January 27, 2007

The purpose of History

Matthew Sinclair is worried that the government's British history syllabus will turn into an exercise in the promotion of liberal guilt, he hopes that a future Tory government will teach a history that makes Britons proud of being British. In doing this he unfolds two things that you might gain from history teaching- one is the idea of guilt for being white or middle class or male the other is the idea of pride in British heritage. To be honest though, I'm not sure if that is the underlying purpose of history teaching because I think that both focii miss the point of why we should be interested in history- both understandings are reflexive, they turn us back to contemporary society.

But one of the points about history is to understand that our society has been shaped by people who had very different attitudes to the world than we do. The world that we know was formed by people who fundamentally disagreed with anyone reading this blog post about the way that the world looked. There are heroes in history- Sophie Scholl would be one example of such a hero. But especially amongst the politicians they are few and far between. Much more interesting and worthy of intellectual effort by people is the instances when you can't find something that fits neatly into our categories. Why did say Oliver Cromwell, a man who let in the Jews and was amazingly tolerant of the various Protestant congregations in England, murder Catholics in Ireland? Why did his religious toleration stop there- could it be that Cromwell meant something different than us by the word toleration and wouldn't it be interesting to find out what he meant, rather than lauding him for his philosemitism or damning him for his hatred of the Irish. The interesting part of history is not finding the cartoon heroes and villains- the interesting part is working out how a complicated human being who like most of us was a hero one day, a villain another and complicated all the rest of his days, saw the world, functioned within his world. History becomes an academic exercise when it becomes foreign, difficult to understand and an exercise in empathy.

There is a further problem here and that comes right into the idea of identity- let me put it simply like this. Matthew would no doubt tell me that Cromwell's Irish massacres have nothing to do with a contemporary Briton's attitude to the Irish- he'd be right, I feel no desire to massacre the Irish. But on the other hand neither can Cromwell's tolerating the Jews have much to do with me- there is no sense in which Cromwell tolerated the Jews for my reasons for tolerating the Jews. What continuity is there in identity between me and Cromwell? We don't share the same ideas, we don't share the same picture of the world, we live in roughly a similar place that is all (unless that is you beleive in some mystical national unity of blood- an idea which is to quote Niels Bohr exceptionally uninteresting). There is no real unity between us- just as there is no real unity between me and King Alfred, Cnut, Elizabeth I or William Gladstone. All there is is the degree to which I can learn from them by appreciating their point of view, by entering into their picture of the world and studying their history but I could do that with anyone from Confucius to Cuitlahuac!

The issue to me about history teaching is that we live in a society of citizens- people who have to make judgements about what politicians say and why they say it- to do that they need to analyse and interpret statements. Fashioning an identity for kids might encourage them to behave in a way suitable to that identity- Matthew say would no doubt argue that his history teaching would encourage kids to stand up for democracy and human rights etc. But it might be just as important to teach children and university students that the world looks different to different people, to teach them how to work out how to interpret somebody else's vision of the world and to appreciate the human creation of politics in all its complexity. History might serve as a tool for the citizen to understand his own world, because the skills a historian needs- to evaluate and to understand the words of people long dead and reconstitute a view out of textual fragments- are the same skills required by anyone attempting to understand a politician's career from the fragments of television appearances and newspaper comments- even blog comments.

Yet again this functions as a tangent to Matthew's post- but I do think that history has another function in society beyond that of encouraging identity. The biggest criticism I suppose of this is that its more complicated- that it might not be possible to teach and that I'm an idealist- that possibly might be right. I stand convicted of impossible idealism- but I convict Matthew of a limited idea of the role of history teaching in the world.

Imagined Community

As you may notice if you regularly read the superb blog imagined community its writer Ian is having to travel out to Vietnam for family reasons, he is one of the friends of this blog and consequently I've offered to write the occasional thing on his blog for him to keep it going whilst he is away. That doesn't mean things won't appear here- indeed they will and hopefully at the same frequency as ever but it does mean that there'll be some things over at imagined community as well- what I'm thinking of doing is offering a little roundup of what I've done there, this time next week on this blog. But as I say I'll still be writing stuff here- I just thought people might like to know that the occasional article will be appearing at Ian's as well, until he returns.

January 26, 2007

Women and Truth in Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl

The Blind Owl is one of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read. Its difficult to sum it up because it is so rich in symbolism and imagery. Hedayat's novel, sadly now banned in Iran his home country, is one of the masterpieces of world literature- the influences of Poe, Kafka and even Edvard Munch have been detected within its pages and the problems that it deals with are central to any individual's consciousness of the world outside themselves, of the opposite sex and of their family.

