December 30, 2006


James has put up yet another excellent blogfocus- it advertises as simple and homespun but there is a lot of shrewd intelligence from some great blogs on it.

The uses and abuses of Genghis Khan in History and Politics: A theme explored in the Granite Studio

Staying on the theme of my last post about Kirkuk, I've just come across this wonderful post about the use of the memory of Genghis Khan to legitimate Chinese imperialism. Its not often I do this and won't make a habit of it but this post illustrates the way that history can be used by political groups in such an interesting and convincing way that it is indispensible. I have heard lectures on the subject which draw back the use of Genghis Khan through the centuries, the Japanese in World War Two used him as an icon of their empire and China does today. I would add only one note to the Granite Studio's description- that Genghis is a conqueror who overawed the West, consequently to Asian powers, insecure in what they see as a recent world of Western imperialism, turn to him to reinforce their credentials as great powers as against the West. Its a fascinating post on a subject which intrigues me- go and read it.


Its often easy to forget that there are three different groupings in Iraq- the Shia, Sunni and Kurds. We concentrate on the Sunni and Shia and the different dangers that they represent and often forget the Kurds. The Kurds in general have been allied with the United States and coalition in Iraq, in general they have been much the more peaceful of the three major groups inside Iraq. Having said that there are two major reasons why the Kurd presense exacerbates the problems of Iraq- the first is that any strong Kurdistan or any break up of Iraq into a Shia zone, a Sunni and a Kurd would lead to Turkish intervention. Turkey looks very askance at the Kurds because as an ethnic group they stretch into south eastern Turkey and have posed a terrorist threat to the state there. Human rights abuses are common from Turkish forces and an independent Kurdistan would pose a danger to Turkey in providing its rebellious Kurds with a locus of inspiration for their own struggle. Similar things can be said to a lesser extent about Iran.

The other major source of potential problems in the Kurdish sector is Kirkuk. Kirkuk is an emensely valuable city, sitting on a large oil field which at one point was majority Kurdish. Over the last fifty years, Saddam Hussein and his predecessors installed Arabs into the city and noone is quite confident who now dominates. Nouri Talabany, a Kurd MP of the the Iraqi National Assembly, gives some evidence for my worries in this article from the Middle East Quarterly. Talabany reccomends nothing like the ethnic cleansing going on in parts of Iraq between the Shia and Sunni, but he does argue that the Kurds should have primacy amongst the groupings in Kirkuk, he wants the Kurds to take the political lead.

He grounds this desire upon a presumed population composition- he may be right but no census has been taken in Iraq, in the elections the Kurds won 60% of the vote in the province which includes Kirkuk- his other arguments are based on the Kurd's historical claim to Kirkuk. I always blanche slightly at historical claims- the truth is that humans have moved around for centuries so that many peoples share historical claims to any site. Interestingly Yücel Güçlü makes a historically based case for Turkoman control of Kirkuk in the same issue of the Middle East Quarterly. Güçlü does work for the Turkish government, so there may be an element of mischief in what he writes, but it illustrates the problem with claims over Kirkuk in a present day Iraq where people are moving around very swiftly. Historical claims in this context are always very difficult particularly in an area where I suspect nationalities are invented and projected backwards rather than actually existing in the era from which ownership is now being claimed.

I don't want to get into a debate about who owns Kirkuk. But the competing Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman claims to it illustrate the difficulties of splitting Iraq up into different zones. We all know about the difficulties in the South and we are all aware of ethnic conflict there, but if we were to split Iraq, we would risk opening up ethnic conflict in the north, a region that has until now been relatively stable. Civil War has flared up in the South, the North could easily join it and if you think its bad now, that would be much worse.

George Bush in listening mode

One of the interesting things about this experience is that there are a lot of ideas and opinions and I want to make sure I hear from as many of those ideas and opinions as possible

James Higham has been making a list of the wisest sayings of G.W.Bush, I think that should go in there- this clip of Jon Stewart from which I got that quote must be watched as well- afterall otherwise you'll never understand my title- Stewart does even better than he normally does.

Oh by the way here is another gem from everyone's favourite president

its in Saudi's interest, its in Jordan's interest, it's in the Gulf coast countries' interest, that there be a stable Iran, an Iran which is capable of rejecting Iranian influence

Its right at the end, after Colbert and Stewart do their normal stuff, and to be fair he did mispeak, he does correct himself and replace Iran with Iraq- but still its a quote that deserves time and place on this blog.

