December 02, 2006

Orhan Pamuk and Turkey

Orhan Pamuk is one of my favourite novelists- Chandharas has written a good review of one of his most important novels about art and sixteenth century Turkish history. Throughout his novels run themes of Turkish adaptation to modernity, whether it be in the cityscape of his beloved Istanbul or the overt political landscape of Snow. Granting Pamuk the nobel prize was definitely one of the most felicitous decisions of the Nobel Committee- definitely to me this novelist seems of the stature of previous nobel winners like Ismail Kadare and Harold Pinter.

His other importance though rests upon his descriptions of the particular dilemmas and choices that Turkey faces. He has been prosecuted for his treatment of the Armenian genocide and has become a figure of hatred for some of the more traditionalist Turks. The double edged impact of his Nobel is described here and it is a pity that it came after the Armenian incident which made it seem to some Turks a partisan award. The French vote to criminalise denial of the Armenian genocide coming on the same day was a peculiar way of welcoming Turkey into the European Union, and given French involvement in Rwanda and its own troubled past with Vichy, not to mention its happy hosting for African tyrants, it seems a little odd that the French leglislated to make only this genocide criminal to deny. It would be far from the purpose of this blog to beleive that this might be motivated by France's political interests.

Having said all that, Pamuk embodies the appeal of Turkey to Europe and the modern world. He provides us with an eloquent statement of the dilemmas of modernity in the Middle East- his character Blue in Snow is one of the most perfectly realised Islamic fundamentalists in literature and his vision of Kars, its cafes, loneliness and politics, is brilliant both in its beauty and its incisive explanatory power. As a novelist his style is poetical and often elliptical- but like Dosteovsky or Kadare his poetry has a purpose to it. I will get round at some point to writing about his novels individually but he is a thoroughly worthy nobel winner and his vision of the world is full of fascinating insight.

LATER Got me international awards mixed up as Graeme comments in the comments- actually Kadare won the international booker not the nobel- he is still a great writer though as Graeme also points out!


The Revolutions of the latter quarter of the eighteenth century, American, French and the associated spreading of the ideas of the enlightenment in both the Western and Eastern hemispheres served for a long time and still serve as inspiration to radicals of any hue throughout the globe. Less recognised is the third major revolution of that period, in the 1790s in Haiti, where black slaves seized their freedom and maintained it through armed warfare against both British and French forces. In the week that Tony Blair almost apologised for slavery, and the week of the bicentennial anniversary of its abolition, its worth looking back at this first slave rebellion. Haiti proved to be an inspiration to both American and British abolitionists during the ensuing decades- black emancipators like Frederick Douglas and British emancipators like William Wilberforce looked to Haiti for inspiration.

Darcus Howe in the New Statesman this week overstates the point when he says that Blacks liberated themselves and owed nothing to the efforts of Wilberforce and reformist British MPs like William Pitt the younger, but that overstatement contains a truth. The abolition of slavery was a cause embraced at Westminster by the Wilberforces and Pitts, but the events in Haiti gave them increased leverage. As Robin Blackburn shows in an article in this year's William and Mary Quarterly the revolution in Haiti established the idea that black slaves were entitled to the privilege of men with rights in their own nation, as opposed to chattles of other nations.

Blackburn's article though establishes the history of Haiti and its place within the global instability resulting from the two other major revolutions and also the sweeping changes in world politics brought in by the seven year's war. From India to the West Indies, the last half of the eighteenth century saw continued instability, it was one might think the end of an era. Haiti's ability to survive as a weak island state, its ability to make what Blackburn calls the only successful slave rebellion in history, rested largely upon mutual antagonisms between the three major powers- Britain, the new United States and France- that surrounded it. It survived because of major regime changes in France- given a breathing space by Robespierre, because of American paranoia about British and French intentions in the Carribean and ultimately because Thomas Jefferson valued the Louisiana purchase over the actions of a couple of slaves.

If Haiti led to the abolition of slavery, it was merely one factor. The change of ideological climate throughout the world, the spread of the meme of the rights of man which Chris Bayly in his recent study of the 19th Century chronicles, the rise of evangelical sentiment in the United Kingdom and the disintegration of the old order around the slaves in Haiti should not be underrated. Haiti performed the role of an exempla for the end of slavery, but just as its revolution came into a vacuum and fifty years before or after circumstances would have been less benign, so its importance as an example rested upon the benign nature of the moment- the readiness of Wilberforce, Wordsworth and others to take it up.