The book is the ramblings of a madman through his perceptions of the world- everything that you read within the Blind Owl is filtered through the dreams of a drunk opium addict's mind. You have no sense of time- because he has no sense of time. You have no real sense of space- because he has no real sense of space. You have no sense whether any of the events described have happened- indeed events are repeated- moments seem to come back up through the text and repeat endlessly. The madman we know is in a room, we know he concentrates, spends hours assessing the room, knows its cracks or crannies. The room itself becomes a metaphor for the experience of living within his own head- it becomes used to describe the silence of a tomb and to describe the interior of a mind. What Hedayat does is to take you inside the mind of a madman, and transfuse the narrative with the point of view of that madman.

Seeing the world through the eyes of the mentally unstable questions the very notion of seeing the world itself. Hedayat gets us to recognise the way that our ideas of beauty and our thoughts about the world intermesh with previous ideas and thoughts that we have had. The madman imagines that he is timeless in the sense that he carries within himself the memories of all Iranian civilisation- in reality he refers seldom to history save for the fact that he uses the idea of a mythical city in the past to refer to a time of sanity. But he is transfused with memories- this is life lived through memory- so that a scene- the gesture of a young girl stripping off her dress having fallen in the water, to bite her fingernail becomes a motif of a desire, of a need and of the way that that need can never be fulfilled. Our madman sees the world and tries to put it down on paper, in the form of the memoirs that the novel attempts to be, and on clay, he is by profession a pottery painter who paints only one scene, a girl offering an old man some flowers.

Its very easy to see the sexual relations underlying our narrator's thought processes here- women lie across rivers, are perceived through the slits in walls, are screened, cut off. The only two actual women he mentions with praise are dead- and as he tells us the story of how his father/uncle (he doesn't know which is alive as they looked so alike) a beautiful woman is something that you see displayed before you and then that you suffer for. Our narrator informs us that he has not, since their wedding, physically touched his wife- at the end of the novel he finally does have sex only to slay the woman that he has sex with and to write about sex in such a way as that it to is an imprisonment. Indeed there is a sense in the writing that women have to be ethereal or else they threaten to drag men into an earthy world of excretion- the wife whom he hates is continually described in terms of her pregnancy- her fertile body is a thing to criticise. Our narrator constantly suggests to us that he is above the bodily functions that obsess normal men- being above earthly love he soars, he thinks, to the pains of spiritual infatuation.

A feminist critique might stop there- but I don't think we should- I think there is more to say here about the way he thinks of women and the way that that relates to the way he thinks about truth. Our narrator is a man whose relationship with truth is uncertain- he is an artist and what we see throughout the novel is the way that he understands his own life through the use of motif. Everything suggests everything else, conditions everything else- to take an example every object of sexual desire in the novel, from his wife, to the woman he spies through the crack in the wall, to his mother dancing before his father, has the same kind of Turkoman eyes. Even his wife's small brother whom he kisses in a moment of semi-paedophilic aesthetic admiration has those eyes. Equally he evaluates maleness by a recurred motif- that of the ugly, old, withered corpse that by the end of the tale he himself has become.

Describing himself at one point as a God, there is a sense in which the narrator fashions his narrative. Everything is interpreted through his eyes- if you go back through the novel and read the very few conversations that are reported you see them at a corner, amplified through a perception of what people should have said and then repeated so as to make the conversation unsettling. His search for the truth, which the novel declares itself to be, a search for the truth about himself turns into a journey along a circle whereby every time he imagines his life, he recomposes it of the same images. Like a writer with an alphabet, our narrator builds his life out of a series of stock images.

There is much more here to describe and I mean to return to this book in other articles- capturing a great novel like this in a few words isn't possible- but this is a great novel. What Hedayat does and you can see it both in the discussion of sex and in the discussion of truth is that he fashions a novel which is profoundly unsettling because it shows how self reinforcing all our notions are. This is a narrator who objectifies women, women are slates upon whom he projects his own emotional states- they don't exist, they merely reflect back the disorders of his own mind. Similarly the world and indeed his own perception of his own state reflect back his own state to himself. Self knowledge which he strives for ends up lost in a series of mirrors that merely reflect fantasy back upon fantasy.

To take you inside such a mind in such a brief book is an acheivement up there with Poe and Kafka- to perceive the hell of isolation within one's own head is to show how the narrator's madness is an endlessly coherent vision of the world. It corresponds to the way that he sees the world- and that vision is not inconsistant or inadequate in its own terms. He functions as a system of epistemology, processing new information, but never progressing and never learning.

There is much more to this novel than what I have just wrote- having put it down after a first reading my thoughts are neccessarily incomplete- there are many more themes as well- death and youth are important motifs- but I must close here with one instruction, find yourself a copy of this book, read it and tell me I'm wrong, because this is one of those great novels whose pages open up to a multiplicity of interpretations and whose words can be read and reread throughout one's life with profit.


The Carnival of Cinema is up here- its got some good oscar related material in it and a review of a 1940s obscure film noir from this site! There are some great reviews included- Nehring has done his usual impressive job so go there- and get some cinematic posts together.

