October 14, 2006

Press 0 Dictators 1

Tonight's early edition of the Observer has stepped forward to defend Kazakhstan's people and government from outrageous slurs in the Western media. We concur entirely in a defence of Kazakhstan's people- but Steven Leeyers may have gone too far in this wonderful piece of writing: speaking of the new capitol he aclaimed a visonary city... taking place on Kazakhstan's plains

In Leeyers' report Kazakhstan's population did not oppose the 1997 relocation of their capitol to the north of the country far away from their previous capitol, which wasted their taxes on a vanity project and enriched the Presidents family as they got the majority of the contracts to build the new capitol. Such a perspective is mere Western cynicism- President Nazarbayov (elected 1991, 'authoritarian' according to CIA World Factbook) embodies in his frame the spirit of his people, elections are common and only one party dominates both the upper and lower house of Parliament- demonstrating the government's popularity. Encouraged by discontented elements, Westerners have been their usual prejudiced selves- the Observer speaking with the voice of enlightenment can help us though to understand Kazakhstan much better and not deride the new capitol.

This blog- whilst acknowledging the Observer's wonderful prose- wonders whether they would like to be subject to the same analysis they put politicians under. One hopes that Mr Leeyers when or if he went to Kazakhstan was not entertained by the Kazhakstani Government, did not spend any time with minders, nor had his visit arranged by anyone else. I mean this visit is almost certainly unrelated to the huge ammounts of money from Kazakhstan in the hands of PR companies, isn't it. But he is a journalist, so needs no questions to answer- afterall all journalists act in the public interest- and no visitors to a dictatorial regime have ever misreported a dictatorial regime- well not since Stalin and the Webbs

We can trust them- after all they are so justly trusting of us (as any doorstepped fule doth know).

LATER

This update by Vilhelm Konnander is a key support to this Blog's argument that Kazakh affairs are not all as they seem.

October 13, 2006

Memento: The Flaws of Thought

All philosophers start their investigations with the nightmare of radical scepticism- for Descartes particularly the nightmare of not knowing haunted his philosophical speculations and establishment of knowledge, the science of epistemology became the crucial part of philosophy. But others have taken the same road as Descartes- Plato reacting to Socrates sought not merely to question like his great master but also to provide a perfection, a world of ideas that need not be questioned. Hobbes worried like a dog at a bone at the structures of civil morality and tried to find the springs of such formulations deep in the nature of humanity.

Memento, the film, has been attacked again and again for its incoherence- the plot makes no sense unless accepted on its own terms, it has an internal logic but no external logic. The characters exist within a social void- again something that it has been criticised for. Their morality of honour, revenge and pride seems pagan and again has been assaulted. But to see all these things is to mistake the central meaning of the film.

The reality is that this film is not about morality and focuses merely on a couple of characters who exist in a social void, the motivations of the primary character are well explained but every other character is a collage of moments in his life and has no external existence. What this film though centres upon is the problem of the philosophers- the problem of how we know what we know, what we can rely upon. Centred upon one character we are walking in this film through his footsteps into his epistemological imagination. Truthfully in this film the overriding impression that we have is of generally dispelling ignorance and our question becomes what should we trust memory or reason.

Generally within society at the moment, we tend to trust reason more than our empirical experiences. Empirically atomic physics collapses, the quantum dissolves, the microbe is nothing and the bacteria vanishes- we see none of these but assume they exist because we have devised a reasoning chain which explains what we see by what we don't. We accept historical connections that link a fragile piece of tapestry to an ancient battle, a tattered piece of paper to a living breathing human being- all that's in front of us are the pieces of evidence but then we begin to infer and our inferences spiral out of all compass.

This film centres on a character that does that- and the question is whether his reasonings and our reasonings match the truth. He sees the instances of the present and projects a past which would make them logically coherent. Gradually as the film evolves we begin to see the past with our own eyes- and the perceptions and the character's connections move further and further apart. In part this is because the evidence he relies upon is filtered through a past which changes that evidence- evidence we begin to see is not a neutral thing but an act itself within the past, which changes the way the past is perceived in the present.