December 29, 2006

Iranian Oil

It seems from the Washington Post quoting Roger Stern, an economic geographer from Johns Hopkins, is running out of accessible oil- to the extent that if the current patterns of underinvestment continue, there will be no Iranian oil exports by 2015. Its an interesting thesis- Stern puts this down directly to government action. He is quoted by the Post as saying that

What they are doing to themselves is much worse than anything we could do.

Its an interesting quotation and attests to what I beleive is the fundamental weakness of the fundamentalist regime in Iran. Many of us fear Iranian nuclear weapons precisely because the regime seems illogical. But on the other hand the very illogicality of the regime, the reliance on theology over either economics or empirically based analysis, is a weakness and will in the long run lead to the collapse of that particular form of state in Iran. That brings its dangers with it of course- but the image that we have in our heads of a strong Iran standing up to the US and bullying the rest of the Middle East maybe only temporarily relevant. Rather in my view we should see Iran as a weak bully, attempting to bluster its way into the modern world with rhetoric and nuclear weapons, unstable and prone to lash out- this is no superpower to threaten us, rather an unstable state run by people whose training is in religious eschatology not exchange rate movements.

The policy implications of this can be discussed another time- but I do think its important that when we do, we look on Iran as it is not as it might seem to be.

Hat-tip to Bereft for providing the link to the Washington Post Article.

Super Political Geek

I'm afraid I just took the Guardian end of year Politics Test and got 21 out of 25 questions right, I hang my head in shame- I'm not sure what I'm going to get more rebuked for round here- getting four wrong or getting 21 right.

Personally I'm more deeply ashamed of the latter- I know far too much about Liberal Democrat pop preferences for my own good.

I need to know more Locke and less Lembit.

Hugh Hewitt on Blogs

Its not often that I agree with Hugh Hewitt- and I don't totally agree with some of the examples of good blogs he offers here- in my opinion Little Green Footballs very seldom provides anything worth thinking about- but what he says in this column is very good and takes down the kind of attacks that have been recently made on the blogosphere. Hewitt points out that a blog is

the blogosphere is nothing except a technology. It’s like a printing press. All that matters is who’s working on it.

He extends his points using examples to back his arguments- suggesting the names of experts who blog, many of whom I don't agree with. But the general argument is right. The blogosphere is just a platform, what matters is those who use it, some use it well others don't- there are great blogs and awful blogs, there are great columnists and awful ones- all you can do is go out there and find out the ones you can trust and find interesting.

People's Panels- what kind of democracy

Chris Dillow gives a cautious welcome to the idea of People's Panels summoned together from what I can glean to perform an advisory function for ministers. He is right to give the idea a single cheer. There are numerous problems- many of which he outlines and which I don't want to rehearse again here. One interesting issue is the way that such a panel will be formed.

One of the interesting things about these groups is the way that they parallel the reliance upon focus groups of new Labour electioneering. Wonderfully satirised at times by the Thick of it which demonstrated how ministers select the conclusions they wish for from the focus group and run by the intellectually challenged Lord Gould, the logic behind the focus group was that a group of individuals drawn to represent various groups within a population could in a small group present a simulcram of the whole population- thus they provided a tool for testing arguments, policies and ways of thinking upon the electorate. Frank Luntz has done programs for the BBC using this technique to test potential leaders of Tory and Labour parties before voters. There are problems in my view with this method- how statistically significant a sample of 30 is for testing a population of 60 million has yet to be proved conclusively to me.

The wider problem though is that the voice of the focus group or people's panel can quite easily acquire a spurious legitimacy- just because a group of thirty represents the people in terms of ethnicity or sex does not mean that it represents the people's views. Diverse does not neccessarily mean democratic, representative does not mean representatives. There is a difficulty here of rhetorical slippage especially when the people chosen for the panel are chosen- the ancient Athenian manner of choosing by lot endorsed comically by G.K.Chesterton in A Napoleon of Notting Hill is much more democratic because its less subject to abuse and less likely to screen by an (even unacknowledged) bias towards one opinion or another. Even so the error rate in representing the diversity of view within the community would be large.

