November 25, 2006

Worrying Rhetoric

George Orwell once said that he worried about some American conservatives- like James Burnham- he feared that they actually admired Stalinism- they thought that Stalin's efficiency in killing people was something that the US should emulate.

Sometimes reading people like Mark Steyn one wonders whether he too actually admires Islamic Fundamentalism. Take a look at the Daniel Pipes's New York Sun review of Steyn's latest book wherein Pipes quotes Steyn comparing Europe's postmodern decadence to Fundamentalist Islam's youthful vigour and you'll see what I mean. Matt Carr has documented some of the roots of the Eurabian ideas in this article he undermines many of the main arguments about this issue from American columnists. But more interesting in the course of this article is how much of the rhetoric is about religion itself for example he describes one writer George Weigel in these terms:

In an article entitled ‘Is Europe dying?’, published by the neocon bastion, the American Enterprise Institute, the American writer and Catholic theologian George Weigel referred to Europe’s ‘crisis of civilizational morale’ and the ‘disease of the human spirit’ caused by ‘exclusive humanism’ and a ‘failure to acknowledge Christian ideas and values’.

Weigel therefore joins Steyn in arguing that Europe undermined of its religious values has become decadent- one catches a note of the Dauphin's comment in Henry V that if the English come over and win then all the women of France shall beget with them a race of Norman basterds to reform France. What is fascinating about Steyn and Weigel in these quotations is that they show admiration for what they affect to most despise- like Burnham the anti-Stalinist who envied Stalin's appetite for blood- these are anti-fundamentalists who envy fundamentalism's appetite for religious rectitude.

We should always beware of confronting intolerant ideologies with extremist intolerant rhetoric- many cold warriors Isaiah Berlin, George Orwell and others combatted totalitarian ideas by being untotalitarian- in this new struggle about ideas we need to remember, like Berlin and Orwell did, not to appease an ideology that is criminally foolish either by compromising with it or by emulating its harsh intolerant dictats. If they could do it in the 1940s and 1950s facing a nuclear armed Stalinist state, we can do it now facing a terrorist threat.

Hans Blix at Trinity Hall


This blog has often focused on the theoretical side of international relations- partly because it is of the upmost importance today in a world which is still digesting how international relations work in the aftermath of the cold war and partly because we are coming to the end of two administrations- one in the United Kingdom and one in the United States whose history is of interventions in other countries using military force.

Hans Blix was a bystander and opponent of one of those adventures in Iraq. Reflecting today at the Milestones Lecture in Trinity Hall, he argued that the United States and particularly the administration had believed to begin with that weapons of mass destruction could be found in that country despite the empirical evidence. He and his team went to thousands of sites where weapons could have been found, surveyed three dozen sites suggested to them by intelligence agencies, and did not find a single thing to corroborate the allegation that there were weapons of mass destruction. From in 2002 and even early in 2003, being a supporter of the notion that Saddam was hiding something, he had moved because of the evidence to beleiving when the war began that the allied forces would find, as they did find, nothing. Dr Blix's approach to politics during this lecture seemed deeply empirical, he talked of the methods of investigation, the subtlety with which a team could make decisions based on mere traces of chemicals or radiation upon a body about whether weapons of mass destruction were there or not. Indeed in a piece of ironical advice, he told his audience of academics and students, that the one sure method of dealing with the issue of weapons of mass destruction was to be empirical, to remember that just if a man hangs up a sign saying beware of a dog, that does not neccessarily prove that there is a dog- there may just be a fear of burglars!

Dr. Blix's talk though was not purely about the empiricism of weapons inspecting but also about the way that weapons fitted into international politics. This more theoretical side of the discussion was not rigourously explained- in the context of an hour's talk it could hardly be. However Dr Blix like most lawyers was more interested in applying and understanding rules and laws than in working out what they were. He opposed the Pentagon's model of disarmament, the creation of a supreme power which could disarm all the other powers, in favour of a more egalitarian disarmament based upon the United Nations- the problem is that Dr Blix failed to describe the historical process by which this would or could happen. The mechanics of the change were left undescribed- however justified the egalitarianism of the aspiration.

In many ways this talk by Dr Blix revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the international lawyer and civil servant- strong on the substance and integrity of what was going on but weak in terms of analysing the mechanics of politics which underlie international organisations and our developments towards them. Dr Blix from this lecture, and I hesitate to be too critical on the basis of an hour, emerged as a skilled practitioner within a process, an empiricist when nation states were concerned but a man without a deeper grasp of the way that selfish interests might be combined to sustain the peace.

November 24, 2006

Suicide Bombing in Iran

This article is an especially worrying article about the willingness of the Iranian regime to use suicide bombings and vigilante attacks on intellectuals both at home and abroad. Written by a Danish PhD student who works with the Danish military, it once again illustrates how complicated the Iranian regime is, how there is an internal battle of power and how dangerous that battle is for the rest of the World and the West.

The City of God: St Augustine, Hobbes and Brazilian moviemaking

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?...Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor."St Augustine

The City of God is one of the most interesting films recently released- not merely for its searing portrayel of the Brazilian slums- but also for its profound political philosophy. The title and the way it refers not merely a region of Rio de Janeirio but also back to one of the most important texts ever written within religious philosophy and as the quotation above shows, about political power. Augustine understood, as very few have understood since his remarkable treatise, the elemental importance of violence within political society. He argued that there was a difference between just and unjust authority and that the second was merely the power that a thief or a robber held. The City of God in the film contains merely power- whether it be the power of the police that reinforces the elite in the main part of Rio de Janeirio or the power of the hoods who end up dominating the slum, power here proceeds from the barrel of the gun and as Augustine said that power is the equivalent of the power of a thief or a pirate.

