December 31, 2006

Go Forth and Philosophize

I have the honour of running this month's philosophy carnival which is out on 8th January- so I need some of your most eloquent posts- there is a submission form here and you just go down and click through to philosophy carnival and submit- or you can even email me it at the email address in my profile. Anyway anyone is welcome to submit- I'm not a philosopher so anyone can submit no matter what your qualifications- no matter what your expertise- anything is acceptable, though it has to be vaguely philosophical (writing about how George Bush is thick is not philosophical unless you point out he misquoted Descartes at the same time!). Anyway send me stuff, and I'm bound to include things like the recent debates on God at the imagined community and other blogs- but there may be things I've missed so send it in.

In the spirit of Spinoza, go forth and philosophise and bring me back the results.

The execution of Saddam

I won't post anything else on the execution of Saddam Hussein. The two questions of the morality of capitol punishment and Saddam's crimes have been thoroughly explored by many over the past couple of days. This article by Juan Cole is in my view essential reading- one wonders whether as he argues finding a crime Saddam committed against Sunnis and not executing him on this particular day (given its position in the Sunni ritual calendar though not the Shia) would have been better. Cole asks good questions, not about the wider issues of Saddam's guilt and punishment, but about the specifics and how those specifics have inflamed the situation, making Saddam's trial a possibly more ethnically charged event than it should have been. The occupation of Iraq has been less often wrong and more often just badly handled- Professor Cole has just pointed out yet another way in which this is true and all these small errors may add up to the failure of the overall policy.

(There is a discussion of the point about the day in the comments which might be interesting in this context as well. I think my wording here is a little unclear- according to Cole the Shia and Sunni celebrate the same festival but Shia on Saturday and Sunni on Sunday- I should have clarified that in the post above- I apologise sometimes blogging has the danger that you write without the qualifications so sometimes you make errors despite not making them if you see what I mean- I'm willing for Cole to be corrected about the date difference, he is a Professor of Middle Eastern Studies so for the moment I'm going with him but if anyone has any contributions to make that'd be grand).

December 30, 2006


James has put up yet another excellent blogfocus- it advertises as simple and homespun but there is a lot of shrewd intelligence from some great blogs on it.

The uses and abuses of Genghis Khan in History and Politics: A theme explored in the Granite Studio

Staying on the theme of my last post about Kirkuk, I've just come across this wonderful post about the use of the memory of Genghis Khan to legitimate Chinese imperialism. Its not often I do this and won't make a habit of it but this post illustrates the way that history can be used by political groups in such an interesting and convincing way that it is indispensible. I have heard lectures on the subject which draw back the use of Genghis Khan through the centuries, the Japanese in World War Two used him as an icon of their empire and China does today. I would add only one note to the Granite Studio's description- that Genghis is a conqueror who overawed the West, consequently to Asian powers, insecure in what they see as a recent world of Western imperialism, turn to him to reinforce their credentials as great powers as against the West. Its a fascinating post on a subject which intrigues me- go and read it.


Its often easy to forget that there are three different groupings in Iraq- the Shia, Sunni and Kurds. We concentrate on the Sunni and Shia and the different dangers that they represent and often forget the Kurds. The Kurds in general have been allied with the United States and coalition in Iraq, in general they have been much the more peaceful of the three major groups inside Iraq. Having said that there are two major reasons why the Kurd presense exacerbates the problems of Iraq- the first is that any strong Kurdistan or any break up of Iraq into a Shia zone, a Sunni and a Kurd would lead to Turkish intervention. Turkey looks very askance at the Kurds because as an ethnic group they stretch into south eastern Turkey and have posed a terrorist threat to the state there. Human rights abuses are common from Turkish forces and an independent Kurdistan would pose a danger to Turkey in providing its rebellious Kurds with a locus of inspiration for their own struggle. Similar things can be said to a lesser extent about Iran.

The other major source of potential problems in the Kurdish sector is Kirkuk. Kirkuk is an emensely valuable city, sitting on a large oil field which at one point was majority Kurdish. Over the last fifty years, Saddam Hussein and his predecessors installed Arabs into the city and noone is quite confident who now dominates. Nouri Talabany, a Kurd MP of the the Iraqi National Assembly, gives some evidence for my worries in this article from the Middle East Quarterly. Talabany reccomends nothing like the ethnic cleansing going on in parts of Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, but he does argue that the Kurds should have primacy amongst the groupings in Kirkuk, he wants the Kurds to take the political lead.

He grounds this desire upon a presumed population composition- he may be right but no census has been taken in Iraq, in the elections the Kurds won 60% of the vote in the province which includes Kirkuk- his other arguments are based on the Kurd's historical claim to Kirkuk. I always blanche slightly at historical claims- the truth is that humans have moved around for centuries so that many peoples share historical claims to any site. Interestingly Yücel Güçlü makes a historically based case for Turkoman control of Kirkuk in the same issue of the Middle East Quarterly. Güçlü does work for the Turkish government, so there may be an element of mischief in what he writes, but it illustrates the problem with claims over Kirkuk in a present day Iraq where people are moving around very swiftly. Historical claims in this context are always very difficult particularly in an area where I suspect nationalities are invented and projected backwards rather than actually existing in the era from which ownership is now being claimed.

I don't want to get into a debate about who owns Kirkuk. But the competing Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman claims to it illustrate the difficulties of splitting Iraq up into different zones. We all know about the difficulties in the South and we are all aware of ethnic conflict there, but if we were to split Iraq, we would risk opening up ethnic conflict in the north, a region that has until now been relatively stable. Civil War has flared up in the South, the North could easily join it and if you think its bad now, that would be much worse.

George Bush in listening mode

One of the interesting things about this experience is that there are a lot of ideas and opinions and I want to make sure I hear from as many of those ideas and opinions as possible

James Higham has been making a list of the wisest sayings of G.W.Bush, I think that should go in there- this clip of Jon Stewart from which I got that quote must be watched as well- afterall otherwise you'll never understand my title- Stewart does even better than he normally does.

Oh by the way here is another gem from everyone's favourite president

its in Saudi's interest, its in Jordan's interest, it's in the Gulf coast countries' interest, that there be a stable Iran, an Iran which is capable of rejecting Iranian influence

Its right at the end, after Colbert and Stewart do their normal stuff, and to be fair he did mispeak, he does correct himself and replace Iran with Iraq- but still its a quote that deserves time and place on this blog.

December 29, 2006

Iranian Oil

It seems from the Washington Post quoting Roger Stern, an economic geographer from Johns Hopkins, is running out of accessible oil- to the extent that if the current patterns of underinvestment continue, there will be no Iranian oil exports by 2015. Its an interesting thesis- Stern puts this down directly to government action. He is quoted by the Post as saying that

What they are doing to themselves is much worse than anything we could do.

Its an interesting quotation and attests to what I beleive is the fundamental weakness of the fundamentalist regime in Iran. Many of us fear Iranian nuclear weapons precisely because the regime seems illogical. But on the other hand the very illogicality of the regime, the reliance on theology over either economics or empirically based analysis, is a weakness and will in the long run lead to the collapse of that particular form of state in Iran. That brings its dangers with it of course- but the image that we have in our heads of a strong Iran standing up to the US and bullying the rest of the Middle East maybe only temporarily relevant. Rather in my view we should see Iran as a weak bully, attempting to bluster its way into the modern world with rhetoric and nuclear weapons, unstable and prone to lash out- this is no superpower to threaten us, rather an unstable state run by people whose training is in religious eschatology not exchange rate movements.

The policy implications of this can be discussed another time- but I do think its important that when we do, we look on Iran as it is not as it might seem to be.

Hat-tip to Bereft for providing the link to the Washington Post Article.

Super Political Geek

I'm afraid I just took the Guardian end of year Politics Test and got 21 out of 25 questions right, I hang my head in shame- I'm not sure what I'm going to get more rebuked for round here- getting four wrong or getting 21 right.