Darcus Howe and Robin Blackburn would after all do well to remember some Roman history- the slave revolt of Spartacus in many ways might be compared to Haiti- it for a brief moment swept away slavery and united slaves against their masters. Yet we know almost nothing about it, because in the end superior forces from a united elite destroyed it and ideologically it remained unimportant. Haiti's revolt occured when the great powers were divided and reeling, in an age of geopolitical instability, where many within the contemporary elites were waiting to find an inspiration.

We shouldn't overestimate the importance of the Black Jacobins- but neither should we forget their importance. If Howe for one overstates their importance, the overstatement should be assessed in the context of an almost universal forgetfulness about this important moment in the history of the idea of universal values. The bravery and universality of their statements about liberty for all white, black and mullatto men shouldn't be forgotten- even in the circumstances were benign, it required exceptional bravery to seize the moment and found a state which unified African religion, European technology and the rights of man.

December 01, 2006

Carnival of Cinema

Just after a film post- here comes the weekly film fest of blog posts- go over to the Carnival of Cinema to find everything from my attempt to connect St Augustine, Hobbes and Brazilian films- to why one should hate Heathers and what one should think about Borat.

Sounds good- give it a go!


The Umpire- a good friend of this blog- has just posted a very good post upon the underappreciated film Casino. Scorcese in popular terms is known for Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver- but Casino is a fascinating film partly because of its obvious Catholic overtones. The first scene where De Niro is blown sky high and falls through levels of what seem like hell is an image that stays with you throughout the film. More than anything though, Casino seems to me to be Scorcese's investigation of the world of work. In Goodfellas, the film is obviously concentrated on the atmosphere of the Mafia- but also via Henry Hill's character you get the idea that noone needs to work at all for what they do. Those who work are losers. Casino distills that idea and plays with it more- because the world of the Las Vegas gambling circuit is a world where that has become truth to an even greater degree. Whereas in Goodfellas, you might turn down the status offered because Hill and the rest make their money through killing and theft- how would you turn down the money in Casino where it might seem that the law is an ass, that morality is foolish and that making money as Stone is doing above by conning people is fine. Its capitalism in action.

Just look at this photograph of DeNiro- the power that runs through his posture. The air of observation and the flashing lights behind him highlight the temptations of the moment- of work that obtains money quick. Indeed the still gets another image quite right from the film- Scorcese leaves us in no doubt that all the money made is money made through deceit. The punters think this is a game of chance- but it isn't. Even when they win, their planes can be turned round, and they effectively forced to play till they lose.

When we enter the film, we are given a voiceover by De Niro and Joe Pesci which gives us an image- the decline of an empire- the descent of a kingdom into anarchy- and its that image that Scorcese wants us to see throughout the whole film. The film might seem contradictory- in that the first hour concentrates on how the casino cheats its customers, the next hour concentrates on how De Niro, Pesci and Stone cheat each other sexually, morally and via children and money. But that's the key, what Scorcese shows us is that to sustain the Casino you need suspision- constantly x might be cheating y, z might be cheating w, so you need constant surveillance. But also x is probably trying to cheat y, z is trying to cheat w because this is a world in which you make a cheap buck by cheating. Bring that suspision and that cheating through the seive of consciousness, through the permeable barrier between work life and home life and you begin to see how these marriages and friendships inevitably break apart.

Fused with that, is the fact that behind the shining lights and the glorious backdrop there is unimaginable violence, just look at this still.

This still captures possibly the most sickening violent scene I have ever seen in cinema. Its a scene that comes at the end of the film- but it also is a scene the film builds to. All of the characters are complicit in the fact that once you have cheated someone you have to impose your cheat. You can't rely on the law which you've moved beyond- you have to force the other side to recognise what you are doing. Furthermore you rely on extra legal force to maintain your cheating and stop the other guy. Pesci the hired thug in the film performs that role- but again thuggery in one context seeps over into another- you can't contain it and that creates the tension that drives the plot, that drives the descent.

Casino ultimately therefore is about the inability of characters to contain their working lives and not introduce their ways of thinking into their private lives. Scorcese shows how a criminal life bent on distrust and violence descends quickly into a private life bent on distrust and violence. As De Niro in the opening sequence descends into hell and through hell, we can read both a purgatorial burning off of sin but also a metaphor for the entire film, the stages of hell are slippery and De Niro and Stone and Pesci slip once and carry sliding on a hill of pebbles right to the bottom.

