November 18, 2006

Newcomb's problem and environmentalism and the war on terror

There is a fascinating post over at Stumbling and Mumbling about environmentalism and the argument often made that we shouldn't do anything because our contribution is irrelevant (an argument made for instance by Iain Dale. The post basically makes the point that there are three ways of thinking: the first is to act in our own best interest assuming that everyone else won't act on climate change, the second is to assume that everyone else will act in their own best interests and on the same logic as us to produce a global common good and the third is that we should take action for symbolic reasons.

On Stumbling and Mumbling, Chris advocates the simularity to the case of voting. But I think there is another interesting simularity the war on terror. Earlier this year Al Quaeda offered Europe a deal- if we pulled out of Iraq and stopped supporting the US then we would be free of terror. Facing that deal, we could say well beating Al Queada is a global responsibility, some countries won't join in and if they don't we'll lose- therefore its better not to take the risks with our own citizens and let others go down before us. The similar logic to Iain Dale's on global warming therefore- which would incline us to abandon the war on terror. The position that we have taken is that we ought to oppose Al Queada and other countries will see that we are right to do so and they will also oppose them- that in Dale's scenario is the same as proposing dealing with emmissions here in the presumption that they will be dealt with elsewhere. The differences in the use of logic are fascinating.

A Clash of Languages: Christianity vs Liberalism

Rae Hart Anderson lost an election to a Democrat Hindu in Minnesota and then sent a concession email which the Democrat complained, as the local television station, WCCO, reported, sounded more like a sermon than a concession email. (For any reader who wishes to see the email for themselves, the text is provided in the report I've linked too.) Andrew Sullivan has carried the story and thinks that it indicates the kind of republican thinking that he has come to fear- an intolerant theocratic way of thinking.

I think that Mr Sullivan is wrong to analyse it in this way. What it indicates rather is a clash of political languages which is important to understand- for in the end what Rae Anderson saw as a generous gesture was interpreted on the other side as an aggressive one. I suggest that this example is interesting because it exposes this clash. On the one hand Rae Anderson beleives unlike some other Christian thinkers, Andrew Sullivan himself or C.S. Lewis that you can't reach heaven without faith, for her faith seems from this email to be central and consequently her call to faith is an act of benevolence- she would see it as an opening of the arms to a sinner that she hopes will repent, not a patronising gesture. I should note that what Anderson is saying is often the way that religious people talk to people who disagree with them: this is not merely a Christian thing but people of other religions too can make points which derive from their world views and which make those who share the perspective outlined below feel insulted.

Mr Chaudhary and others myself included though have not interpreted the email in the same way. What to Anderson is a matter of truth- something she sees as being as true as the fact that right now I am typing words on this computer- we see as a matter of doubt. Something that is arrived at from a personal perspective of the world. Disagreement therefore becomes not a sin but a perspective and the only way to deal with disagreement is rational argument. Anderson beleives that merely asserting a fact, calling to Mr Chaudhary and calling upon him to repent is enough but for Mr Chaudhary it looks like she is preempting him, she is declaring that Mr Chaudhary's reasoning processes don't count beside her's. What we have is a clash of languages.

This distinction between the Christian Rae Anderson and Hindu Liberal State Senator Satveer Chaudhary is very important. It allows us to understand how both sides are using different languages to think about religion. It also allows us to see how each side for perfectly sensible reasons comes to misunderstand the other sides' actions and motivations- disentangling the language that we are using and finding out what we are actually arguing about- as in this case it seems two concepts of truth and human autonomy are at stake- is important because it may well lead to Anderson perceiving how her email could insult and Mr Chaudhary understanding that if the tone of the email was wrong, the intention was generous.

November 17, 2006

Carnival Time

Its the Carnival of Cinema back for another session some really good posts on all sorts of films- the new James Bond and Prestige amongst them and one from this blog as well. Head over there its good.

The poetics of anxiety: James Shapiro on Shakespeare and 1599

Elizabethan England has today a reputation of being a glorious time when Englishmen either composed poetry of exquisite beauty or singed the King of Spain's beard- it is a tale not of sound and fury but of Spencer and Armada culminating with the foundation of England's national poetic tradition and with the foundation of the institutions that would lead on to the British empire. In this sense the Elizabethan age represents the moment of glory before the storms of the seventeenth century, before Guy Fawkes, Civil War and Restoration- Elizabeth's reign in this vision is the beggining of a story, lost under the Stuarts, but taken up again in the reigns of William III, Anne and the Georges- a story which leads to empire. This is in many ways the Churchillian tale of England's past.