Personally I'm more deeply ashamed of the latter- I know far too much about Liberal Democrat pop preferences for my own good.

I need to know more Locke and less Lembit.

Hugh Hewitt on Blogs

Its not often that I agree with Hugh Hewitt- and I don't totally agree with some of the examples of good blogs he offers here- in my opinion Little Green Footballs very seldom provides anything worth thinking about- but what he says in this column is very good and takes down the kind of attacks that have been recently made on the blogosphere. Hewitt points out that a blog is

the blogosphere is nothing except a technology. It’s like a printing press. All that matters is who’s working on it.

He extends his points using examples to back his arguments- suggesting the names of experts who blog, many of whom I don't agree with. But the general argument is right. The blogosphere is just a platform, what matters is those who use it, some use it well others don't- there are great blogs and awful blogs, there are great columnists and awful ones- all you can do is go out there and find out the ones you can trust and find interesting.

People's Panels- what kind of democracy

Chris Dillow gives a cautious welcome to the idea of People's Panels summoned together from what I can glean to perform an advisory function for ministers. He is right to give the idea a single cheer. There are numerous problems- many of which he outlines and which I don't want to rehearse again here. One interesting issue is the way that such a panel will be formed.

One of the interesting things about these groups is the way that they parallel the reliance upon focus groups of new Labour electioneering. Wonderfully satirised at times by the Thick of it which demonstrated how ministers select the conclusions they wish for from the focus group and run by the intellectually challenged Lord Gould, the logic behind the focus group was that a group of individuals drawn to represent various groups within a population could in a small group present a simulcram of the whole population- thus they provided a tool for testing arguments, policies and ways of thinking upon the electorate. Frank Luntz has done programs for the BBC using this technique to test potential leaders of Tory and Labour parties before voters. There are problems in my view with this method- how statistically significant a sample of 30 is for testing a population of 60 million has yet to be proved conclusively to me.

The wider problem though is that the voice of the focus group or people's panel can quite easily acquire a spurious legitimacy- just because a group of thirty represents the people in terms of ethnicity or sex does not mean that it represents the people's views. Diverse does not neccessarily mean democratic, representative does not mean representatives. There is a difficulty here of rhetorical slippage especially when the people chosen for the panel are chosen- the ancient Athenian manner of choosing by lot endorsed comically by G.K.Chesterton in A Napoleon of Notting Hill is much more democratic because its less subject to abuse and less likely to screen by an (even unacknowledged) bias towards one opinion or another. Even so the error rate in representing the diversity of view within the community would be large.

The People's Panel deserves a single cheer- opening up the processes of politics and bringing in non-elite citizens (ie non-lawyers, lobbyists, Parliamentarians etc) to question some of the established pieties of political discussion. But it should not be mistaken for a representative institution in the sense that Parliament is, panels that aren't elected are not neccessarily democratic. They give all the advantages of a diverse voice- ie another voice which can force elected politicians to reevaluate unthought through assumptions- but they must not be granted equivalent actual or more likely rhetorical force to the decision taken by an elected politician.

I've clarified this slightly in the comments below- City UnSlicker has given his very cynical and clear point of view over at his blog- there is a lot to what he says. I suppose what I've done above is tried to address the idea on its own terms- what it could contribute if used properly. City Unslicker on the other hand puts it in the context of a very cynical and media savvy government so is less willing to credit it with any merit.

Republican Realignment

Amongst the more perplexing moments during the period from 2001-5 when the Bush Presidency seemed to soar in American public opinion, born aloft by gusts of air from the Middle East and "activist judges", was the continued use of the idea of a Republican Realignment. Conservative Commentators like Fred Barnes argued that the Democrats would not be able to win again, they suggested that the United States would see a permanent Republican majority. The elections of 2006 might make one suggest the opposite- that the Democrats have been swept in to dominate again forever.

Rather what has happened, as this sane and sensible article from the New York Review of Books makes clear is that the small Republican majorities of the mid-90s and early 2000s in Congress have been replaced by small Democrat majorities. That the Republican gridlock on the Presidency that Barnes discerns was never much in the early 2000s, Bush won with just about half the votes in both 2000 and 2004. The circumstances having changed Republicans have lost a temporary advantage, temporarily. There is no permanent majority in American politics- just at present a permanent plurality. Indeed in a functioning democratic policy, you would expect given human frailty, the natural tendency to arrogance after long periods of power and furthermore the arrival of the corrupt and climbing into successful political parties that this would be true.

Play it again in Parliament

Well, well, well it seems that some of our MPs have a good taste in movies. LibDems may split for Austin Powers baby, Tories may ooh matron go for Carry On Movies and Labour Politicians may go oop north for their entertainment with Brassed Off. The first two choices show interesting taste in entertainment or rather maybe interesting absense of taste (whoever said politicians were adolescents who hadn't grown up!), but politicians are at their best when non-partisan and the overall choice of MPs is one of the most amazing films ever made, apparantly in this survey, MP's favourite film of all time is Casablanca- hence all the pictureson the website.

To which the only response, has to be play it again.

If you've never seen Casablanca, give it a chance its an amazing film- one of the true greats from a great Hollywood decade. Sorry this is one of those films which is amongst the loves of my life. Its just amazing- go watch it.

December 28, 2006

Gerald Ford, Realism and US Foreign Policy

Ford's death has made several in the American media ponder about his place in the world and where he sits. Its interesting that the careers of both Cheney and Rumsfeld began under Ford's presidency and that men like Milton Freidman who couldn't get access to Richard Nixon could to his successor. That may though be as much a comment on Nixon's unconventional take on politics as upon Ford's more conventional understanding of Republicanism. Other conservative commentators have played much upon Ford's position as the last of the moderates, the man challenged by Reagan and later replaced by him as the Republican hope for the Whitehouse.

More interesting perhaps is this interview between Bob Woodward and Ford in 2004. Bill Bennet has already hit the roof at the National Review, condemning Ford's behaviour as neither courageous, decent nor manly. Ford, according to Bob Woodward's tapes, condemned Bush's invasion of Iraq. He condemns it with quite a forensic analysis of the situation- Ford's condemnation is based upon two arguments. Ford's first argument is a traditionally realist argument, that foreign policy is based upon national interest or self interest and consequently, in Ford's words, that

I just don't think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security.

But of course the war wasn't merely an operation to make the world safe for democracy- it was an operation to make the world safe from Saddam Hussein. Ford disagreed with that angle to, beleiving according to Woodward that the publicly available evidence didn't warrant invasion.

Indeed according to Thomas DeFrank who has also published a posthumousinterview Ford beleived the Bush administration should have been honest and dropped the Weapons angle for justifying the invasion. He said to DeFrank that he thought that Bush should have made it clear that

"Saddam Hussein was an evil person and there was justification to get rid of him," he observed, "but we shouldn't have put the basis on weapons of mass destruction. That was a bad mistake. Where does [Bush] get his advice?"

Ford's comment to DeFrank and his comment to Woodward are not contradictory- the first argument is that invading for democracy was not a good idea, the second is that if you are going to invade for democracy, you are best off being honest about it. In a sense Ford argues that the US policy is dishonest and once its dishonesty is revealed its motivations are wrong, it would have been better to have been honest about those erroneus motivations, better still not to have accepted naive pro-democracy arguments.

Working this out is important because the Iraq war justifications have been so intertwined and confused by so many proponents and opponents of the war that its hard to separate them any more from each other. The lucid argument made by Ford with its two prongs may be right or wrong, but it is coherent as an argument against the war and it rises from a perspective which has been called realism- the idea that there are international states, their borders must be respected and that their rulers and the American people deserve honesty. You may disagree with any of those positions (and I to be honest am unsure about some of them myself) but President Ford's shot across his successor's bows is at least an acute and thoughtful one.