Scholarship and the Internet

Its fascinating to see the effect that the internet is already having on research. The ability of historians now to find and look at their sources online or even to photograph them using digital cameras and look at them on a screen at home instead of reading them in a library. The ability of scientists, as described here to video their experiments, thereby making them easier to replicate on the internet. One imagines a future where instead of footnotes, the internet versions of articles will contain hyperlinks to sources of information, allowing the reader to instantly and simply check what he is reading against the sources of information or experiments it relies upon.

The Misers of the American Left?

Arthur Brooks an economist has just written a book, reviewed here (and I should make clear that I have only read the review) which outlines that in general in the United States leftwing people give less to charity than rightwingers. The use of this to bash the left in the United States has already started , it forms a useful counterpoint one might think to the oft repeated theme that blue states are much more orientated towards family values than red states.

Brooks's research though is in my view highly difficult to sustain. What he is really tieing together is religious faith and charity- NOT political views and charity- he finds for instance the worst givers are secular conservatives. Secondly as the review addresses there are difficulties to do with what exactly counts as charitable giving within his model- giving to a church does but it hardly seems fair to chastise an atheist for not giving money to a church. Furthermore there are problems with the way that the data was collected- what we may be seeing is that religious people are more willing to declare their giving than atheists- not that they give more.

There is one factor that I think the review misses though, and perhaps Brooks misses too, and that is the difference between small town America and big city America. It would strike me as intuitive that people in smaller less anonymous communities are more likely to be forced by social pressures to give to charity than people in huge anonymous cities.

Overall despite these doubts, there probably is a link between religion and charitable giving- rather than bashing Liberals or atheists over the head for this- its worthy thinking about charitable giving as one of the positive things that can come out of a profound religious faith. There are downsides to such a faith as well- the willingness to follow leaders of those faiths wherever they lead and the willingness to be as Dave Cole outlines not merely prejudiced but vindictive. Yet this evidence about charity shows how that kind of compulsion, that kind of moral imperative can drive actions which all would accept as good and kind. It is incumbent sometimes upon those of us who are not religious to remember studies like this that suggest religion sometimes provides a road for people to go to perform acts of great altruism and moral courage which aid others in their route through life.

November 30, 2006

Chumash Mythology

This is a great article from a disability blog about an American Indian mischeivous mythological child. The writer includes a transalation of the myth and then comments after it. The tribe in question is called the Chumash and their language is only partly capable of transliteration into English but the tale is amazingly interesting- a folk tale of misunderstood communication and literal interpretation of instructions. Without knowing anything about the Chumash- this figure of a jester who takes instructions seriously and has a rather malicious streak seems to recur in several mythologies- as Penny Richards says- the figure of a mischeivous child is quite common in most cultures and as a representation of the difficulties of education might seem universal.

Interestingly thinking of Cupid, Hermes and this character most of these children seem to have emmense power. In both the case of Cupid and the case of this Chumash hero- Ciq?neq?s (I have adopted Penny's spelling)- what also seems to be imaged is the transition towards adolescence. Cupid in the Psyche story is definitely sexually mature, and Ciq?neq?s in these story is too, yet both of them seem incapable of handling their sexuality without disaster (having said that Greek Gods don't seem to exactly have lived sexually illustrious lives- as St Augustine pointed out) maybe indicating a certain awareness amongst ancient societies of a irresponsible stage between childhood and adulthood where power and ability to be part of a community exceeded the judgement required. In that sense, one often thinks of boys who became men at the age of thirteen or fourteen.

These though are just random and certainly inaccurate and definitely illinformed thoughts prompted by an excellent post- rather than read my ramblings go and get your own update on Chumash mythology!

History Carnival

Despite noticing the Shakespearean spelling- a phenomenon in which this blog takes a wounded pride- the History Carnival has yet again linked here- go over there and get some historical carnivally type stuff done. Go forth and multiply ye centuries and subtract millennia. (I'm not sure about how that worked- but it sounded good when said aloud in the head.)

November 29, 2006

Is there a Civil War in Iraq?

Let's turn to the Daily Show to find out

The Under Class

This article from Salon is an exploration of an individual's descent into the underclass- from the perspective of his adoptive mother. It takes the complex lives of a group of people who might be termed scroungers or the lumpenproletariate, who seem incapable of aiding themselves and who treat with resentment those who aid them, and it makes them comprehensible. It renders them human- not the anonymous beasts of both rightwing and leftwing polemic to be treated or mistreated according to some theory.

