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Wednesday 26 June 2019

The Lehman Trilogy, Play, by Stefano Massini directed by Sam Mendes, National Theatre Production transfer to Piccadilly Theatre London, 10* out of 10

A revolving glass cube which functions as open plan office, outfitters shop and home space with silhouettes of towns and cities projected on a background giant screen; three eminently capable actors; this is all that director Sam Mendes needs to tell Stefano Massini’s version of the story of the three Lehman Brothers from Rimpar in Bavaria. The play charts their and their descendants’ rebirths and transformations, from arrival in New York to Montgomery, Alabama and back to New York to the family businesses’ meteoric rise, slow decline and sudden fall. Highly recommended.

In 1844 the 22-year-old Chayim soon to be Henry Lehman (Simon Russell-Beale), son of religious Jewish parents, emigrates from Rimpar near Würzburg in Bavaria to Montgomery Alabama where he opens an outfitters shop for ladies and gentlemen. Among other things, he sells cotton fabrics which are produced in the Northern States of the Union from the cotton grown by rich farmers and picked by their black slaves. He is soon joined by his brother Emmanuel (Ben Miles) and in 1850 by the youngest, Mayer Lehman (Adam Godley). With a peculiar internal dynamic of conflict and mediation among the three brothers, they are constantly striving to expand, extend and transform their business with an irrepressible entrepreneurial instinct to take advantage of the opportunities they identify in the New World. For them and their descendants, business and family life merge as the business moves from retail tailoring, via commodity brokerage to finance. As time goes by, the Lehman family climbs the economic and social ladder right to the top, but a significant element of business and reputational risk remains to the family name after transfer from family business to public company.

Italian author Stefano Massini has an unusual background, as his Roman Catholic parents sent him both to Italian state schools and Jewish academy. He speaks Hebrew (as well as Arabic) and captures the changing role of religious observance in the Lehman family knowledgeably and authoritatively. The Lehman Trilogy started as a radio play in 2012 and gained international fame in its Italian theatre version directed by the late great Luca Ronconi at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. It has been translated in more than 11 languages since. The very good English translation is by Mirella Cheeseman and the play is adapted by Ben Power.

Director Sam Mendes and his creative team, of which award-winning set designer Es Devlin, movement director Polly Bennett and Video designer Luke Halls deserve special mention, manage to make this single play entertaining and watchable. Lehman Trilogy is a single play; trilogy here refers either to the original three brothers or the three acts of the play or perhaps the three never- boring hours of its length. The Lehman Trilogy provides the three outstanding actors, who slip in and out of various roles with a significant and, no doubt enjoyable challenge. Simon Russell-Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley meet it brilliantly.

Interesting, entertaining and informative the Lehman Trilogy has what it takes to be one of the highlights of great new theatre in the 2018/2019 season. Don’t miss it.

Sunday 23 June 2019

Sweat, Play, written by Lynn Nottage directed by Lynette Linton, Gielgud Theatre, London, 7.5* out of 10

Black American woman playwright Lynn Nottage’s multi- award-winning drama charts the collapse of formerly stable and secure structures in America’s industrial rustbelt at the turn of the 21st century due to neoliberalism and globalization. I found it somewhat predictable and bleak, but Sweat, originally at the Donmar Warehouse now at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s Westend, is a high-quality production well written, directed and with strong acting performances by a talented ensemble. 