Presidential Debating

Presidential Debates in American elections have assumed an importance over the years that makes them a key part of any campaign. Famous moments like Lyold Bentsen's I knew Jack Kennedy, you're no Jack Kennedy quip in the Vice Presidential Debate of 1988 or Ronald Reagan's "There you go again" in the Presidential Debate of 1980 have become part of American history. Not to mention of course the most famous debate of the lot- between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 which supposedly won a tight election for JFK by showing him at his youthful best as opposed to what seemed to be a tired Vice President.

Its fascinating therefore to find this set of interviews from PBS with all the participants they could find in debates going back to 1976. There are lots of interesting moments, both Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle thought they were over prepared for the debates. John Anderson, Admiral James Stockdale and Dan Quayle reflect on the difficulty of the debate format in accomodating a third party candidate. Perhaps the most surprising aspect is how some politicians, notably George Bush, recoil from the whole idea of a debate, Bush described the debates he was involved in thus

Its show business, Jim, its not really debating or getting into detail on issues or what your experience has been. Too much prompting, too much artificiality, and not really debates. They're rehearsed appearances.

It may be show business, but its extremely important show business, and very interesting to hear about it from the candidates themselves.

December 27, 2006

Isabel De Madariaga Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible's reign over Russia has become notorious- whether through Eisenstein's films or a simpler pop-culture knowledge, most of us know his name as a feared Eastern tyrant, like a Russian Genghis Khan. His life has been reduced to a series of massacres, the killing of his own son foremost amongst them and Russia in his reign to a barbaric autocracy sitting outside the norms of civilised humanity. We read Ivan's character and his nationality through the propaganda distributed by Poles and Germans who opposed his policies in central Europe particularly in Lithuania.

Its worth though thinking about Ivan in a more historical vein and reinterpreting his world in that light. Firstly its worth doing a bit of reorientation- the world we know and the world Ivan knew are very different- throughout Ivan's writings religion emerges as a vastly more important and more current form of thought than it does for any of us today. Simply put, like other figures around his own time (Oliver Cromwell for one) Ivan may never have read a book that was not related in some way to either the bible or Church Fathers. His entire world was moulded by the thinking and imagery of the Old and New Testaments. Secondly its worth understanding and just pausing to look at the geography of Eastern Europe in the period we are concerned with- I have here an imperfect map of Europe in 1600 which may help us understand how things have changed since the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

This map obviously only covers the Western borders of Russia but to the East in Ivan's reign lay the remnants of the Khanate of the Golden Horde of Mongols- the Khanates of Kazan, of the Crimea and others and to the South lay the Ottoman Empire and Persia. Ivan's Russia was a place just emerging from two kinds of suzereignity- during his predecessor's reigns the power of the Mongols had evaporated and Russia had become independent of them- Ivan consolidated this conquering Khanates in the early part of his reign. In 1453 Russia's ecclesiastical dominance by Byzantium ended when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans- Ivan's reign sees the full emergeance of Russian declared leadership over the Orthodox world- symbolised by Ivan's claim to equality with the Western Roman Emperor in Vienna.

These shifts in Russia's position over the longue duree are obvious to any casual observer. Bring the focus in closer and Ivan's reign becomes much less easy to understand and describe. De Madariaga has in writing this biography done any student of his reign a great service. She is fully aware of the limitations of her study- we don't have particularly good sources for Ivan's reign in Russia- most of them were composed by foreigners. We are also in a very different mental world and often epithets from Ivan's world have altered in meaning very slightly over the succeeding centuries. Take the description 'terrible', in Russian grozny is a very different term to our understanding of the word terrible, rather than meaning bad it means a ruler who inspired terror, who inspired fear, a ruler cruel in the administration of justice and so cruel that justice itself was feared. In a curious way what seems to us a criticism is actually a compliment. Similarly De Madariaga sketches out the way in which Russia was not a political community during Ivan's reign- you can't compare across from the Boyar Council to the English House of Lords. There were no representative institutions- its a bit like going back to the Saxon witangemot and seeing the origins of the English Parliament, one was an adhoc assembly of notables to council the king, the other an institution with from its earliest days procedure and judicial power.

So there are difficulties in understanding Ivan. There is also a much greater difficulty. Ivan was a man, like say Tiberius, of great power who was also possibly mentally unbalanced. De Madariaga hypothesizes that he was paranoid, and his paranoia resulted in violent swings of policy towards individuals. Ivan's punishments for what he saw as treason were terrible in a modern sense, he impaled members of his court on sticks, he thrust citizens of Novgorod through the icy waters of lakes and rivers, he licensed and witnessed horrendous tortures from which no member of society, even ecclesiastical figures, were immune. He even killed his own son, Ivan as well, a murder which led to huge instability after Ivan died because he had no competent male heir to continue the Riurikid line. Explaining his cruelty is something that historians find hard to do- like De Madariaga we are all forced back to the Tacitean imagery of tyranny. But his cruelty becomes a wider problem because it allows us the convenient explanation of madness for the other things that he did.

Ivan had a profound leglislative agenda. He at one point attempted to create what De Madariaga beleives was a parallel state- the Oprichnina- an experiment which lasted for barely five years. Ivan also resigned his own kingdom in a curious way by which he kept the title of Tsar but delinked it from his position as Grand Duke of Muscovy- a position that he gave to a Mongol in his service. Historians have also credited him with the invention of serfdom, in the later years of his reign he began the practice of forbidden years when serfs were forbidden from moving round the country, in truth this looks like an adhoc policy which became over time a foundation of serfdom- as with everything concerning Ivan, we must be wary of looking at him through later Russian history.

Furthermore he had a particularly aggressive foreign policy, attempting to coerce other monarchs into the acceptance of his suzereignity and equality to the Imperial throne in the West. De Madariaga gives us an interesting sidelight on this, arguing that there was a clash of languages between Western and Russian interpretations of imperial status, for the Westerners Emperors presided over Kings (look for instance at the ancient English iconography whereby Edgar the peaceful is rowed by seven other Kings down the Thames), for the Russian an emperor was a dynastic successor to the true Imperial house, of Augustus, Honorius and Arcadius (the history is a little garbled on both sides here- Augustus wasn't related to Honorius or Arcadius). De Madariaga is insistant and is right that Ivan was attempting to solidify a notion of Russian Imperial rulership, and his letters are full of ideas about service and sovereignty, but beyond that its difficult to go. Ivan was probably rational in seeking to perform these actions but as De Madariaga suggests we can't get to his motivation in doing so.

Influences upon the Russian ruler are equally difficult to perceive. Its worth stressing though that as the map above suggests Russia did not merely react to and import from the West. In military, cultural and governmental forms the Russians also looked Eastward and Southward. De Madariaga finds much that is Mongol in Ivan's court and governmental style- she even attributes the invention of the Oprichnina to Ivan's second wife, a Mongol princess, and to emulation of the Mongol elites surrounding Genghis Khan. She also shows that Russia looked south, through say the writings of Maxim Grek to the evaporating world of the Orthodox East Roman imperium and to the Ottoman empire. Much that was Muscovite was transmitted from Moldova or up the Black Sea. She is aware of the geopolitical importance of Russia- the desire to provide one power who controlled the trade route from the Baltic sea to the Caspian, a trade route vital throughout history from the time of the Vikings onwards and one that the English Russia Company hoped to establish.

She also manages to place Ivan's reign in a larger context. We can see how Ivan managed to control and militarily acheive various aims- the conquest of the Khanates to the south was a vital moment in Russian history. He also stripped the economy bare, by constant changes in the patterns of landholding, vast taxation and also the devestation of war. His cruelty she posits was a result of a fusion of a concept of Kingship which gave Ivan responsibility for the Russian people in the eyes of God and a particular personality, psychologically damaged and paranoid, which led to Ivan purging the country of traiters with an almost religious zeal. In truth we can't really say more than De Madariaga says and even what she says rests upon tenuous foundations, like all historians of Ivan's reign or all historians we come in the end to the frailties of our own evidence, we just don't know. Ivan's reign is fascinating and the shadows it throws forward on Russian history profound, but the enigmas are just as profound and as interesting. Its to De Madariaga's credit that she allows us to realise the importance of what we don't know and makes a convincing thesis at the same time to explain what we do know.