That's not to say that theory and policy have their uses- they do and will do much more than any heedless emoting in helping these people. I found this article enlightening though because it eschews the major policy debates and instead brings us closer into the people. I found the most illuminating moment, where the mother of the boy in question offers his girlfriend the possibility of an abortion: the girl reacts neither with indignation that she wants the baby and would never have an abortion, nor by saying that she wants an abortion, but with passivity. Like an object, she merely accepts her course in life and proactively is passive. Such an outlook makes policy to help her very difficult to conceive of, it also makes sympathising with her hard because passivity naturally equates to absense- the absense of intiative on which so much of the positive qualities about human beings rely.

I do think that it is important that we sympathise or more appropriately empathise with her, which is why this article is so important. It is important because in empathising with her, even if we do not beleive that government should do anything to help her, we demonstrate that we respect her as another consciousness investigating the world. We do not relegate her to the position of an object. We treat her as an autonomous agent- that principle in my view goes beyond politics into the realm of morality- and it is a principle reinforced by reading such a subtle and thoughtful evocation of the mind of those who are hard to sympathise with.

Britons under Sharia Law? Or is this just another ghetto.

The Telegraph today reports a worrying fact: that Somalian youths are turning when they commit crimes against each other not to the police but to courts of elders who exact compensation from the perpetrator. The Telegraph reports this in the context of an assault. The police have issued a statement saying that if the charge of assault is removed by the victim then they often don't prosecute, but they are careful to preempt any concern about rape saying that in such cases the consent of the victim is not required for a prosecution to take place.

We need to beware of exaggerating what this means. Firstly the youths involved stress that this is a cultural or ethnic and not an Islamic order being imposed. Secondly what this is is not the contravention of sovereignty- the Police still have the final authority- but the use of other community sanctions. Rather than thinking that some areas of Britain have gone over to be ruled by the Sharia- one should think for instance of the Irish in America whose communities were often governed by priests and then by the police.

What is worrying then is not the myth of Londonistan but the concern that the police are ready to meet- which is cultural prejudice and bias against various kinds of crime- rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse being the ones that instantly spring to my mind. Community leadership by old men seems always to end up in the destruction of the rights of young women.

The other worrying aspect of this is the way that an immigrant community turns in on itself- as I've indicated above this has historically been fairly universal, the Jews in the East End of London for example were in their time a definite separate community- but we should not neccessarily assume that the evolution that took Jews in England and Irish in America from the margins to the centre of society will happen again with the Somalians. We shouldn't assume it won't but we shouldn't assume it will- and part of our task has to be to open possibilities to Somalian youths to take up the rights promised them by the law, evade the power of the community leaders and break the walls of the ghetto down.

November 28, 2006


James Higham's latest is up here. Its great to be in one of Mr Higham's focuses again- particularly when its an article about Russia!

Relative Poverty or Inequality?

A fascinating post from Chris Dillow about the distinction between relative poverty and inequality. Wonder whether it will make some of the leftwing commentators lauding relative poverty reconsider that they might choose to prioritise two things- absolute poverty and inequality.

Small change

This is a purely administrative post- just to note to people who come here regularly that because this blog covers a wide variety of topics, to make it easier to go through all the posts on a particular field, the field say that you are interested in, there is a linklist to the topics we cover down at the bottom of the page- I hope this makes navigation easier.

Michael Ledeen and permanent war

This post from the National Review deserves to be analysed and understood: I'm going to quote the whole post in order to let everyone see exactly what is said,

Thanks to Cliff, and to Dexter Filkins for getting someone to admit, once again, that Iran and Syria are all over Iraq.

Victor says we should first stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, but that's skipping a step. It is impossible so long as the mullahs rule in Tehran and Assad commands in Damascus. It is a regional war. If we continue to misunderstand it, if we remain locked in this fundamental error of strategic vision, we will endlessly respond to our enemies' initiatives, playing defense in one place after another. Today in Iraq and Afghanistan, tomorrow in Lebanon, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopea and Eritrea (that is the mullahs' game plan), then in Israel and Europe, and finally here at home. We do not need intelligence agencies to know this, all we need to do is listen to our enemies, who announce it at the top of their lungs.

There is no escape from this war, and we haven't even begun to wage it. Once we do, we will find that we've got many political and economic weapons, most of them inside our enemies' lands. I entirely agree with Victor that Iran and Syria are fragile, brittle, and anxious. They know their people hate them, and they know that revolution could erupt if we supported it.

Of course, as Victor says, our leaders may be so demoralized that we could just surrender in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the realists and the antisemites desire. But that would only delay the reckoning, and ensure that the war will be far bloodier. Sigh.