Reason itself in this very intelligent film becomes reliant upon the data that it infers things from. Like the philosophers we are reduced back to considering the trustworthiness of our own observations, as soon as they fall apart (and here the historical ones appear particularly fragile), we and others can manipulate the tracks along which reason functions.

Hinterlands

Today in the Times Ben Macintyre reveals (or has had leaked to him- in which case this paragraph is redundant) Gordon Brown's reading list. This blog is no fan of Brown- we've compared him to Neville Chamberlain once already. Having said that- we (like the Guardian) are in favour of any politician who reads more than blue books, as Denis Healey used to say having a hinterland, is one of the ways for a politician to stay sane. I hope it helps Gordon Brown in the same way.

October 12, 2006

Gracchi wonders whether this is a sion of contrition from Sion?

After all he sioned the letter to Tony calling for Tony to resign and Gordon to replace him- and considering no rightminded MP would be so stupid as to risk the ignominy of challenging Rory Bremner, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart at their own game, I mean, would they, this must be Sion's attempt to move back into the slipstream of the establishment. But then again it is Sion Simon- intelligence ain't his forte- well now everyone knows, looking at this either he was forced to do it or as likely its final proof- that Sion Simon ain't as cool or clever as he thinks he is.

Give Iran the bomb

Boris Johnson wants to do exactly that this morning- Johnson's point is worth exploring without deriding it. Being the licensed jester of British politics might allow him to express an opinion that the rest of us should consider. Iran obtaining a bomb would obviously be a disaster for the United States in the middle East but it would not be the disaster that many people imagine- nuclear holocaust would not hit Washington nor would it be particularly likely to hit Tel Aviv- unless Ahmenidijad were to get control of the bomb.

What though an Iranian bomb would do would be to advance Iran's prestige within the Middle East and the wider Islamic world- with a bomb the Ayatollahs would be able to proclaim themselves the successful leaders of the Middle East against the Great Satan- successful because alone of the Middle Eastern powers they could not be invaded and successful because they had defied America to reach that position. Whether there is anything that we can do to stop that, if there is nothing then Johnson's strategy of accepting its reality and attempting to ingratiate ourselves with Iran maybe our only strategy, what Johnson is right about is that rhetoric without response is an inadequate policy and will not help us deal with Iran at all.

Unrestrained rhetoric without results merely damages our image in the Middle East without securing our objective- the more we call the Iranians monsters without doing anything about it, the less likely we are to succeed in Iraq where a large section of the population likes Iran and the more likely many are to see the Iranian bomb as justifiable given Western Intervention.

If the choices are making a lot of noise but doing nothing, versus accepting the Iranian bomb, then Johnson may well be right- our pride might find it difficult but the second choice might well be the choice to make.

There may though be other alternatives- but if there are our leaders to need to enact them quickly and this blog is not confident that anyone is confident about which alternatives there are.

LATER
One danger Johnson doesn't think of is that Iran might hand a small nuclear device to a terrorist group in order to bomb the West or Israel- an interesting article from an academic at Georgetown assesses the nature of that particular danger which may lead us to reconsider the benign nature of a deterred Iranian regime. It doesn't change the underlying reality that unless we are able to do enough to stop the bomb- just irritating the Iranians but letting them get a bomb would be the worst possible policy. If we are going to be tough, then lets be tough- but pretending to be tough whilst actually being weak, isn't going to help anyone.

LATER STILL
The reality of the terrorist nuclear bomb threat is revealed here.

Analysis: The World After September 11th

Bin Laden wants our country to live in a netherworld between a word and its atonym

Its all here from the scholars of the Daily Show.