However ironic the use of Augustine is, it is another political philosopher that can take us deeper into the world of the City of God. Thomas Hobbes the English philosopher of authority, argued that without government human kind degenerated into a state of lawless chaos, a war of all against all, with the only conclusion being bloodletting on a massive scale. In the City of God, where conversely there is no justice, no God, Hobbes's insight into the rationality of tyranny, into justifying the rule of the thief makes much sense. The film proceeds in three stages- the first being the establishment of the leading characters in a city hwere the police seem to be able to control the gangs, the second stage involves the rise to power of Little Ze over all the other drug lords- a rise which involves killings and violence and the third sees the war between Little Ze and Knockout Ned (there is a fourth largely unseen stage when the Runts a new gang seize power at the end of the film).

Hobbes therefore can be used to understand the situation. The slum under either the police or Little Ze is a reasonably peaceful place, violence is limited to those that actually take on authority. Little Ze turns to his friend Benni and tells him at one point that you know the law, anyone who kills anyone in my slum gets themselves killed. But during Civil War- violence errupts with a ferocity that makes the previous periods seem like idylls of peace- small kids are shot with impunity, the streets of the City of God run with blood. Hobbes's theory seems to work- authority no matter how much it tends to tyranny is better in the slum than even a good guy and a bad guy at war. In the second instance there is a race to the bottom- in the first the peace may be unjust and may develop through violence but its peace.

Look deeper at this slum polity though and you begin to see the problems in Hobbes's theory. Hobbes may tell us what we ought to do prudentially under tyranny, but he doesn't tell us what we will do. Furthermore he doesn't show us one last condition- by an act of injustice an authority may destroy its own power- Little Ze does this precisely to Knockout Ned- he creates his own opposition. The condition of his rule, its injustice, ultimately creates civil war. In the end we return back to Augustine that rule without justice, rule without legitimacy of some sort, ends in instability and violence- ends in the nightmare Hobbes diagnosed.

This film is like all good films about more than just this narrative of political structures- there are some wonderful characters here and some just analysis of the relationships between human beings- but it is an intriguing subplot to it- in many ways this film about the Brazilian slums brings to light much of the hypothetical thoughts of European philosophy- it highlights how similar tyrants and hoods are, how their rule can lead to temporary stability but how in the end illegitimate rule can undermine the very peace which as Hobbes was clear is its main offer to society.

Remembering the admirable.


Mike Ion is running a poll over here at his blog for person of the year. I always think that such things are quite comical because how can we know the kindest or best person around this year- for all we know its some obscure Papua New Guinean Tribeswoman or Brazilian politician that the Western media never covers. One of Mike's reccommendations though is Anna Politkovskaya- whether her most brave and interesting work was done this year- I have no idea- having read only one of her books all I can attest to once again is her bravery and integrity in reporting what she saw. Whoever murdered her, I hope they are brought to justice but more important than awarding her any trophy, is in my opinion, that we keep questioning authority and keep thinking about issues. When a person dies, it is not enough to place their ashes on a permanent mound and keep watch lest their burial place be desecrated.

Mike's right to think that Politkovskaya was one of the most admirable people to have lived and died this year. I am no expert on Russia but even someone as ignorant as I had heard of her work and her bravery. We should however be cautious in what we say- as I said most Westerners are in the position that I am in- scarcely knowing this woman save through the occasional piece of work that she did that reached the West. For us this woman could be summed up in one idea, that she was a brave and uncorrupt standard bearer in Russia for human rights and for democracy and that she died quite possibly for being that.

Our quite genuine grief is conditioned by that. For all of us when we analyse a person- we see a continuity that isn't really there. Your view of me is moulded by several moments at which you have interracted with me on a computer screen- you've read these words, the words I wrote before and so on and therefore you know some of my interests and my way of thinking about matters political. Its similar with Politkovskaya- what you or I know of her in the most part, is the journalism, the written words she produced and the pieties after death from children, colleagues and friends. We don't know what she looked like when angry, how she cooked, how she was as a friend when someone needed comforting or any of the important things that render us most our private selves. All we have is this image of a brave woman standing up for democracy and human rights.

We must be careful therefore, and I'm sure Mike is, to realise what it is that we mourn- because it isn't Politkovskaya- the things most Politkovskayan about her are lost to us and we can never gain that knowledge to have that grief- what we mourn is the death of her bravery and her resolution. When we mourn we mourn to preserve that person that we loved in our minds, mourning is an act of remembrance just as it is an act of neccessary forgetfulness. For us, that did not know Politkovskaya, the question becomes therefore how should we mourn for this image of resolution and bravery. We could crowd round a funeral pyre and heap ashes upon it with those who knew and loved her, but we did not know her and we did not love her, we knew the image and we felt for the image of her as the resolute defender of democracy.

Our place is not in that crowd, remembering the woman and preserving instances in our own lives of the woman's qualities because we don't know them. Our place is rather to preserve the qualities we do know- which are almost impersonal qualities- they are qualities which as Mike's post implies can be held by many and not just by one embattled Russian journalist. Whereas the crowds round her grave will mourn her unique personality, we mourn her general qualities. They mourn Anna the individual, we mourn Anna as exemplar of the human race at its best. Consequently our acts of mourning are different- for those who knew her, they will remember her through a haze as a person and her impact on their lives- for us though we remember her best not through pretending that we knew her, and piously exclaiming over her grave how wonderful she was, but by using her bravery, her icon as a standpoint to inspire people to take up the causes she left behind her.

We did not know her, we knew that she was brave and benificent. We have two duties- the first is to attempt to understand the remnants of her we have left and to see that her journalism is almost certainly much more complicated in its attitudes than being a spokeswoman of the West in Russia, and the second is to remember those qualities of bravery and benificence and use them to inspire ourselves and others to continue protesting for human dignity, democracy, debate and human rights.

I apologise if this post is a bit garbled- there is a thought there but I don't think that I have expressed it too well.