What Ledeen is arguing for here is a defence that involves perpetual offence. Ledeen's argument is that if there ever is a threat to the West in the world, we need to smash that threat before it smashes us. In my view the view expressed here relies on a number of questionable assumptions,

a. that the enemy faced in Iraq is the same entity as the enemy faced in Afganistan
b. that the Middle Eastern states that oppose us have the same policy as regards the West
c. that the solution to the West's unpopularity lies in more invasions of other countries
d. that the Islamic fundamentalist threat in the West is driven by Middle Eastern regimes
e. that there is a single mind or minds at work behind a strategy of destroying Western civilisation.

All of those assumptions I regard as untrue- to take them one by one

a. the enemy in Iraq and Afganistan are not the same- in Afganistan there are people fighting against us because they are Pashtun, because we have destroyed the Opium crop, because they resent the imposition of central authority upon the country, because of local rivalries, because of fundamentalist Sunni Islam, because of friends and relatives killed by us in the invasion and because of straightforward hatred of foreigners. Only the fifth reason would lead one to suspect that the conflict would spill over the boundaries of Afganistan. In Iraq many of the same reasons apply though there are also Shia fundamentalists- who unsurprisingly won't join the Sunnis either.

b. That would require us to agree that Syria and Iran have had the same policy towards us. Well that consistently would be untrue. Syria and Iran have sought to ally but Syria is a Baathist regime, Iran a fundamentalist one. Syria is Allawite, Iran is Shia. They may be allied, they may grow closer together but at the moment they are not identical. Nor are their allies- Hizbollah, Hamas, the PLO and all the regiment of allies that Mr Ledeen would conjure up for them have all got different interests and different agendas.

c. There is an argument that if something like the Iraq war hasn't worked- it might not be wise to do the same thing the second time. There is always the Melchett argument from Blackadder to contend with, when the general endorses British policy at the front by saying that "Doing exactly what we did eighteen times before this, is precisely the last thing that they'll expect us to do now" or his other famous statement that everyone getting slaughtered in the first five minutes might "depress" the men in the trenches. Mr Ledeen seems to think that as we've started a civil war in Iraq, we should see what would happen in Syria if we invade.

d. The Islamic fundamentalist threat in the West seems to have very few connections to regimes in the Middle East. Yes there are some but not many. It seems to come out of free media like Al-Jazeera and a sense of Muslim greivance. (Oh and just to inform members of the rightwing American commentariate- Europe is not Saudi Arabia nor is it likely to become Saudi Arabia anytime soon.)

e. As far as I've seen all sources agree that Al Quaeda doesn't have a leadership structure but is a franchise used by terrorists. A strategic mind is hard to sense behind the whole insurgency in Iraq which pits Muslim against Muslim, nor behind the terrorist campaigns in the West, nor behind the events in Afganistan. What is happening is a series of local conflicts motivated partly out of a sense of Islamic greivance against the rest of the world particularly the west but in many situations having more localised causes.

Michael Ledeen needs to go back and rethink what he has written. In many ways the world is more dangerous than he beleives, there is no Hitler out there whose head on a platter will signal the end of terrorism from Muslim individuals. There is a civil war in Iraq which we are in the middle of. There is an insurgency in Afganistan which we are coping with but those are not neccessarily linked. There are various phenomena here, not just one phenomenon and to think otherwise is to be intellectually lazy. There maybe reasons to destabilise the Middle East- Iranian nuclear weapons- but the need to chop off the head of the Islamist Hydra isn't one of them.

The End of the Cold War

Relations with Russia have preoccupied Western Chancelleries since at least 1917 as being of a different character from relations with other powers. Whether in the 1930s where British appeasement of Nazi Germany was in part motivated by a genuine concern about which was more dangerous- Germany or Russia, or in the era of the Cold War or even today where for John Miller Russia is now an enemy or Pat Buchanan fears the instigation of another Cold War by interests opposed to the present Russian regime, Russia has been an object of exoticist Western curiosity. Partly of course this is based around an ideological rivalry that lingers in the minds of Western analysts- the confrontation between global communism and global capitalism provided a simple model within which Western policy could be measured against a global enemy.

It is interesting in this context to read of the publication of diaries that record the last meetings of the Gorbachev politburo in the 1980s. As described by Der Speigel they provide a glimpse (however biassed) into the world of cold war diplomacy as perceived by Gorbachev at the height of Glasnost and Perestroika. What they reveal though is not the simple pattern which the cold warriors would like us to see- for example by the end of the 1980s, Helmut Kohl and Erich Honecker, the leaders of West and East Germany, were competing for the ear of the Russian Government. What they reveal is the degree to which the Russian satallites were largely against the will of their governments abandoned by the Russian government. They show a government that was struggling with a society in transition- a government that was often reacting to events that it did not understand and had not been informed of- a government where controversy about foreign policy was as much a central though hidden part of politics as it was (though much less secret) in the West.

