March 03, 2007

Blogfocus is up

The great James Higham having justified moving to Russia in eloquent prose already this weekend, has also posted his latest collection of all bright and beautiful in the blogosphere. It includes all that is weird and wonderful and around this week- not to mention that it's got cartoons in it!

What more could I say to endorse it? Cartoons kids- go grab a link and see where it takes you!

The History of Tobacco in the Ottoman Empire

James Grehan wrote a very interesting article in the December 2006 issue of the American Historical Review about the changing attitudes towards tobacco smoking in the Ottoman Empire during the early modern period. Essentially as Tobacco spread across from Western Europe towards the Turkish Empire, the authorities both religious and secular reacted with fear and scorn. The religious scholars argued that tobacco like coffee before it was included by analogy in the Koranic prohibition on alcohol. Numerous texts argued that the effect of smoking on an individual were the same as the effect of alcoholic consumption- it dizzied the smoker and made him giddy. Others argued it damaged the smoker's health, it produced fatigue and damaged the buxomness of women according to one Egyptian critic. Furthermore tobacco they claimed was frequently adulterated with other substances- clover was often cited. Ibrahim Al-Laqani (d. 1631/2) argued that tobacco was part of anti-Muslim Christian plot, that it was rolled in pig's carcasses and dosed with alcohol and that a smoking Muslim was following a Christian Sunna and not his own god-given Sunna.

Ottoman governments joined with religious scholars Grehan found in attempting to prohibit the substance. Various efforts were made which Grehan chronicles. Furthermore the population rioted to stop smoking at various points and on the Wahabi borderlands of the empire in the 18th Century, smoking was looked down on. Puritanical religious scholars refused to treat with those who smoke, striking pipes from the hands of those passing by them, and Sultans joined the anti-Tobacco craze.

Grehan's article describes much of this activity but argues that it had little effect. What Grehan suggests is that what we see with the importation of coffee and tobacco into Turkey and indeed into the Eurasian world generally is the beggining of modernity. He isolates two particular ways in which this was true- firstly coffee houses and tobacco dens produced a new kind of social interraction, in England this gave birth to the great insurance companies like Lloyds of London for example, in other places it could inspire the begginings the enlightenment or even political sedition. The second thing that Grehan highlights is the way that anti-tobacco campaigns almost universally failed. In Turkey the conservative Ummah were defeated by their more liberal colleagues who argued that tobacco was a discretionary pleasure. ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi (1641–1731) argued that Tobacco like other substances was only bad if used to excess or used by someone whose constitution was unable to cope with it, otherwise he argued it did no harm. Coffee Houses and tobacco dens were public, and people congregated there, observers worried in preference to the Mosque. As Grehan points out the second of his related developments was the emergeance of fun as a justification for public sociability replacing religious or political reasons for sociability.

There is much of interest within his argument- the evidence he marshalls is spectacular and interesting. Its worth considering as well the limits that this case demonstrates existed for early modern governments in dealing with policies- it was almost impossible for a government to actually ban something if it wasn't backed by local elites and in the case of tobacco the variation of impact reflected the variation of local reactions. In many ways a third development symbolised by the progress of Tobacco within the Turkish Empire is that it shows us the way that the empire can't be regarded as a single whole. Customs seen as perfectly harmless in Constantinople were heresy in the deserts of Arabia.

Grehan's wider points do have a justness within them- its worth remembering the dangers of applying European models of socialisation and enlightenment to very different societies. Its worth highlighting that what he is describing is very much a city or town culture- one wonders about the intrusion of tobacco into the country- one wonders too about the influence of non-Muslim minorities in the transmission of both tobacco and coffee and furthermore about whether the new socialisation was as radical as he suggests. Having said that the progress of tobacco through Turkey is fascinating- it demonstrates how in a great age of globalisation the trade of a single product from America could revolutionise the lives of people living in Anatolia.

March 02, 2007


This is just depressing. Its not that you shouldn't bluff about subjects you don't know- everyone does and it is a social skill to be able to engage on subjects you don't understand, its one way of learning. But to aspire to be able to bluff and not to aspire to know depresses me. This is a personal post, but its at times like these that I'm tempted to become a grumpy young man.

Agrippina the Younger- Tacitus and the Empress

Tacitus was one of the first and greatest analysts of tyranny and the personality of rulers. His great work, the Annals, focuses on the Roman Emperors from the time of Augustus to the time of Nero, parts of the work are missing- most of the reign of Caligula for example- but what we have is a masterpiece of literary effort, imaginative reconstruction and psychological intuition. Amongst Tacitus's most vivid portraits and one once read which is never forgotten is of Agrippina the Younger, granddaughter to Augustus, wife to Claudius and mother to Nero.