The People's Panel deserves a single cheer- opening up the processes of politics and bringing in non-elite citizens (ie non-lawyers, lobbyists, Parliamentarians etc) to question some of the established pieties of political discussion. But it should not be mistaken for a representative institution in the sense that Parliament is, panels that aren't elected are not neccessarily democratic. They give all the advantages of a diverse voice- ie another voice which can force elected politicians to reevaluate unthought through assumptions- but they must not be granted equivalent actual or more likely rhetorical force to the decision taken by an elected politician.

I've clarified this slightly in the comments below- City UnSlicker has given his very cynical and clear point of view over at his blog- there is a lot to what he says. I suppose what I've done above is tried to address the idea on its own terms- what it could contribute if used properly. City Unslicker on the other hand puts it in the context of a very cynical and media savvy government so is less willing to credit it with any merit.

Republican Realignment

Amongst the more perplexing moments during the period from 2001-5 when the Bush Presidency seemed to soar in American public opinion, born aloft by gusts of air from the Middle East and "activist judges", was the continued use of the idea of a Republican Realignment. Conservative Commentators like Fred Barnes argued that the Democrats would not be able to win again, they suggested that the United States would see a permanent Republican majority. The elections of 2006 might make one suggest the opposite- that the Democrats have been swept in to dominate again forever.

Rather what has happened, as this sane and sensible article from the New York Review of Books makes clear is that the small Republican majorities of the mid-90s and early 2000s in Congress have been replaced by small Democrat majorities. That the Republican gridlock on the Presidency that Barnes discerns was never much in the early 2000s, Bush won with just about half the votes in both 2000 and 2004. The circumstances having changed Republicans have lost a temporary advantage, temporarily. There is no permanent majority in American politics- just at present a permanent plurality. Indeed in a functioning democratic policy, you would expect given human frailty, the natural tendency to arrogance after long periods of power and furthermore the arrival of the corrupt and climbing into successful political parties that this would be true.

Play it again in Parliament

Well, well, well it seems that some of our MPs have a good taste in movies. LibDems may split for Austin Powers baby, Tories may ooh matron go for Carry On Movies and Labour Politicians may go oop north for their entertainment with Brassed Off. The first two choices show interesting taste in entertainment or rather maybe interesting absense of taste (whoever said politicians were adolescents who hadn't grown up!), but politicians are at their best when non-partisan and the overall choice of MPs is one of the most amazing films ever made, apparantly in this survey, MP's favourite film of all time is Casablanca- hence all the pictureson the website.

To which the only response, has to be play it again.

If you've never seen Casablanca, give it a chance its an amazing film- one of the true greats from a great Hollywood decade. Sorry this is one of those films which is amongst the loves of my life. Its just amazing- go watch it.

December 28, 2006

Gerald Ford, Realism and US Foreign Policy

Ford's death has made several in the American media ponder about his place in the world and where he sits. Its interesting that the careers of both Cheney and Rumsfeld began under Ford's presidency and that men like Milton Freidman who couldn't get access to Richard Nixon could to his successor. That may though be as much a comment on Nixon's unconventional take on politics as upon Ford's more conventional understanding of Republicanism. Other conservative commentators have played much upon Ford's position as the last of the moderates, the man challenged by Reagan and later replaced by him as the Republican hope for the Whitehouse.

More interesting perhaps is this interview between Bob Woodward and Ford in 2004. Bill Bennet has already hit the roof at the National Review, condemning Ford's behaviour as neither courageous, decent nor manly. Ford, according to Bob Woodward's tapes, condemned Bush's invasion of Iraq. He condemns it with quite a forensic analysis of the situation- Ford's condemnation is based upon two arguments. Ford's first argument is a traditionally realist argument, that foreign policy is based upon national interest or self interest and consequently, in Ford's words, that

I just don't think we should go hellfire damnation around the globe freeing people, unless it is directly related to our own national security.

But of course the war wasn't merely an operation to make the world safe for democracy- it was an operation to make the world safe from Saddam Hussein. Ford disagreed with that angle to, beleiving according to Woodward that the publicly available evidence didn't warrant invasion.