There is only one problem with it- its completely false. Elizabeth's England was as James Shapiro shows wonderfully through this book on Shakespeare beset by anxiety. As England left the sixteenth century, its monarchy was under pressure. Whether that pressure came from Catholic Spain, the superpower of the day, whose war machine was occupying Englishmen abroad or more locally from Catholic Ireland where English forces were being embarrassedly humiliated in their attempted occupation by the Earl of Tyrone, the pressure was leading to great instability within English society. An instability compounded by the spectacle of an aged childless queen who had no obvious successor. An instability which culminated with the attempted coup of 1601, when the Earl of Essex, the darling of the court and of Elizabeth herself, having led a failed expedition against Tyrone, attempted to return from his command and raise the city against Elizabeth's corrupt councillers.

Shapiro's focus and hero in the midst of all this turmoil is the poet and playwright William Shakespeare. He details Shakespeare's significant plays across the year- from Henry V with its reminders about martial glory, to Julius Caesar a meditation on tyrannicide, As you Like it an attempt at darker comedy and finally onto Hamlet begun in this year though revised later. Through all of these plays, Shapiro traces common themes- themes of regicide, republicanism, political disquiet, the end of pastoral and last but not least Shakespeare's own concern with his position in his own times. Shakespeare was nothing if not a political dramatist, one of his plays provoked a famous Elizabethan moment when Elizabeth realised that when the play of Richard II (documenting the fall of a foolish monarch during an Irish War) was being put on at the Globe, she was the target and exclaimed "I am Richard II".

Shapiro doesn't only focus on the grand picture, but also the rather more mundane but also interesting machinations within a company. He takes a look at the Globe, founded in 1599. At the replacement within the company Shakespeare worked in of one clown Kemp with another Armin adn the way that altered what Shakespeare could do with his drama. He focuses on the process of redrafting, particularly redrafting Hamlet and on Shakespeare's hints that poems attributed to him in collections were not by him. He describes the rivalry with Marlowe who died in 1592 that still seven years later flowed through Shakespeare's works. He describes the complex process of editing that took place within the plays that Shakespeare adopted. He considers how the plays work within themselves- contrasting Hamlet say to Horatio's judgement of Hamlet as a simple revenge play, he shows that Horatio misses the point, that Hamlet is about the inner life as much as the outer reality.

All in all though what Shapiro seems to seek in this year- 1599- is a moment at which the Churchillian story became true. He is exactly right to say that the state was more vulnerable, Shakespeare no God than a conventional history would have it, but he wants still to have this moment as a moment of change. For Shakespeare he thinks that 1599 marked the beggining of something new, for English history the change from Essex to the East India Company he sees as the death of the medieval and the beggining of empire. This reviewer can't comment on the discussion of Shakespeare- though personally two of the works that Shapiro dismisses- Twelfth Night and Richard III are two that I find particularly powerful- but I can comment on the history. What Shapiro has done though is to misplace this year- the foundation of the company and the fall of Essex were unrelated though important events. The first did not mark the beggining in any way of empire- the second did not mark the end of chivalry. Both had a more local relevance. Looking for the ends or begginings of such huge economic and political facts, it is worth looking to the structures of society- the change in the relationship between England and the continent, the change in the relationship between landholders and military power than looking to particular events. Hindsight may tell us that Essex's fall and the Company's creation were key, but other things made them key in the end and those other things were structural changes, beggining as early as the early sixteenth century, but which had a long time to run before England lost chivalry and acquired an empire.

Shapiro is right to suggest that the world of 1599 was a much more haunted place than we have thought- that the drama produced out of it carries echoes of those ghosts and screams of terror in the past. He is wrong to suggest that the drama also suggests a new world- losing one kind of Churchillian hindsight about golden ages shouldn't mean we adopt another about the begginings of the modern world and pivotal years. Thinking about Shakespeare as a modern comes naturally often to us, and Shapiro is alive to some of the aspects of Shakespeare rooted in his times- suggesting a transition in the bard's life though, he wants that to mirror a transition in the nation's life. Whether he is right about the bard, I'd suggest he is wrong about the nation.