Agrippina's image in both history and literature is the subject of Judith Ginsburg's last book, Representing Agrippina: Constructions of Female Power in the Early Roman Empire. Ginsburg died before the book was completed and her scholarly friends decided to publish the text that she had begun- they added explanatory chapters but basically the main body of the work is Ginsburg's. The book has been reviewed by Kristina Milnor of Barnard College and the review says some interesting things about what Tacitus meant to do in writing about Aggripina. To those unfamiliar with her story, Agrippina married Claudius having already been married and possessing as her son, the young Nero. She swiftly according to Tacitus poisoned Claudius's own son, Britannicus, and then poisoned Claudius himself using mushrooms. Having placed her son Nero on the throne, there began a power struggle between the mother and son and between her and her son's powerful wife Poppaea Sabina which culminated in Agrippina's own death. That's the picture at least as Tacitus presents it- and Tacitus makes out Agrippina to be a scheming woman bent on power who commits incest with her own son in pursuit of her ambition to be the leader of the Roman state.

Ginsburg's book though interestingly presents Tacitus as reacting to the imperial propaganda about Agrippina herself. The art and statues we have of Agrippina laud her as the representative of the imperial family, she is counterposed with Demeter, a goddess of fertility. Her position as the granddaughter of one Emperor, the wife of another and the mother of a third all become important in her representations. Reading Tacitus, we can see that the historian is deliberately inverting this mythical version of Agrippina, the granddaughter inherits the lust for power, the wife poisons the husband's son and then him and himself and perhaps in the greatest betrayel of the Roman family ideal of all, the mother seduces the son. Tacitus is as Milnor notes the focus of this study- though mention is made in Milnor's review of Virgilian references to female leadership and Senecan references to evil step mothers.

What Ginsburg, according to Milnor, seems to be doing though is drawing attention to the way that Tacitus's portrayel of Agrippina and the imperial family is crafting an image of the principate as effeminate. The Julio-Claudians have lost control of their own women- in this way Agrippina forms the counterpoint to Augustus's wife Livia. Its interesting to reflect that Robert Graves in his great historical novel based on Rome, I Claudius, does exactly the same thing- there and in Tacitus female rulership becomes an emblem of the decline of the imperial house, of male republican rectitude into female sexual laciviousness and female corrupting rule. Ginsburg's death robbed us of the full sweep that her powers might have brought to such a theme and Milnor points to the way that the work is incomplete to say the least- but bringing to light the way that the telling of the life of Agrippina tells us about the way that a Roman historian thought about the interaction of gender and politics is fascinating. Tyranny in Roman discourse and future European discourse becomes effeminate (just think of the connotations of the harem and seraglio) whereas democracy and republicanism are tied strongly to the idea of the male citizen and his willingness to bear arms in defence of the realm.

Carnival of Cinema

Nehring yet again has done a superb job of collecting and introducing all the cinematic posts on the internet together- his carnival is right here- and its indispensible reading!

Minor Parties

There have been several recent posts from a wide section of the present British right about the rightness or not of voting Conservative over UK Independence Party at the next election. I don't want to get into the question of what you should or should not vote for- nor am I particularly of the right or the left but its an interesting argument because it is really about a very important question concerning the way we vote and support parties. The problem really consists of what you should do in the British system when you don't support one of the main political parties. I have always understood the system to work thus- that what we vote for in elections is not the government that we would prefer- but we vote against the government that we don't want. Voting say for Labour in 1997 was as much about Major as about Blair and for Thatcher in 1983 as much about Foot as Thatcher. This is the republican aspect of our constitution come to life- the people don't have a choice of the party that they prefer but they have a choice of the party that they hate.

One of the interesting things though for an analyst of British politics is that people recently have ceased to vote rationally in our system- so Respect, UKIP, the SNP, Plaid etc have grown up despite the fact that given the tribal hatreds it would be wiser for those people to vote Tory or Labour to exclude the party they hate. I suspect one of the things that is going on here is reduced polarisation- UKIP voters faced with Blair can safely vote for a party that won't get in as a statement of where the Tories ought to be, should Labour replace Blair with a Michael Foot lookalike things might change. In part it alerts us to one of the interesting flaws in the democratic legitimacy flowing to our politicians- they aren't as much our representatives as our least hated option from the ones that we are offered. Whether that is a problem or not is another matter and not for this post to resolve- but minority parties do seem to exist outside the logic of the system of elections we have adopted.