The Carnivalesque is up over here as well- its an ancient history and medieval history edition and has some really cool things inside it- well worth having a look at.

Lastly given that I covered Michael Gove's speech here, it might be of interest to readers to read some other responses collected together at the Euston Manifesto blog.

Right that should cater for most people coming to this blog!

January 25, 2007

Rome vs Latium

As Fergus Millar's recent work, reviewed on this blog, demonstrates, the construction of the Roman Republic in many ways conditioned the way that we think about constitutional forms today- its uncontraversial for example to argue that the legal codes of European countries today are heavily influenced by Justinian and Theodosius's Digests of Roman Law. One of the most interesting facets though of Roman history is how little we know- the great figures of the Roman past we see through the eyes of historians who wrote centuries after the events that they describe. The first great historian of Rome, Polybius, lived in the mid second century BC by which time Rome had annexed most of Spain, most of Tunisia, Morrocco, Algeria, all of Italy and was establishing a foothold in Aegean, becoming a major power in the Hellenistic world. Its interesting therefore to look back to early periods in Roman history and try and work out what exactly was going on.

R.S. Howarth's new book on Roman citizenship and what historians have traditionally seen in the early republic as a conflict of classes is therefore timely and interesting. Howarth basically beleives that the conflict we think of as a class conflict between senators and plebs was actually a conflict between the Roman plebiean masses and the Latin aristocracy, a conflict between federal aristocracy and an urban demos. His argument as his reviewer, Thomas C. Rust, points out in this review has its flaws but equally is both interesting and provocative. The review is worth reading and is here. Rust points to some interesting problems in what Howarth says and it does seem to me that his use of evidence has been flexible. The truth is that despite our best imaginative work its very hard to grasp what went on in Early Roman history.

Which means of course it becomes very difficult to say what Roman law, the foundation for our legal and political system, was originally and from where such ideas as the corporation derived.

6 weird things about me

I've been tagged by the normally sane and wise Matt Sinclair with the meme six lesser known things about me, so here goes

1. Despite the history I write about in this blog, I'm not a great fan of narrative history with lots of dates and facts- give me conceptual history which tells me what people were thinking and analyses sources first.

2. I am absolutely useless at learning languages- I keep trying and keep failing.

3. I love microhistory- things like Montaillou etc fascinate me because its the mentalities of people in the past that really interest me.

4. I am half a New Zealander- my mother is from Christchurch and hence I have a Kiwi passport.

5. My music tastes are eclectic without neccessarily being any good- I know precious little about music and just appreciate good words and a good melody. My favourite bands at the moment are people like the Lucksmiths and Belle and Sebastien- dark words with an uplifting melody.

6. Art doesn't really manage to touch me much- I can't get emotional about a painting there is something flat about it and flat about the experience of looking at it. Its something that I am trying to work on but as yet- no success.

Right I suppose I have to tag someone else- well James Higham was complaining about finding it difficult to comment so in a gesture of friendship I suppose its incumbent of me to pass this on to him and of course having just ridiculously truncated Taiwanese history and pontificated upon Taiwanese culture and society I think I ought to pass this over to a man who actually knows his Chinese History the Granite Studio. Oh and I'll add my other fellow half Kiwi half Englishman- the superb Political Umpire. Right that's done- a serious post will follow at some point today!

January 24, 2007

China and Taiwan

Matt Sinclair has posted an interesting argument about China and Taiwan. I don't want to take on the main focus on his argument but from the perspective of having been to Taiwan want to discuss something else- Taiwan's history as I understand it and what that means for Chinese Taiwanese relations.

Taiwanese history is easily summed up though any broad summation is going to include vast inaccuracies for which I apologise. For centuries Taiwan was an area claimed but not governed by successive Chinese governments. Normally it was a refuge for pirates and a place where a fairly tribal society flourished with little if any contact with Beijing. The Dutch invasion in the 17th Century exported Chinese workers into Taiwan and used the island as a naval base to maintain relations with China and after that the island was exchanged between China and Japan. In 1945 following the end of the second world war and the expulsion of the Japanese from Taiwan, Taiwan was awarded to China. However after the end of the Chinese civil war in 1948, the Nationalists (KMT) led by their leader Chiang Kai Shek were expelled from the mainland and fled to and invaded Taiwan. Approximately 1.3 million Chinese fled with the KMT to the island and from 1949 until the 1990s a nationalist dictatorship ruled Taiwan in the interest of the emigres. There were clashes between the local population and the emigres- especially in the 1960s- but it was only in the 1990s that democracy was conceded and in 2000 that the majority indigenous population were given the chance to elect an indigenous President.