Charles Krauthammer accuses Europe of anti-semitism

Charles Krauthammer, a Neo-conservative commentator in the United States, has just written a column which illustrates exactly the problem with neo-conservative commentary in the United States. His column is about the film Borat and he argues that Sasha Baron-Cohen in Borat satirises the wrong people, Baron-Cohen goes for the redneck evangelicals who sing anti-semitic songs in Arizona and Krauthammer objects. He suggests that the Jews haven't had a better friend than America since King Cyrus, that Truman and Nixon were the greatest friends of Israel in the 20th Century but told anti-semitic jokes, that Baron Cohen ought to look at Venezuala, Iran and particularly his home continent Europe for evidence of anti semitism rather than at the evangelicals in the United States, who are Krauthammer concludes,

the only remaining Gentile constituency anywhere willing to defend that besieged Jewish outpost

There are two important mistakes made here- the first is that supporting or attacking Israel is nothing to do neccessarily with anti-semitism. An argument could be made for example by an anti-semite that Israel as a country was a good thing because all the Jews could be exiled to it. Furthermore much of the support for Israel on the Christian right comes not out of philo-semitism or the idea that Jews are individuals just as Christians are who deserve love and hatred on exactly the same terms, but out of a desire to advance the day of the Lords coming- a day on which Jews in Israel would be amongst his first victims. The Christian Right's desire for Israel to prosper therefore is part and parcel with a possible anti-semitism- as this Salon article makes clear

Their Jewish allies usually choose to ignore the fact that the Christian Zionist's apocalyptic scenario ends with unsaved Jews being slaughtered and condemned to hell.

In the same piece Salon makes clear as well how the Christian Right's agenda at home in the US, for school prayer and an increased identification of the state with the church is hardly welcoming for Jews in American society. If one takes for example this column by Greg Koukl, the message that Christianity amongst religions is uniquely right and uniquely good and that other religions like Islam and one presumes Judaism are wrong and lead to evil is neither subtle, true nor philosemitic. America is a complex society and these are only some views- but Krauthammer is wrong to conclude that there aren't strands on the evangelical right which are anti semitic and also wrong to conclude that being pro Israel means you aren't anti semitic.

The second of Krauthammer's mistakes is more greivous though- whereas the first is about the self identity of America as philosemitic- something hard to attack when American attitudes are compared to Iran and given the complexity of American society and its general tolerance something that is probably quite true of many (especially those outside the evangelical right)- his second mistake is about Europe and like the mistakes made by Mark Steyn and others shows how Krauthammer's view of the world is distorted and quite frankly ignorant. Europe is not anti-semitic. It has anti-semitic elements- just like America does- it has temptations towards anti-semitism and whereas in America those tempting voices lie often on the right (and can hide behind the idea that if you are pro-Israeli you can't be anti-semitic), in Europe because of the reputation of Israel they lie often on the left (and hide behind the argument I voiced above that being anti-Israel is not the same as being anti-semitic). Europeans are more hostile to Israel than Americans but as we've seen above hostility or support for Israel is not the same as hostility or support for Jews. One can condemn what is happening in Gaza and be philo-semitic and many Jews one should note do. One can condemn it and be anti-semitic- but the decision about whether you are pro or anti-semitic lies in your attitudes to Jews- not your attitude to Ehud Olmert.

Krauthammer infers that there are large ammounts of anti-semitism in Europe (without any qualification) just like Steyn and others do because he can find a couple of examples of anti-semitic statements. A Norwegian intellectual, some discontented French youths and the infrequent torching of synagogues by often Muslim youths incriminate an entire continent of 300 million people in anti-semitist desires which he tells us are rising to levels unseen since, yes the Holocaust. Krauthammer needs to recall that most of the synagogues in Europe don't get burnt down (no comfort for those whose place of worship has been burnt down but crucial nonetheless), that Europe consists of vastly different countries with vastly different social problems- that a statement about Britain is as likely to be true in Poland as one about Texas is to be true about Quebec.

Krauthammer's two errors- the conflation of anti-semitism and disapproval of a particular government (especially given the recent appointment of Leiberman, a government that is far from ideal itself) and the idea that an entire continent thinks the same way and the comparison of the position of Jews in Europe to Jews in Europe in 1940- are real errors that Krauthammer needs to confront.

Tagged

It appears I've been tagged with the meme Ten Things I would never do by the illustrious Mr Higham. To be fair I thought I'd offer some thoughts about this blog in it- there may be some personal stuff- but you could take this as a charter in a way for what this blog isn't trying to do- and once you've excluded that then its trying to do most of the other things whilst being vaguely political...

1. Write a post that doesn't need correcting in some way
2. Write a post that is purely party political
3. Consider that there are any limits at all on what it is useful to think about
4. Be relevant
5. (This is a sober one and should be presumed) Knowingly be sexist, racist, homophobic or upset anyone in anyway unless people get upset by a gentle query of their argument.
6. Refuse a cup of tea or an inclination to make a cup of tea whilst blogging
7. Take abusive comments seriously and leave them on the blog
8. Not benefit from helpful comments in refining my position and thinking it through a bit more.
9. Write a post that can't be twisted in some way to have a relevance to politics at all
10. Keep writing the Blog whilst feeling its no fun
11. (Last one I don't really count 6 I presumed it so it doesn't count honest we all have assumptions that's mine) eat anything that contains mustard blogging or not blogging!

There I've done it and now to redirect this meme I shall pick ten bloggers at random to direct it to too- so prepare yourselves comrades, in particular to your dislikes, Sinclair, El Dave, Political Umpire, Skipper, La Femme Contraire (a new discovery for me- thanks to the Umpire), Erik Ringmar, Laura James, Politaholic, The Yorkshire Ranter and lastly but not least a frequent commenter, Dreadnought.