Reading, Pennsylvania in the period from the Bill Clinton to the George W. Bush Presidency. At the start of the play, it is 2008 we meet two young men who have just left prison having committed a crime involving violence and meet each with the local parole officer Evan (Sule Rimi). Jason (Patrick Gibson) is a young white adult donning white supremacist tattoos and angry with the world. Chris (Osy Ikhile) is about the same age black; he is angry with himself for having thrown away a chance of a good life through one act of thoughtless violence brought about by a feeling of powerlessness and frustration. We flashback to 2000 to a bar in the Pennsylvania rustbelt where a group of friends including Jason, Chris, their mothers, Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Cynthia (Clare Perkins) and their mothers' friend Jessie (Leanne Best) meet after work. Everyone except Jason’s father Brucie (Will Johnson) work at the local manufacturing plant and are members of the local union. This makes them privileged manual workers as they earn good salaries. The manager of the bar Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) also used to work at the plant until an accident led to him being laid off. The young Hispanic immigrant Oscar (Sebastián Capitán Viveros) helps with the work in the Bar. We follow the group of friends for the next 8 years as their comfortable economic situation gives way to increasing economic and social precariousness. This is caused by the politics of neoliberalism and globalisation during the Bill Clinton and George W Bush presidencies. The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, Canada, and the USA negatively affects the manual workers in the Pennsylvania rust belt. It undermines the bargaining power of their union as the owners of manufacturing plants can credibly threaten to move these to Mexico where wages and pension benefits are a fraction of those in the US. Wages are reduced and any attempts at strike action are costly for the workers and doomed to fail. Each of the people who used to be friendly drinking at the bar reacts differently to the threat of economic and social decline and doom they are facing and this leads to conflicts breaking out among them.

Sweat written in 2015 is the second play by the female black American writer Lynn Nottage to win the Pulitzer Prize. The first was the deeply affecting Ruined (2009) about women and rape as a tactic of war in the Congolese civil war. It premiered shortly before Donald Trump’s inauguration wit perfect timing showing how the high earning workers of the rustbelt who had always voted Democrat had felt abandoned by the Clintons, if not by the entire Democratic Party and felt that they had bigger problems of survival, alcohol, drugs than voting Democrat at a presidential election. Sweat looks sympathetically at these non-voters or even potential trump-voters of the rust-belt states and was the first play to deal with that subject. Under Lynette Linton’s capable direction, it was premiered in London at the Donmar Warehouse in January 2019 and won the Olivier Award for Best New Play. 

Sweat is indeed a good play with not only an excellent acting ensemble but also a very successful creative team.

For my own taste though it is a bit too predictable. Notably, it is all the white characters that give themselves up fastest, while the black and Hispanic characters (with one exception who has already tried but failed) are attempting to exercise some agency against the overwhelming forces of capitalism and globalization which threaten to crush them. Racial and gender-based resentments come to the surface once economic pressures are perceived as overwhelming. Nevertheless, I can recommend Sweat as the kind of high-quality well-acted play for which I will always gladly spend money and time in the theatre.

Lynn Nottage

Saturday 22 June 2019

Elif Shafak: How to Remain Sane in the Age of Populism, Pessimism and Political Uncertainty, organised by The Henry Jackson Society at the UK Houses of Parliament, 9* out of 10

At a recent event at the UK Houses of Parliament organised by the Henry Jackson Society and hosted by Lord Hylton, the novelist, academic and public intellectual provided acute analysis of the problems liberal democracy is facing as well as hope on how they can be addressed through dialogue and cooperation among all those who value democracy and the rule of law. Elif Shafak is a much-needed voice of reason and sanity. She is also an excellent speaker and listener.

Elif Shafak is a novelist, public intellectual and academic at home in Istanbul and London, with deep knowledge and a clear grasp of cultural, social and economic developments around the world. She grew up in Spain as the child of Turkish parents and moved to Istanbul as a child. Ms. Shafak has variously referred to herself as a cosmopolitan and as a Nomad. She certainly does not accept Theresa May’s statement in her speech to the Conservative Conference that citizens of everywhere are citizens of nowhere and says so; Moreover, Ms Shafak is clearly rooted in very specific local cultures of outward-looking cities Istanbul and London. 

At a recent event held at the UK House of Parliament, organized by the Henry Jackson Society and hosted by Lord Hylton, she spoke to an interested audience on maintaining once sanity in the age of populism.

