October 21, 2006

Eagleton takes on Dawkins

Terry Eagleton is right to suggest, in the London Review of Books, that Richard Dawkins shows little understandings of the subtleties of theological debate, doesn't understand that there are many beleivers for whom God is not to be represented as a vengeful super-ego but rather as a gentle father or lover (images with a long Christian usage at least- only ignorance prohibits me saying religious there), but Eagleton is also interestingly blind. Where Eagleton is blind is in his descriptions of the flaws of science- like Dawkins Eagleton seems to imagine a grand view of the purposes and perview of science- he argues that science is responsible for the events of the twentieth century and matches religious inquisitions against chemical warfare.

The truth though lies in a different line of thinking- science and religion answer different questions. Science rests upon a presumption that the world is as it seems to us to be. If we seek to undermine that, as Eagleton in his essay at one point attempts to do, we begin to stroll a long road towards academic obscurity and pointlessness: like Dr Johnson we may refute scepticism by kicking stones and feeling pain. That neither implies nor does not imply what created the system and for what purpose the system exists- by the neccessary conditions of its existance as an analysis of the data within the system science can not tell us what lies beyond the system. Nor can it tell us much about other systems, like the systems of morality we might seek to invent.

Fascinatingly therefore Eagleton, an English don with a postmodern bent, and Dawkins, a biology don with an atheist bent, reveal their limits. Eagleton's lack of scientific literacy means that he fails to understand what science does, and Dawkins' lack of understanding of the wider philosophic context- both of the theology and the place of science within philosophy, means that the argument they have is a debate of the deaf.

Both men are incredibly intelligent people- both serve in my analysis as examples of the flaws of a specialist intellect- unavoidable in our age of intellectual abundance- but perhaps with its disadvantages. You have been warned!

October 20, 2006

Carnival of Cinema

The Carnival of Cinema is up here. This blog has had a post included and there are many other interesting ones- including an analysis of Hitchcock's films and their psychological analysis of the human condition.

Exit left: Clare Short

Clare Short has left the Labour Party- her reasons are outlined here and she is doing an interview on PM this evening. In many ways the tragedy of Clare Short's political career is how censorious she has become of her former colleagues- ones that she was happy to work with for a long time, as we attempted to indicate here Short unlike Robin Cook adopted an attitude of outright hatred towards her former allies. Partly she was stimulated in her hatred by the fact that she was outmanoeurvred by the Prime Minister so completely in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Her style of opposition has been so full of personal pique that she has lost all her standing within the Labour party- instead of becoming Robin Cook, a vacancy still open to someone to represent the sensible Left against Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

(I've corrected a bad link- apologies to anyone who followed it but unfortunately I'd linked to the Guardian's breaking news section instead of to a main news article- the link does work now, and I apologise.)

October 19, 2006

Arthur and George return to Radio 4

A personal plug but a good and light description of a book reviewed here earlier Arthur and George on Radio 4's A Good Read- they pick up some really good points about the novel which I didn't have space to include. Really well worth listening to. One of the most impressive things about this program is Anthony Beevor's discussion of the Spanish civil war where he points out that war is not a neat affair as historians see it but a bloody chaos where nobody knows what is going on often.

Iraq War Analogies- Tired of Vietnam, try Middle Earth

After this syntillating piece of analysis from Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, all the analysts in the world need to quit, take it away Rick:

As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else, it's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the U.S. You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States.

Ah if Iraq is Mordor, the US Hobbiton, Bush Frodo perhaps, Rummy Sam does that make Cheney Gandalf. Seriously is there any better analysis of the situation out there- because I think this comparrison of a war which has cost thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives to a fantasy novel just beats all other Iraq war analogies out of the ground.

Colbert deals with this all here with a slightly different idea of what Santorum means- obviously McCain is Gollum!

October 18, 2006

NeoCons defence strategy- Attack: A Neo-Conservative Diagnosis of the ills of Liberalism.

So Douglas Murray, seconded by his reviewer in the Weekly Standard Peter Berkowitz, has decided the time has come to defend neo-conservatism by attacking any other option to for governing the country. Berkowitz's elaboration of Murray presents neo conservatism as a medium via- on the one hand conservatism offers a shaky confidence in Western norms, on the other hand liberalism is contaminated by a relativism and distrust of America resulting from a failure to understand the weaknesses of democracy as well as its strength.

I consider this thesis, that Liberalism is drowning in a sea of relativism and needs help from the likes of Murray to stay afloat, to be flawed. Liberalism is not drowning in a sea of relativism at all. Moral vitality is not lacking in liberal thought. For example Ronald Dworkin today explained on Radio 4 a liberalism based upon principles of individual autonomy and self realisation. Both of those principles stand central to the thinking of many less sophisticated liberal thinkers than Dworkin. So Murray's attacks on liberalism fail- but they fail for an interesting reason. They fail because Murray like many conservatives, like indeed Islamic fundamentalists themselves sees the principle of individual autonomy- that I have the right to live in the way I choose to fulfill my own objectives- as an abandonment of morality rather than as an affirmation of it.

