February 03, 2007

The benefits of Blogging

Polly Toynbee is a recipient of a lot of hatred on the web from a lot of people- she lectured about the blogosphere and the press gazette reported on her lecture this week. Iain Dale has written a cogent article criticising her piece and being relatively positive about some of her comments. His agreement with her that its worth considering how difficult political choices are and be tolerant of politicians is something that I agree with. I want to discuss one point that she raises which I think illustrates something rather interesting about the blogosphere as opposed to the traditional media.

In the traditional media, as people often point out there is a choice of very few options- you have the Guardian, the Sun, the Times etc- who all appoint people of the same kind of experience. Most of those who write about politics in the mainstream media are people who hang around Westminster and talk a lot to politicians- many of them write pieces of incredible insight based upon these contacts they make at Westminster and Toynbee is right to say that that is an incredibly good way of thinking and writing about politics:

here is a skill in crafting a column with a beginning, a middle and an end, a coherent argument and at least three facts readers don't know, preferably information gleaned from talking to the leading players in the case.

She is right that this is one approach but as later in the speech she confessed her experience as BBC social affairs correspendent struggling to get her views in instead of the Westminster lads on the politics of social affairs that isn't the only perspective. One element of this can be seen in the rather difficult analysis of Islam that is produced often in the papers- some commentators seem not to understand at all that a religion is not a timeless thing or a regionless thing but varies- statements like Islam is peaceful or warlike are nonsense- some Muslims are peaceful, some aren't. The majority at the moment live in peace.

What the blogosphere does offer is a place where people can write who know more about specific issues and take a more academic attitude. There are virtues to being away from Westminster and being a consumer of articles, books, manuscripts and a professional in some other way of life. I'm always intrigued by policeman's blogs, nurses blogs and academic blogs. There are blogs like Iain Dale's which are more like the journalist's but most of them are out there talking about their author's knowledge of some area. Indeed the majority of blogs aren't actually political but they may deal tangentially with political issues.

Personally that's where my interest in blogs lies- its that kind of supplement to the media that I think they can provide- say with Juan Cole's blog about the Middle East being a prime example- that I am really concerned. In that way the blogs can actually improve output by providing another perspective- not supplanting the media but just providing a different way of looking at the world.

Bible Test

Just tested my biblical knowledge- its quite a fun though simple test- incidentally anyone who beleives that Donald Trump was the stranger Christ praised for aiding ill men need their heads examined!

You know the Bible 98%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

Putting Sarko through his steps

Here is a website which seeks to do exactly that- its a chance to see the right's candidate to be President of France getting down with the kids!

February 02, 2007

Events dear boy events

Something rather traumatic has happened to me and to my family in the past 24 hours. It may be that posts on this blog become rather less frequent over the next couple of days, it may be that the quality drops off and the quantity stays the same- I don't know how things will go- but I just wanted to say that things aren't as normal and therefore that that may be reflected in the quantity and quality of posts on the blog- please be kind.

January 31, 2007

Bonnie and Clyde

Violence has always shocked film goers and also given them a frisson of enjoyment. Films like the early gangster films or even the reissue of Rambo out this year might not offer as much in story line as they do in guts and gore. But its seldom that such films are self conscious about what they are doing or portray the attractions that viewing and performing violent acts has for human beings- it is seldom as I say but there is one vast exception to that rule. Bonnie and Clyde, the film made about two young Americans who collected around themselves a gang and proceeded to rob and murder their way through the Southern United States in the early thirties, is a film which is all about the attractions of violence for the human psyche- its all about that nebulous quality of human beings- thrill seeking.

Bonnie and Clyde is profoundly influenced by the French New Wave- offered to both Truffaut and Goddard to direct- its a film which seeks the same kind of reality that their films embodied. The first scenes are a masterful portrayel of the early begginings of attraction- when every gesture from drinking a coke to handling a gun become metaphors for sex. But in this film we are immediatly presented with the idea that arousal is related- that sexual and amour propre are linked phenomena. We see this in the first scenes- the lovers Bonnie and Clyde are united by the fact that he performs a robbery that she encouraged him to perform, they share a secret that he has a gun, they share a crime and then she seeks to share with him her physical passion.

Clyde though offers her a different kind of bargain- he is impotent. But as a replacement for sexual fulfillment, something he dismissively tells her she could have with any stud around, she can attain fame, she can filfull her amour propre, she can matter and be remembered by staying with him, by becoming immortalised through being part of a criminal gang. Soon afterwards we learn that Bonnie has managed to avoid the life of a normal southern girl, she turned down marriage, she preferred to work in a cafe aimlessly and to participate (one assumes) in aimless affairs. Bonnie in that sense lives in a waiting room, waiting for something to happen, to give her life meaning.