In her talk, Ms. Shafak focussed on the threat posed to liberal democratic societies by ever more successful attempts to undermine the democratic institutions. In the past, western democracies were embedded in a legal framework that restricted what majorities can do and safeguarded a minimal set of rights of minorities, outsiders, eccentrics, and artists. This embedding is now being increasingly undermined by legal (though not always legitimate ways) of chipping away at these restrictions by means of majority decision. Often, what starts out as majoritarianism (the majority can decide more and more against the minority) then leads to authoritarianism. The institutional rules are changed by the majority such that it becomes ever more difficult to overturn it by democratic means. Hungary under Prime Minister Orban and in Turkey under President Erdogan have advanced along this path. Longstanding western democracies are not immune to such developments either: populist and authoritarian tendencies are clearly visible in the US under Trump and the rise of the populist right in Austria (where they were in government with their ministers having responsibility, for defence, the home affairs including security services), the Netherlands, Germany and so on. In Ms Shafak’s view, it is particularly regrettable that some mainstream parties have adopted as their policies certain demands made by populists thereby making extremist positions part of mainstream agendas. Ms. Shafak believes that this only strengthens populist extremes on the left and right.

Ms Shafak is concerned about the ever-sharper divisions that drive liberal democratic societies apart into ever more tribalist factions. In her answers to audience questions, she raised several concerns as well as pointing to possible ways of halting the dangerous rather fast drift towards authoritarianism and tribalism. Ms Shafak warns against the excessive optimism of the 1989 “end of history” rhetoric, but also against an excessive pessimism which leads to inaction and feelings of powerlessness and depression. She pleads for an attitude of critical or skeptical optimism which admits a belief in human agency and the possibilities of action by civil society. 

One important line of action is to further dialogue between different groups in society which have become ever more tribal partly through the effects of social media echo chambers. That includes the pro- and anti- Brexit camps in the UK, but also metropolitans who live in big cities vs. people who live in the countryside in many other regions of the world. The social media which were initially seen as exclusively a force for good, enabling civil society action against powerful oppressors now have revealed another side as facilities for whipping up strong negative emotions often with fake or manipulated material and shaping the local and international political discourse in potentially divisive and destructive ways. 

In her analysis of populism, Ms. Shafak follows ideas that are developed in Yasha Mounk’s book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It and How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. She is also careful not to see populism as a movement that is exclusive to the right as Yannis Varoufakis and other figures of the left sometimes like to claim.

Ms Shafak who also teaches at various universities is concerned about the tendency to “safe spaces” and “no platforming”. These should only be employed in cases of clear incitement to hate or violence. Otherwise unpalatable views must be allowed to be heard, especially in academic institutions even when they make many or some in the audience feel uncomfortable. For Shafak, Hilary Clinton calling potential Trump voters “a basket of deplorables” was a nadir of the Hilary Clinton presidential campaign and a signal error of judgment by the candidate.

Answering a question about the importance of identity, Ms. Shafak emphasised the importance of the multiplicity of identities. She also voiced concern about the rise of identity politics on the left, something she sees as a negative and potentially damaging development. The emphasis of the qualities and characteristics all human beings have in common is a better starting point than the potentially conflict-inducing view of humanity as divided into different tribes based on dominating identities some of which benefit from intersectionality while others do not.

Shafak sees interdisciplinarity not only among different academic fields but also across culture, academia and every-day social and economic life as an important remedy against the rift in our liberal democracies.

Ms Shafak speaks eloquently straightforwardly and with conviction for liberal democracy and the rule of law. She describes herself a someone on the left of the political spectrum. While she is open to economic liberalism she is strongly opposed to neoliberalism, i.e. the advance of the market mechanism into all areas of our lives. She believes that that the big social media companies dominating the internet (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) should be broken up as they have too much power and have not shown the commensurate level of responsibility; far from it.