November 16, 2006

The ethics of biography and the privacy of the subject: Simon Callow talking about Orson Welles


Simon Callow's first two volumes of biography of Orson Welles are amongst the many books that Gracchii wishes to read very very soon but hasn't got round to getting a copy of from anywhere- however an interview with Callow by Andrew Marr back in April raises some fascinating questions about the biographer's art and its purpose. For those unable to listen to the program- Callow was asked by another of the interviewees Ruth Scurr, a biographer of Robespierre, how exactly he coped with the intrusion that biography involved. How for example he coped with the fact that writing such a vast biography of Welles (three volumes by the end its expected) he felt about Welles's own privacy? About Welles's right to have some things kept secret. Callow answered that he did so by refusing to judge Welles and trying to understand him, and at the end acknowledged that a biographer is ultimately an intruder into someone else's life.

This fascinating exchange raises some important questions- for why should anyone ultimately wish to intrude into someone else's life and what right have they to do so? What Callow is doing is obviously not tabloid journalism, he is striving to understand sympathetically, take the posture of what Scurr later described in relation to her work on Robespierre as the posture of a critical friend, he is striving not to judge and he is intruding upon the mind of a key figure in twentieth century art and even politics rather than on the sex life of a page 3 tart or football player. Callow is unfolding to us the sources of Welles's inspiration, the psychological entity that lay behind the genius and doing it so that we better understand our position in the world.

But why ultimately should we be interested? This is a question afterall that might be asked of many of the humanities- why ought we be interested in the study of other people's minds? What does it tell us ultimately? An answer is not going to be fully developed right here, right now but I want to suggest some answers. What Callow is doing he does without judging Welles and I think that is the key point here. The issue to Callow and to Scurr and many others is to present the world from their subject's point of view- how did he or she understand the world they lived in, what motivated them, what maddened them. In a sense what we derive from that is a far vaster sense of ourselves- like in personal relationships, our self definitions flow out of contrasts and imagined others. By understanding people in the past better, we therefore understand the contrasts that make our own self definition better. Furthermore by understanding people in the past better, we learn about the point of view of others, we learn empathy and that empathetic understanding of human kind is vital to any understanding of human relationships. I will never understand politics for example unless I can plot in some sense your moves across the chessboard- unless I can listen to and understand your thoughts.

In that sense what Callow is doing for Welles is part of a vast humanist project, that leaves us able to survey and react to and understand the way that others survey and react to and understand the world. A biography in that sense is merely an invitation to see the world through another's eyes- and that ultimately means an invassion of privacy because in order to do that, you have to experience and understand the experiences and understandings that moulded the other's mind. That maybe a way for us to evaluate whether the invasion of privacy was worth performing in the first place- does it take us into a new mental world or not. If it doesn't was it really worth it, if it does it illuminates the way that we understand history and politics which are ultimately in some part sciences of the way that people's minds work, sciences of subjective entities.

History Carnival

The next History Carnival has come along and picked up one of the posts from this blog- its taken in a motley and fascinating crew this week, genius mathmeticians who lost their genius, a eulogy for Warren Harding, Richard Dawkins's lack of historical knowledge, the Australian front in World War One- an icecream vendor who attempted to kill all Australian children and bring the Turkish sultan to power there (its true if strange) and a quiz- afterall what historical figure do you most ressemble. (Incidentally your blogger came out as Dante- so new readers if there are any- abandon hope all ye that enter here!)

Fascinated by all and any of these- go and get on and see what you can find.

Descartes Ancient and Modern

Rene Descartes the great French philosopher and man of letters deserves and has received a great amount of educated criticism and study down the years. His profile though in the popular world of ideas is limited almost solely to one phrase- cogito ergo sum. This welcome article in the New Yorker puts him securely in his position as a uniquely thoughtful exponent of ideas circulating during his time. Rather than drawing up a fictional Descartes with the manners and mores of a modern philosopher, interested in participating in a culture war, the Descartes sketched here, whose lines one would imagine are filled in by the biographies reviewed, stands more in the seventeenth than the twenty first century.