December 26, 2006

The Tolerance of Virgil Goode, Congressman for Virginia

Virgil Goode, Republican Congressman from Virginia sent this letter to a constituent in December (comments have been made on other blogs):

Congress of the United States
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515-4605

December 7, 2006

Mr. John Cruickshank
7—— S—————————— Dr.
Earlysville, VA 22936

Dear Mr. Cruickshank:

Thank you for your recent communication. When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.

The Ten Commandments and “In God We Trust” are on the wall in my office. A Muslim student came by the office and asked why I did not have anything on my wall about the Koran. My response was clear, “As long as I have the honor of representing the citizens of the 5th District of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives, The Koran is not going to be on the wall of my office.” Thank you again for your email and thoughts.

Sincerely yours,
Virgil H. Goode, Jr.
70 East Court Street
Suite 215
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151

I'm not sure quite how this letter can be interpreted except as racist- this isn't an argument against immigration based on space, based on the welfare state, but an argument based on the need to avoid contamination from non-WASP or non-European elements- this is a quite flagrantly racist letter and what makes it worse is that when questioned by journalists about the letter, Congressman Goode said that

I wrote the letter. I think it speaks for itself

so at least we know that there is no misconstruction, no extenuating reason, according to the Congressman himself its fair to understand his views from the letter- so we know that the Congressman is terrified by the arrival of Muslims because they might want to swear oaths on the Koran and also might elect other Muslims. He doesn't like non-European immigration and he feels threatened by Muslims exercising their democratic rights.

Now those would be views that you would expect to find in a fringe Republican intellectual- some nobody from nowhere'sville, but this isn't a nobody but a US Congressman- I'm looking forward to seeing whether he gets a primary challenge in 2008 or is forced to issue a better explanation- if he isn't or doesn't then just like the unchallenged Trent Lott, it says something about how racially inclusive the Republican Party is.

NOTE Tom Paine in the comments has said that I've been too quick to jump to an accusation of bigotry. He also corrects me that it isn't racism- we do need a word to describe this because attacks on a person because of their religious faith instead of their race are becoming more common. There are in my view legitimate attacks on particular ideas- or versions- but you can't attack legitimately the essence of a religion because as I've argued here there are problems especially with the biggest religions of the world in defining an essence for that religion. In truth the definition of what a religion is is a real problem- my own position for what its worth, analysed with respect to Islam in that earlier post, is that a religious person- so a Muslim say- is a person who takes up a position in a particular language game where one of the rules of the game is the use of the Koran or Hadith as a font of legitimacy.

December 24, 2006

The Beard of Santa Claus

We all know that Father Christmas is originally St Nicholas- a third century Greek saint from modern Turkey, pictured by a Novgorod School medieval artist in this icon below...

This icon though still looks recognisably like Father Christmas- but this was painted centuries indeed millenia after St Nicholas died. Indeed there is no real picture of St Nicholas to be had, all the pictures we have are like this one and until the recent reconstruction of the fragments of his skull are made more exact, that's all we have. So that leaves the key question still open did Santa Claus have a beard?

Well the original models for the drawings of Father Christmas are these icons of St Nicholas and whilst we'll never know whether St Nick had a beard, its rather interesting to assess why the portraits have a beard. If you go back to when these portraits were painted, say back to the court of Ivan the Terrible in Russia, then you find Church Ordinances past against clean shaven men- why. According to Isabel de Madriaga's great biography of Ivan, there is only one reason- clean shaven men were seen as emulating women, attempting to look effeminate and as homosexual. The Church has never been too keen on what it calls the sin of Sodom and in 14th and 15th Century Russia, you'll be unsurprised tolerance of homosexuality was not at an all time high.

So it turns out that Santa Claus's beard is there for a simple reason- it signifies that he has a wife and kids back in the igloo in Lapland, and doesn't go home to the clasp of a male elf. Santa's beard is a relic of 14th Century homophobia.

Merry Christmas!

John Kerry endorses Flip flopping

John Kerry was ridiculed at the last United States election for his 'flip flopping', he still acquires ridicule from the likes of Kathryn Jean Lopez at the National Review for the same vice. Kerry was a deeply flawed candidate for US President in 2004 and his candidacy for 2008 is at present only beleived in by himself, yet a nagging feeling persists that in talking about flip flopping his opponents revealed themselves to be pigmies compared to even his dwarfish statures. George Bush and his acolytes, along with Tony Blair, valued as David Runciman has recently written, certainty and resolution above the merits of decision making.

Peter Hennessy has commented at length recently on the dangers that this has led Blair into- the neglect of process because he knows the right decision is merely one of a catalogue of errors that Blair has made. Indeed what separates Blair from greatness as a Prime Minister is largely his misjudgement of process, his lack of self-irony and his certainty in his own values and judgement. These failings, which boil down to a failure to appreciate and listen are failures Blair shares with George W. Bush.

John Kerry was a poor Presidential candidate. His mental and intellectual range makes him no John Adams or James Maddison, his campaign was deeply flawed and he obfuscated more than he made clear. Kerry argues persuasively though in this Washington Post Article that Bush needs to begin to embrace some of his obfuscations, some of his confusions, some of his lack of mental clarity in order to survive. He argues rightly that as facts change so do arguments- Nixon going to China was a classic instance of this, as you might argue was Begin's decision to initiate the Camp David accords. Kerry's problem is that he offers no real suggestion beyond engagement with Syria and Iran that Bush could take- his thinking has as its charecteristic tones all the merits and flaws of being entirely conventional. Kerry's campaign similarly wasn't one filled with bright ideas and a vision of the way that America might be- to lose to a President with Mr Bush's record was a testament to the lack of an inspiring offer to the American people of a way forwards. Indeed it was his running mate John Edwards or Howard Dean his opponent who far more than Kerry offered an alternative.

But Kerry does allow us this thought, that it is not neccessary merely for a President to have bright ideas- it is neccessary for Presidents' to adapt their ideas to reality, to let reality influence the ways that they introduce their ideas to the world in policy and in publicity. John Kerry at the moment looks as if he will be like his fellow Senator for Massachussets, Ted Kennedy, a senior Senator in time and never President but his article is a telling criticism of the man that took the Presidency off him. Doubt is an underappreciated virtue in leaders and whatever you think of Kerry the candidate, Kerry the advocate for doubt is definitely right.

No longer such a Wonderful Life

Here's the evidence that its no longer such a wonderful life in the modern world- where now George Bailey when Mr Potter triumphs.

Christmas Blogging

I think as you can see that blogging will be fairly sparce over the next couple of days, unlike the fellow above, even your humble scribe feels the need occasionally for a holiday, through Christmas- like most bloggers it seems out there. There may be some articles but the disciplined every day coverage may disappear for a little while- not for long, normal service will be resumed in January- and there will be some items before then. Meanwhile those still needing their fix, can go get a wonderful series of posts from James Higham's latest blogfocus.

Anyway to all visiting here, Merry Christmas- no bah humbugs and a Happy New Year.

Anyone needing a further Christmas fix, just go see Alaistair Sim's film based on Dickens's story from which the picture above is taken, its a good book and a great film

And just in case you are still reading- MERRY CHRISTMAS!

December 22, 2006

Seven Successes of the Year

James Higham has merrily tagged me for Christmas with his latest meme- the seven best things I've done this year- and he wants me both to complete said meme and tag seven others so here goes.

My seven acheivements are

1 Like James to start blogging- its been great fun and great to meet so many excellent folk through talking to them via an internet connection and a combative interchange of ideas.

2 To have made many cups of tea and to have got others to make me many cups of tea- one must always realise that its the small things of life that matter, tea may be small but there are many who would agree with me, its a key part of life as are all the other essentials, books, movies etc.