Neo Conservatism was primarily a movement about foreign policy. One of the classic statements of British foreign policy, from a statesman deep in the conservative and even neo-conservative tradition, was William Pitt's speech at the Guildhall in 1805. Pitt, offered the garland of being the man who saved the world from Napoleonic despotism, replied,

I return you many thanks for the honour you have done me; but Europe is not to be saved by any single man. England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example.

Pitt's statement is fascinating to this viewer because it seems that Murray has forgot one half of the statement- he is ready to save the Middle East by the exertions of US troops but not by the example of US statecraft. It is to that second exemplifying character that many liberals turn- the criticism of Michael Moore and others is that the United States does not live up to its ideals- that foreswearing wars of choice, it began a war of choice against Iraq. That is the issue that Murray will not live with or understand and it is that problem that undermines Bush's foreign policy and is the lifeblood of the liberal critique of it (not to say that there aren't problems with the liberal alternative).

Murray's failure to understand liberalism undermines his claims about neo-conservatism: he and Berkowitz posit that neo conservatism is good because it succeeds in doing what liberalism and conservatism fail to do. I have only dealt with liberalism but we have seen that liberalism is not what they say it is, consequently their offered neo-conservatism is not the cure of West's problems because the illness is not what Murray and Berkowitz have diagnosed.

Fratboy Films as Emotional Props.

The phenomenen of films which rely upon physical humour, political incorrectness and disgusting antics is one that has recently assailed the cinema screens near you: a brief history of the genre can be found in today's Telegraph and stimulates some thought. Why would someone want to go and see a group of people perform humiliating and often revolting tasks (Jackass, Dirty Sanchez) or watch a group of kids incompetently grope their way through a film (American Pie) or any of the other so called fratboy comedies. Why would people go to see these films, why not go to see other more intelligent films?

Firstly its worth remembering that some of these 'fratboy' films as identified by the Telegraph aren't the genuine article- Starsky and Hutch for instance is mischaracterised as only a Fratboy comedy- admittedly having Carmen Electra as a co-star is not like having Lauren Bacall let alone Scarlett Johansen- but on the other hand the film was also about adventure and about the dynamic between two characters. Many of these films thrive upon observations about characters- they might be called a character drama oiled by bodily fluids and fueled by bodily functions- American Pie for instance offers good observations, the father in the series is the archetype embarrassing over attentive father. Some of the following observations therefore won't apply to all these movies- but they do apply to a fair few.

But there is a justness in saying that these films take acting often to new lows (especially female acting) and there is rather more of the oil than there is of the character analysis I commented upon. Some films like Jackass go the whole hog and just exclude women and plot completely. So what drives them? Why would people go and watch them?

The secret I think is to be found in the fact that many people feel overtaxed and frustrated within modern society. These films are whatever they are not serious. They are not preaching anything and their endings typically are conventionally happy- characters aren't faced with existential angst but with worries about whether they can pull a girl or eat a slug, worries which we know will go away by the end of the film. Someone walking in worried about the state of the world, can be reminded that life is about belching burping and begetting. These films objectify shamelessly- they demand no imagination, no consideration- they are a warm bath for the mind in which nothing is challenged from their target demographic and all sorts of attitudes whether occasionally thought, covertly held or outwardly proclaimed are sustained.

The Fratboy film is also a remarkeably tolerant genre- it reduces life to its animal essentials which are accessible to us all and it also grounds our higher emotions in the earth from which they sprung, the muddy roots say of love in sex are never neglected in these films in a way that they can be in romantic comedies or in the great Hollywood classics. You may not be able to love like Bogart, but any man can be an idiot like Tom Green. A film which doesn't have deep roots encourages its viewer to live for today not for the great cause of tommorrow- to make the single man look to the next lay not the next lifetime love and there is something deeply psychologically healthy about such an outlook.

Not merely are they psychologically healthy in that way but they offer to young men something special- an affirmation and sarcastic take on their qualities. The attitude of a film like American Pie to women is fascinating, on the one hand the boys concerned look at the girls they like as ethereal beings that they want to sleep with but can't find the language to persuade them through- on the other the film mocks their inability- but because the mockery is tied so much into the world view it becomes very gentle, American Pie enables a young man entering sexuality to think on the one hand that I am absurd but also not to judge himself as much as he would otherwise thinking that thought. It offers him a way of both understanding his present situation and laughing at it through regarding the story. One could say the same about risk say and Jackass- but I think the point has been made here.

The Fratboy picture therefore whilst being on the surface a fairly objectionable entity (and having many objectionable features)- fulfills some real needs. It allows psychological release in a society becoming more and more hectic and committed to mental stress, it isn't contributing to the huge idealisation of the pinacle of society but spreads that promise to all who can belch out an uncouth melody with their buttocks. It also allows people to understand, accept and find comic some of the parts of their personality as it develops that they would not neccessarily understand or acknowledge otherwise.

If we view the Fratboy films as rubbish floating on the surface of society then we mistake their function- like most things in popular culture- underneath they reflect the needs and anxieties of individuals confronted with the world. The Fratboy Film no matter how crude, rude and stupid fills a need within those individuals' minds- a need to cope with the vastness of the world and smallness of the human being confronting it.