October 11, 2006

American at the Academy

Isaiah Berlin defended the narrow ground of the intellectual liberal middle ground throughout his life, both as ambassadorial staffer, envoy to writers in Russia and Fellow of All Souls. Amongst his many attempts at defence, Berlin warned against the dangers of utopian thinking, spying in the schemes of Helvetius, Rousseau and others the origins of totalitarian thinking- in the soirees of the philosophe he saw the colours of the swastika slowly emerging. Plans of perfection he thought encouraged men to mould and cut their fellow creatures into creations of their minds: attempting a perfect equal commonwealth led to the horrors of the gulag and creating a paradise for Germans to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Berlin's warnings have become famous throughout the world on subjects like this and have been challenged many times. Bernard Bailyn today attempted to critique some of Berlin's ideas at the British Academy, attempting to show that a search for perfection was not unreconcilable with civilisation. Berlin had attempted to show how a searcher for perfection became tempted by his vision to disregard the imperfect spectacle of the men he knew, Bailyn attempted to show conditions in which that had not happened. Bailyn beleived that throughout North America during the 16th and 17th Century, religious zealots had designed perfect commonwealths which attempted largely to reproduce the conditions of heaven upon earth. Spanish proconsuls, Dutch radicals, English refugees from the calamity of civil war, religiously heterodox Protestants and religiously conventional Jesuits all exploited at various times the space of the new continents (new to Europeans) to imagine and create a truly new world.

Professor Bailyn's case was that this showed that a dream for perfection and a callous disregard for human rights were sometimes not linked as intimately as Berlin wanted us to think. The answer for a Berliner (apologies for hopeless puns, they just call out to be made) is that given huge space and minimal force, Professor Bailyn is right. Religious radicals in 17th Century America like Roger Williams found that they had almost no followers, when their fellowship grew too vast disputes thinned them out and religious sects biffurcated indefinitely and almost infinitely. Roger Williams ended his life living in a cave with his wife, praying alone because noone else was perfect enough to join him. Both the fact, that Williams expected vengeance in heaven (something Osama Bin Laden seems curiously uninterested in) and the fact that he could not physically control his fellowship, could not stop them wandering westwards into the wilderness, meant that he never tried to take the options that Stalin did.

Professor Bailyn's criticisms of Isaiah Berlin are interesting for their content- the historical analysis is fascinating- but they ultimately fail to hit their mark. He does not defend Berlin's main target, the search for perfection amongst atheist or deist enlightenment philosophers, and his analysis is geographically and historically confined- powerless people, Bailyn informs us, can't commit mass murder. Berlin I suspect would sagely nod- and point out that when searchers for perfection have power, have still on the whole murdered huge numbers of people and Bailyn has offered no theoretical or historical refutation of Berlin's central argument- however amusing his anecdotes may be.

Blunkett in a bunker

Well the third installment of David Blunkett's diaries have been published and apart from revealing that David was right about everything and that nobody said anything else in Cabinet of any consequence, save when they commented that David was a jolly good chap with a jolly good idea about the situation and extremely loyal to Tony taking hard decisions, they reveal Blunkett's absolute contempt for the MOD and the Foreign Office. Seems like Blunkett who says that the media were more trustworthy than civil servants, hated the Chief of the Defence Staff, couldn't be bothered to look at military maps because he had listened to Five Live that morning and in general rubbished the civil servants every time they said anything.

Now we realise why it was a complete surprise that the civil servants fearing his bullying (apologies that should read justifiable orders) reacted in the way they did about the visa scandal.

They were civil servants and hence incompetent- now if it had been the media or politicians or David himself all would have been different!

Consultation, what Consultation?

Consultation has become a hot word today on the Radio 4 program You and Yours. You and Yours pointed out that there was a difficulty within the way that we think about consultation- is consultation a replacement for plebiscitory democracy or is it a way of starting a debate in which ministers can be persuaded either way?

The importance of the word 'consultation' within the modern political lexicon is a recent idea- it has accompanied the word stakeholder on its march to primacy over other wordings about the way policy is created. Partly it reflects a lack of confidence within the political establishment about the degree to which they represent the people that elect them- hence reaching out to community groups, stakeholder groups, consumer groups, proffessional groups and unions.

Therein lies another clue. The Labour government which came in in 1997, began with a simple intention- they wanted to bring in a state which facilitated the market but not abandon the ambition of government to reform society, just to do it alongside a market. Rather than the debate being between a Tory strong market and a Labour strong state, Blair wanted to combine a strong state and a strong market. Labour saw the Union control of the party as an obstacle to this ambition.