What has been done to Descartes, might easily be done for Hobbes (as Quentin Skinner has done on an academic level) or even figures like Adam Smith. Restoring our sense of for example the fact that these men were far from being academic philosophers in the sense we use today, but were system builders whose systems expanded from insights into epistemology, morals and philosophy into those of manners, politics, history and science restores a sense both of the ambitions and flaws of their projects. It also demonstrates to us some of the foundations of the modern disciplines that have evolved out of their thought. Restoring the notion of a deity to the thinkers of the 'enlightenment', almost all of whom shared at least a deist faith, again makes us better understand the roots of what Fox News would call secular liberalism in the culture of natural theology and eighteenth century deism.

Restoring philosophers to more than caricatures, used in an argument for a phrase or an insight, means that we can actually understand much better the arguments and languages that we use about political and other ideas. Just as understanding our own mental histories, enables us to understand much better our own selves, so understanding the geneaology of ideas in a historical sense (ie looking at them as much as possible without the distorting effects of our modern eyes) means that we that we can understand our mental pressumptions and unseen postulates and question them.

November 15, 2006

Exile from Palestine

Exile has formed some of the most exquisite works of world literature from the psalms and the Odyssey onwards. Notable in the modern era, Milan Kundera's view of the exiles returning after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe makes for an especially poignant read. After reading Kundera, its fascinating to turn to this short story by Zakaria Mohammad. Like Kundera, Mohammad treats exile less as an unambiguous experience of the wonder of return than as a very ambiguous event. This is not a story but an impressionistic piece of writing about what it feels like to go home after so many years- and find that everything has changed, even one's own relation to one's own place of residence. Like the poet Ka in Orhan Pamuk's Snow, Mohammad returns only to find even individuals are not the same as when he left them- there is an interesting counterposition in that Mohammad wishes to return as a tourist dispassionately understanding a situation, but his failure to return, his failure to reconnect with a landscape that seems artificially deformed by Israeli settlements and checkpoints, makes his return the emotional event he feared. He is forced out of his dispassionate existance as a tourist, just as he is forced out of his western name. Forced to wear uneasily the garb of a Palestinian despite always feeling an exile as well- he has a wonderful image for this, he describes himself as a bird with two wings, one of which is his Palestinian heritage, the other his exiled self- the problem the story focuses on is his effort to fly balanced upon both wings and not just one.

Incidentally this short story comes from a collection words without borders which is worth looking at for the access to various short stories and poems in transalation and worth looking at for works from all over the world. I hope to quite frequently highlight interesting stuff from there in this blog- but do take a look at things yourself. Literature afterall is one of the best ways into another person's set of sensibilities and circumstances. Oh and I should include reference to Chandharas who looked at some earlier stories posted on the site and thereby introduced me to it.

November 14, 2006

Rummy Business

This article from foreign policy.com by a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute is worth reading. It isn't worth reading for its analysis which doesn't neccessarily confront many of the major questions around US foreign policy- notably how to make Iraq a success but is worth reading for what it dose and doesn't say about the Neoconservative movement. Firstly it is noticable that the article is about America- not once is a politician from outside the US or a trend of history from outside the US noticed. The article's myopia as far as foreign policy is concerned is with the first part of that phrase- it acknowledges that the expedition in Iraq failed because of the failure to recognise the strength of Arab anticolonialism without drawing the lesson that the US needs to study and understand other societies much better before and not after it intervenes to save them for civilisation. Interesting suggestions that it does make like improving US public diplomacy and running an Arab Fullbright program are worth following through but again they are suggestions which come without any knowledge of the culture being dealt with- the production comes out of policy making but not out of any knowledge of the region that policy is being made for.

This takes me neatly on to the second point at issue within the article which is its analysis of the fall of Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld's fall it attributes to the neo-con obsession with a high-tech low grunt army- an army that ideally would be reduced to one man pressing buttons. This analysis in large part is right- conventional wisdom now has it that one of the major problems in Iraq is the lack of troops to adequately police the insurgency and train Iraqi forces. This conventional wisdom doesn't merely come from the media but also from the military- three times recently I've heard at first hand that the problems in Iraq are exacerbated by problems within the US army- problems that could be alleviated with more troops. It is also worth noticing that many of the problems within Iraq are caused by exactly the things I criticised above- I've listened to American servicemen departing for Iraq wondering why the ragheads bomb on Fridays I don't like quoting that language but if we are not to fail in Iraq it needs to be quoted. Incidents that have come into my knowledge are ones such as US soldiers being unable to understand signs in Arabic that read terrorist bombs made here, or American troops being so arrogant and unpleasant that even British civil servants dislike them let alone the Iraqis.