The ethnic divide feeds into politics- the Democratic Party and their allies represent largely the Taiwanese who were there in 1949 and the KMT and its allies represent the new elites who invaded- is also a divide in attitudes to China. The successors of Chiang Kai Shek interestingly were the first Taiwanese politicians to meet their Chinese Communist counterparts in 2005 and the status quo suits them because it holds out the prospect of eventual unification with China under either the one country, two systems model or even a democratic reunification. The Democratic Party on the other hand never want to unify with China- but want Taiwan to become an independent state. They have gained in support over the last twenty years and given the democratic nature of Taiwan's system, their interests will have to be represented if any eventual settlement of the issue is to be just.

Focusing as Matt does on the greater issues of relations between the West and China is a worthwhile exercise- though its also worth reminding ourselves that there are many Taiwanese- the majority probably- who don't consider themselves Chinese at all but think of themselves as Taiwanese.

(I have to say that much of the evidence for this article is stuff I gathered from my visits there and discussions with Taiwanese friends and I recognise that I've actually been highly inaccurate here, skating over vast issues and vast periods of time in paragraphs so I apologise for that.)

January 23, 2007


James Higham's blogfocus is back again and he has found as usual some great posts. Of particular note is a post about Jeremy James who is a blogger who is going on a trek to raise some money for Breast Cancer. There are some other more standard posts as well- one I can empathise with in particular which is about the way that Radio 4's Today program functions as I kind of permanent alarm clock. But its all good...

The Value of an Arts Degree?

The value of an arts degree is something that might be questioned- the practical value of a history degree (despite the fact I have two and may be about to get a third) can be questioned possibly in the way that a physics degree teaching the practical skill of mathematics might not. Stumbling and Mumbling for example included recently a post on his blog about the differential earnings ratios of degrees- whereas a social science degree or a science degree puts your salary up a lot, an arts degree isn't as valuable.

But are the bosses actually understanding the value of an arts degree and an arts education further down the school career- this review in the Common Review of E.D. Hirsh's recent book on reading shows that your ability to comprehend a text depends on wider irrelevant knowledge rather than a knowledge of a text. Hirsh did an interesting test about reading comprehension. He set two groups of students a text about baseball to read and tested their comprehension. The two groups were one group of baseball fan students and another group of students who had a deep knowledge of general culture and the humanities. When tested for comprehension it was the second group who comprehended the text about baseball better. Hirsh wants us to begin educating children to know things as well as to read things. What this research does suggest is that the knowledge that students get through arts degrees isn't as useless as it might seem- it allows them to understand texts much better than they would have otherwise even if those texts aren't related to what they studied at university and school.

This may be special pleading from an arts student- but on the other hand I do think that having an arts degree- in a subject like history- gives one externalities, like the ability to analyse texts that aren't always as obvious as the skills that other degrees confer.

Electoral Map of the United States

Just came across this rather wonderful website that gives you a map of the United States and allows you to see how different states changing would effect the vote- if you are as geeky as I am and fascinated by how much James Monroe beat John Quincy Adams by in the electoral college in 1820, you can even go and look it up (incidentally I know of two people that read this site who will immediately be off to do that!), its a great site and I hope you enjoy having fun with it.

Force of Evil

Force of Evil, Martin Scorcese noted in his personal journey through American films is a film noir made as the gangsters turned themselves from individuals into a corporation, into society. It concerns a young and ambitious corporate lawyer who seeks to make the number's racket (a business managed by gangsters where people bet on which number will turn up in the Daily Paper and get the money if their number does) into a legal enterprise. The lawyer, played by John Garfield, is also helping or seeking to help in the consolidation of the rackett so that various small time numbers banks (including his brother's bank) are forced out of the market so that the gangsters control the entire business, a business which has become legal. All he has to contend with are the inclinations of the gangster he represents, Tucker, to go for his gun in all situations and the presence of the law outside, tapping his phone, not to mention his own demons- a paranoia- and a love of his brother that Tucker wants out.

The film is a fascinating study in many ways therefore of the clash of cultures- between white collar and blue collar criminals, between the thirties world of gangsters and the fifties world of organised crime. The greatest conflict though lies between individual morality and capitalism- take this exchange between the lawyer, Joe, and his brother, Leo,

Leo: The money I made in this rotten business is no good for me, Joe. I don't want it back. And Tucker's money is no good either.
Joe: The money has no moral opinions.
Leo: I find I have, Joe. I find I have.

The sadness of the contrast between these two characters is that Leo's innocence ends up forcing his brother into all sorts of awkward situations- including at one point becoming involved in a criminal enterprise and hence moving from a secure position as Tucker's lawyer to an insecure one as Tucker's employee.

The film though is a really an exposee of Joe's decline and fall. Confidence permeates his entire manner and therefore his entire world- take these lines, the opening lines of the film,

This is Wall Street... and today was important because tomorrow - July Fourth - I intended to make my first million dollars. An exciting day in any man's life. Temporarily, the enterprise was slightly illegal. You see I was the lawyer for the numbers racket.