All of these bloggers are worth reading- some like Mr Cole are unknown gems glistening in the wilderness of the internet, some like Professor Ringmar and Laura James probably unknown to the political classes but very worth reading for their insights into the world, the universe and all things in the first case historical and in the second criminal and some are some of my most penetrating commenters on this blog- step forward Umpire and Dreadnought, the last category including Politaholic, the Yorkshire Ranter, Skipper and La Femme Contraire are people I've just come across or just started reading either a few days or a few weeks ago- they seem worthy denizens of the great blogosphere though. So I hope anyone reading this takes the time out to pop over to these guys and have a look at what they've written.

And for those I've tagged I think the requirement is to tag another ten bloggers- have fun finding them.

November 23, 2006

United in Forgetting: John Winthrop and Massachussets, Oliver Cromwell and England


This article from the Massachussets Historical Review highlights something that historians are increasingly finding to be true on both sides of the Atlantic. Both the United Kingdom and the United States were formed in the crucible of religious warfare, both owe institutions and habits of thought to the attempts at magisterial reformation in the mid-seventeenth Century. Both though are going through the same historical process as regards the historiography of that period of history. In the United States, whereas the Puritan founders of Boston took their foremost places in the celebrations of 1830 and 1880, their importance faded so much so that John Winthrop, the first governor, wasn't even mentioned as amongst the famous thirteen sons of Massachussets in the commemoration of 1980. In England despite the recent Great Britons program on Cromwell, Cromwell's legacy so divisive as late as the 1890s when his statue was put up outside Parliament, has faded along with the appeal of the Victorian ideologues who sustained him. In Scotland, whose national origins owe more to the covenanters of 1640 than the Catholic queen of 1587, it is the tragic Mary and not the stern Argyll that dominates the historical imagination. Whether in America, England or Scotland, the mind of the public seems to drift to more marginal figures- to the Anne Hutchisons of Massachussets, or to the memories cultivated by Tony Benn of John Lilburne and Gerard Winstanley (Lilburne was a Leveller- they argued according to some modern historians for democracy, Winstanley was a Digger who some today believe was a proto-communist) or in Scotland to the Queen of Scots.

Imagined pasts always show us much more about the present than they do about the past itself. The fading and failure of Winthrop and Cromwell in the historical imagination and the gains made by Hutchinson and Lilburne don't reflect a gain in the ideology of the latter over the former at all- Lilburne and Cromwell held pretty similar views. What they do reflect though is a fall in the credibility of the virtues of the Puritans- modern thinkers are much more likely to think of puritanism as patriarchal, prim and anti-Catholic than they are to associate it with Whig narratives of the triumph of Parliament or Constitutional government. The fall of Winthrop or Cromwell reflects the rejection in many ways of the great institutional historical myths- the mother of Parliaments- especially in England but in America too- in favour of the newer myths of the liberation of peoples. Americans look at 1776, 1865, 1928 as liberational moments, Britons feel pride in 1806 and 1918 in the same way. The dates of institutional history (with the significant exception of the Revolution) seem to have faded in the public mind- who now knows the date of the Constitutions of Oxford. Consequently historical figures like Winthrop or Cromwell who bequeathed great institutional changes are going out of fashion, whereas those like Hutcheson or Lilburne whose legacy was one of impotent protest come into fashion. The personalisation of political life, the re-creation of a narrative of the liberation of individual rights through the feminist and anti-racist movements- have changed our notions of who and what is admirable in the past.

Lilburne and Hutcheson capture the modern imagination because though they were insignificant, they were jailed and campaigned for liberation- who knows what they would have done in government. Cromwell and Winthrop did many terrible things- but they also created institutions of government which persist to this day. The modern imagination appears to be captured more by Lilburne's protest for individual rights, than Cromwell's attempts to design a Parliament that worked.

PS In the comments Mr Higham makes a useful point- just to make it clear this argument is not to say that Cromwell founded the English Parliament merely that his period of rule was influential in establishing some of its powers. The history of English law dates back at least a thousand years and the Parliament to at least the reign of John.

Malena, Sunny Hundal and the New Generational Network


Sunny Hundal is fast becoming one of the most interesting writers about British multiculturalism around- through both his own blog pickled politics and his Guardian columns, he puts forward a view of racism which is nuanced and interesting. Hundal for example in his latest column for the Guardian asks his readers to do two things: firstly he asks them to quite clearly stand against racist organisations even when they are from minority groups- marching alongside Hitzb Ul Tahrir against racism, he notes is absurd. On the other hand he wants us to acknowledge that though there are legitimate questions about minority faiths and how they treat people, there are also ways of framing those questions- comparing Muslims to dogs for example or assumptions about other groups- which are racist.

Hundal is an interesting example of the increasing and welcome subtlety and thoughtfulness of the debate. As in the film Malena for example where a minority group turns upon one of its own, notice that in that film a supposedly promiscuous woman is attacked not by men but by women who see her promiscuity as a threat to their preeminence under their husbands. They seek to safeguard their own position as wives (an inferior position but still a position) by isolating the slut of the city. Similarly awarding people from faith or representative groups power because they've appointed themselves chiefs of disadvantaged minorities is actually creating a Malena like problem- where those awarded with positions, however inferior within society, turn on those often within their own group who have no position to maintain- often that's young women in this case. Often such groups gain power from the racist assumption that there is a single Muslim or single black view on an issue, a thesis that happens not merely to be racist but is definitely in the case of Muslims, as I've documented elsewhere wrong. Sunny's perception of this though, as he is right to say, shouldn't lead us to deny racism just as the idea that there is "Asian" racism doesn't effect the evils that "White" racism has perpetrated and continues to effect.