3 To have seen some fantastic films- one night this year will never leave me when unable to sleep I gave up and decided to go downstairs and watch a DVD on the TV in my shared student house, I watched Wild Strawberries and its the kind of film that like a good book has never left me, if you don't see another movie this year, go rent or buy Wild Strawberries directed by Ingmar Bergman and watch it. I can't describe all the feelings that this film evokes for me in a part of a post- I will post about it some time later in more detail.

4. Likewise another acheivement of the year has been to discover Ismail Kadare's novels. One of my best friends from my time at Oxford got me into Orhan Pamuk and Chinua Achebe last year, the best thing that can be said about Kadare is that he is at their level- a fantastic novelist who really involves you in and gets you entangled in the worlds he creates.

5. If Kadare is the novelist I feel proudest of discovering this year, then perhaps reading Muzzafar Allam on Early Modern India is the work of scholarship that's intrigued me most. Its amazing to discover more about somethign you knew nothing about before. Allam's work for me fell definitely into this category of illumination.

6. I haven't been to that many art exhibitions but I have to say the exhibition of manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam at Cambridge was fantastic, its beauty amazed me and stunned me in different ways. I really enjoyed it.

7. And as for music- my discovery of the year has to be the Lucksmiths, who have a nice grasp of both lyrics and tune. Their song fiction in particular is one that stays with me.

8. Well I had more than ten on the last ten things meme I did, so I'm going to have more than seven here, and the eighth is that my greatest acheivement is to have some of the best friends, family and blogfriends anyone could want- that's enough acheiving now I'm going to justify my eigth by deciding which ones are going to suffer by composing their own lists...

This list of blogfriends to whom I'm passing this is not an exclusive list but it is a list of resourceful good bloggers, who will I hope come up with interesting stuff- there are good souls out there on the blogosphere- many in my blogroll, many in Blog Power, many who I have never heard of- but here are some of them...

1. First of my blogging friends, a resolute redoubt of good sense and sound thought- here enters the list that Dickie Bird of bloggers, the Political Umpire

2. Well if we have an umpire, we have to give him someone to umpire- how about a contrary radical- the most contrary and interesting radical I know is found on the pages of La Femme Contraire where Liz can always be relied upon to question assumptions and come up with interesting ideas about neglected topics.

3. Another blogger with the eye for a good topic and the determination to think soundly about all such things, is a determined denizen of Cambridge, step forward Ellee Seymour- as she is taking a break from blogging for Christmas no doubt we'll hear from her on this in the New Year- but seriously her blog is one of the best around.

4. From a Tory stalwart to a Labour stalwart, El Dave's blog may be called unoriginal but hey he's never beleived in the trade descriptions act, he's one of the most inciteful and original commenter and commentators around, head over to Unoriginal Name 38 for original thoughts.

5. I have a constituency who won't be happy now- El Dave's roots lie in the LSE Labour party, what about the LSE Tories. Well they have their own great blogger, Matt Sinclair is out of the country at the moment, but I trust he is still musing and can muse enough to put seven things he's acheived down on his list of musings

6. Radical, Tory, Labour, Tory- time to get away from Britain- well what better blogger to do that than the great Granite Studio. He is fascinating, writes about China and knows his stuff. His blog is indispensible to anyone seriously interested in politics and not merely in partisan hackery- but then none of the people on this list is merely a partisan hacks- they are all interesting.

7. Blogging isn't merely a serious occupation- well it is- but there are some blogs which are very serious, incredibly serious conservative blogs say in the states which make their conservatism very clear- take for example Jon Swift who considers the news so biased he takes his news from Rush Limbaugh!

Anyway I hope these guys respond- and I hope everyone reading this goes and bullies them to respond- they are seven fantastic bloggers, as is Mr Higham and as indeed are all of the lads and lasses on my blogroll, so go get round them!

Now off to find some tea....

Interesting light on Gay Marriage and Children

I merely flag this up as providing some interesting evidence that there is almost no distinction between a heterosexual couple and a gay couple for bringing up kids. The research looks impressive and the final words must go to the American Psychological Association which said that

Not a single study has found children to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents

As I say this is not an area of expertise for me so I'm unwilling to make much comment upon it but it is at least an interesting statement and it ties in with what I have to say my own prejudice tells me with regard to the idea that two parents of the same sex would be as capable as two parents of different sexes to bring up kids.

The Public Interest and the Press

It is fascinating how language can lead to political confusion- its been perfectly clear this week that such a confusion about the murder of the prostitutes in Ipswich has resulted in press coverage might lead to parlous consequences- press coverage that has been justified upon the basis of the public interest, maybe its just worth pondering for a moment what those two words mean- because there are two ways of interpreting those two words and it seems to me that whilst the explanation of the press behaviour rests upon one definition of those two words, the justification of their behaviour rests upon a second interpretation of those words.

Its worth turning in this context to the definition of those words provided within the Press Complaint's Commission Code of Practice

The public interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.
ii) Protecting public health and safety.
iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. Whenever the public interest is invoked, the PCC will require editors to demonstrate fully how the public interest was served.

4. The PCC will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain, or will become so.

5. In cases involving children under 16, editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interest of the child.

I have quoted this in full to demonstrate some of the problems inherent in the defence. The Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice obviously in using the term public interest, as a way of defining what it is in the public's interest to know. So we have the cases of crime, safety and the much more difficult one of detecting lies (to which I'll move onto later). The Press Complaints' Commission therefore defines the wording in the way that I would say its my interest to have a job and a girlfriend.

There is a second definition of the word interest though and it becomes interestingly clear that the meaning of the words in the law and justifications of the law have become unclear- take this response to a BBC viewer's question by Ian Christie a media lawyer about the Catherine Zeta Jones wedding

Well the law applies equally to everybody, of course, but what it does recognise is that there is a greater interest in the private lives of public figures and that's precisely why cases like the Douglas's case come to court and why they reach such a high public profile.

A greater interest here cannot mean the public interest. There is no public good at stake in Miss Zeta Jones and Mr Douglas's marriage- nothing will collapse and noone will die if one magazine has an exclusive contract for the pictures and another does not. But Mr Christie is using the word interest differently here- whereas in the code quoted above it meant the public good, here it means what the public are interested in. The public interest might be transalated in this context not as the public good but as the public fascination.

I am no lawyer and couldn't speak about the law and whether there is a confusion. But it does seem to me that the justifications for the present arrangements draw upon the difficulties with interpreting that phrase public interest because it can mean two things. The first thing, the public good, is self evidently something in a democracy that we should all know about and be concerned with. The second thing what the public might be interested in, is a different matter. Our fascinations with the private lives of those caught in the spotlight are not defensible ethically in the same way and they can't be defended by recourse to the same kinds of argument. It is a separate and totally different case that we ought to know what we are fascinated by, as opposed to the (in my view quite rational case) that we ought to know that which it is neccessary for us to know for the survival of ourselves, the state and the good of government.

Confusing these two 'public interests' allows the press to pretend that they are arguing for the public good when all they are doing is commercially feeding public fascination. The case can be made in Ipswich for instance that the press feeding public fascination with the suspects is actually attacking the public interest which lies in the guilty party being found and found guilty in a court. Anything that makes that more difficult is a direct attack upon the public interest- and yet the confusions of the language allow editors to argue that it is in the public interest because the public are interested. The language is so slippery here that we possibly need to avoid the term public interest at all- we need to press journalists to define are they talking about a public good or a public fascination. Is the lie they are detecting a lie that we need to know about to understand how to vote or is it just a lie about someone's private life? What kind of public interest are they really talking about?

Perhaps, as a closing thought, the real public interest lies in getting editors to define what they mean and what is going on when they use the phrase 'public interest'!

December 21, 2006

Littlejohn exposed

Richard Littlejohn is one of those hacks that gives hackery a bad name. His journalism is empty of subtlety or thought, like a British Bill O'Reilly he blethers through the tabloids a scummy version of self satisfied hatred. Littlejohn's most recent column on the Ipswich murders is brilliantly destroyed here (hat tip to the ever informative Umpire for providing the link) but there is one thing that our fisker misses which I think is integral to Littlejohn's whole view of the world and that is an absense of any kind of compassion.