Indeed according to Thomas DeFrank who has also published a posthumousinterview Ford beleived the Bush administration should have been honest and dropped the Weapons angle for justifying the invasion. He said to DeFrank that he thought that Bush should have made it clear that

"Saddam Hussein was an evil person and there was justification to get rid of him," he observed, "but we shouldn't have put the basis on weapons of mass destruction. That was a bad mistake. Where does [Bush] get his advice?"

Ford's comment to DeFrank and his comment to Woodward are not contradictory- the first argument is that invading for democracy was not a good idea, the second is that if you are going to invade for democracy, you are best off being honest about it. In a sense Ford argues that the US policy is dishonest and once its dishonesty is revealed its motivations are wrong, it would have been better to have been honest about those erroneus motivations, better still not to have accepted naive pro-democracy arguments.

Working this out is important because the Iraq war justifications have been so intertwined and confused by so many proponents and opponents of the war that its hard to separate them any more from each other. The lucid argument made by Ford with its two prongs may be right or wrong, but it is coherent as an argument against the war and it rises from a perspective which has been called realism- the idea that there are international states, their borders must be respected and that their rulers and the American people deserve honesty. You may disagree with any of those positions (and I to be honest am unsure about some of them myself) but President Ford's shot across his successor's bows is at least an acute and thoughtful one.

Presidential Debating

Presidential Debates in American elections have assumed an importance over the years that makes them a key part of any campaign. Famous moments like Lyold Bentsen's I knew Jack Kennedy, you're no Jack Kennedy quip in the Vice Presidential Debate of 1988 or Ronald Reagan's "There you go again" in the Presidential Debate of 1980 have become part of American history. Not to mention of course the most famous debate of the lot- between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960 which supposedly won a tight election for JFK by showing him at his youthful best as opposed to what seemed to be a tired Vice President.

Its fascinating therefore to find this set of interviews from PBS with all the participants they could find in debates going back to 1976. There are lots of interesting moments, both Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle thought they were over prepared for the debates. John Anderson, Admiral James Stockdale and Dan Quayle reflect on the difficulty of the debate format in accomodating a third party candidate. Perhaps the most surprising aspect is how some politicians, notably George Bush, recoil from the whole idea of a debate, Bush described the debates he was involved in thus

Its show business, Jim, its not really debating or getting into detail on issues or what your experience has been. Too much prompting, too much artificiality, and not really debates. They're rehearsed appearances.

It may be show business, but its extremely important show business, and very interesting to hear about it from the candidates themselves.

December 27, 2006

Isabel De Madariaga Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible's reign over Russia has become notorious- whether through Eisenstein's films or a simpler pop-culture knowledge, most of us know his name as a feared Eastern tyrant, like a Russian Genghis Khan. His life has been reduced to a series of massacres, the killing of his own son foremost amongst them and Russia in his reign to a barbaric autocracy sitting outside the norms of civilised humanity. We read Ivan's character and his nationality through the propaganda distributed by Poles and Germans who opposed his policies in central Europe particularly in Lithuania.

Its worth though thinking about Ivan in a more historical vein and reinterpreting his world in that light. Firstly its worth doing a bit of reorientation- the world we know and the world Ivan knew are very different- throughout Ivan's writings religion emerges as a vastly more important and more current form of thought than it does for any of us today. Simply put, like other figures around his own time (Oliver Cromwell for one) Ivan may never have read a book that was not related in some way to either the bible or Church Fathers. His entire world was moulded by the thinking and imagery of the Old and New Testaments. Secondly its worth understanding and just pausing to look at the geography of Eastern Europe in the period we are concerned with- I have here an imperfect map of Europe in 1600 which may help us understand how things have changed since the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

This map obviously only covers the Western borders of Russia but to the East in Ivan's reign lay the remnants of the Khanate of the Golden Horde of Mongols- the Khanates of Kazan, of the Crimea and others and to the South lay the Ottoman Empire and Persia. Ivan's Russia was a place just emerging from two kinds of suzereignity- during his predecessor's reigns the power of the Mongols had evaporated and Russia had become independent of them- Ivan consolidated this conquering Khanates in the early part of his reign. In 1453 Russia's ecclesiastical dominance by Byzantium ended when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans- Ivan's reign sees the full emergeance of Russian declared leadership over the Orthodox world- symbolised by Ivan's claim to equality with the Western Roman Emperor in Vienna.