Sunny Hundal's view and the New Generational Network offer therefore a positive model for reinterpreting and looking at race in Britain- moving away from unquestioning acceptance of any ally and adherance to any community leader- but not moving away from the fact that there are still problems to do with race in Britain. Specific policy programs haven't come out of this- largely because its about the way that we view racism not the way we view the policy of racism. We have made mistakes in policy because of the way that we've treated racism- the elevation of a man like Iqbal Sacranie to national prominence despite his opposition to free speech in the Rushdie case just because he happened to lead the Muslim Council of Britain might be cited as one of them. The New Generational Network's attempt to reposition race policy on the basis that we are all individuals, that racism still exists and must be combatted and that individuals can't be represented by self appointed opinion groups but must be treated as individuals- is to be welcomed. They've done a good job and I hope thinking through their ideas results in a way forward to combat racism of all kinds and prejudice within minority communities- without as Hundal rightly enjoins us not to giving up the fight to make whites see other races as their equals.

This new maturity in the discussion about racism is to be praised. Let's hope the government listen to it...

Syria

Professor Cutler is one of the most interesting bloggers on the net: as he suggests the recent assassination of a Lebanese Christian doesn't make much sense for Syria in the light of the smoke signals coming out of Washington and London about reingaging with Bashar. Professor Cutler suggests that there might be rogue elements of the Syrian regime attempting to sabotage a dialogue with the West- another idea that just flashed across my mind is that the real gainer from Syrian continued estrangement from the US- is Iran. Maybe the assassination was ordered by a pro-Iranian part of the Syrian establishment or maybe by a pro-Iranian part of Hezbollah. I have no evidence and we'd have to wait for an enquiry but I just throw out the suggestion in reply to Professor Cutler.

Is Guiliani a man of the right?

Reading the National Review or Townhall should be a requirement for anyone seeking to understand the mentality of the Republican base. Just as reading Daily Kos is for understanding the Democrat base. Such blogs often form a thermometer for what is going on within the US parties which is useful for an outsider like myself who isn't from the US.

Hence the interest of this post by Rich Lowry about Rudy Guiliani's chances for the Presidency. Lowry argues that Guiliani isn't competing with McCain for the centrist Republicans but competing with Mitt Romney for the right- the rightwing voters he feels are neglecting Guiliani's social values for his leadership on 9/11 and his credentials as a 'tough guy' of Republicanism. Its an interesting analysis- it does make sense. One wonders whether the appeal to the right of the party though from Guiliani will survive the primaries when his positions on abortion et al are likely to be exposed- US politics ressembles much more of a marathon than a sprint for the Presidency and I wonder whether Guiliani might have got a good start from people who've seen him as a hero on TV, whereas once they know his other views, they'll back off. The same could equally go for his good numbers with the Democrats. However to be honest, all predictions this early are curious to say the least- who would have guessed in 1990 that George Bush snr would lose the White House to Bill Clinton!

NOTE In the comments a commenter has critiqued the idea that Townhall represents the base and that I should have termed what these guys the activists- there is some truth especially in the second of those observations and if I've made an error in the first I apologise to everyone, sorry early in the morning and lacking tea there may be errors.

Ethnic Cleansing in Iraq

I missed this on television but it is something that all of us needs to see: the cleansing of Sunni people by Shia forces like the Badr Brigade in a 'vicious sectarian' war in Baghdad with the aid of Police. I'd warn everyone that these reports include gruesome and horrifying footage- this is not for the sensitive to watch. Allegations of rape and torture have been made against the Iraqi police as well as allegations of attempted intimidation of the MP investigating. This looks like a terrible deriliction of duty by the Iraqi authorities. The reports if correct show that Iraq is slowly descending not merely into civil war but into civil war accompanied by massive ethnic cleansing at the same time. Even a former human rights minister in Iraq substantiates some of the allegations including the rape of one woman three times in the same building by the police. The UN as well has heard reports of links between the police and the militias.

One of the more interesting sidelights to the documentary is the revelation of how journalists in Iraq, very sensibly, behave. The correspendent in Damien Day terms describes how brave she is for journeying 500 metres out of the green zone- if that's true, it presumably reveals how little journalists go out of the green zone and then how vulnerable they are (the correspendent is told she can stay 10 minutes outside but no longer before it becomes certain she will be a kidnap risk)- one wonders therefore how much news we are actually getting out of Iraq despite the brave efforts of correspendents there. The reality may be worse than we all know.

Incidentally the Yorkshire Ranter has a good post on the geography of the cleansing- a Shia Sarajevo Strategy it seems. Worth reading to gain another dimension to the analysis.

November 22, 2006

Bad History

Having just described the career of one of the most longlived and inconsistant politicians in British history in a paragraph- I'm expecting to make this list next time, but hey here is the Carnival of Bad History with some great debunking of mistakes about the past, including a post from here about an Anglican Professor being a fool in the Guardian.

The Tory Choice.



OR



This is the choice that Greg Clark, a supremo in David Cameron's policy making team, thinks confronts the Tories. He, according to the Guardian is calling for Mr Cameron to take Toynbee not Churchill as his model. The distance between the Guardian columnist and the Tory icon may not though be as much as it seems- who afterall said this,

You must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave.


The answer is Winston S. Churchill of course in a broadcast in 1946. Churchill had a long and eminently successful record as a social reformer- from his days as Liberal President of the Board of Trade and ally of Llyold George to his chancellorship in the 20s and forward to his 51-55 Tory governmentt, he was the very definition of a one-nation Conservative or as he might have termed it, taking the phrase from his father, Tory Democracy. Indeed he even switched parties in the 1900s when the conservative position became biased towards protection and the liberal in favour of cheap bread. Churchill's positions on economics changed over the sixty or so years he served as an active politician- but at no point did he oppose the principle that government should be interested in ammeliorating poverty.