Joe's confidence is absolute- he will make a million dollars tommorrow- there is no question. Dressed in dapper suits and walking through prestigious offices, he is able to mock his senior partner's Harvard Law education because the next day he will be rich. He beleives his charm can work on the prosecutor looking into the number's racket, he believes that he can save his brother from the gangsters. He believes that he the individual is important within the system- he doesn't realise that he is the natural victim, the fall guy, whose fall is inevitable and desired by all the parties involved. He doesn't realise that the system will consume him- unless he refuses to have any moral concerns whatsoever. Joe beleives in his own powers- he is seriously mistaken.

The film though constantly puts these pressures on characters. Saints seem powerless in a world of villains- Joe's brother Leo employs men and women that noone else will touch and ends with his body dumped in a river, his employees end up getting criminal records. Villains though too are constantly consumed by this world- their words are listened too, the individuals they hurt strike back at them directly. Those characters with moral ambiguity in the film also fall as their desperate attempts to save themselves from the wreckage, either through cunning legal advice (Joe) or through letting the police in on what is happening, end up destroying their own lives. This bleak portrayel suggests that human life in society is almost impossible- that corruption is implicit and that the only alternative to corruption is a naive failure. This film represents the world as a cesspool- touch it and you become become defiled, avoid it and it will erode the foundations of your happiness.

Of course this is a film about criminals- but its a film about criminals which has a lot of links to the real world- cutting across the law with the minimum of legal risk and legal observance isn't unfamiliar to corporate bodies, nor is the way that compromise has to be made in the lives of their employees- even say when it comes to families and friends, most compromises and most legal obfuscations don't end in the disasters that attack our lawyer here. But the overall picture that this film presents is that within a system of selfishness the ties between family, friends, the emotions of human life from anger to pride to love are all weaknesses and all inevitably end up destroying those who seek to exploit the system.

This film is an overly bleak account of what it is to live and work under the market- perhaps its not such an overly bleak account of what it is to be a lawyer for organised crime seeking to become respectable. It is an incredibly powerful film though- some of the scenes endure after the credits have rolled. Just at the end, Joe discovers his brother's body washed up on the edge of the river, and as he clambers down the deserted city streets, we get a visual image of what the film seeks to portray, Joe runs down, leaping over stone walls, his journey framed by bridges and by roads to find his brother's body. He is followed down by his girlfriend- and over the top of this, we hear this soliloquay,

I found my brother's body at the bottom there, where they had thrown it away on the rocks... by the river... like an old dirty rag nobody wants. He was dead - and I felt I had killed him. I turned back to give myself up to Hall; because if a man's life can be lived so long and come out this way - like rubbish - then something was horrible and had to be ended one way or another... and I decided to help.

His brother's body lies at the bottom of an avenue of industrial waste- of the human deformation of the natural world, of the way that industry, that the system treats beauty. A hell visually expressed in tones of grey. In many ways this last journey, down into the depths, forms a perfect coda to the film- Joe's progress though he didn't know it through out is a progress down into grey depths where emotion becomes weakness and wealth paranoia about discovery.

A fascinating film concludes therefore with the ambitious, unambitious, saintly and villainous destroyed. Its an over pessimistic view of human society- but its one worth reminding onesself of every so often.

January 22, 2007

Michael Gove: The Left against Islamism

Michael Gove addressed tonight the New Culture Forum and your scribe was invited. Gove addressed the meeting on the subject of the intellectuals of the left and Islamism. Gove really addressed the fact that there were intellectuals upon the left who opposed Islamism- he mentioned the fact that there were intellectuals in the Arab world as well who opposed Islamism. He enjoined his largely (but not exclusively) rightwing audience to recognise the courage of those on the left who had stood up to another left (the left of Pilger and Chomsky) and had condemned Islamism. He quoted approvingly the words of such luminaries as Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and plenty of others. Gove simply made that point and defended that point: he argued that this leftwing resistance to what he deemed a new totalitarianism was a positive step forwards.

As far as it goes the analysis is true- but Gove merely stated facts- he didn't attempt to suggest why the left might have split on the issue and he didn't discuss the nature of what the left and right were. One might argue for instance that within the work of most of the leftwing intellectuals he cited were two sentiments- on the one hand an ideal of universal values and on the other hand the idea of the defence of the weak from the strong. Some thinkers like Hitchens have emphasized the first, some like John Pilger the second. Gove's analysis would have made more sense with this extra dimension. It would have been interesting too to hear about the idea that a neo-conservative is a Trotskyite mugged by reality. The left's attitudes to Islamic extremism might well be more interesting than Mr Gove has allowed.