Throughout the film, this search for meaning is what is happening. The crimes speed up the life that Bonnie and Clyde until that point have been living- they are almost incidental to the excitement that they provoke in the actors and in us the audience. Dashing round the countryside, we can see how excited the two criminals are by their own narrow escapes and their escapades. There is a kind of cheek in it for them as well. They come undone by humiliating a man of power- the sherrif and taking the mickey out of him but letting him go.

The other members of the gang- serve as either foils to the two main characters or alternatives to them. Clyde's sister in law is just want Bonnie wants to avoid becoming- a woman who is married and who disdains excitement. Clyde's brother is a lesser version of Clyde himself. Their other companion is a cipher- who reflects back the rest of the gang's lives- easily led and mentally subnormal, he gives us the sense of Bonnie's sexual magnetism, of Clyde's charisma, he is Clyde's sister in law's confessor. In some ways he functions as a priest of this motley congregation- inactive and enduring through the mayhem they create.

The focus of this film though is right on the protagonists- we are meant to feel their joy, their sense of liberation and exultation. Like Jules et Jim we get all the vivacity of youth, like in A Bout de Souffle we get the cool of a criminal modelling himself directly upon the movies. What animates the union of these two moods is the protagonists' desire to matter- to have a meaning, to have a freedom but also a name in the future. In many senses this is a profoundly existentialist film, its about the need deeply built within the modern psyche for our lives to mean something more than they do.

Bonnie senses that she might spend the rest of her life in West Texas, growing old and fat and bringing up children who do the same. Clyde wants to replace his impotence to create with his own creation- Bonnie and her fame. In the end of course they acquire meaning and Clyde sexual potency when Bonnie writes a poem about the two of them. Its not the violence as much, as the meaning that the violence imbues them with- the fact that they are the focus which excites them: and the climax of the film which allows Clyde his own sexual climax is not an orgy of bloodletting but the transfixion of their lives in the medium of poetry. Like Homeric heroes they are remembered in verse, which is what they seek.

The film is built upon the foundations of a double crescendo- for Bonnie and Clyde the crescendo is finally reaching sexual intercourse with each other- but the direction deliberately veils that from us. Rather for us the crescendo is the violent conclusion, as they are shot to pieces by the police. What is so interesting about this last violent moment is that it shows us how the myth has taken over their lives and destroyed their lives- the police shoot them because they think they are so vicious that they can't give a warning to them that they are coming, but more than that even the violent shooting is styalised. Bonnie's body ballerinas through the shooting, Clyde's is in slowmotion cartwheeling as the bullets hit. This is killing not merely as the destruction of life but as spectacle- they die as they lived in a massive spectacle.

What this leaves us with is an essential problem at the heart of this idea of a search for meaning- if I want my life to mean something to others and if that is my aim then in the end I am letting others tell me what is important about my life. Meaning is something that we the audience infer from the film, it isn't something that characters can create. Our lives' meaning for others isn't something we create its something that others create. In the end, Bonnie and Clyde become a memory and there are hints in the film, particularly in a touching scene with Bonnie's family when they realise and she realises that she can never really communicate again with those that she loves, that what happens to these two is that they become icons, transfixed like flies in a museum showcase onto a wall where we will give them meaning.

The film has been criticised often enough for seeming to encourage violence- I don't think that's right. This is a film that wrestles with why people might commit violence- it wrestles with questions of how we give our lives meaning- and it comes out with some very interesting and puzzling answers. With answers about the links between excitement, existential angst, sexuality and violence, with answers about the way that giving our lives meaning means losing control of them, means ballerining our way into destruction. This film is an examination of the lives of two characters, how they became criminals and how they destroyed each other in a quest for meaning within their lives.

January 30, 2007


Can we now lay to rest- at least for another week- the myth that women are less aggressive and minded to die for their countries than men? This poll from Family Security Matters, a national security pressure group, shows that out of a sample of 1000 college students- 40% of the women said they were prepared to volunteer to fight in the US military whereas only 14% of the male students shared that conviction. Of course the poll may be an outlier, of course the number of students is smallish though normally polls for elections are around a couple of thousands. The poll was conducted by what looks like a reputable company. I suspect the figures are closer than the poll gives- but it is rather interesting that the gender bias that you might, on the basis of gender stereotypes imagine, was reversed.

Nation and History

It seems absurdly self referential to go back to a discussion which seems to have ended- but I'm going to do this anyway. Matthew Sinclair is one of the more acute bloggers out there- so I'm sure he will not mind it when I come back to him on a post he wrote concerning nationalism and history and an article I'd written in response to something that again he wrote concerning the way that we teach history.