I suspect though that Messrs Clark and Cameron need no history lectures from Gracchi- most Tories with any sense are aware of the history of their party. What this is about is dissassociating the Tories not from the particular policy options they have pursued in the past- if so Churchill versus Toynbee is a false dichotomy (if we were to take it that Cameron seriously envisages being on Toynbee's side of that it would mean he rejected one nation Toryism to endorse Swedish social democracy), but from a particular tribal history of the Conservative Party. What Mr Cameron wants to do, and what this shows him doing, is not a dissassociation of the policies from the Tories, but a disassociation of the Tories from the policies. He is seeking to appeal to the presumed compassion of Toynbee as an emotion instead of Churchill's (read old Tory) patrician indifference to the poor. The injustice to Churchill in such an account is an injustice committed in order to relieve the Tories of any past associations and allowing them to present what they beleive to be compassionate policies to the electorate. Nobody seriously beleives that Cameron is a swedish social democrat- he is hoping they won't believe that he is a historical Tory either.

The funny thing is that this has been done before I beleive it might have been attempted in the late forties, picking a period at random- but for the life of me, I can't remember who the Tory leader's name was then...

might it just have been, that old liberal,

Winston S. Churchill

November 21, 2006

Best of the Net

James Higham has a post up discussing some of the more interesting blogs on the net and skewering them. I have to say his promised critique of this blog was far softer than I expected. Anyway there are some great blogs reviewed over there- James has done this a couple of times and everytime he seems to have found a couple of gems I hadn't seen- so go there, get reading and hope it inspires more people to get blogging!

I'm putting this under carnivals because it really is a carnival of new blogs- its a great collection though.

The Perils of Events: A review of Fatal Purity, Robespierre and the French Revolution


Maximillian Robespierre has stood for many years as the incarnation of the French Revolution. Dr Scurr in her new biography of the revolutionary attempts to grasp what motivated Robespierre and swept him for a brief yet bloody period to the summit of French politics. As with many revolutionaries what we know about Robespierre's early life is shrouded in mystery and distorted by politically inspired calumny, Dr Scurr attempts to navigate a shrewd course through unpromising sources. It is when Robespierre arrives at the centre of French politics that Dr. Scurr's powers as a biographer become more fully exposed and her ability to see how this uncompromising figure was able to paraphrase a critic of Gladstone not only to have the political ace of trumps up his sleeve but to beleive at the same time that playing that ace was in the public interest.

Robespierre emerges from this biography as a man whose good intentions were unparralelled- Scurr is confident enough to label him by his nickname, the Incorruptible throughout the text. His incorruptability proceeded from a disdain for personal emotions- Danton is supposed to have quipped that he found more enjoyment in bed with his wife than at revolutionary tribunals, Robespierre, Scurr rightly argues, disagreed fundamentally. Unlike many of the other brilliant personalities of the French Revolution, Mirabeau who overshadowed him until dieing through illness, Camille Desmoulins a schoolfriend who perished on the guillotine or Jerome Petion who took pride in being Mayor of Paris before his corpse was located, Robespierre vaunted his incorruptable virtuous nature. Comparing himself at one point to Rousseau's God, an allseeing wise leglislator, Robespierre argued that he and he alone was the guardian and true perceiver of the public interest and that disagreement was evidence of disloyalty to that interest.

The tragedian cites in a character a fatal flaw which brings a man down and destroys him in the end, which perverts his sense of justice and leads him to abandon all the things that he had stood for. In Robespierre's character, as presented by Dr. Scurr, there were many flaws but two things in particular stand out as to explain why this man ended up performing the actions that he performed. The first consists in his situation. Dr. Scurr's biography is at its strongest in presenting to us the maelstrom of the revolution- she rightly perceives that revolution and revolutionary terror was terrifying not merely for its victims but for its perpetrators. Once signed the warrent for the King's execution was a warrent for his executors' execution. Mercy once denied could not be expected. In this atmosphere of increasing paranoia and justified fear, a man like Robespierre who frequently collapsed from psychosomatic illness after taking difficult decisions, was pulled further and further from his own ideas. Fearing the dagger, he pressed it into former friends' backs for fear that they might be traitors. In the end this fear led to prioritising the public business over all else- on the death of friends who were assassinated such as Marat, the Incorruptible one turned back to the public business immediatly. The revolutionary leader's arrogance and talent for self-dramatisation allied itself to his paranoia (were part of his paranoia) and turned him into a prosecutor searching always for victims.

The second of Robespierre's flaws was his idea that rather than policy difference or actual treason, the substance of politics was the intentions of politicians or citizens. Robespierre held an opinion much like that expressed by Ireton or Cromwell that intentions made the good citizen. He beleived that betrayel was a matter of the heart and mind, not a matter of concrete action. Therefore he endorsed execution after execution, refused compromise and argued that nobody once found guilty could again be trusted. This kind of politics based on intention and incorruptibility has its contemporary resonances. Robespierre's alliance of this to an extreme paranoia led to the demise of his political opponents and the deaths of thousands. Robespierre in this sense deviated from his fellow revolutionaries like the Abbe Sieyes, in that he unlike them had no sense of a political system- he had idealised schemes of democracy- but blamed the sins of government not upon the system of government but upon the individuals involved. Thus devoid of empathy and basing politics upon ethics, he largely turned politics into prosecution- a prosecution of the characters of those that opposed him.

Maximilian Robespierre's emotional history remains veiled in mystery- we know little about his early years. What we can say though is that a lack of empathy- a lack of sense of how other men thought and could think about politics in a different way to him- meant that he was an incredibly successful revolutionary. Without a sense of empathy or of scruple about attaining his ends, he was vicious and brutal, cutting gordian knots before other politicians saw them. But without those senses, his political career ended up in sabotaging his own political objectives- destroying the revolution he devoted his career to in an orgy of violence and allowing both the Directory and Bonaparte to suggest that chaos had preceded them.

Dr Scurr does end up being, as she wished to be, a critical friend of the revolutionary leader. She shows both the idealism and incapacity at the root of his character. This is a complicated and well developed portrait of both the revolution and the man.