The other dimension that Gove neglected was the discussion of what exactly an intellectual was. Gove presumed that an intellectual was a media figure who wrote books and subscribed to a political doctrine- intellectuals divided into groups on the left and the right for Gove. But that isn't exactly true. Most people who are involved with the mind work on subjects which aren't political or are political and historical but aren't partisan. Gove didn't really discuss at all the views of British and American scholars of Islam, philosophers or political thinkers. His galaxy of intellectual stars comprises of those familiar to the media- not those more profound thinkers working out of the media spotlight- Quentin Skinner, Ronald Dworkin or any others. Indeed such people are less easy than the Hitchens's to classify as left or right- they have political persuasions- but is for instance a description of the Middle East aptly described as right or left wing. The history of the Middle East and religion effect the way that we describe what we face but left wing and right wing obstruct rather than help our understanding of the interpretations. It would have been nice to hear more about the more complicated and interesting thinkers and less about the columnists and press people.

The last area where I think Gove's discussion needs moving on is when he discusses Islamism. Islamism is a very difficult term to define and it would have been nice to know what Gove meant by it. To take an example he argued at one point that Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, was not an Islamist though Olivier Roy, one of the world's leading experts on whatever Islamism is, thinks that Erdogan is part of a new nationalist trend within Islamism. Having said that the talk was more about Western attitudes to Islamism than Islamism itself and in the questions Gove was keen to make clear that Islamism and Islam weren't the same thing.

We shouldn't judge Mr Gove too harshly- this was a political speech rather than a seminar but it is worrying that political speeches are now so far away from seminars, that politicians don't need to define their terms adequately. No doubt Gove understands that the left has more complexity in its attitudes to Islam than that which he suggested. No doubt that Gove understands that there are intellectuals who don't write for the papers and are not easily distinguished into factions of left and right, but are still vastly important. But he was speaking to a fairly partisan audience and the paper was political not intellectual. The shame is that there is now such a distance between a political paper and something that can stand up to criticism- Mr Gove's paper needed much more nuance, subtlety and tighter definitions to be intellectually coherent but that might well have made it uninteresting to its audience.

Michael Gove is an articulate speaker- the flaws of this talk may well have lied in the fact that he adjusted his talk for his audience- the speech and his responses to questions showed that he wanted an extensive alliance against Islamic extremism- such Catholicity was the central strength of his speech. As an analysis of the left's preoccupation with militant Islam and the different ways it has played out in the works of columnists and authors, the talk failed, as a rallying cry to the Amises of the world that they had found an ally on the right, it was more successful.

LATER An interesting point on Bloggingheads TV right at the beginning of the discussion about the fact that we respect pundits more than experts- people who opine on the basis of a broad but basic knowledge of stuff as opposed to people who actually know about what they talk about- in the context of what Gove is talking about and the way he defines intellectual its an interesting thought.

Barack Obama and Race

Barack Obama has launched a committee to explore the possibility of standing for the Presidency of the United States. Since he spoke at the Democrat convention in 2004, Obama has got the reputation of being one of the most charismatic speakers in American politics. As Senator for Illinois he campaigned widely in 2006 for various candidates running for the Democrats across the country. He has acquired a reputation for bipartisanship- sponsoring leglislation with Republican senators Coburn and Lugar, 2005 he visited Russia with Lugar to assess Russian nuclear disarmament. Obama is to put it mildly a serious candidate and perhaps the only question marks about him are about his lack of experience.

As the first black man to have a realistic chance at the Presidency, Obama though hasn't been greeted universally by the civil rights lobby with support. Many blacks hearken to his leading opponent for the nomination- Hillary Clinton- and her and her husband's long connection with the civil rights movement. Toni Morrison, in a quote I will return to, said that Clinton was the first black President. But even so the lack of support by civil rights groups is down to something else and both Morrison's quote and that lack of support reveal something about what it means to be politically black today.

Debra Dickerson in today's Salon has written an interesting article. For her Obama is not black. He has the skin colour but as a recent immigrant to the United States he doesn't have the cultural history of being black in the US. She puts the distinction much better than I could in this passage,

"Black," in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can't be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won't bother to make the distinction. They're both "black" as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.

When I read that passage like most of the readers of this blog I blanched- Obama is black but there is a historical context to being black in the United States- a kind of inherited memory at least amongst those who are politically involved. In a recent piece on some historical work done on the New Deal, I illustrated some of these features but it includes a sense of resentment and entitlement for repayment for historical crimes commited by the early immigrants to America- slavery, the racial discrimination in welfare programs, Jim Crow etc.

Dickerson beleives that White people in the United States find Obama easy to vote for because he is comforting to their sense of what a black should feel, not resentful, not scary. Or as Scott Malcomson put it in the New York Times,

Rather than positioning him within a black tradition, Mr. Obama's speech evoked, through his and his family's varied races, trades and professions, a diversity that aims at unity.

But there is something more going on here than just that sense of shared resentment- go back and look at Toni Morrison's article about Bill Clinton. What she argues there is not that Bill Clinton is black but that he culturally was black- brought up in the poor south in a one parent family, brought up with jazz music and the influence of a particular type of Christianity. Obama doesn't have any of that. Morrison wrote about Clinton that he was

Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke?