The argument between me and Matthew seems to resolve itself into a question about nationhood and Matthew has two critiques of my position- the first is that he argues there is a reality to the principle that there are nations and that their history is continuous- he argues that

I do not think that, in order for history to contribute to this sense of nation it need be a caricature... There are other events which might give us pride; there is plenty in the history of a nation as great as ours to celebrate even while acknowledging subtlety. For example, it is right and proper to acknowledge that there was hardship and sometimes cruelty in Britain's making of man's economic fortune in the Industrial Revolution but that does not obscure the importance of Britain's contribution to world prosperity. We do not require saints to inspire us; mighty achievements will do. Although not bound by blood or personality myself, Cromwell, Cnut and Churchill are all part of a great shared historical endeavour. If we can teach British children they are a part of that endeavour too they might show spirit worthy of such a heritage.

There is a problem here. The great shared historical endeavour Matthew discerns actually isn't present. I don't know enough about Cnut to say but I would have thought that he would have beleived in a Danish kingdom which included England not an English one. I do know about the Normans- who had no real sense of being part of an exclusive English history- for them the title of Duke of Normandy mattered as much as the title of King of England. Oliver Cromwell's sense of England was as a godly nation, an Israel that the Lord would lead to aid in the salvation of human kind. He beleived in English law as the creation of a benign Providence. Churchill of course beleived in Britain, and England as a part of Britain, and a British empire that neither Cromwell nor Cnut had heard of. Their ideas of England were very different and the way that they wished to form the nation was- I would dispute the idea therefore that they were engaged in a common historical project.

But that isn't the heart of Matthew's criticism- the heart of Matthew's criticism lies in his earlier paragraphs where he accuses me of materialism:

Gracchi contends that history's ability to build identity is questionable by posing the question of whether I can relate to Cromwell's crimes as well as his achievements. He quite sensibly points out the problems with my playing the eternal soccer fan crying "we won" when I played no part in the game. However, I think that he is taking a rather unfortunately materialistic view of the nature of nations. If our nation is merely one big nexus of social contracts then can we expect self-sacrifice in its name? Can we expect people to do more than pursue their narrow self interest within such a nation?

Nationalism motivates people to stand by their nation and fellow citizens by appealing to instincts of group loyalty hardwired into our nature. Even if we wished to avoid it we would likely only replace it with other loyalties such as the loyalties to extended family which it is it is thought impede democratic development in large parts of the Muslim world. There is a famous psychological study which found that, even if separated only by the modern artist they found most appealing, people still displayed significant loyalty to their group. Now, we can either have this national bond be based upon a heroic narrative, the sense of an old and grand project or a new and exciting one as in the States

I've separated out these two ideas- because the first is to do with historical truth and I disagree with Matthew there but the second is to do with political expediency. Forget whether its true or not, is nationalism a useful lie that enables the state to exist in a more coherent and peaceful form. Matthew here might have more of a point and I've often wondered about whether historical truth and the way it corrodes our belief in the unique nature of the society that we live in makes us politically more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of fortune. My answer though is below but it isn't really worked out in a particularly formal way and I'm willing to abandon it.

The problem that Matthew it seems to me conjures up is one of human nature- what really motivates us is not what we beleive but what we feel and I would agree with that. We all exist in a world where we feel great emotions about other people- storms of feeling that come upon us or mere quiet inclinations towards a person. Most of the time, we can recognise that there is a difference between this kind of emotional connection and a rational calculation of that person's merit- its why for instance you always find people in love asking whether its wise for them to be in that relationship. I wonder whether our relationship to a nation or a state is a bit like that- there may well be no rational reason why we would feel nationalistic but that doesn't mean that we won't.

The problem with nationalism is that it leads like most emotions to some incredibly stupid judgements- I don't need to go through them- it also as Matthew points out leads to heroism, self sacrafice and the whole business of politics. If we remind ourselves that it is an emotion and not rational then it may be that we can guard against the one and use it to sustain the other- like someone who is in love, who tries at the same time to make sure he or she isn't only focusing on their lover but on their other friends as well (despite what their emotion tells them to do) but who also allows the emotion to change their make them kinder with their lover- we can call in the emotion of nationalism as a mercenary on our better side, to help us be heroic but we can also recognise its irrationality.

History therefore shouldn't in my view be enlisted on the side of nationalism- partly because to do that is to teach a lie and partly also because it teaches us that nationalism is right. Rather we should deal with nationalism like we deal with love- through art, poetry and all the ways that we can use to convey emotion. History is a study of what people thought, wrote and did in the past- it isn't a servant of our own feelings about our identity.

