what had been done to our book was 'antisemitic'. I had a name for who posted this doctored image but knew nothing about him. 

The person has the name of his university on his profile. I wrote to him at his university address; I wrote him a private message on Facebook. No reply. I contacted his university. I did this because as him and me are both academics this might be a suitable arena in which to talk about this. At no stage did I seek to have him sacked or even suspended. I always made this explicit. Indeed, later when people on twitter responded by saying he should be sacked, I wrote repeatedly that I didn't want him sacked - not that my word has that sort of power anyway! Far from it. 

I also contacted Hope not Hate and the Jewish Chronicle, thinking that they would be horrified by this use of the title of 'The Protocols' on a book which has my name on it. I tried to think of analogies - putting the name of the KKK on to a book by a person of colour, perhaps more particularly an African American. Wouldn't that be equally outrageous? And equivalent.

In the kerfuffle that followed, the university got in touch with me. That's confidential for the moment but I consistently and repeatedly said on no account was I looking for him to be sacked and that I would accept an apology. 

I hope this gives some context for what followed: many people seemed to like the overall image of Corbyn reading our doctored book, as it was a satire of Corbyn's alleged antisemitism. Some claimed that there was no way of knowing that the book was connected to me. This requires people looking at the tweet, to not recognise the words of the parody, not recognise the book, not recognise the original picture before it was doctored, and even to claim that the tweeter didn't know this himself.  It's for others to judge whether 'Bear Hunt' is more known than others have claimed. 

There have also been arguments about how really the total image is an attack on Corbyn and is nothing to do with me. I have said repeatedly that I haven't addressed the matter of the total image. I am only and specifically talking about how our book has been doctored with one of the names of one of the most notorious antisemitic documents of all time. Just that ie the single matter of how I am affected by that image.

A good deal of effort has been put into trying to prove that I am not entitled to object to this use of the words and the doctored image taken from our book. 

It emerged in this that the tweeter in question is a director of Labour Against Antisemitism. (Please remember that). I didn't know this until people told me after my original tweet about how I found the doctored image 'loathsome and antisemitic'. 

Finally, no public condemnation of this doctored image has come from any of the bodies or individuals who have raised the matter of alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party has appeared. Not one. 

This surprises me. 

 I genuinely and naively thought that the doctoring was so obvious and blatant that bodies that might in other circumstances disagree with me or even hate me would be so appalled by this flippant use of the name of this famously horrible document that they would want to condemn it. After all, most of these bodies refer to me as 'Jewish' so it's a Jewish person being defiled. Horror? No. 

People will remember that during the furore about alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party, it was repeatedly stated that the victims of antisemitism are entitled to declare it: if you are Jewish and feel that people have been antisemitic towards you, then that's what it is. Victims' call, if you like. Clearly, this rule has not been applied to my situation. Double standards? 

Instead, I've received a stream of outraged tweets that have either a) approved of the overall image or b) falsely claimed that I had tried to get the tweeter sacked. Please note that. 

Chapter 1

Several years ago I was presenting a radio programme on legal language. This is in a programme I present. I wasn't being hired as an expert or contributor. One of the directors (not the one who doctored the image of Corbyn reading 'Bear Hunt') of Labour Against Antisemitism tweeted directly to the BBC saying that I shouldn't be allowed to do this. I should be taken off air because - and there was a set of reasons for this including that I am, he claimed a 'racist ****er' (his asterisks). 

In other words, he was demanding that the BBC sack me. 

Strangely, this too, has not received condemnation from any of the sources who have been outraged by alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party. 


So here we have an example of 'selective outrage'. When Rosen contacts the university of one of the Directors of Labour Against Antisemitism, this is supposedly my outrageous attempt to remove the tweeter from his job. (It isn't,  because I have repeatedly made clear that that is not what I was seeking by way of a response.)

When another Director of Labour Against Antisemitism explicitly tries to remove Rosen from his job, there is silence. No condemnation. No outrage. 

Double standards?

I assume from all this that I am in effect the 'wrong kind of Jew'. 

As always in the matter of the doctored image and the parody of the book's words (ie the tweet), I have said that I would be happy to resolve this matter, should the tweeter get in touch with me directly and confidentially.