Look at Morrison's quote, look at Dickerson's quote above and what they show I beleive is a fascinating thing about identity- they show that identity is not really about race. Obama is black- there is no gainsaying that. But he does not appear to have the hallmarks of what either Morrison or Dickerson think of as black- he doesn't have the background in the cotton fields of the south. Their identity despite what they call it is not racial, it is an identity based on the history of a group of people in the US who were segregated and treated badly because of their race- but that group in reality isn't defined racially, its defined by culture and politics. Perhaps its more defined by culture than by politics- notice neither Dickerson or Morrison's definitions would exclude a Black Republican like Alan Keyes who is descended from slaves, they only exclude a Black who isn't, even though like Obama he or she might have a lot in common with the speakers.

The way that identity works is fascinating to me. Firstly we can see how maleable it is- Obama as the New York Times argues is a strong candidate because lots of people can beleive he is one of them. Secondly though we can see from this example that even when identity is based on a long history of racism, it ends up not being racial. People's imagined communities are not based on race but based on shared culture and experience- a black in this case who has emmigrated to the US recently has less in common with blacks in the US from the 1850s than a poor white southerner who endured much of what they endured in terms of rural poverty and the lifestyle it engendered.

Obama almost certainly will gather in the support of the civil rights leaders should he become President. However its seldom in politics that you find a neater illustration of Benedict Anderson's principle that nationalisms and identities are imagined communities. Behind this mini-controversy lurks the imagined community of blackness in the United States- and that community consists of cultural markers and historical incidents. Many readers will find both Dickerson's and Morrison's attempts to widen and narrow blackness odd because the term is racial, but its less odd once one realise that that racial term merely signifies that one is a victim of racism in the United States (whether that be slavery or Jim Crow) in the past- it isn't actually a term which describes race.

The word- black- isn't in this context helpful in understanding the situation- we are dealing with an imagined community based around culture and history. Clinton wasn't black yet in some sense according to Morrison was, Obama is black yet according to Dickerson in some sense isn't. Whether through Clinton and Obama the racial element of this identity is slowly being broken down is another matter- but what it does demonstrate is that an identity as a member of an ethnic minority that seems exclusively based on race- actually is based on culture and history.

We have to also recognise that human beings are inconsistant and that their identities evolve. The mere fact of Obama's skin colour should he become President may change what it means to be black in the United States again- what that change will be, I don't want to predict but the whole business of identity is interesting and as the case of Obama's blackness signifies, its less to do with the facts than with the way that human beings imagine facts.

January 21, 2007

Chomsky vs Buckley

There is an interesting debate on Youtube between Noam Chomsky and Bill Buckley. Andrew Sullivan who directed me to it, has the first part on his blog and the second part is on You Tube here. The first part of the debate focuses on whether the United States is a colonialist power. I haven't seen the second part yet but its definitely worth looking at- I may have thoughts later which I will append to this blog.

Who is the greatest?

Its become a regular occurance in America that historians and others rank the Presidents of the United States in order of greatness. In 1999 for instance C-Span published a list, the Wall Street Journal did another list in 2000 based on the opinions of political scientists and historians. Wikipedia (apologies, normally I don't cite them but here they do provide something probably quite accurate and worth using) provide a collection of these surveys going back over the last fifty years in the United States. There isn't such an institutionalised listing in the UK or elsewhere, that I am aware of, though we all no doubt have our lists of good and bad Prime Ministers- Peter Hennessy in the last chapter of his book on Prime Ministers attempts to list his league of the last fifty years.

The concept of listing is relatively strange. Go and see this exchange at Vino's Poltical Blog to see what I mean, Vino argues that FDR is his favourite US President, and the commenter Edmund argues that what Vino is really saying is not that FDR was great but that FDR was closer to Vino's political beliefs than any of the other Presidents, Vino agrees. Its interesting that the Wall Street Journal survey above explicitly said that it consulted liberal as well as conservative scholars because its editors beleived that the survey was intrinsically partisan- in the search for objectivity it was thought that a wide political sample needed to be taken (though as I will point out a fairly narrow one- where are the puritans or mercantalists?).

Personally I recognise that this is an interesting game- but have my doubts about how far its useful. Peter Hennessy's list of British Prime Ministers comes closest to a good list in my view- Hennessy doesn't seek to list them by ideological preference but by how successful they were at mastering the systems of government to enact what they wanted. Even there though, Prime Ministers have very different ideas of how government should function- some like Blair beleive in an unlimited executive, some like Attlee in traditional cabinet government- and that effects how they can manipulate the resources of government.