These shifts in Russia's position over the longue duree are obvious to any casual observer. Bring the focus in closer and Ivan's reign becomes much less easy to understand and describe. De Madariaga has in writing this biography done any student of his reign a great service. She is fully aware of the limitations of her study- we don't have particularly good sources for Ivan's reign in Russia- most of them were composed by foreigners. We are also in a very different mental world and often epithets from Ivan's world have altered in meaning very slightly over the succeeding centuries. Take the description 'terrible', in Russian grozny is a very different term to our understanding of the word terrible, rather than meaning bad it means a ruler who inspired terror, who inspired fear, a ruler cruel in the administration of justice and so cruel that justice itself was feared. In a curious way what seems to us a criticism is actually a compliment. Similarly De Madariaga sketches out the way in which Russia was not a political community during Ivan's reign- you can't compare across from the Boyar Council to the English House of Lords. There were no representative institutions- its a bit like going back to the Saxon witangemot and seeing the origins of the English Parliament, one was an adhoc assembly of notables to council the king, the other an institution with from its earliest days procedure and judicial power.

So there are difficulties in understanding Ivan. There is also a much greater difficulty. Ivan was a man, like say Tiberius, of great power who was also possibly mentally unbalanced. De Madariaga hypothesizes that he was paranoid, and his paranoia resulted in violent swings of policy towards individuals. Ivan's punishments for what he saw as treason were terrible in a modern sense, he impaled members of his court on sticks, he thrust citizens of Novgorod through the icy waters of lakes and rivers, he licensed and witnessed horrendous tortures from which no member of society, even ecclesiastical figures, were immune. He even killed his own son, Ivan as well, a murder which led to huge instability after Ivan died because he had no competent male heir to continue the Riurikid line. Explaining his cruelty is something that historians find hard to do- like De Madariaga we are all forced back to the Tacitean imagery of tyranny. But his cruelty becomes a wider problem because it allows us the convenient explanation of madness for the other things that he did.

Ivan had a profound leglislative agenda. He at one point attempted to create what De Madariaga beleives was a parallel state- the Oprichnina- an experiment which lasted for barely five years. Ivan also resigned his own kingdom in a curious way by which he kept the title of Tsar but delinked it from his position as Grand Duke of Muscovy- a position that he gave to a Mongol in his service. Historians have also credited him with the invention of serfdom, in the later years of his reign he began the practice of forbidden years when serfs were forbidden from moving round the country, in truth this looks like an adhoc policy which became over time a foundation of serfdom- as with everything concerning Ivan, we must be wary of looking at him through later Russian history.

Furthermore he had a particularly aggressive foreign policy, attempting to coerce other monarchs into the acceptance of his suzereignity and equality to the Imperial throne in the West. De Madariaga gives us an interesting sidelight on this, arguing that there was a clash of languages between Western and Russian interpretations of imperial status, for the Westerners Emperors presided over Kings (look for instance at the ancient English iconography whereby Edgar the peaceful is rowed by seven other Kings down the Thames), for the Russian an emperor was a dynastic successor to the true Imperial house, of Augustus, Honorius and Arcadius (the history is a little garbled on both sides here- Augustus wasn't related to Honorius or Arcadius). De Madariaga is insistant and is right that Ivan was attempting to solidify a notion of Russian Imperial rulership, and his letters are full of ideas about service and sovereignty, but beyond that its difficult to go. Ivan was probably rational in seeking to perform these actions but as De Madariaga suggests we can't get to his motivation in doing so.

Influences upon the Russian ruler are equally difficult to perceive. Its worth stressing though that as the map above suggests Russia did not merely react to and import from the West. In military, cultural and governmental forms the Russians also looked Eastward and Southward. De Madariaga finds much that is Mongol in Ivan's court and governmental style- she even attributes the invention of the Oprichnina to Ivan's second wife, a Mongol princess, and to emulation of the Mongol elites surrounding Genghis Khan. She also shows that Russia looked south, through say the writings of Maxim Grek to the evaporating world of the Orthodox East Roman imperium and to the Ottoman empire. Much that was Muscovite was transmitted from Moldova or up the Black Sea. She is aware of the geopolitical importance of Russia- the desire to provide one power who controlled the trade route from the Baltic sea to the Caspian, a trade route vital throughout history from the time of the Vikings onwards and one that the English Russia Company hoped to establish.