For Littlejohn the women murdered in Ipswich are whores who deserve what they got, they are girls who rejected the chance to be missionaries in Darfur in order to adopt another kind of missionary position. The fisk above shows how inadequate that is as an explanation of why these women ended on the street. But it also fails to even attempt to reach inside their psyches. What is it like to stand upon a street corner waiting for hours, to have sex with a man who may be twice your age maybe who is rude and violent? What is it like standing in all weathers exhibiting your body to allcomers and waiting for a car to drive up beside you? Has Littlejohn ever looked at the statistics about how much sex workers are assaulted and raped, has he ever wondered what its like to know that your co-workers have been assaulted or raped?

Furthermore how can Littlejohn from a study at the Daily Mail reach into the souls of these women and tell us that was what defined them as human beings- we don't know they may have been excellent friends, daughters even mothers. Has he even tried to work out what they may have been like, what they were as people? There is no empathy, no attempt to get into another person's skin in his columns- all they do is invite his readers to feel a smug self satisfaction that they aren't like that. Its difficult to say but there are some kinds of reading that lead to a closing of the mind- reading Littlejohn is one of those kinds of reading.


Mike Ion is right to post over at his blog about the Guardian's undercover operation inside the BNP which revealed that the BNP is increasingly targetting Middle Class areas within London and hopes to get a seat or two in the London Assembly. Some of what the report portrays- codes for accessing emails, secret names, people hiding their proffessions is very interesting- for a supposedly democratic party, the BNP seem very hesitant to confirm either who they are or what they really think.

Mike proposes a grand alliance to sweep away the BNP between the democratic parties and anti-racist groups. He wants the BNP isolated and exposed for the incompetent nutcases that they are. BNP councillers have been singularly inefficient wherever they've got into power: being accused of committing benefit fraud, a council candidate has been arrested for explosives offences, five councillers have been accused of electoral fraud and at least one of assault. In Barking and Dagenham, Dan Kelley a BNP counciller resigned admitting that

There’s meetings that go right over my head and there’s little point in me being there

The BNP quite clearly are incompetent when elected and do not serve the communities they aspire to serve. It isn't difficult to work out that this is a party of morons and fools- who will never serve the whole community and barely disguise an ugly fascist and racist past.

But is Mike right about the way to deal with the BNP? The BNP's main strength seems to come out of a vague xenophobia, the kind of anti-immigrant feeling the Tories occasionally play to and a sense that foreigners or "ethnics" get the best resources. BNP members also have a sense of anti-establishment feeling, that everyone is out to get them, that the mainstream condemns their point of view and that the establishment is hiding some nefarious and illusory plot to destroy Britain. Their online newspaper for instance is called "The Voice of Freedom" and their website at present calls upon readers to send a card to "political prisoner" Kevin Hughes (arrested for a racist attack in a pub on a Kurdish asylum seeker).If we are looking for a means to weaken the BNP we are looking really at a means to weaken their support, to diminish their attraction.

There are arguments that condemnation works. The BNP is attempting to get into posh London council boroughs- the Guardian mentions Chelsea and Kensington amongst others- and those are just the kind of places where social stigma really matters. Where the tactic of making BNP support unthinkable has a real effect upon people. Where politics is partly a matter of fashion, isolating the BNP has an impact in pulling people towards the Tories and away from that kind of logic. It also makes the arguments that the BNP espouse unsayable in certain circles and again that makes the arguments less strong- one of the things about politics is that as soon as you express an argument you become anchored to it and you have to think it through and provide it with cohesion. Making supporting the BNP something you can't do in company actually weakens the political resolve of those who might think about supporting it.

On the other hand social stigma means that the minority who do support the BNP become even more fervent. There is a case for the Tories and major parties keeping up their attacks on the BNP (and incidentally moderating their attacks on each other, when Tony Benn labels the Tories racist he diminishes the shock value of that accusation when played against the BNP) but there is also a case for the rest of us concentrating on calmly exposing what the BNP say and what the press often report about say asylum seekers which buttress the BNP's claims. If members and supporters of the BNP beleive that they are oppressed, then shouting at them and coalescing against them won't neccessarily persuade them of anything. But demonstrating that the general climate of fear about immigration is exaggerated, that Islam is a religion containing both peaceful and violent factions and that most Muslims in the UK are of the first not the second persuasion, destroying some of the historical illusions- the ideas of unique Western civilisation, those are the ways forward. Sometimes a reasoned discussion can obtain more success than a denounciation- lets see people like Blair and Cameron with their legendary charm get out and do some public speaking, do some debating against Griffin and his cohorts of hate.

There is plenty of fantastic work being done to expose the BNP and its faulty ideology. But we are faced with a situation where the BNP seems to be gaining votes and support. I've reflected on some of the more sociological reasons before here but there are real actions that we can take. Condemnation can work but it must be accompanied by reasoned explanation. If we just condemn we feed into the fantasy that there is an establishment hiding a truth about Britain, we must take on and expose the ideas and the fallacies. Particularly we must defend the idea that there are many Muslims, a vast majority, who are non-violent and perfectly ordinary- indeed just like Christians or atheists who care much more about their children's school than the state of the world and who have political views that they attempt to acheive with peaceful means. We should also make more of the links between the British and American far right and terrorist groups, Daniel Pipes, a blogger with whom I often disagree has documented some cases here.

The BNP can be defeated- they lie far more than they tell the truth and are incompetent when they get in. But they won't be defeated if all we do is yell insults at them- we must expose and persuade- show that they are wrong about the facts, inadequate when in power, have no answers to the problems that Britain and the world face and fail at the base to understand the fundemental equality of all human beings. We must expose their attempts to become respectable and show they are still racist, we must also show why racism is a self defeating and obnoxious outlook upon the world.

December 20, 2006

American Weakness?

Both Mario Loyola in the National Review Blog and Sidney Blumenthal in Salon reflect upon an interesting new reality in foreign politics. Loyola argues that there is no way out of Iraq that isn't political, that increased troop levels won't make any difference and that only by negotiation and public diplomacy can the US extricate itself from Iraq. Blumenthal from a very different perspective argues a very similar case- suggesting that the Neo-Conservatives and their (in his view) puppet President are at the moment mistaking the way that American power can be projected: they think that force can acheive their own goals and they are wrong.

To me this highlights one of the main foreign policy debates of our era. It isn't so much the analysis of how we ought to proceed in foreign politics, whether ethically as Robin Cook and Bill Kristol would reccomend or realistically, the more Kissinger, Baker or Hurd view, that is the issue but our analysis of our own position in the world.

There are two issues here- the first is our position visa vis other powers and the second our position with regard to remaking or resetting the world order to benefit us. In both regards, the conventional position has been that America is a hyperpower and that the central problem of global politics concerns American power and how to use it- this for instance is Charles Krauthammer's position in a recent perceptive essay about America's position in the world over the 90s and 2000s. It was also Hubert Vedrine's position when as French Foreign Secretary he argued for a multipolar world and against American hyperpower.

But it might not be true, indeed it might be far more relevant to think not of American and Western strength as our ultimate foreign policy challenge, but Western and American weakness- Iraq and North Korea demonstrate in different ways how difficult it is for the West to cajol and influence great powers who resent our economic and cultural preeminence, like Russia, great powers like China that consider themselves our heirs, medium powers like Iran opposed to us, even allies like Israel and of course events on the ground in Iraq and events in a very weak nation like North Korea. Maybe we need to adjust our thinking to our own weakness- I wonder what abandoning the word hyperpower might do to all our visions of foreign policy.