Incidentally on the same theme both Vino and Not Saussure have also written interesting articles reflecting on my dispute with Matthew- I've left comments on both their blogs reflecting on the issues they raise.

January 29, 2007

Orientalism and its discontents

Orientalism has been central to the way that people think about the study of the Middle East since in the 1970s Edward Said anatomised it as an attitude. Said was one of the thinkers who emerged in the sixties and seventies and sought to use the work of Michel Foucault to understand US foreign policy. In this sense his project was very much linked to Noam Chomsky's work on the intellectuals in Vietnam. Like Chomsky Said argued that intellectual arguments had become a source of legitimation for American and earlier Western foreign policy- he argued that far from being disinterested observers of the East, that students of the Middle East, of Oriental Studies departments, served as advocates for a policy of imperialism. They did this in two ways- firstly by putting forwards the notion that all Arabs were the same, were uncivilised, prone to irrationality and opposed to the modern world and secondly and more insidiously by making the Arabs a single object, deprived of individuality, an object of study for Western curiosity. Said picked out modern and ancient Orientalists for his criticism, singling out Bernard Lewis as the greatest Orientalist of the moment.

Robert Irwin recently has mounted an attack upon Said's theory of Orientalism. Having not read Irwin's book I don't want to summarise his book- my article though is a response to Lawrence Rosen's response to Irwin and Said in the Boston Review. Lawrence Rosen defends the idea that there was something deeply wrong about Orientalism- rather than backing up Said's theory he provides his own template of the mistakes made by orientalists and those who beleive their mythology of the orient.

Lawrence Rosen's makes five points about the way that Orientalism fails to present us with a picture of the Middle East. Basically he argues that the Orientalists, caught up in studying the languages of the Middle East, imagined a single Arabic entity floating through the centuries about which they know more than the present day Arabs. Rosen is right- any scholar who assesses the Arab mind- or indeed an Islamic mind- which is timeless is not merely prejudiced but also doesn't understand the history or the Islamic world. To take an argument I've made in another place, the history of India is made up of a series of migrations and influences from other places. The same is true of the Middle East- its a place that has been affected by migrations, by historical change- by the emigration of ideas through the region and also by vast historical changes within the region.

But Rosen in his analysis makes two crucial mistakes. Firstly he makes the mistake that Said makes- that is of assuming that all Orientalists are the same- that Orientalism hasn't changed significantly down the centuries. Said is wrong to presume that all Orientalists throughout Europe followed the model of Britain and France, he was also wrong to assume that the major relationship of the West and the Orient has always been an imperial one where the West has tried to conquer the Orient. (The position of Orientalists visa vis politicians is something that I want to come onto in a minute) Rosen makes the same mistake- philology was a popular subject for 19th Century thinkers but held little relevance say for 17th century orientalists for whom theology was the prism through which they understood the Orient. Rosen also makes a mistake in lumping Orientalists together- a political scientist working on the Middle East needs to talk to many Arabs, but a scholar of 7th Century Islam doesn't need to in the same way because of the changes that have occured over the past 1300 years.

Said's thesis though was profoundly about politics and the role of intellectuals in politics- Rosen confronts this and then says that Orientalism is disfigured by its scholarly failings as much as its political failings. I want though to turn the spotlight back on what Said argued because it is worth discussing. Firstly Said in his book elided the distinction between works like that I've used as an illustration (a painting by Delacroix) which were popular and populist and the actual scholarship- often the scholars opposed the imperial ambitions and the racist allusions of the more scabrous of the popular works. Secondly Said's intellectuals- like Chomsky's intellectuals- respond only to power. Power and politics Said thinks explain intellectual endeavour. There isn't much time for me to get into this and this is a crude generalisation about Said's theory- but it does leave open the perplexing question as to what power relations Said's work reflects. If all that is happening is that intellectual study is an effort to conquer using the mind, or propagandise, isn't it always a violent endeavour- isn't it always far from innocent and if that's true isn't labelling a particular field violent, violent in itself. The attack thus becomes potentially self defeating and the problem with Said's argument, is that ultimately it isn't enough to say that all intellectuals serve power, the problem is that you have to prove they do in every single instance. The problem is that the field of study has changed over the past five hundred years- as the intellectual contours of the world around have changed.

Arguments about Orientalism are useful- because we need to understand what flawed assumptions we bring to the study of other cultures and as the war on terror demonstrates it is not merely interesting but also politically neccessary to study other cultures at this particular point in time and get it right. Said and Rosen offer useful correctives but their books and articles in my view fail to render a complete picture- partly because their picture is too theoretically consistant, and too empirically unsound.