There are issues Ms. Shafak touched on in her answers to questions from the audience on which I would have liked to hear more explanation. What kind of economic model does she favour as an alternative to the neoliberal capitalist one? Does she consider Germany’s social market economy neoliberal? Does she consider the current economic policies advanced by the European Union neoliberal? Ms Shafak also sees inequality as a major issue that must be addressed and mentioned that this also includes inequality of opportunity. The issue of inequality is often mentioned but I find reduction of inequality a concept that needs to be much better defined before it can be part of a practical political programme. For instance, I would like to hear more about the types of inequality that are considered harmful and those that are considered desirable because they are the basis of diversity in ideas and cultures.

Furthermore, even if harmful inequalities (presumably a great amount in inequality of income, wealth and access to resources which lend certain individuals and groups much more power and privilege than others) the methods with which such inequalities can be reduced remain unclear. It is often easier to reduce the excess by coercive means through presumably incorruptible people (Robespierre in the French Revolution for example) than increasing the income, wealth or access to privileges by the disadvantaged. 

I have yet to see concepts of tackling inequality that satisfy the left while preserving liberal democracy and a free society; forcible redistribution by the state does not seem an appropriately fair and legitimate mechanism. Clearly, there are differences about this in countries which are defined as liberal democracies, see for example The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Even in societies with lower levels of inequality of income or wealth, there are still very rich and privileged people; there also is a broad consensus that the advantages to all the state services financed by higher taxes are worth it. Yet in those countries which are considered exemplary (the Nordic countries of Europe, Switzerland, Japan) that consensus is not necessarily permanent as some recent developments in Nordic Countries show. Moreover, the German SPD’s campaign under Martin Schulz which was built around the central idea of increased “social justice” did not find any lasting enthusiasm among voters.

Elif Shafak, as well as being a gifted novelist and capable academic, is among the internationally leading public intellectuals fighting for the liberal democratic order and the rule of law. She is an excellent speaker and an active and careful listener. One can only be grateful that she is a rare voice pleading for the dialogue and against the divisions and tribalist tendencies which are wracking our societies. The hope is that from the ranks of her readers and students more such figures will arise and find creative, promising and humane ways to address the enormous challenges our increasingly interconnected international community faces.

Elif Shafak's latest book is:
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

Elif Shafak

Monday 17 June 2019

The Starry Messenger, Play, written by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Sam Yates, Wyndham’s Theatre London, 8* out of 10

Kenneth Lonergan’s Starry Messenger is not his greatest play but a solidly good one which I thoroughly enjoyed. Rosalind Eleazar shines as Angela, the star actors Elizabeth McGovern and Matthew Broderick give good performances. A very enjoyable evening at the theatre.

Kenneth Lonergan is a gifted author of plays for the theatre and the screen. Who could not have been moved by the heart-breaking “Manchester by the Sea”? In “The Starry Messenger”, Mark (Matthew Broderick) is a teacher of introductory courses on astronomy at a local observatory. He is passionate about astronomy and has his head in the Milky Way. His dream is to do actual project work in astronomy but it is apparently too late for that. On earth, Mark also takes everything he does very seriously and aims to please those around him. This can be somewhat trying and while he is outwardly calm and reasonable the varying demands some of his students, his mother in law as conveyed by his rather attractive wife Ann (Elizabeth Mc Govern), with legs reaching from earth up to planet Betelgeuse, and his teenage son which he tries to postpone indefinitely discussing or if forced to address, always to accommodate, sometimes lead to bottled up bouts of frustrated and barely suppressed anger. Into his life steps a new student, the attractive young Angela (Rosalind Eleazar), a single mother and trainee nurse, who at the local hospital has found a fatherly friend in the seriously ill Norman (Jim Norton). Tragedy, luck and potential happiness lie close together as their stories unfold. 