So we are forced back to Vino- can you judge a President on the basis that he didn't share your views? Of course you can- but the judgement will be contentious. There is a deeper problem though, in that you are setting a President or a Prime Minister a test he wasn't sitting for. How can you judge say Thomas Jefferson as a socialist, before Marx? How can you judge George Bush the younger as a socialist if he didn't want to ennact socialism? All you are saying as Edmund points out is that you disagree with them. Especially as you go back in time you run the risk of importing your own values to discuss the past with- so George Washington becomes a la Castro a soldier against imperialism, Thomas Jefferson a modern liberal and William Gladstone a progressive. The fact that Washington fought for the British in the 1750s and was liberating a Commonwealth on the basis that these people were white Englishmen who deserved the right of representation given to White Englishmen under the British constitution, that Jefferson was far more interested in the small citizen farmer on the classical model, that Gladstone's political thought had within it the incentives of avoiding hellfire and redemption- that his whole political career was a subset of his religious career, is avoided in a charge to force these men into modern categorisations. We seek to make them fit into our lists of liberal or conservative or socialist progress or regress- and so we lose their individuality as people.

There is always a tension in modern politics between our need to understand our opponents and our need to recognise that they are still our opponents. When it comes to history though- forcing people into parties that they don't particularly fit into and treating them as enemies or allies doesn't really help us learn anything. History is a resource to learn from- its far more interesting and rewarding in the long run not to make up lists but to actually work out why these very intelligent men and women thought the way that they did, why the world looked a particular way to them.

Lists tell us more about ourselves than they do about the past, and introspection has always rightly been accounted a frivolous occupation!

Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty

Europe has a Parliament but it lacks a political culture. Most of its citizens barely know who is their European MP, let alone how each national party groups together within the Parliament. There has never been a European continent wide campaign- despite the attempts of the socialists to draft a common manifesto- for European elections. In yesterday's Guardian though, Josh Freedman Berthould worried that such a political culture might be just born with the formation of a party called Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty.

This new party is made up of a disparate individuals from various parties on Europe's far right- from Alessandra Mussolini to the Austrian Freedom Party to various Rumanian and Bulgarian rightwingers to an ex-Ukip MP- and according to that ex-Ukip MP, Ashley Mote, the only purpose for the Party lies within the European Parliament- Mr Mote disavows his new friends' domestic policies preferring to concentrate on their European policies. So should Freedman Berthould be worried?

There is obvious a rise of the far right going on in various parts of Europe for various different reasons at the moment. Freedman Berthould though is worried about something far more precise- he worries that there may be a nationalist movement gathering pace on the European stage, a movement that he feels might use the new common political culture to vault into power in various countries as protectors of Christian Europe. I disagree though- and this grouping needs more attention before we can show why he is wrong. Let me clarify that there is a very old idea of European Christendom as opposed to the Islamic East- not for nothing was the fall of Constantinople greeted hysterically across Europe in 1453. That kind of European identity doesn't originate from recent times but goes back far earlier- we may not like it but its part of our history. It may be growing at the moment under the pressure of the war on terror, I suspect that gas prices in Russia will also result in Russophobia quite possibly increasing as well and the admission of Turkey will be a controversial issue for years.

Given that is there something new going on- is this group something vastly new. I don't think it is. Europe's relations with the Ottoman Empire were always more complicated than mere division- the French always saw the Ottomans as a natural ally against the Empire as did many others- in the end national interest trumped the conception of Europeanness. In the end what we saw was that local political cultures trumped this vague Christian identity. I don't want to go further into a very complicated area- but there is something in that complication. But in that context look back at Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty- what they are is not a single European rightwing party arising out of a single political culture. Rather what we are seeing is a rather incoherent group of in some cases soldiers of fortune who have come together because it offers them all a renewed respectability. They want a grouping because it gives them access to privileges and funding- but there isn't that much in common between them- they all resent not merely the approach of the Muslim immigrant but also the touch of other European nations. The Western Europeans resent Polish plumbers, the Eastern resent German capitol. Historically it has taken the emergeance of a single charismatic figure to embed the far right in a polity- Le Pen in France say- this group though can never be led because it has no coherence- indeed its coherence is to seek for disbandment.

That isn't to say that this group can't do massive harm through destroying parts of the single market and providing a voice for racist reactionaries in the Parliament- we should prick up our ears and do our best to make sure that they are unable to take their seats again. The danger is in the details of leglislation being ammended by racist deputies.

But neither should we think that this represents a single European fascist party and the claiming of a European identity by it- European identity remains vaguer and much weaker than national identities and until it becomes stronger, European continentalism will remain weaker than its constituent nationalisms.

The situation may change- but its my feeling that Berthould Freedman thinks that a European political culture is more powerful than it actually is. I may be wrong...


Sorry spent most of the day out at a friend who has just started his own blog- linked to in the sidebar called Vino's Political Blog- and chatting about politics with him and other friends so I've missed the opportunity to put an article up today and being tired won't probably tonight- however for those needing a fix- James has collected some of the more interesting posts concerning politics and alcohol in his latest blogfocus having discussed everything between local government in England to Biblical history today in pubs, I feel the theme has a certain personal resonance with me.