5000 Years of Middle Eastern History in 90 Seconds

Here is quite a fun website where you can download a map which shows how the fortunes of Middle Eastern Empires over the last five thousand years changed and who was the predominate empire in the region in various periods. Its too simplistic- there were Sumerians around alongside the first Egyptian Empire, the Parthians contested the region with the Romans, the Byzantines held on to Anatolia, despite Chosroes II reaching Constantinople in the early seventh century, right up until 1453. As Byzantine diplomats continuously proved the Middle East was the region in reality where great power politics such as Henry Kissinger or Richard Nixon would have understood began thousands of years before say it began in Europe, as states like the Greek city states proved there is also the danger of assuming that all states down the history of the region were states as we understand them today- this map neccessarily makes light of 5,000 years of Middle Eastern History, not seeing how much these empires differed from our states today. I'd for example dispute quite how in most ancient empires there was an actual border and not an area where the authority of the ancient empire ebbed out into influence and then into ignorance. The Sahara was never the Egyptian frontier- it was more, in my understanding, of a zone into which Egyptian influence extended a long way. Having said all that- its definitely fun, and its great to see with your own eyes the extent of something like the Mongol empire.

Their map of the history of religion is also interesting, (again not sure about their strict boundaries- the boundaries of ideologies are always more fuzzy than lines on maps can show- there were Christians left in the heart of Islam and Jews lived throughout Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages, renaissance, enlightenment and right up until now) if only to remind one of how unusual monotheistic religion was right up until the age of colonisation throughout the world. Most of the world outside Eurasia until that point was polytheistic and beleived in various kinds of spirits or pagan gods- monotheism's dominance in the American continent or in Africa, not to mention in Australasia is a recent phenomenon- it is always worth remembering how recent most of our ideas about the shape of the world and the way it is organised are.

December 19, 2006

New Media

Prompted by Time Magazine's declaration that we are the people of the year, a lot of analysis has recently been done of what the internet has actually done for the production of new information and its dissemination. Is this in short a revolution as great as the printing Presz in the fourteenth century, allowing some poor Phd student the ability to talk to the thousands (here's hoping) or more realistically tens of you who read this website, is that a media revolution and if so what is it really about.

Coming swiftly on the heels of James's recent Blogpower initiative (go down the page for a link to the Blogpower blog) the Time magazine article shows no awareness of the difficulties that James so sensibly is hoping to help with. A blog like this or even a much more established and thoroughly praiseworthy blog like Stumbling and Mumbling is almost unknown to most of those outside the blogging fraternity. Blogging is very much an in crowd affair- there are commenters for instance on this blog whose comments I instantly recognise and can fit into a template of previous comments- the Umpire, Dreadnought, James Higham, Ellee, Liz, Edmund and many other regulars are people who force me to clarify my thoughts and work out what I mean to say in a much more thorough way than I would otherwise. And obviously anyone just coming to this blog is free to join them- by just clicking on the comment link and writing a piece. The general point I'm making though is that this blog doesn't really influence the world, and unless my traffic jumps by a factor of around a thousand I'm not going to have influence. What it is doing is opening up a new social space- its opening up a discussion between various people on the site and me- a discussion that's carried on in other blogs and on other fora, and in many ways that's the point.

Tim Footman in the Guardian approaches this from another point of view, that increasingly big corporations- like Google for this blog are dominating even the new media. Its interesting that a very famous and successful blogger like Andrew Sullivan has now moved across to Time. I don't think that will have many consequences for blogging- just look down the list of posts on this page and you'll find very little that Google would be interested in. Furthermore I think the effect is much more likely to be less dramatic than Footman imagines- just as we aren't going to change the world, so Google or Wordpress won't change us- they have no interest in upsetting their client base and largely no interest in regulating what we can publish- afterall we'd all just move and because blogging is a social network, the reputation of a provider which did that would swiftly end in them losing customers.

One influence I do think is being underrated though and that is the effect that blogging will have on journalism. Old fashioned pad and pen journalism, where a reporter sticks aroudn and asks some questions has been out of fashion for years but in reality it and name recognition are the things which make reading a newspaper essential for even the most dedicated blogger. The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, BBC and many others provide bloggers with a set of "facts" upon which we hang our stories. Our threat, and I think it is a partial threat, is not to the media organisations but rather to some of their employees- to the opinion journalists. They are the ones ultimately who are going to be most changed and confronted by the new developments in the blogosphere- because I sense that many of them are going to have to become more irregular in their posting, more responsive to comments and more accepting of a wider range of other opinion journalists. Its they that are facing competition- and you can see it on Comment is Free. Having said that- the Toynbees and Kaletskies have the advantage which we bloggers don't have which is name recognition. The other consequence of this maybe that opinion journalism gets more partisan- one of the distressing things about blogging is the popularity of your Malkins, your partisans and I wonder whether the kind of open debate symbolised by Fox News might stifle the kind of open debate symbolised by In Our Time.

These are just musings- personally I don't think blogging is as epoch making a change as it seems- we are gifted with a new publishing format that enables anyone to write an article but that doesn't mean that anyone's going to read it or even to be honest that the article will be any good.

December 18, 2006

Thucydides, epochal wars and the Twentieth Century

Phillip Bobbitt in the Daily Times makes an interesting but ultimately highly unsatisfying argument. He argues based upon a reading of Thucydides that there are such things as epochal wars- he gives other examples of such wars, the Hundred Years War between Britain and France, the Thirty Years War in Germany, and suggests that what makes them epochal is the way that a historian or historians unite them together in a construct, showing that all the wars depend upon the same reason. For Thucydides for example, Bobbit argues the Peloponesian war was a unity because it resulted from the unhealthy rivalry between the city states of Greece in the fifth century BC.

Bobbitt is right to point out to us that wars and periodisation within history are artifacts created by historians. They flow not from the essential nature of things but from the historian's ability to classify them- so that for example the Hundred Years war describes a period of alternating war and peace between England and France not a continuous war. The thirty years war though it does describe continuing warfare for thirty years, still includes wars between various states in which the actors came in and out of the minuet of conflict like dancers at a ball, everyone changing partners but the dance continuing. The same might be said to a degree of the First and Second world wars, there were discontinuities within the makeup of the coalitions on either side.

Essenses though are things that historians fly away from. Much of the historiography of our own time has been about the breaking up of large conflicts into pieces or the unification of previously disparate conflicts and periods. One can through understanding the Dutch position in the Thirty Years War, as Jonathan Scott has, elucidate the under currents of British civil war politics. John Morrill and Conrad Russell have forced us to see that the English Civil War was a war of three Kingdoms, not just a war confined to England. Other historians focus in and draw out the unique features say of the Somme to British culture. Historians continually move their microscope in and out, attempting to capture the place of a detail within a larger period. Periods are fluid, so Jonathan Israel moves the enlightenment's origins back to the 1650s even as Jonathan Clarke moves the end of the ancien regime in England forward to the 1850s.

Bobbit's epochal wars and his reliance on a single imagination to make them ends up losing what is so instructive about history which is its variety. Not merely a variety of subject studied, but also a variety of imaginations to study it. A variety of simularities across period noticed and variety of ways of defining human experience. History is about the knowledge of the particular, but to know the particular one must appreciate the general and always in the historian's mind there is a dialogue both between the details he knows and the wider picture he infers from his own research, and also between his own research, his own picture and that of others.

We should not fossilise our own attitudes too readily- history is a pilgrimage but the point of pilgrimage isn't arrival- its travelling.

December 17, 2006

Justifying General Augusto Pinochet: The Triumph of Ends over Means

Over the last couple of days, there have been many attacks and defences mounted of General Pinochet, the dictatorial ruler of Chile in the seventies and eighties. Pinochet has in recent times been both the object of hatred and the object of laudatory notices. In Britain of course, his defenders hark both to a national moment as well as an international one- the Political Umpire in his recent post on the subject expresses my views on the matter impecably- that any alliance with a dictator is merely an alliance of temporary fortune. To put it in Palmerstonian terms- the interests of democracies are eternal, their dictatorial allies are ephemeral.