Gorbachev's era was characterised by hostility to Russia from those who liked their foreign policy in simple shades of red and white, similar things are at the root of what is going on today with regard to Russia. The Economist has called Putin a fascist, others envisage him as a communist. The truth doesn't lie in those simple labels- Putin's regime does have a bad human rights record in Chechnya and a Russian democrat might well be disturbed by some of the developments that have taken place- but as a threat to the West, we misunderstand Russian foreign policy if we read it through a simple prism of opposition to the forces of capitalism. We find even in the days of Communist Russia that most of the senior members of the politburo could not be easily categorised in those terms- Gorbachev and the men he led can't be described simply as reds opposing the forces of capitalism.

November 27, 2006

Andrew Sullivan and the meaning of doubt: A review of Andrew Sullivan The Conservative Soul How we lost it and how we can get it back

Andrew Sullivan's recent book on the conservative soul is more interesting than its rather self helpy title might suggest. The book is a serious investigation of why Sullivan has found himself adrift from the main conservative movement in the United States and in that sense much of it takes the form of a personal statement ranging over many things from the importance of Christianity to the role of the American constitution.

Central to the book though is a recurrant theme- that of doubt- Sullivan is keen to and manages to distinguish this from relativism or subjectivism, the notion that there is no truth, rather his argument is that there are central truths- its just that they are difficult to perceive and understand. As a convinced Catholic one feels throughout Sullivan's writing the influence of Augustine's notion about the imperfectability of the human soul and consequently of human understanding. This is a perspective that stresses not the goodness of God, but the fallibility of man in understanding that goodness- to that effect Sullivan quotes from Hobbes the argument that God is a word that we give to that which we do not understand.

If Sullivan's thinking seems rooted in an Augustinian uncertainty about the capacity of humankind to comprehend the almighty and therefore the truth, his target is those who fail to comprehend such incapacity. This is a book directed against an entity which Sullivan calls "Fundamentalism" but which at one point in the book embraces everyone from Osama Bin Laden to John Rawls. Sullivan's perception of politics rests upon the kind of scepticism about humanity found in Hobbes- he delineates the shape of uncertainty about other minds as a way of conceptualising the guarentees that the state offers to its citizen. The state, Sullivan argues, is a guarentor of the truth that the man or woman walking next to you on the street will not turn to murder or rape or assault you. Such a conception and the idea that we give our allegiance not to an idea of government, but rather to an umpire who administers the clash between ideas of government, has an emmense power- a power that does disable those that argue that the state rests upon divinely endorsed models of governance and rules of nature.

The last key claim of Sullivan's book is one based upon the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott- Sullivan claims that life as we live it is something done unselfconsciously- it is something done in practice rather than in theory. That the flaw with systems like socialism and fundamentalism is not merely that they unsettle the Hobbesian state but that they don't recognise that life is a dialogue not a monologue- a dialogue between principle on the one hand and practice on the other. As Heisenberg puts it in the play Copenhagen, we have moral ideas and moral purposes but we cannot know which is the most important before they conflict, all we can do is look afterwards and see what happened. These three strands of thinking, Augustinian, Hobbesian and Oakeshottian come together to synthesize in a peculiar entity for a modern thinker- a set of thoughts that are inquisitive, revel in imperfections and attempt to reinforce process and doubt rather than conclusion and certainty.

Sullivan's book is vulnerable though to assault on different grounds. The first is the nature of the distinction that he draws between conservatism and fundamentalism. Reading his book, as a historian, I grew irritated by the way that Sullivan distinguished between these two entities. Fundamentalism is not a helpful term if by that you bind together Michael Moore and Osama Bin Laden. It is not a useful term either in a more narrow theological sense: there is a profound distinction between someone who abandons their conscience and says that they take their rule from a book which is not subject to interpretation and someone who like Oliver Cromwell says that their conscience is the way that they interpret a divine tablet of commandments into their life. Cromwell's understanding of conscience allowed him to argue that it was possible to make conscionable mistakes- whereas the first argument does not allow that option. Cromwell ends up with a philosophy of toleration- others don't. Sullivan's history is tarred by the brush of Straussian attempts to read into texts meanings that are ahistorical- instead of adopting an approach that reads a text through the assumptions of its time.