Consequently the Labour government wanted to consult with other groups- to widen the participation and influence of groups within policy making, to make the unions one of seven or eight stakeholders rather than negotiate directly with them. Consequently the idea of the state changed from the state as representative of the working class interest under a Labour government, a working class interest declared by the Unions, to the state as representative of society, with all the interest groups representing various stakeholders within society. This movement in the definition of the role of the state under a Labour government is the underlying change which has been reflected in the change of vocabulary and the move to consultation.

Consultation thus is the ultimate abandonment of class warfare.

Thinking about Football

Sports Journalism seldom provides much more of an insight into the world than a medical bulletin on somebody's foot or the analysis of a passage of play, yet sport in many ways is a fascinating subject for students of politics. Here we have thousands of human beings bound together for a couple of instants in a common cause with common hatreds and common loves. Perhaps most interestingly the focus with sport gives can allow the expression of feelings which in other circumstances would be transmitted into other modes of behaviour- sport as the true opiate of the masses.

See for example today, Phil Ball's article on Spain which shows how Spanish nationalism and regionalism can be discussed in football terms- how its important for Spanish nationalism to realise that another game was played alongside Spain's game on Saturday, between Catalonia and Euskadi (the Basque Country) and that second game got more of an audience than any other international that Saturday bar England versus Macedonia. Mr Ball is right- the attendance and the interest and the history of those teams reflect the divided nature of Spain and the fact that unlike Scotland or Wales they aren't full international teams, reflects the bloody reality of Spain's regional history over the last hundred years.

October 10, 2006

Syria's President on Newsnight

Last night Newsnight's John Simpson interviewed one of the more interesting leaders in the Middle East today- Bashar el-Assad- supposedly 'calm and thoughtful with a scholarly precision about his words' but also a firebrand defying Israel and America in terms of his foreign policy and presiding over a potentially volcanic society- sitting in many ways in a position analogous to Musharref in Pakistan, seeking to keep the lid upon the powderkeg before it blows up his regime- though unlike Musharref Assad has exchanged popularity at home for unpopularity in Washington. The different attitudes in part reflect their different situations but are also interesting as two models of uncertain dictatorship strive to cope with the War on Terror with wildly different strategies.

Assad within the interview plays one aspect brilliantly- he argues that Hezbollah and Hamas and the Iraqi resistance can all be looked at as the democratic resistance of people coming together to resist occupying forces- this he says is 'normal', 'wherever you have occupation in the region...you have the same reaction in every occupation', terming the situation in Iraq a 'quagmire' and arguing that 'resistance' is a universal concept. Whilst his stance on Lebanon swiftly becomes ridiculous, his use of Western rhetoric more centrally back at the West is very successful.

Simpson might be seen by some to have given a very easy ride to Assad- he seldom interrupts and only on Lebanon asks a difficult question. Possibly being less than Paxman like was a condition of the interview. It also allows us to see the appeal that Assad holds across the Middle East: his use of the rhetoric of democratisation to further his ends is adroit. This man is a politician who can attempt to appeal to different audiences and whether we like him or not realising that ability is there is something we need to understand if we are ever to act successfully within a region where he is a leading figure.

Of course Assad has his own agenda on this being as he is a dictator and a strongman, albeit perhaps one who has reformist tendencies, it is in his interest to have the West as a pantomime villain to take the blame for his own failure to give his population accountability in their government. On the other hand his own rhetoric and the rhetoric of others about resistance means that one of the ways that Arabs have to respond to what has happened is not just the appeal to the lands of Islam and the concept of the infidel, but also an appeal to the idea of resistance and the idea of self determination. In that sense what Assad showed tonight was the face of Fatah, how far inside the Syrian leader that is married to the face of Osama is something that others will be better qualified to say. Putting the face of Fatah forwards in the West might be a deliberate strategy, it also might be a chink in his armour as the arguments used against the West by him can be turned back on him and his Allawite allies- one wonders if somewhere in this interview lies the nugget of a clip that could be replayed to the Syrian population about resistance and democracy.

The interview with Assad is about midway through last night's newsnight broadcast which will be here for the next 16 hours (until roughly 10.30 UK time).