But to return to the matter at hand, Rumsfeld was never a neo-con. Rumsfeld's agenda, moulded by his time in the Nixon regime, was to deal with threats with a maximum of force and a minimum of state creation. Looking back to Chile, it becomes possible to see a Rumsfeldian invasion of Iraq that would have swept Saddam away at speed and replaced him with a suitable Pinochet figure to run Iraq. The US Army was and is moulded to that end- it is not moulded to deal with the setting up of a democracy in a region it barely understands. Neo-conservativism calls for a much more ambitious use of armed services and hence for a much larger and better trained army- the problem for Rumsfeld was that he ended up with an army that was designed to work in a situation that he wasn't commanded to deliver. The problem for the Neocons was that those who never leave Washington or take an idea that isn't American seriously, will never understand how democracy works in other parts of the world.

A Republican South or the consequence of seventy years of US social policy

Harold Ford conceding in the Tennessee Senatorial Race

Salon has recently run its eye over the midterm election results from the US and pointed to perhaps the most interesting feature of them- that the Democrats won their victories outside the South, furthermore that this is not true just of this election but that its been true of every Presidential election since 1992 that the Democrats have come within one state of taking victory before any Southern state needed counting. (There is he notes in some areas evidence of a second reconstruction of sorts- the victory by Jim Webb in Virginia relying upon the suburbs of Washington for example could be regarded as such an indication). Christopher Grant, Professor of Political Science at Mercer University, Macon, said to the New York Times that it was amazing that two Democrats were returned as Congressmen for Georgia at all.

Salon notes three reasons for this trend- firstly it notes that Southern votes trend not on the views of Southerners but on their race (a sign of this is that in the South there is a smaller gender gap between men (Republican) and women (Democrat) than in the rest of the US)- black southerners vote Democrat, white ones vote Republican in solid phalanxes, secondly Tom Schaller notes that unionisation never advanced far into the south as opposed to the north and west and thirdly he notes that the south is the most evangelised, most religious part of the United States and that its the most rural.

None of these conclusions should come as any surprise to him or to us. Ira Katznelson's recent study of the South and the way that its politics were deformed by the way the New Deal was applied there should indicate why what we see in Schaller's article is true. Unions stopped at the Mason Dixon line, because Southern Senators ammended New Deal and Fair Deal leglislation on unionisation to exclude Blacks from their purview. Rural jobs were kept isolated from national regulation and protected by the influence of the southerners in the senate. Blacks were stopped from acquiring homes and consequently addressing their material (often capital not wage) inequalities by the fact that they were excluded from the GI Bill. One of the authors of this blog has reviewed Katznelson's book elsewhere but the degree to which it explains the phenomenen that Salon wishes to investigate. The changes introduced by the New and Fair Deal left blacks uniquely disadvantaged especially though not exclusively in the south explains a lot. It also explains part of the reason why the electoral map now is the opposite of the one in 1906- the Republicans opposing the New and Fair Deal and the Great Society have become the natural allies of the Southern senators who opposed the application of the New Deal in their own states. What we see in this election therefore, is an instance in our own time which demonstrates the truth of the much longer perspective on US politics taken by Professor Katznelson.

Whether we shall see changes in this over the next century is a fascinating question- given the change that Latino immigration is bringing in- but the truth remains that the fortunes of the New Deal in Dixie still explain a large part of the geography of American politics in the age of Bush.

November 13, 2006

Colbert the Midterms

Ah Stephen Colbert analyses the Midterms- the voters are just going to have to realise the democrats have only been in power a few minutes and have got the West stuck in an unwinnable war!