March 01, 2007


The Congressional Research Service is an indispensible tool for analysts of global politics. This report upon the current situation in Yemen deserves a much wider audience than it probably will get. Our understanding of the Middle East is often an understanding of its central countries- the oil rich Arab states, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Palestine. Yemen though is and has been throughout history a vital area both in terms of its geopolitical position, at the edge of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and in terms of its influence both on developments in Africa and in the Middle East. To take an example many analysts worry that Yemen may become a base for the Somali Islamic Courts movement- both to acquire arms and to flee should they need a retreat. Saudi officials assert that Yemeni weaponry has been found in raids on Islamic militants in Saudi Arabia- a cause for some concern to both the Saudi authorities and to their Western Allies.

Part of the reason for these concerns lie not so much in the fact that the Yemeni government, led by the veteran Ali Abdullah Salih, tolerates terrorism though it does protect at least one prominent Al Quaeda sympathiser but in questions about its ability to govern. Yemen is a Republic, Salih has been involved as a leader in Yemeni politics since the 1970s but won an election last year. The European Union election monitors concluded that the election represented 'a milestone in the democratic development of Yemen... for the first time in both Yemen and the region an incumbent faced a proper challenge at the polls' and yet they described various very real flaws in the electoral process. Yemen is one of the poorest countries on earth- according to the CIA World Fact Book over 40% of the population lived below the poverty line in 2003. Its also one of the youngest countries on earth- the median age being 16. The issues that that creates are obvious- firstly there is an abundance of weaponry within Yemen- the Congressional report estimates that in a nation with 20 million people there are 60 million guns- when you realise that fifty percent of the population are under 16 that statistic gets even more frightening. Furthermore, the country's government is prone to corruption: over 2.5 billion Rial were recently lost from the Treasury.

Yemen's government is pro-Western. Despite opposing both the Gulf War of 1991 and that of 2003, the State Department recently concluded that Yemeni American defence cooperation was 'improving rapidly' and that furthermore

Yemen is an important partner in the war on terror, providing assistance in the military, diplomatic and financial arenas

Yemen's problems are ones of governance- and ones that may well be soluble. The issue in many ways is that Yemen's government needs to control its own operations better and diminish corruption and also needs to control the arming of its population. In many ways Yemen provides us with a test case for Neo Conservative rhetoric in that this is just the kind of society that looks as if it could change, as if its rulers are open to reform, and which if reformed would be less responsive to global terrorism. Yemen ought therefore to be as central in our minds when we analyse foreign policy in the Middle East, as it is peripheral at the moment.

(Incidentally this is taken together from very little knowledge so I'm happy to be proved wrong in any particular- but this is the sense I've got from reading these various reports!)

February 28, 2007

The Politics of 'Its a Wonderful Life'

Its a Wonderful Life is a film that functions on many levels, its in part a psychological investigation of depression and the way people come out of it, in part a film about the way that men and women fall in love, in part a bildungsroman and in part just a brilliantly crafted story and film, with amazing acting from the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Donna Reed and Gloria Grahame. One aspect of this famous film that is often understated though is the fact that it is also a political film- which concentrates upon the way that human lives are bound together by ties of love and friendship and the way that individualism ultimately corrupts the polis. The film is divided into two segments- one in which the story of George Bailey is told and the other in which Bailey is given 'a great gift, a chance to see what the world would be like without him'. In the first segment we see the town of Bedford Falls, a slumbering Middle American town, and in the second, Pottersville the town as it would have been if Bailey had never lived and his enemy the millionaire Mr Potter had taken over. George is invited to see the distinction between the two as a justification for his life- as a means of seeing his acheivement in his life. Its up to us though to think seriously about what that acheivement is- before we return to think about Pottersville.

Bedford Falls is built around the Building and Loan- the Building and Loan Company is managed as a typical mutual. People are allowed to take out loans who would never have been loaned money by the Town Bank. Mr Potter at the beggining of the film tells him that his father never had any business sense- and George Bailey appears to be the same. Throughout the film in little ways we see that the society maintained by the financial organisation of the building and Loan company is one which denies the traditional values of the business world- so for example as George and his wife can't afford a honeymoon, their friends design a suite for them using posters ripped down from the walls. One of their friends turns round to another and tells him to stop taking down the posters- its against the law, the other turns back and asks him what law is when you have romance. The whole film in many ways makes this precise point- the ethics of mutualism are counterbalanced to the ethics of business. George as the linchpin of the town's mutual sustains this society- it is built on his self denial and all the way through the film George's life is a life of social self denial. Continuously he gives up things- whether it be his own career and dreams of travelling through Europe (to sustain the mutual against the Bank) or his own honeymoon (he gives all that money to the mutual to fund other people's houses) George lives by an ethic of mutualism and consequently reaps the rewards of friendship from others.