Islamic Essentialism

Many people whether Islamic or not argue at the moment that Islam has a true essense. Blogs often present statistics relating to Muslims as though Muslims are all of the same type and have political opinions and commit actions of the same type. They do not distinguish between types of Muslim but argue that there is a war between Islam and the West. On the other hand, Islamic militants talk about an essense of Islam- its been long recognised that this feature is a key one to Islamic militancy, from Said Qutb onwards, they argue that there has always been one true theological Islam and that all other versions of Islam are to be disdained as pagan. I do not wish to debate the theology of Islam what I do wish to debate is the idea that Islam has always been the same entity- it has always been the same and still is the same entity.

The problem is that both the bloggers and the Islamic ideologues are wrong. The picture is much more complicated than one of a single essential Islam. There is plenty of evidence that Islam has changed, is changing, has various strands and still will have various strands running into the future. The problem that we face is not one of 'Islam' but one of 'radicalised Islam' and we have to be careful to discern the difference between them. Hizb Ul Tahrir and various other organisations advocating the introduction of Sharia law represent one school of thought but there are others and its worth realising that Islam actually has no essense. Somebody who beleives in Islam, beleives in a set of texts, and can interpret those texts in any way they wish to. Consequently the texts can be used to justify anything from war to non-violence, from Shia to Sunni intepretations, from legalistic formalists to Sufi mystics.

To argue that Islam has a single essense is to misunderstand it completely. Islamic people have been responsible for atrocities just like Christians, Jews and Atheists. This is not a defence of radicalism, nor is it a defence of any position taken by any one of any religion. This is a defence of a principle of historical study which must not be abandoned- Religions do not have a position on an issue. The best way of thinking about religion, is imagining a football field- everyone is playing football but takes up different positions on the field conditioned obviously by the way that the field is set up, but there are people on the left and right. Islam in this analogy sets the field for debate, but the players choose their position and whereas Islam gives them material for debate, it doesn't define how the material is used. We need to remember this going forwards- Islam has many faces, studying it requires acknowledging what face you are looking at.

The Decline of Democracy

The Carnival of the Decline of Democracy is up here with some great posts about democracy (one from this blog defending democracy) and its decline and fall- go read.

November 20, 2006

Biography again

Given that this is a subject I have myself strayed onto, it seems fitting to publish something of a response to Bryan Appleyard's piece in the Times yesterday. Appleyard (whose website is here)asks a question I didn't reflect upon, what the work of a biographer tells us about the works of the subject they write about. How much would the idea of Shakespeare the paedophile effect our evaluation of Shakespeare's plays, how far does James Shapiro's work on Shakespeare, also looked at earlier in this blog, tell us about Hamlet or Henry V?

Appleyard's survey is interesting and well worth reading. I have only one thing to add. It seems to me that literature is similar to history in one aspect- in that it extends our empathy. The best writers function as advocates for their subjects- they show us how to think about the suicidal (Plath), the murderer (Capote) or the regicide (Hamlet), they present to us matters that we would never understand and force us into the seeing the rationale for actions that we would not perform. Through Dosteovsky I learnt how it is that a man might convince himself to murder someone in order to be alive, through Austen how fragile and how tense a strict system of social controls is and there are many other examples. The question we are asking essentially is how far it matters what kind of advocate we have before us- in a sense it does. In a sense it matters in that we need to assess them for their advocacy to bear fruit- the first place to assess them is their literature- does this make sense as a portrait, does it make me understand what the author wants me to understand (if there is an author of course).

What a biography presents us with is a second act of advocacy- we are being taken into the mind of the advocate- we are being told how this work of literature was put together and why it was. We are being told that the sister's relationship in Pride and Prejudice mirrors that in Austen's own life. Just as the facts in the novel became evidence for the minds of the characters- so the novel becomes evidence of the inner life of the creator of that novel and as literature is about an act of empathy- thus reaching into the mind of the author, we learn once more to empathise. Literature doesn't need biography but biography of a literary person is a separate activity to be justified separately and furthermore needs to use that person's literature.

Giraffes


Erik Ringmar in December's issue of the Journal of World History approaches one of the most interesting questions in World History- why China didn't want to explore the world, but Europe did- by looking at different countries and how they reacted to the first import of giraffes into their midst. He takes three giraffes- one that was exported to the Florentine Medici regime in the 15th Century, another that arrived in China in the same century and a third that arrived in France in the 19th Century. From the reactions to these relocated giraffes, Ringmar hypothesizes three models of looking at the outside world- the first medieval Florentine of exoticist curiosity, the second Confucian of analogising the world to refer to China and the third scientific of using the giraffe to constitute an instance of a new law. From these three outlooks, he argues warily we might suggest why China didn't attempt to conquer the world- with neither the curiosity of the Florentines nor the universalism of the European scientist, the outer world simply became an extended metaphor for the Middle Kingdom.

There is much to rejoice in in this delightfully lighthearted article. But there are also things to criticise. He himself recognises that three giraffes or even three reactions to three giraffes do not a history of civilisation consist, they indicate but do not prove. More seriously, Ringmar is too happy with a postmodernist view of the world, too happy with Florentine medievalists and too unhappy with western scientists to completely understand the importance of his giraffes. Western science was never a method to exclude people, rather by universalising knowledge it was far more inclusive than the Florentine or Chinese model. The key difference between the two fifteenth century giraffes and the 19th Century one, is that whereas in principle noone who was not Florentine or Chinese could understand or appreciate the Florentine or Chinese reaction to the giraffe there, in 19th Century Paris, noone who was not a scientist could understand the reaction- science as it knows no colour boundary is a far more inclusive category than Florentine or Chinese which definitely did know colour boundaries. Furthermore by separating out a good enlightenment led by Diderot from a bad scientific enlightenment, Ringmar fails to understand how both enlightenments were the same enlightenment. As Isaiah Berlin made clear the monist attitudes of the enlightenment were held by reformers like Diderot as much as by conservatives like Paley. A racist scientific movement did exist, but perhaps it is a testament to the strength of universalism even in Paris in 1829 that its racism faded as we enter the twentieth century.