November 12, 2006

A Film for Remembrance Sunday: All Quiet on the Western Front



The First World War has become synonomous with mindless slaughter- the great war poets Sassoon, Owen and Isaac Rosenberg made sure of that but so did a great run of plays and films starting with classics like Journey's End and running up to the present day in the recent Audrey Tautou Film, A Very Long Engagement. First amongst those films must be All Quiet on the Western Front. This film functions in its first part to describe a common experience of the first world war, the calling up of a brigade of friends from one school to the front line (in Britain the technique led to the forming of pals' battalions)- through the camaraderie of the young soldiers just arrived at the front we see the horror of the events unfolding around them- screams in the night become much more visceral when they shock a classmate who'd never seen those screams before than when they shock a stranger. Deaths become much more serious when they are the deaths of a friend. Seeing the soldiers leap onto each other as they go into convulsions, watching this anonymous group change from schoolboys exhilerated by populist rhetoric into individuals faced with the trauma of war remains a terrifying spectacle- in that sense this film reverses Sartre's later truism that hell is other people, hell in this war is the mind abandoned to its own resources. Hell as a later machine gunning sequence makes clear is individuality reduced to anonymity in a vast group- hell is the destruction of personal links and ties- the mockery of the pals' brigades exposed for all its sham.

Its the little details which make this film so compelling in its description of the war- the way for instance the guys just out of school can't understand their teaching as useful- afterall it doesn't show you says one that if you bayonet a man in the ribs it sticks whereas in his belly you can remove the bayonet. The way that when the men charge they charge through normal countryside and houses and wicker fences are blown sky high by shells. The way that the men talk about what makes a war, come to a pacifist conclusion but then stop each other deserting. The way that they try to rob even from their wounded comrades to make their own appalling lives better. The shooting of the film can be close, giving the feeling for instance of hiding in a hole by showing the soldiers leaping over the hole through the hole in the ground or showing shells explode like fireworks. One of the most convincing scenes is that I've taken the still from above, where a soldier rebukes another for dieing and not dieing at the same moment, alternating between comforting him and calling upon him to die now and then at the end talking to a corpse and asking its forgiveness.

This is a great pacifist film as other websites have already said- but in part its strength is because it begins as the film develops to focus more and more on one character. As the war continues, the number of characters thin out and gradually we are reduced to one particular soldier, who gives voice towards the end of the film to the pacifist feeling that inspires the whole piece.

I'd direct everyone to the comments as well where Political Umpire leaves a couple of fascinating comments, and both he and Dreadnought leave lists of other good war films.

An Anglo-Dutch Moment

David Starkey writes today in the Times about the position of religion within England. Starkey's overall point is a simplification but an apt one- that religion and established religion has a chequered history in England. But pulling back the most consequential and interesting thing about Starkey's article is not his views about religion but his views about history.

Starkey reflects what most historians, pressed by the two Jonathans Isreal and Scott, now beleive- that England's formative century- the seventeenth- was in many ways England's Dutch century. Whether in the chancelleries of the Rump Parliament where Oliver St John pursued a union with Holland or the palaces of Whitehall where alliances with the Stadtholder were mooted again and again until the Stadtholder became a Stuart and then a King, the society that the English looked to was Dutch. Many of the great reforms and great institutions built within the seventeenth century were explicitly modelled by English reformers upon Dutch models- the Bank of England founded in 1693 was an imitation of the Bank of Amsterdam, the East India company charted waters the Dutch East India Company charted before- and many of the acheivements of eighteenth Century England from naval supremacy to colonies in America (New York the great example) were successions from the Dutch.

Throwing light on the Dutch origins of much of English politics reminds one of a couple of key facts- that the English constitution and the much vaunted traditions of English liberty, tolerance and even imperialism have very foreign roots flowing from the reformation and the bloody battles of the Thirty Years War- that the English constitution as it still largely exists was framed by men who had imbued the experience of competition with another republic across the sea and opposition to French imperialism and lastly that the English experience is not an undivided whole running all the way back to the Middle Ages but was contingent upon the interventions of others (even some might argue the exploitation of others) and still is.

Recognising that the English constitution is not as organic as often thought is both an exhilerating and frightening thought- it demands of us that we reconsider why things are the way they are and hence rediscover the rationales for seemingly accidental arrangements, but also pushes us to the recognition that the English constitution is both vulnerable and fragile- not an oak but a rose, (to oppose two icons of English nationalism) we are quite capable of killing it ourselves. Afterall there isn't anything particularly English about it.