Return of the Nixon crew- even a defrosted Chequers

Stephen Colbert adds his voice to those welcoming the introduction of the experience of former Secretary of State Kissinger to the Presidential circle.

Robin Hood for Tory Leader

Dave made it perfectly clear down in Bournemouth that the old policies on tax weren't coming back (see here), which will leave some scrapping around for a champion of the low tax economy.

Step forward an unlikely hero.

No not Nigel Farage whose party are helpfully doing the splits- again- but a champion of the working classes, the proletariate's own hero from the miner's county!

Having returned from a ruinous war in the Middle East, according to the BBC, Robin of Locksley found his beloved home impoverished by ruinous taxation from an avaricious local bureacrat or sherriff. In his first local council meeting with the bureacratic busybody of Nottingham Castle, our brave representative of Locksley Hall South, gave a classic account of how by diminishing taxation on the poor, trade would be encouraged and the tax yield rise. Whilst the share that the Sheriff would be taking would be less, the value of this share would increase.

Of course after this, Robin Hood (for that is who our hero is) was forced into rebellion taking up his sword for universal human rights, female equality and a secular state which tolerated minorities. All vibrant causes in the 12th Century or 13th Century.

To be serious and not entirely flippant- Gracchi fears this represents one of three developments- either the BBC has become more rightwing than the Tory leader, or they've discovered a new 12th Century version of Adam Smith which proves the Scot nicked all his ideas from a Nottingham lad or maybe we are just over analysing popular culture?

Wonder which it could be...

October 09, 2006

Law and Democracy

Lord Phillips is resigning or attempting to resign his life peerage. This title might not create the kind of attention that every ambitious blogger wishes his items would- the resignation of one of the more obscure LibDem peers is not quite front page of the Sun material- but why he is resigning should make us pause for thought. His resignation is caused by the fact that what he does all day is not front page of the Sun news.

He decided to resign because as he said thousands of pieces of leglislation are passed each year most of which the general public neither understands nor knows about- all this leglislation is passed on behalf of the public, our laws are created so that the public are ordered in the best way possible but also in order to reflect the public's view of morality and politics within the government- and yet we need particular people, called Lawyers who spend a lifetime of training to understand them. This blog isn't calling for the abolition of the law, nor is it calling for the abolition of lawyers- it is merely noting that a democratic system of law is one that at present is only understood by an elite group of people, who receive special training in order to understand it.

John Lilburne in the 17th Century campaigned famously that the law of England be reduced into a single book which all could read- maybe its time that some of Lilburne's ideas and particularly his thinking about the complexity of the law is adopted to deal with the way that law itself is dealt with- otherwise one wonders whether the decline in the legitimacy of politicians might not be due to the fact that nobody within the general public (save for an elite) actually understands the system under which we are ruled.

Sex Discrimination in the Workplace in Vienna

This is an interesting statistical study by Doris Weichselbaumer of the University of Linz in Austria about discrimination in the workplace. Weichselbaumer looks at data and attempts to strip out perceived differences between men and women as well as other factors to assess discrimination- how far women are rejected for jobs because of the sheer fact that they are a woman.

Her method was to submit three applications one of a man, one of a "tomboy" and one of a feminine woman to various firms (277 in total- divided between traditionally masculine and feminine types of work). She found that the "tomboy" despite displaying on her application various forms of masculine behaviour and being surveyed elsewhere with a control group as someone with masculine characteristics was still treated as a woman- that outweighed in many people's eyes the fact that she seemed to have all the roughness of a man. Its interesting because her study purports to show that it is sex difference and not character difference that loses or gains people jobs against people of a different sex- i.e. its not because a male personality type, aggressive, ambitious etc is preferred but because men are preferred.

To be honest, I am not competent to assess the methodology of the study. One of the ways of interpreting it might be to say that employers are so blind to the distinctions within sexes that when called to put their money down and employ someone they will rigidly attach sex and gender to each other, no matter what the evidence in front of them. Based on her data, Weichselbaumer doesn't go that far, but its a worthwhile thought and whatever she does think about why this state of affairs exists, it is her belief based upon her study that she has proved that discrimination exists regardless of a person's suitability for a job whether on their CV or in their character.