She also manages to place Ivan's reign in a larger context. We can see how Ivan managed to control and militarily acheive various aims- the conquest of the Khanates to the south was a vital moment in Russian history. He also stripped the economy bare, by constant changes in the patterns of landholding, vast taxation and also the devestation of war. His cruelty she posits was a result of a fusion of a concept of Kingship which gave Ivan responsibility for the Russian people in the eyes of God and a particular personality, psychologically damaged and paranoid, which led to Ivan purging the country of traiters with an almost religious zeal. In truth we can't really say more than De Madariaga says and even what she says rests upon tenuous foundations, like all historians of Ivan's reign or all historians we come in the end to the frailties of our own evidence, we just don't know. Ivan's reign is fascinating and the shadows it throws forward on Russian history profound, but the enigmas are just as profound and as interesting. Its to De Madariaga's credit that she allows us to realise the importance of what we don't know and makes a convincing thesis at the same time to explain what we do know.

December 26, 2006

The Tolerance of Virgil Goode, Congressman for Virginia

Virgil Goode, Republican Congressman from Virginia sent this letter to a constituent in December (comments have been made on other blogs):

Congress of the United States
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515-4605

December 7, 2006

Mr. John Cruickshank
7—— S—————————— Dr.
Earlysville, VA 22936

Dear Mr. Cruickshank:

Thank you for your recent communication. When I raise my hand to take the oath on Swearing In Day, I will have the Bible in my other hand. I do not subscribe to using the Koran in any way. The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran. We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.

The Ten Commandments and “In God We Trust” are on the wall in my office. A Muslim student came by the office and asked why I did not have anything on my wall about the Koran. My response was clear, “As long as I have the honor of representing the citizens of the 5th District of Virginia in the United States House of Representatives, The Koran is not going to be on the wall of my office.” Thank you again for your email and thoughts.

Sincerely yours,
Virgil H. Goode, Jr.
70 East Court Street
Suite 215
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151

I'm not sure quite how this letter can be interpreted except as racist- this isn't an argument against immigration based on space, based on the welfare state, but an argument based on the need to avoid contamination from non-WASP or non-European elements- this is a quite flagrantly racist letter and what makes it worse is that when questioned by journalists about the letter, Congressman Goode said that

I wrote the letter. I think it speaks for itself

so at least we know that there is no misconstruction, no extenuating reason, according to the Congressman himself its fair to understand his views from the letter- so we know that the Congressman is terrified by the arrival of Muslims because they might want to swear oaths on the Koran and also might elect other Muslims. He doesn't like non-European immigration and he feels threatened by Muslims exercising their democratic rights.

Now those would be views that you would expect to find in a fringe Republican intellectual- some nobody from nowhere'sville, but this isn't a nobody but a US Congressman- I'm looking forward to seeing whether he gets a primary challenge in 2008 or is forced to issue a better explanation- if he isn't or doesn't then just like the unchallenged Trent Lott, it says something about how racially inclusive the Republican Party is.

NOTE Tom Paine in the comments has said that I've been too quick to jump to an accusation of bigotry. He also corrects me that it isn't racism- we do need a word to describe this because attacks on a person because of their religious faith instead of their race are becoming more common. There are in my view legitimate attacks on particular ideas- or versions- but you can't attack legitimately the essence of a religion because as I've argued here there are problems especially with the biggest religions of the world in defining an essence for that religion. In truth the definition of what a religion is is a real problem- my own position for what its worth, analysed with respect to Islam in that earlier post, is that a religious person- so a Muslim say- is a person who takes up a position in a particular language game where one of the rules of the game is the use of the Koran or Hadith as a font of legitimacy.

December 24, 2006

The Beard of Santa Claus

We all know that Father Christmas is originally St Nicholas- a third century Greek saint from modern Turkey, pictured by a Novgorod School medieval artist in this icon below...

This icon though still looks recognisably like Father Christmas- but this was painted centuries indeed millenia after St Nicholas died. Indeed there is no real picture of St Nicholas to be had, all the pictures we have are like this one and until the recent reconstruction of the fragments of his skull are made more exact, that's all we have. So that leaves the key question still open did Santa Claus have a beard?