The second big problem with Sullivan's approach is that it fails to speak to liberals. This book represents two things- firstly an attempt to speak to conservatives and secondly an attempt to outline a major philosophical enquiry. As the second though it doesn't attack either the doubts about whether a system devised to stimulate a free market works psychologically in terms of the acceptance of inequality amongst the poor that it neccessitates, or whether it fulfills the ideals of equality as drawn up by John Rawls for example. Sullivan might argue those ideals are one of his idealistic fundamentalist projects- but Rawls's theory is merely an attempt to create a moderate and quite sceptical liberalism that doesn't have an optimum end, but just seeks a minimum justice. Sullivan's book looks rightward not leftward to find its critics and so fails to appeal as much against leftwing political ideas as much as against rightwing ones. Furthermore the most modern political thinker Sullivan cites here is Oakeshott- there is no delving into the thinking of Nozick or Rawls let alone say Searle. The other systematic problem in the discussion is that Sullivan never mentions Isaiah Berlin and his idea of the conflict between human truths- at points Sullivan does in his discussion of Oakeshott segue towards Berlin's idea, he talks of monomaniacal thinkers who believe in one principle and try and run their lives through it to disaster, but he doesn't ever invoke Berlin or the notion of pluralism. I wonder too about the relevance of a thinker like John Gray to Sullivan's notion of values and how they work- but maybe Gray is too relativistic.

This is therefore an imperfect book- given how much Sullivan himself lauds imperfection I'm sure he would admit to his own study being imperfect. One gets the sense of a lifelong project to understand politics and the way we proceed politically- of which this is one of many drafts of a political philosophy. Definitely worth reading and grappling with, the book has the feel of a blog- something that may well be revised, rethought and restruggled with in the future. There is the occasional swing of a left fist against an ideological adversary- the anti-Israeli left gets it in the cheek, Rick Santorum is punched about the ropes and James Dobson ends bloodied on the floor. Sullivan's effort in that sense is laudably academic- he is willing to listen as well as hear critics and have these views exposed by experience. In many ways what he has written here is a longer, more theoretical blog article- its engaging, well-written, personal and displays many of the virtues of his blog. If it doesn't answer all the questions, maybe as he might argue they are impossible to answer or maybe just impossible to fit into a book. This is worth reading- even if you find yourself as I did wondering about the dichotomy between fundamentalist and conservative and flinching at the generalisations.

Does Rightwing anti-semitism exist?

Surely not- or rather maybe- take this commenter on Hugh Hewitt's townhall column (the comment has now been removed- but commenters further down the post refer to it- I got the citation from Andrew Sullivan)

"Schumer is a Radical Communist Jew - he is clearly in that part of the Jewish religion that supports Socialism and Communism. They claim to be secularist so they can attack all the other religions and hide their true affiliations. New York is full of these children of Communist immigrants of the early 20th century. FDR used them in very responsible positions during his Presidency to enact his Socialist programs and to get the approval of the Supreme Court, which he packed with Socialist thinkers. At that time Communism was on our side in the war. There are thousands just like Schumer but he is by far the most dangerous--George Soros is a close second. Look for the Radical Communist Jews in the MSM, Hollywood, the ACLU, and in the Judiciary as Judges and Lawyers,"

Those Radical Communist Jews- they are out to get you- but if the commenter supports Israel's existance he wouldn't according to Charles Krauthammer be an anti semite.

To be fair I should point out that I'm not arguing that every rightwinger is an anti semite and I appreciate the fact that Townhall removed this comment- but it does show that there are people on the right of the political spectrum in the US who are anti semites and I think it does demonstrate the truth of my argument in an earlier article cited above when I suggested that Europe may have less of a problem and America more of one than the conventional wisdom of Messrs Krauthammer, Steyn et al would lead you to beleive.

November 26, 2006

Great Bremner Moment

Rory Bremner on Peace in the Middle East

"Plan C is to get God out of retirement and finally sort out who owns what. Afterall the region used to be his special project and he hasn't said anything for thousands of years. Well except for telling George Bush to invade Iraq but that was out of character"

(Apologies to any religious readers but it was a great moment in a good sketch.)