Whether she has or not I leave to those more competent with statistics than myself (being to further the cause, a man who understands little of statistics but loves Jane Austen) but this is a study worthy of attention.

(Oh and a note of acknowledgement to Crooked Timber's discussion on gender for furnishing me with the web address for the article.)

I should issue a disclaimer at the end of this article that there are other studies out there and as this is not an academic article nor am I an expert in this field, I cannot state that I know many of them- so anyone that wants to put more my way is perfectly free to.

October 08, 2006

Negative Identities

Interesting post here at Legal Fiction by Publius about the Republican Party and what holds it together. He argues that their tactic of calling into question Democrat behaviour about the Foley affair (in which a Republican Congressman has been accused of inappropriate behaviour towards a 16 year-old page) reveals not merely political manoeurvering but the way that parties identity negatively against each other- Republicans are Republicans not out of adherence to a tax plan but out of hatred of those liberal Democrats in Washington.

There is a lot of truth in this and Publius is right about the way that people identify. Linda Colley's great work on British nationalism where she saw how Britain was unified through a hatred of Catholics and Frenchmen. Benedict Andersson used the phrase 'imagined communities' to describe various nations and there were imagined positives- for example English nationalism owed a lot to Englishmen like John Lilburne feeling a great degree of pride in their traditions of law and government- from Sir Edward Coke to Lord Macaulay the ingredients of Whig history became part of a sense of England as a uniquely liberty loving place and were used by politicians like Asquith and Churchill to justify English behaviour in the 20th Century. But hatred forms such a vast part of nationalism around the world- Colley may be trite but she is accurate- Americans are American not merely because they beleive in Freedom but because since the Revolution they have known that they aren't part of the old world.

Part of this is that to define myself as a sensible, kind, loving, thoughtful, wise human being I have to define others as lacking those qualities. Those words distinguish me from others- they are not neccessarily descriptive of me as many times- say as I pass a beggar on the street I don't behave in those ways, but they say that I am more like those qualities than the mean human being is. We have to cope intellectually with a scale all the time- whether it be in politics or life- and one of the ways we try and cope with that is to define ourselves by reference to other points. When we are proud of something that means that we define ourselves by the points lower than ourselves- for me to be wise, I define others as foolish. In party terms- we are all together more similar to each other than the people facing us- hence our bond is our dislike and dissimularity to the people opposing us. Our identity is built upon their failure to have the same identity as us.

Obviously this is not a complete explanation of party or national identification but it does go someway to describe the psychological reality that Publius is getting at.

Suicide of the West: or Mr Smith goes to Spengler

Chris Smith, Blair's ex-Culture Secretary, has set off on a Spenglarian vein, calling out that the West is committing suicide. He talks of an 'unconscious process' of destroying the values, the building blocks of Western civilisation- science, individualism, liberalism, optimism, growth and Christianity.

Well this blog would like to demur on several grounds. Firstly Smith forgets that many strains within his concepts conflict- Christianity has a long record of disparaging free speech, liberals a long record of upholding it, science has a long record of questioning our optimism about human nature and our beliefs in God, liberals have a long history of mourning the death of freedom etc etc. Secondly he forgets that much of what he sees as decline is only temporary and very recent- despite that there is no doubt that liberals have gained new Eastern European allies over the last twenty years, there are more scientists now around working on more advanced problems than ever, there is more individual liberty all across the West and in many other places than ever before. His pillars of Western civilisation turn out as well to be recent and matters of interpretation as well- Edmund Burke, John Milton, William Shakespeare and many others would never have described themselves as Liberals and Fyodor Dosteovsky and Karl Marx would have disdained the label, yet all five are key figures within 'western' civilisation (a civilisation that owes as much to China as to many countries in Europe put together- not to mention the contributions of such notable Christians as Averroes).

Chris Smith's errors warn us not to get so wrapped up in the narratives of fear about today as to lose our sense of perspective about our position within the past either for good or evil. Saying that we have problems today, should not lead us to forget that often greater problems were not recognised or were faced in the past.