Well the original models for the drawings of Father Christmas are these icons of St Nicholas and whilst we'll never know whether St Nick had a beard, its rather interesting to assess why the portraits have a beard. If you go back to when these portraits were painted, say back to the court of Ivan the Terrible in Russia, then you find Church Ordinances past against clean shaven men- why. According to Isabel de Madriaga's great biography of Ivan, there is only one reason- clean shaven men were seen as emulating women, attempting to look effeminate and as homosexual. The Church has never been too keen on what it calls the sin of Sodom and in 14th and 15th Century Russia, you'll be unsurprised tolerance of homosexuality was not at an all time high.

So it turns out that Santa Claus's beard is there for a simple reason- it signifies that he has a wife and kids back in the igloo in Lapland, and doesn't go home to the clasp of a male elf. Santa's beard is a relic of 14th Century homophobia.

Merry Christmas!

John Kerry endorses Flip flopping

John Kerry was ridiculed at the last United States election for his 'flip flopping', he still acquires ridicule from the likes of Kathryn Jean Lopez at the National Review for the same vice. Kerry was a deeply flawed candidate for US President in 2004 and his candidacy for 2008 is at present only beleived in by himself, yet a nagging feeling persists that in talking about flip flopping his opponents revealed themselves to be pigmies compared to even his dwarfish statures. George Bush and his acolytes, along with Tony Blair, valued as David Runciman has recently written, certainty and resolution above the merits of decision making.

Peter Hennessy has commented at length recently on the dangers that this has led Blair into- the neglect of process because he knows the right decision is merely one of a catalogue of errors that Blair has made. Indeed what separates Blair from greatness as a Prime Minister is largely his misjudgement of process, his lack of self-irony and his certainty in his own values and judgement. These failings, which boil down to a failure to appreciate and listen are failures Blair shares with George W. Bush.

John Kerry was a poor Presidential candidate. His mental and intellectual range makes him no John Adams or James Maddison, his campaign was deeply flawed and he obfuscated more than he made clear. Kerry argues persuasively though in this Washington Post Article that Bush needs to begin to embrace some of his obfuscations, some of his confusions, some of his lack of mental clarity in order to survive. He argues rightly that as facts change so do arguments- Nixon going to China was a classic instance of this, as you might argue was Begin's decision to initiate the Camp David accords. Kerry's problem is that he offers no real suggestion beyond engagement with Syria and Iran that Bush could take- his thinking has as its charecteristic tones all the merits and flaws of being entirely conventional. Kerry's campaign similarly wasn't one filled with bright ideas and a vision of the way that America might be- to lose to a President with Mr Bush's record was a testament to the lack of an inspiring offer to the American people of a way forwards. Indeed it was his running mate John Edwards or Howard Dean his opponent who far more than Kerry offered an alternative.

But Kerry does allow us this thought, that it is not neccessary merely for a President to have bright ideas- it is neccessary for Presidents' to adapt their ideas to reality, to let reality influence the ways that they introduce their ideas to the world in policy and in publicity. John Kerry at the moment looks as if he will be like his fellow Senator for Massachussets, Ted Kennedy, a senior Senator in time and never President but his article is a telling criticism of the man that took the Presidency off him. Doubt is an underappreciated virtue in leaders and whatever you think of Kerry the candidate, Kerry the advocate for doubt is definitely right.

No longer such a Wonderful Life

Here's the evidence that its no longer such a wonderful life in the modern world- where now George Bailey when Mr Potter triumphs.

Christmas Blogging

I think as you can see that blogging will be fairly sparce over the next couple of days, unlike the fellow above, even your humble scribe feels the need occasionally for a holiday, through Christmas- like most bloggers it seems out there. There may be some articles but the disciplined every day coverage may disappear for a little while- not for long, normal service will be resumed in January- and there will be some items before then. Meanwhile those still needing their fix, can go get a wonderful series of posts from James Higham's latest blogfocus.

Anyway to all visiting here, Merry Christmas- no bah humbugs and a Happy New Year.

Anyone needing a further Christmas fix, just go see Alaistair Sim's film based on Dickens's story from which the picture above is taken, its a good book and a great film

And just in case you are still reading- MERRY CHRISTMAS!