Kenneth Lonergan has written a pleasing drama with humorous and moving elements about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. This play will give hope to any man who is very nice, indecisive and easily led that his love life may become varied and fulfilled. But is there similar hope for the competent and decisive heterosexual middle-aged fellows in search of polyamory? I am afraid, we’ll have to wait for a future endeavour by Lonergan or another talented writer. Director Sam Yates and Production Designer Paul Hennessey have done a competent job. Matthew Broderick as Mark does what he needs to do in a role that demands mainly a single register of the henpecked frustrated yet always very nice guy. He is passive yet capable of making others want to help him. Elizabeth McGovern is very good as Mark’s attractive yet somewhat neglected wife Anne, Jim Norton very watchable as the wise elderly gentleman patient who flirts with his nurse and annoys his daughter. Rosalind Eleazar has the most interesting role and her performance is outstanding. Not a great play, but a well written and well played one to be watched and enjoyed.

Sunday 16 June 2019

Rosmersholm, Play, written by Henrik Ibsen directed by Ian Rickson, Duke of York’s Theatre London 8* out of 10

Ian Rickson and his team present a watchable and timely production of this dark Ibsen play supported by a strong acting ensemble.

Norway in the 1880s. Rebecca West (Hayley Attwell) is a resident at Rosmersholm, for centuries the family estate of the Rosmers. She has originally moved in as a companion to Beata, the wife of the head of the household and local Lutheran pastor, John Rosmer (Tom Burke), at the suggestion of Beata’s brother, Professor Kroll (Giles Terara), since Beata was becoming psychologically frail, but a year ago Beata has committed suicide by throwing herself from the bridge by the water mill. Kroll visits John Rosmer for the first time since the suicide. He has decided to be a candidate for the conservative Party at the upcoming elections and he seeks John Rosmer’s public endorsement for his party as Rosmer is influential as the scion of the foremost family and as the pastor. But Kroll finds that under Rebecca’s influence Rosmer has changed his past austere political views and is inclined to lend his support to Peder Mortensgaard (Jake Fairbrother), the editor of the progressive newspaper, whom Rosmer had previously named and shamed in front of his congregation, with tragic consequences for Mortensgaard. 

With its portrayal of political intrigue with the use of moral outrage over the past lives of opponents or those connected to them and the power of the media Ibsen’s play remains highly relevant. The strongest most interesting character in this play is Rebecca West. Although as a woman she has neither the right to be a candidate in elections nor the right to vote she has strong political convictions which she can only put into actions by her influence over John Rosmer. The male protagonist in Ibsen’s play often is deeply damaged in his emotional and sexual capacity by austere Norwegian protestant upbringing. Ibsen’s male characters would be a lot more content with a bit Danish Hygge and humour from their southern Scandinavian friends, although this may be to the detriment of the dark drama of Ibsen’s plays.

Thankfully Ian Rickson’s production is a straightforward story-telling of good quality with no tricks and heavy hinting towards contemporary parallels. Acting performances are of a high standard and the set by Rae Smith reflects the stifling atmosphere of Rosmersholm which suffocates attempts to bring in the fresh wind and the prospect of a life of purpose and contentment through political, moral and sexual liberation. Hayley Attwell as Rebecca and Tom Burke as John Romer have chemistry. Giles Terara (a black actor playing a Scandinavian bourgeois) is a lively and charismatic  Kroll.

An enjoyable evening in the theatre for those of us who like quality plays from the early 20th century in a straightforward production with excellent actors.

Wednesday 5 June 2019

English Journalist, Author, Analyst Paul Mason presents his new book Clear Bright Future, Kreisky Centre for International Dialogue, Vienna, Austria 7.0* out of 10

Paul Mason’s thought-provoking ideas on Humanism, small acts of resistance and the future of society; a talk in Vienna with a post-script on the clear and present danger of the Jew-hate in the UK Far Left and the Labour Party and what the author and radical activist thinks should now be done.