The most important and least stressed (obviously its comparative history!) part of Ringmar's article though is how similar our giraffes were. Not in themselves, though no doubt they were similar giraffes (probably slightly confused at being involved in a historiographical experiment let alone at travelling several thousand miles to be stared at!) but in the reactions they provoked. Ringmar's work shows us thousands of human faces, delighted and excited, staring at these giraffes, trying to work them out. The mechanics of astonishment seem to be culturally indeterminate- though the elite understandings of the giraffe may not be. There is something as well in his idea of an inward looking China and an outward looking Europe during these centuries- though warnings from hoary history Proffessors about generalisations flood through my mind at that point (Tang China was definitely more adventurous than dark age Europe etc etc)- and maybe its worth stressing in that context the fact that the Florentine and French regime were involved in an international competition which the vast and swelling Chinese empire never was involved in until the 19th Century, or never involved in with as many other developed states. This is a wonderful article and a true breath of fresh air to find amidst all the scholarly articles which take themselves too seriously- for anyone who is interested in the curious detail and even the comparison of curious details in history go over and read particularly in this article curious details illuminate the whole of a vast question- that's what a farsighted giraffe would do I am sure.

Incidentally if people want to think more about some of the issues raised here (though not unfortunately the travel journals of Giraffes- unfortunately the Internet which doeth all things has not yet provided that essential resource)- Radio 4 did a fascinating program on Chinese science earlier this year- for those merely interested and amused by our giraffes striding through history- we ought to remember as a last thought what Ringmar's research shows- the French were right, a giraffe is a giraffe and more interestingly so is a human a human, the funny thing is that giraffes see humans and humans see giraffes in much the same way when they are introduced for the first time.

LATER AND THANKS TO DAVE IN THE COMMENTS I ought to say as well that beyond giraffes, Ringmar has his own blog which is one of the best on the net- really good fun- though by having such a blog he has selfishly ruined the perfect ending to my article- anyway its well worth a read and has lots of good stuff on it- including a post about a new book which I am sure takes the whole subject of the west, Europe and China onto a new level- my guess is that its a level so high that Erik is the first to survey it, apart from that is the giraffes.

MUCH LATER- on a similar theme I've just written an article on Bits of News which analyses a different approach from Ringmar's to the problem of the reasons for China's relative disinterest in global empire in the early modern period.

November 19, 2006

British Blogging

And so here comes the best of Albion on the internet courtesy of Tim Worstall as ever. One of the posts from here is included and there are some other gems- something on the English Civil War to cap it all as well.

LATER been a bit obscure the britblog is up

Syrian Discussions

It seems from this report from Andrew Sullivan that the Baker commission has been talking to Syria for a while. This probably allows us to contextualise the recent visit by Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus. It looks as though an effort is on from London and Washington to go through Damascus to Tehran, to reassure Damascus that Bashar Assad has a future in the region and that talk of deposing him is just that, talk. The belief must be that it is insecurity which is pushing the secular Allawite leader closer and closer to the dangerous embrace of the Shia theocracy- whether that's true and how this develops will be interesting.

The American Option: Anti Americanism in Europe in the Twentieth Century


The French farmer Jose Bove, shown here, became famous within France for his antiglobalisation activities- including the destruction of a McDonalds Resturant. Bove and his supporters capitalised upon a long established trend within French and indeed European political discourse- fear, repulsion and genuine disdain for their neighbours across the Atlantic. Many books have been written on this subject- some by Americans and the odd Europeans who see anti Americanism as a form of totalitarian, democracy hating, snobbish, failure driven drivel from a set of European imperialists who resent the fact they have been passed by another nation and can't recognise America's unique role on the world stage- others written by anti Americans themselves have isolated the causes of anti-Americanism within Europe as stemming from America's failure to live up to its promise, America's failed policies and hypocrisy especially in the Middle East.

The problem is that neither of these answers really explain the fact that European anti-Americanism has been around for a lot longer than either American hyper power or even this model of American society. Also such analyses fail to see that the same leftbank intellectuals in France who support Bove will go home and watch films like A Bout de Souffle, that model themselves on all American heroes like Humphrey Bogart. Europe's relationship with America has always been ambivalent and complex, as Jessica Gienow-Hecht explains in this article from the American Historical Review. Dr Gienow-Hecht chronicles in various different countries the various shades of anti-Americanism- what she comes up with is that America as an entity shifts in anti-American discourse- its role is to annex xenophobia at an imagined place to a cause located in one's own country. Disdain the sexual libertinism of Rock and Roll and you can locate it in America and cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war. Refuse the proffered hand of globalisation and you can blame the farce upon an imagined America and declare your opposition to it. Its much better to see your opponents as quislings to either cultural cringe or economic control than respect their arguments.

Of course the most profound conclusion of all of this is that there is another country that would fit very readily into Dr Gienow-Hecht's analysis and that is America itself. The model of the first Anti-Americanism might be found in such commentators as Bill O'Reilly who scorn the secular progressive trends within their own country- the model of the second fits very adequately Michael Moore. There is an obvious distinction- both O'Reilly and Moore proclaim themselves patriots- often the anti-American European is a more passive welcomer of what bits of America he regards as good, but as numerous commentators have pointed out within the shell of an anti-American lies the snail of a philo-American.

The image of America therefore is being used in Europe in order to talk about European problems- sometimes to oppose particular policy positions especially in foreign policy (there are moments and places in the world where failures of American foreign policy are crucial to anti-American sentiment)- but just as in the United States, what is unique about America as a nation and a concept is the way that all sides of the debate fuse those two categories. America unlike France or Britain is Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, decadence, military power, global economics, capitalism and all sorts of other values- it is code for those terms. Your attitude to America ultimately depends whether in America or elsewhere on your attitude to the complex set of values and concepts attached to the brand America, some of them contradict, all of them are complexly related and an anti-American onetime can be a pro-American another- but whatever anti-Americanism is, it isn't simple.