Anatole Lieven and the Military Industrial Complex

Here is an interesting essay from Anatole Lieven in the Boston Review about the nature of US power in the modern world. Lieven's review of a book about the Pentagon's influence on US foreign policy turns quickly into an essay upon that very influence and the way that it has formed and deformed policy over the last fifty years. Of particular note, is what might be called the irrationality assumption that he discerns- the assumption that all one's enemies from a secular dictator like Saddam Hussein to a communist atheist one like Kim Jong Il to a religious maniac like Osama Bin Laden to a sinister figure like Vladimir Putin are so irrational as to wish to destroy their own countries or regions in order to destroy the United States. This assumption in some cases- Bin Laden- may well be warrented- but in others- Putin would be the great example- is not so solid. An assumption of irrationality though fuels a logic which goes beyond mere detterence (to which a rational agent will respond by drawing back) but which ends at overwhelming military dominance of any other actor on the world stage- becoming a global Leviathan, something that requires emmense ammounts of military strength.

Lieven is right to reject a pacifist understanding of the world- war is neccessary and consequently armaments and defence ministries/industries are neccessary. Sometimes even intervention can be neccessary in order to forestall a coming threat- one could argue that allied intervention in 1936 when Hitler reoccupied the Rhineland was a neccessary intervention. Lieven is also right to argue though that that thought should not mean that we accept any intervention on the global stage and we should be aware of presumptions about the opposite side. Robert McNamara in his recent film, the Fog of War, made precisely this point with relevance to Khrushchev and Castro- looking through their eyes US actions looked aggressive and it was the ability of Tommy Thompson to give President Kennedy the idea to give Khrushchev a way out that saved the world in Cuba. Likewise Hans Blix in his talk in Cambridge unfolded the perfectly reasonable Korean suspision that given that McArthur had been given license to use the bomb on Korea in the fifties, the US might again think of using the bomb on the Korean peninsular and the only way to stop that- Korea possessing the Bomb. Sometimes it pays to turn back especially to Cuba and remember the old line of Khrushchev,

We and you ought not pull on the ends of a rope in which you have tied the knots of war. Because the more the two of us pull the tighter the knot will be tied. And then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you. I have participated in two wars and know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction. For such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom they will clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence.

Khrushchev in those words summed up the dilemmas of modern diplomacy- the actions of blind moles bumping into each other somehow have to be kept within confines which will preserve the human race. If both sides beleive though that the actions of the other inevitably are irrational, show no concern for the safety of humanity, then that provides a rationale to be irrational and to develop weapons which can destroy humanity. By assuming that the other will use them, one reaches a point where one would wish to use them first. This is not an argument neccessarily for disarmament, there are irrational foes out there, but it is an argument that we ought to be cautious about how we escalate- because our irrational actions provide the excuse for the other agent's paranoia which then provides our excuse for our paranoia- we tie the knots of war and keep pulling at opposite ends. Lieven offers us a realism derived from Niebuhr- I don't want to comment on that because I have yet to fully digest it- but the warning he delivers both against pacifism and against paranoia- is a warning we should listen to, or beware the consequences of tieing the knots of war so tight that it takes a Gordian knife to break them.

Some Suggestions for Russian Reading

Not sure how good nettiquete this is but I'm going to do it anyway- there are a couple of good suggestions here about books and studies to read about Russia- you have to wade through lots of comments but there are some gems worth finding so anyone interested in things Russian go over and take a look.


This is a very interesting interview with the head of the organisation, MEMRI which transalates documents from the Arab world into English and other languages. MEMRI has often been accused of being a pro-Israeli organisation- its head Yigal Carmon was involved in Israeli intelligence right up until the early nineteen nineties. This interview though shows that Carmon is at least someone who likes complexity- who recognises for instance that Abu Mazen has spoken publically, on three separate occasions, not merely against the efficacy of terrorism as a strategy for the Palestinians but against its morality as well. Clive Davis notes on his blog how Carmon is also pretty subtle in arguing that European Islam is not a 'they' but a collection of individuals who respond in different ways to integration.

There are two more difficult aspects of Carmon's interview though that I find questionable. Firstly he paints a very rosy optimistic picture of the effect that George Bush has had upon the Arab world- that isn't the picture more generally given out and though I have no expertise in the matter I would be interested to see some evidence for Carmon's line that Bush has made things change. Secondly he attacks the idea of multi-culturalism and opposes it to the French system of republican citizenship. His quotations refer to ghettoising and I think that there is a difference between an approach of multiculturalism- effectively respecting other people's cultures but placing them under the same law and a policy of ghettoising which is placing them under different laws. In the first case- a Muslim girl who flees who patriachal father can claim the protection of the law- in the second her father can claim the right from his law to take his daughter's liberty. That is a key distinction.

Overall though its an interesting interview- and deserves to be read.