In his new book A Clear Bright Future, published in German translation by Suhrkamp, Paul Mason wants to bring back the values of the Enlightenment, reason and rationality with the human being at the centre of his preoccupation. Contrary to Claude Levy Strauss who believed that the ideas of the Enlightenment led to the Holocaust, Mason believes, as expressed in the English subtitle of his book that they lead to the defence of the human being. The German editor who must have read the book carefully realized that Mason is defending a philosophy that is centred on the human being but not as an individual but as humanity in general. Therefore, Suhrkamp changed the German subtitle to read: “in defence of Humanism”. It seems that German Suhrkamp editors are greater sticklers for accuracy than their English counterparts when it comes to describing on the tin what’s inside it.

Mason’s defence is not or not primarily of the human being as an individual but as a species-being (Gattungswesen), Karl Marx’ term for humanity in larger social groups and classes or humanity as a whole. As Slavoj Žižek likes to remind us: A Marxist is a person who loves humanity but hates people. Paul Mason lacks Žižek’s biting wit and self-deprecating sense of humour. He makes up for this by an apparently sincere and engaging passion for his ideas and an interest in connecting with his audience.

With the philosophical stance, which he propagates in his book, Mason sticks his neck out. Arguing for Humanism a bold approach that runs contrary to current trends in philosophy and academia. In Viennese-born philosopher Sir Karl Popper’s framework, Mason puts out bold hypotheses which are open to corroboration and refutation, as opposed to postmodernist double-speak. For that he deserves respect.

The primary enemy Mason identifies is the one and only form of liberalism he ever mentions: Neoliberalism. This, in his view, has destroyed and continues to destroy the lives of people in the lower classes in the West, so that today they are in a desperate state. He has adopted a definition of Neoliberalism as the advancement of the market into all areas of the economy as well as in all our social and private lives.

Mason dismisses the EU summarily as an enterprise that was made into a Neoliberal institution by Margaret Thatcher. For him, as for the rest of the UK radical left, she is the late wicked witch of the English south. The German social market economy (Soziale Marktwirtschaft) and its ordo-liberal tradition and similar ideas implemented in Northern European EU countries do not warrant a closer look as far as Mason is concerned.

A consequence of Mason’s Humanism is that it puts Humanity above the environment. So, he struggles somewhat to include current fashionable environmental ideas and I suspect he would not be against environmental engineering solutions to climate change problems. A second problem for potential leftist converts to the Humanist cause is that all Humanism’s key thinkers are men.

A further unusual aspect of Mason’s worldview is his support for the Catalan (nationalist) uprising and the Scottish drive for independence. Nationalism does not usually sit well with the left. And what today is a socialist-led nation might tomorrow become neoliberal or even Alt+right state. Here Mason doesn’t think like many in the continental European left who remember bitter experiences with the rise of nationalism.

For Mason the market is a giant black box algorithm that humanity in the Western World has handed over control to, and dragged the rest of the world mostly kicking and screaming along with it. This has led to disaster for the lower classes in the Western World.

Mason also strongly criticises the current Chinese government’s approach in a chapter called Reject the Thoughts of Xi Jin Ping. So, we won’t hold our breath while waiting for him to speak at a Confucius Institute in our neighbourhood anytime soon.

Mason is both nostalgic for the lived solidarity among the mining community of Leigh in Lancashire where he grew up in the 1960s. He sees an example of the ethics of virtue advocated by Aristoteles. He holds a deeply-felt grudge against Margaret Thatcher who in his view destroyed these communities and much that was good about the England of the 1950s and 60s. He speaks movingly about the experiences of his father in this regard.

Mason believes that the Western world is dominated today by western neoliberalism and that neoliberalism is in such crisis, so hollowed out, that not a major violent revolution, but small acts of resistance against Neoliberalism’s purely performative incorporation of progressive ideas will bring it to collapse.

Hearing him speak, one detects an interesting parallel to Christian evangelism. If you just do good deeds and come to church every Sunday you will not be redeemed, progressive liberal!
Only if you accept Jesus into your life, or in Mason’s case the Marxist-Humanist world view will you truly find forgiveness for your Western liberal sins.