There is though a more international defence of Pinochet and his like, amongst whom Salazar, Franco and possibly now Putin or Musharref might be included. The defence which says that though they had murdered and tortured their populations, though they were tyrants that abused and withheld freedom, the outcome of their policies was good for the countries concerned. They kept the lid on unrest by dubious practices and methods of dictatorship- Pinochet stopped Allende if the price was the abolition of democracy, the deaths of thousands of Chileans and the torture of thousands more then it was a price worth paying.

There are two ways of attacking this question. The first comes in a notable argument in the Weekly Standard, which argues that the counterfactual history of disaster is simply untrue. We don't know what Chile would have looked like without Pinochet. We also to be honest should not excuse Pinochet's crimes by saying that there were other criminals around- if I murder your mother it doesn't really deal with my guilt if I tell you that she wasn't very nice really and anyway that there is a serial killer down the road. It doesn't make it any better if I tell you that you are psychologically better off for the murder- the crime remains a crime.

What this ultimately comes down to though is a second more important distinction and that is that if we are democrats, we are democrats first and partisans second. We beleive in democracy before we beleive in our own policy prescriptions. Therefore we would not wish for a coup to bring in with torture and murder, our own preferences- indeed we would count that to be worse than a democratically elected government which we opposed. People have tried to codify this in conventions of human rights, and in fundamental laws since the very early development of constitutional government- and this adherence to a process over an outcome is what is really aimed at. The process we are describing is a process of corporate decision making- democracy is about a choice made by an electorate for or against a government (in most systems that ends up being a choice of who to throw out not who to put in) and the key part, something that Francis Fukuyama in his awful book about the End of History captured, is that it involves a recognition of the autonomy of other individuals to decide things for themselves. Democracy ultimately is about, that horrendous word, respect- respect for the right of others to make their own decisions.

If you go outside the process, like some of Pinochet or Putin's spokesmen seek to do, in search of an outcome, what you actually do is deny the autonomy and the humanity of those that oppose you. (Of course you may be forced to do so if they go outside of the process themselves: but that ultimately is a justification more often abused than rightly used). Pinochet's supporters therefore in search of short term policy goals and even medium term prosperity, undervalue the right of every human being to be respected as an agent that can make its own decisions- the forcing of a society into a particular mould is not in the view of this blogger a sensible or a right way of proceeding with politics. The death of Pinochet should be greeted by all with glee that a tyrant has fallen.

A new Blogfocus

Yet again Mr Higham has found a wonderful collection of posts for his Blogfocus.

December 16, 2006

Is there an Islamic Centre? A Cautious Thought offered.

One of the problems in analysing developments within the Middle East has been separating out the strands of political ideologies that we are looking at. Looked at from afar an easy division between good secularist and bad islamist movements is possible but as soon as you get closer the divisions cease to work as well as a tool to understand what is happening in the Middle East. I am no expert and this article is as much a call for knowledge as it is a statement of fact, but one of the crucial issues that seems forgotten in most discussion of political Islam is the way that politics and other religions have fused and sustained democracy. Unless Islam is significantly and crucially different then it too may have the potential, indeed may be realising the potential as I write, of doing precisely that.

The Middle East in this sense is a place in which only the extremely acute outside observer should make quick judgements- and I claim no such status. But there are some factors that we ought to consider in our analysis of the region that are worthy of at least thinking through. The Middle East is filled with regimes which with notable exceptions are dictatorial- they are founded upon military power and they maintain themselves through the classic instruments of torture, oppression and propaganda. Such regimes as Syria's or Saudi Arabia's might fall easily into this category. Others like Turkey have an imperfect democracy and between the Turkish imperfection and the Syrian despotism lie all sorts of controlled democracies or even franchise enriched dictatorships (a lovely euphemism) from Iran's experiment with theocratically vetted elections to Jordan's with monarchically controlled elections. That background is indispensible to understanding the complexity of the Islamic movements that we face within the region.

But it also leads to distortion, because if we assume that all Islamic oppositions are the same, then we may fall into the trap of thinking that either they are all benign movements of liberation or that they are all fundamentalist movements of obscurantism. According this article from Al Ahram Weekly, we should complicate this vision. Khalil El-Anani argues that there is an emergeant Islamic centre if you like which whilst it bows to the politics of Allah also worships the deities of impartial law and democratic elections. In some sense what he describes is not a million miles away from the view that Tariq Ramadan offers western European Muslims, that Islamic engagement in the modern world is to be conceptualised as within the domain of a witness to timeless truths and is therefore compatible with secular democracy. Ramadan's argument about witness attacks a view like Said Qutb's that there are no alternatives between a fully Islamic state and a pagan state that all Muslims must oppose. Ramadan offers a middle path whereby Islamic democrats can use the principles of their religion within a democratic and secular polity to inform public policy, that seems to be something similar to the model of what El-Anani calls a new Muslim Centre.

El-Anani's view of the way that some within Arab politics consider the world receives some support from other sources. His claims about the parties he mentions are substantiated, in the case of the Jordanian Islamic Centre and in the case of the Tunisian Al Nahda party which split on the precise issue of its relation to democracy and secular law. His broader view of the trends within the Middle East has also found support- for example take this article by Par Amr Hamzawy which comes to similar conclusions but mentions a slightly different list of parties as included within the phenomena.

In many ways these Islamic movements fit within societies in which the predominate method of criticising often corrupt leaderships and expressing nationalism rests within a political language that can't be divorced from its Islamic context. Like for instance Catholicism in Eastern Europe under communism, identification with an Islamic nationalism has become an alternative to identification with the regime's promotion of secular nationalism. As Olivier Roy has commented at length in a lecture this kind of politics is one that is steadily becoming more and more important within the Islamic world. I myself have discussed both Professor Roy's lecture lecture and what I think is a related phenomena whereby strict religious behaviour and an identification with incorruptability become crucial aspects of politics within such societies, points I mean to develop over the coming months. The linguistic opportunities offered by Islam as a means of criticising leaderships who seem seduced by luxury don't mean that Islam is neccessarily incompatible with either law or democracy- in a sense as El-Anani argues these movements attempt to separate modernity from Western Christian ideas and provide it with an Islamic base. As Roy has argued, the new mutation in political Islam in the Middle East (interestingly he extends it to other regions too) is the move to allying Islam to nationalism.

Obviously there are questions and problems about this. One for example is with whether such a movement can encompass the pluralism of a genuine democracy. El-Annani's article demonstrates this: with its absolutist rejection of the West and consequently of perceived imperialism. The issues that Farish Al Noor sketches out in his article about Malaysia are issues which all Muslim movements will eventually have to face as their countries come to grips with the dilemmas of living with minorities- especially recently immigrated or even converted minorities. There is also the problem of description- I have no doubt that members of these movements stand further towards Qutb than Ramadan. Nor do I doubt another significant problem which is that a decision to use religious language to describe politics, inevitably risks the kinds of sectarian divisions that say were frequent in early twentieth century Europe.

Having said all that, this is a fascinating phenomenen and one that I do not see covered at all in analyses of the Middle East. Maybe I am too credulous of reports in Al Ahram as in other places, but the backing of experts like Sivan makes me think that I'm not. We must acknowledge that the Middle East is incredibly complicated and the ways that Islam plays into the political arena are also complicated- we must not go down the road of seeing every Islamist as a fundamentalist- there may be Rick Santorums in the Middle East whose motivations are Islamic but whose means are democratic. I don't profess expertise in this area- and some of the judgements in this article are no doubt wrong- but the sense that there might be a space whereby the language of politics, which in so much of the world is Islamic could also support moderate democratic governments I think is right.

I have to say though that I advance this thesis with the maximum of caution, I am ignorant and don't have the language skills to do more than that and would welcome somebody who comes along and disagrees based on better information. This is if you like the first draft of an idea which I hope to redraft several times- maybe hundreds of times.

I should note petulantly that I tried to publish an earlier and better version of this article but Blogger in its wisdom wiped my first attempt- so this is if you like the reheated version and I attribute all infelicities to that fact!