October 17, 2006

Anti Imperialism Day Pyongyang

Today is North Korea's anti-imperialism day- Pyongyang, Havana and other capitols make much of the anti-imperialist credentials of their regimes to the extent where it becomes a justifying ideology. Neo Conservatives often point to the idea that an installed democracy or even a colonial administration is more just than a tyranny- interestingly the argument in contrary has existed for a long time- at least since Herodotus and its most famous expression was that of Lord Byron about Polycrates, tyrant of Samos. Byron acknowledged that Polycrates was

A tyrant; but our masters then
Were still, at least, our countrymen.

The sentiment that tyranny is better than enlightened administration so long as it is 'our' tyranny is one that has a long history of being used by tyrants in their rhetoric but also a long history of being acknowledged by populations- there is no use hiding from the fact that traditionalist regimes based on feudal structures have been more popular over the world than have enlightened modern governments imposed from afar. Indeed one of the trends of modern politics whether on the left taking the form of opposing imperialism or the right opposing international norms and rules no matter how conceived, has been the central idea that only someone like me can leglislate for me- that democracy in some vague sense means representation as well as it means election. Part of the problem with the enlightenment project was its refusal to recognise this problem with universal values and universal aims- they brush up against sometimes violently the wishes of local populations who are happier to go for a reactionary but local solution than a progressive but universal one. There are many examples of this and much of what is going on with fundamentalism today can be reduced to this knee jerk response to cosmopolitanism. Whether we describe this as false consciousness or not, it is a fact about present politics and we have to deal with it. Kim Jong Il's day against imperialism in that sense is but the extreme of a more common preoccupation of modern politics.


I do not know how credible this is, but this report from the Asia Times reveals how difficult Musharref's situation in Pakistan is. Under threat they say from a recent attempted coup by Islamists within the air force's elite units, the general has been forced to arrest 40 officers. Whether the report is over dramatising or not I do not know but Pakistan is definitely a fragile ally against Al Quaeda, despite Musharref's personal solidity.

October 16, 2006

The Daily Colbert Reference

Is Colbert gay? When will the Democrats take responsibility for the Foley scandal?

All the answers are here as the noted pundit and blogger Andrew Sullivan takes on Stephen Colbert.

History Carnival

The History Carnival is up here and they've included a post from this blog. There is plenty of other good stuff- ancient defecation, the witches of Warboys and a fascinating exhibition at the British Museum about Bengal- in addition to many other good articles so get over there and have fun.

October 15, 2006

Faith and Politics

During the Iraq war and afterwards one of the major criticisms of Tony Blair was that he had a religious certainty about what was happening in Iraq and what should happen. Jeremy Paxman famously derisively asked Blair wherever he and Bush prayed together- and his public question was more polite than many things said in private around the time by opponents of the war. Living in a post-Christian society, Blair took as one of his tactics to justify the Iraq war a consistent insistance that secret information and also his own sincerity justified the invasion.

So why the controversy? Scepticism about religious thinking we are often told is a European thing: but is it in this case- is there something special about religious certainty about policy and how should we evaluate it. By way of digression and not logical or consistent argument, its useful to look at how one novelist imagines the effect of religious revelations upon politics. Naghuib Mahfouz's novel Akhenaten Dweller in Truth, as another internet reviewer at the Middle Stage has already discussed concentrates on how to reach truth, contrasting religious revelation with historical investigation and not neccessarily finding a way of justifying either.

What Mahfouz also describes though the effect of the leadership of a man who leads by religious revelation, who is certain and sincere (virtues Blair often claimed) but whose claims about his revelations are inaccessible to anyone else. His novel takes the form of several narratives of this man's (Akhenaten's) reign as Pharoah in Egypt from different perspectives. We hear the perspectives of those fearful of the new revelation (like the High Priest of the former religion), from those cynical about it (military commanders and priests), from those respectful (Akhenaten's father in law Ay), from those enthusiastic (the High Priest of the new religion and Akhenaten's chief sculptor) and from those close to Akhenaten (his wife Nefertiti, concubine and father in law).

Akhenaten's reign produced in Mahfouz's work division and discord, eventually he was deserted and betrayed by all his men and yet stayed resolute to the end in his own faith. This certainty allowed Akhenaten a kind of seraphical charm which Mahfouz describes convincingly as seducing many but leaving many feeling seduced or untouched. The problems in such a kind of rule- its innovations based on an unreachable dedication to a revelation are aptly described. Akhenaten fails in the book because he fails to convince enough people to move with him against the establishment because all he can offer them is his own certainty.

Mahfouz's book thus does everything described in the other review- analysing our perceptions of reality- but also he provides a subtle and educated analysis of why faith in politics is always a dangerous weapon to use for those who seek to change a nation- working from a base where a number of people disagree about the source of your faith- relying on revelation leaves you dividing those who support your character from those who don't find your character and your sincerity appealing.

Blair made the Iraq war a test of people's faith in his sincerity: like Akhenaten in this novel he failed to convince many who failed to share his faith and couldn't detect the facts that lied behind his sincerity.