The clear bright future for mankind that Mason envisages is were humanity, i.e. the Marxian species-being, takes control of the great-big-algorithm that is the market and all the great-big-algorithms which the age of digitalization and Artificial Intelligence has brought and will yet bring.

Alienation is the consequence of working and if humanity takes control of the algorithm rather than lets the algorithm take control of it a clear bright future where machines do the work and human beings are kind to each other, democratic and equal beckons.

How can we make the “clear bright future” come about? By individuals and groups making use of their human agency and refusing the performative nature of the neoliberal life through small daily acts of resistance. What might these be? An example: treat your Starbucks barista like a human being rather than as a machine when you buy your coffee there. I sure can live with that, and suspect so can many bourgeois liberals.
Mason is an engaging speaker who seems keen on explaining his ideas and sincerely connecting with his audience. He attacks theAlt+right in America and is intelligent enough to not underestimate the intelligence of its adherents and leaders. On two occasions in his speech, he mentions Jewish themes. To emphasise the evil of the US Alt+right he mentions the shouts of the Charlottesville protesters “Jews will not replace us”. When he comes to mention the importance of small acts of resistance, he mentions the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. It was a heroic act of resistance whose end in the death of those who directed and performed it was always the almost certain outcome.

Following his talk, Mason is interviewed by Robert Misik. Misik’s questions are answered by Mason with relatively long monologues. Perhaps Misik is also not quite comfortable in English. His questions are, like humanity described in the late great Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, “mostly harmless” almost fawning. Probing they are not.

Paul Mason is welcomed as a friend and admiration for him and the UK left by Misik is palpable. No probing questions here about his support for Catalan and Scottish nationalism here. And why would the Corbynist left to which Mason belongs support national self-determination in those countries but call Jewish self-determination as expressed in the state of Israel “a racist endeavour from the start of its creation”. This even though the Zionist Po’alei Tzion Union were founding members of the Labour Party?

Robert Misik opens the floor for questions from the audience. First, a lady who has some critical questions to ask him about the lack of feminism and women in his ideas of Humanism makes a pertinent point.

Then I get my chance to gently break into the comradely atmosphere of the event and exercise the critical faculties which my years as a student of the social sciences at the London School of Economics has inculcated in me.

I have heard Paul Mason speak at the London School of Economics a few weeks back, and he adapts his speaking style to who he thinks his audience will be. At LSE, his talk contained the occasional “fuck” and “bullshit” when describing people and ideas he did not like. A way of connecting to a younger international audience, no doubt. In elegant Vienna with a more aged audience none of that.

Here a from memory a summary of my question and Paul Mason’s answer.

In early1945 while the Jews of Europe were murdered by the German and other Nazis in Auschwitz, Treblinka Maidanek and other death camps as well as outside of these, George Orwell wrote about Antisemitism on the Left. In his essay Antisemitism in Great Britain, he highlights that the people he speaks to deeply dislike Jews because of what they are and do. They deny, however, that they are anti-Semitic. They say Hitler and the Nazi-party are anti-Semitic and they are the enemy, we on the other dislike the Jews and believe that they do for good reasons. Orwell points out that he himself finds it attractive to dislike the Jews and so has some empathy with that view but he also realizes that it is a wrong view Orwell would like to know why it has such a strong hold over people, even people like him who know it is untrue. Here a link to his article. 

The Labour Party has a “both-and” strategy with respect to Jew-hate that is not dissimilar to the FPÖ’s in Austria: The Labour Party is theoretically against racism including speech acts, threats and physical acts of Jew-hate. In practice, however, almost every day prominent members of the Labour party and Corbyn-supporters inside and outside the Labour Party perform a lot of Jew-hating acts. For instance, many women Labour Party Members of Parliament who are Jewish and not Corbynist are constantly inundated with Jew-hating abuse by Corbyn supporters. Would Mason recommend that other European Leftist parties that are currently in trouble like the German SPD and the Austrian SPÖ also adopt this both-end strategy towards Jews?