Pottersville on the other hand is a town built by selfishness- its presiding genius is selfish enough to give the whole town his own name. It is supposed to be a dystopic vision of the world as it would be if selfish instincts were left to run wild- women are beaten up, strangers thrown out of pubs, drunkenness proliferates and everyone reacts in a street smart way. The great state represented by the police anonymously arrests and holds people. Part-1984 and part-Rousseau's vision of capitalism the lack of mutualism and political friendship creates a nightmare world where everyone is out for themselves and lacks affection for each other. Capitalism and socialism together are big and anonymous and turned into monsters- the little looking out for the other fellow that Jimmy Stewart lauds in another Frank Capra film Mr Smith goes to Washington is destroyed. Without it human society loses its meaning because it loses all that makes it worth something.

Matthew Sinclair has recently addressed the idea that democracy is made up far less of voters than it is of citizens and for democracy to function well, its citizens need to behave in a way that is democratic. Matthew is right but his insight can be applied further. What sometimes gets lost in the argument between socialism and capitalism is the insight that the early theorists of capitalism like for instance Adam Smith, Tom Paine and Say had, that capitalism can only be accompanied by the creation not of consumers, who serve merely themselves, but of citizen consumers who act in mutual communities. Frank Capra's film is a massive statement in favour of principles of mutualism- neither socialist nor capitalist it aims at a third type of economic organisation. Obviously a film can't advance a systematic examination of how such a society would work, it can't answer the critique advanced by Gary Kammiya in Salon who worry about the spontaneity of a society of communities as opposed to individuals, but it can provide us with a moral critique of anonymous big society institutions that operate by laws of inexorable selfishness- and support a model of society based upon unselfishness and cooperation. Arguably it does present some of the downsides of such a society by using the template of Bailey's unhappiness to explore it- the perfect citizen becomes depressed because he has given so much of himself up to being a citizen, Capra offers us a vision of the collapse of the society through the consciousness of the individual. The last message of the angel Clarence to George Bailey is very illustrative in this regard. He writes inside a copy of Tom Sawyer that

no man is a failure who has friends

That is not merely a statement addressed to the depressive George Bailey, its also a political statement. Because George through his friendships props up and even creates the society of Bedford Falls- because George moves and operates by friendship not the logic of selfish wealth creation, he sustains the lives of others. In that sense what Capra offers is a truly republican vision of American society- one in which, as in the dreams of the early economists like Adam Smith- the operations of invisible hand and self interest coexist with citizenship and a society based on Neo-Roman virtues.

February 27, 2007

Denham again

As I suggested earlier, Denham is an interesting character. I've just been informed that not only does he look like a credible candidate- but that he also turned down a post in the cabinet in the last reshuffle- meaning that he isn't associated with the last Blair cabinet- unlike most of the other candidates. If true it would definitely mean that Denham has been distancing himself from the government whilst remaining scrupulously loyal on the surface- with what purpose who knows?

The Mandeans

One of the unpleasant aspects of what is happening at the moment in Iraq is the way that religious minorities are being treated. One such is an ancient group of people who beleive that John the Baptist was the last true prophet of God. They have small communities in Iraq- numbering in their thousands which have been depleted by flight since the American occupation. At present lawyers for the Mandeans are attempting to secure their status by getting Western Countries to accept them as refugees- such attempts are being made for example in Australia. Some American journalists have picked up on the story and are pressurising their government to let the Mandeans in. Accusations have been made and reported by reputable news organisations like the BBC that inside Iraq Mandeans are being tortured and murdered in large numbers. Indeed many are fleeing across the border into Jordan and Syria not to mention seeking asylum in the West. Its often said that we have a responsibility for what happens in Iraq- I would suggest we do and that in particular we have a responsibility for minorities in Iraq if they come to be persecuted. I can't state for sure that this is the case with the Mandeans- though the evidence suggests it might well be. But if it is, the UK and US and Australian governments should in my view accept their asylum claim.