In his answer, Mason, who is familiar with George Orwell’s essay, mentions three sources of Jew-hate in the Corbynist left in the Labour Party. One is that the poor and downtrodden in the UK are suffering a lot of oppression from the neo-liberal system. They do not, however, identify this as a systemic problem. They want to identify the people who suppress them rather than the system, among the international billionaire business elites and these people are often Jewish. This, secondly, gives rise to a lot of conspiracy theories; it is necessary but difficult to fight against these. Thirdly, within the UK Labour Party, there is an age-old fight between Jewish Anti-Zionists on the one hand and Jewish Zionists on the other. This has extended to large swathes of the party exceeding in importance and in the tone of the debate its actual proportions. Mason thinks that it is important that the British left not be deflected by the Zionism debate. There are more important issues at stake. He also wants to have a more active education about the Holocaust in the Labour party taken groups of Labour Party members to Auschwitz and Maidanek. In his remarks, Mason also says Corbyn is not an anti-Semite.

I only have the right to one question, which is fair, so I cannot probe how sincere Mason is in his views. What does he mean by Anti-Semitism? After all the Corbyn supporting Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said recently “Hating all the Jews in Israel is not anti-Semitic”. It is, however, certainly Jew-hate.

On the day Mason speaks in Vienna, there are numerous reports in the news dealing with tweets and tape recordings expressing Jew-hate by members of the Labour Party including National Executive Committee Members like Mr. Willsman, the Labour Party candidate standing in the by-election in Peterborough and member of the left and talk show host for Rupert Murdoch George Galloway “there will be no Israeli flag on the Cup” Galloway triumphantly writes in his hateful message alluding to Tottenham’s Jewish connections in North London. The assertion that one can be virulently anti-Zionist without veering into vile Jew-hate may work in theory but turns out to be untenable in practice. Just read the comments by Corbyn supporters in the Independent and Guardian on-line when these issues are part of an article in those papers.

Given that Labour Party this week became subject of an official investigation by the statutory UK Equality and Human Rights Commission Paul Mason’s sincerity maybe born of legal necessity rather than personal conviction. Mason had mentioned earlier that he had recently worked in the theatre. And as someone once said: “The most important quality in the theatre is sincerity and if you can fake that you have really got it made”.
Nevertheless, Paul Mason appears sincere if incomplete in his response and ready to discuss and engage.

I wanted to end my report on this hopeful note but unfortunately for the international far left, but unfortunately I cannot.

A young Austrian man asks to speak and starts to sharply question Mason. I am very surprised at your response, he says. Why do you accept that there is Jew-hate in the left of the UK Labour Party? Are you not aware that all this is trumped up charge by Blairites and agents of the Israeli government who want to stop Jeremy Corbyn? This has been proven by Al-Jazeera I can show you the sources, the young man says.

Mason seems a bit uncomfortable but looks like he has heard this before. Not wishing to lose a potential left-wing Humanist just because he spouts conspiracy theories, Mason says that what the young man says may be true but doesn’t change what he Mason said about the subject even if it were.

I, on the other hand, leave the event with the feeling that the Jew-hating acts of the Labour Party left are spreading their poison internationally. Someone once said: Primary Antisemitism is the anti-Semitism that led to Auschwitz, secondary anti-Semitism is the anti-Semitism because of Auschwitz. Similarly, the Jews who fight the vicious Jew-hate widespread in the left are the cause of Jew hate (they are dubbed Blairite Jews, Trump-loving Jews, colonialist slave trader Jews, etc.). It looks like the UK’s Labour Party’s left and their allies’ poison of Jew-hate has now spread internationally. This is not the time for dropping one’s guard to the Jew-hate of the Alt+right and the Far Left.

Robert Misik (left) and Paul Mason 

Small editorial changes were made on 5 June 2019 at 17:45 to my paraphrasing of Orwell's essay: Antisemitism in Great Britain.