February 26, 2007

Roman Jurisprudence

Roman law is the subtext to our politics and our political arrangements- so much of what we do within and what we say about politics derives directly or indirectly from the famous lawyers of the Republic and Empire. The kind of regimes and states that exist all the way around the world today come out of intellectual arrangements bequeathed to us by the Romans- understanding that original framework, trying to perceive why things are the way they are is thus indispensible to understanding what has happened and the states in which we live. For centuries many of the greatest minds within the West have devoted themselves to the study of Roman law.

Trying to understand what happened in Rome though to produce this law, trying to understand the decisions that were taken and the moment of the making of the law that defined much of the rest of history is something that historians have struggled with. In this context it is interesting to read the recent review by Paul Erdkamp from Leiden University of Professor Jill Harries's recent book on the relationship between the greatest of the Roman orators, Marcus Tullius Cicero, an advocate beyond compare who became the model for rhetorical studies for centuries after his death, and the jurists and jurisprudence that created the model of the law that we know today.

Erdkamp's review argues that Herries (as I have not read Herries you can presume everywhere that I cite her view I am citing Erdkamp's description of her view) places Cicero right at the beggining of the formation of the law- he lived before any of the digests that we know as the final expressions of Roman Law. Cicero lived in the late Republic. During the century before Cicero, Herries argues that Roman law was largely in the hands of notable men, so for example Manilius who drafted important laws on livestock not because he was a great lawyer or jurist but because he was a landowner of note. She argues that an invented history, fashioned by the lawyers, has fooled historians into thinking that a direct line ran back through the centuries from the digests back to the mythical twelve tables of the law, chiselled out at the foundation of the Republic.

Rather than that what happened over the centuries between the 2nd Century BC and the later digests- so the second century AD was that the concept of law changed. As, one would almost think, the concept of citizendry lost its power under the Principate- so the concept of a law that was open to argument from any source lost its virtue and law became a professional concept. Before then though Roman judges made their decisions unrestricted by precedent and open to extra legal argument, to arguments made by priests and by eloquent advocates. The jurists were from the lower classes and not noble. Cicero defined law as being both custom and justice- he argued for instance in the case of his own banishment that the public good might trump good procedure. This meme frequently expressed by other thinkers right down to the seventeenth century and beyond attests both to the fact that law existed and to the key point that Harries wants to make about it.

The problem is that we tend to abstract laws from their surrounding context. We tend to assume that the authors of the digests and the great legal jurists of Roman Europe- Ulpian and others- were products of their time. Legal scholars have tended to analyse the practise of law in the Roman empire as though lawyers debated without discussing either the rhetorical or other proposals floating around. Herries though helps us understand that though a legal profession and jurisprudence developed in the Roman world- that the world of Roman law was formed by the ideas that Romans were commonly exposed to. Cicero's discussion of justice and custom illustrates this perfectly- custom might be encoded within a law and need study but it always had to be understood in his world alongside a justice which philosophically received extra legal justification.

Denham to Stand?

For a long time, I have wondered about the potential of John Denham as a candidate from the soft left of the Labour party. Ever since the death of Robin Cook who would have been the obvious candidate and given Brown a serious run for his money from the left- the problem is that John McDonnell is someone who has never held ministerial office and whose last political office was within London in the 1980s. Michael Meacher didn't oppose the Iraq war, beleives in 9/11 conspiracy theories and failed to even attract the support of even his campaign launch chair. Cook would have offered them someone who believed in a leftwing version of Blairism- essentially opposed to some of the later reforms but not someone who instinctively wanted a socialist revolution. Denham in many ways is a lower profile version of Cook- again he has a distinguished record as a minister and select committee chairman. He resigned over the Iraq war and also has opposed some of the more incredible leglislative gambles taken by the government whilst remaining broadly supportive- unlike say Claire Short he has been scrupulously loyal in the broad sense whilst demonstrating that he has a leftwing conscience. Iain Dale and Mike Smithson have both suggested that Denham is looking like running- Smithson has even placed a bet on him. The issue has always been to me whether Denham wants to run- but indisputably he has the credibility to run both as a former minister and as a principled politician from the left.

If it is and it looks like it will be true that no candidate is able to garner enough signatures from the right of the party (remember that the signatures are all public so any MPs on the right signing will be signing their political death warrent), it looks to me like the only serious candidate could emerge from the left- and the only serious candidate for the Premiership to me available from the left is John Denham. Meacher and McDonnell just look to me like stalking horses- Denham's the closest thing they have to Robin Cook.

Though my fancy is there will be many on the left of the Labour party cursing Robin Cook's weak heart when Gordon Brown becomes Prime Minister.