March 10, 2007

The problem of Prejudice


David Frum on the National Review Website has intervened in the recent discussion in the United Kingdom about homosexuality. He argues that a new bill coming up to the House of Lords which would outlaw discrimination against homosexuality in effect is a proposal to destroy people's freedom to discriminate as they wish with their own property. He even suggests that in forbidding the teaching of discrimination towards school children, the law has created an infringement on free speech. Frum's argument is worth considering because as he argues it makes the entire case for anti-discrimination laws on any grounds look very uncertain and very illiberal, indeed his argument would pull down not merely the recent laws about homosexuality, but laws protecting women and blacks against discrimination.

I don't want to take on the main thrust of Frum's argument here- I'm too tired and it involves a rigorous dissection of the relationship between the state and the individual, within a controversy that in the UK has been going on for weeks. But I do want to address one point, which in my view is a failing within Frum's argument and a failure frequently within conservative discussions of freedom. Frum presumes that an association which is not free to discriminate within its community is an association deprived of freedom and whose members are therefore deprived of the freedom to act- he is completely right. The problem with Frum's argument though is that it fails to appreciate that one is more or less free not merely in relation to the state but in relation to other organisations, no matter how voluntary their membership. Frum presumes that because I can leave a church or leave a church school, I am free with regard to that church or church school- and the truth is that I am not.

The problem is that Frum has a very absolutist conception of freedom. Its much better to reflect upon these things using Hobbes's conception of freedom. Hobbes said you were free to do anything so long as you weren't restrained- he even argues that you are free to murder in a state where the death penalty is imposed for murder, you just accept the consequences. In many ways Frum's definition of liberty is a much less logical one than Hobbes's. I am free to take my child who is homosexual out of a church school which teaches homosexuality is bad- but I have to take the consequences of my kid having a horrible experience being isolated and taunted by his fellows and moving schools. The law as Burke argued isn't the sole law within a state- there is also a law of prejudice and it is arguable that for example the freedom of a gay student is restricted in a church school, the freedom of someone who wishes to live in a community bound by the church (like say the Amish communities of North America) is restricted by Church members not speaking to him if he is gay- even though the freedom of the majority to discriminate is allowed.

The problem is that this is a very limited definition of freedom. Analysing the loss or gain of freedom in these cases is very complicated. It is something that needs more space to analyse than a simple column in this blog and it will be returned to here. Most of us would recognise that there is a graduation here- on the one hand a citizen should not exercise their freedom to hate homosexuals by not reporting a crime in which a gay person was attacked- on the other a citizen should not be forced to invite a homosexual into his home should he not want to. All that this item really says is that things aren't easy- if one for instance offers a service to the public, even with one's own property, there is a fairly good case that one should not, save on grounds of safety or permissable issues to do with age (18 certificate films come to mind) distinguish between members of the public. Freedom here is a much more complicated value than Frum has it as, because we are free in respect to other human beings as well as being free in respect of the state. The focus on the state's coercive role in this case isn't helpful to the debate because coercion exists in other forms than merely state action.

What I haven't dealt with here are the issues of the acceptability of prejudice, the acceptability of this particular prejudice or the issue of the state's relationship with Churches. This is a very limited argument. What I want to leave people with is the idea though that one is not merely constrained by the state but can be constrained by other (even voluntary) organisations. On that basis, there are times when the state is warrented to intervene to protect the rights of a minority within an association and the position of gays or the irreligious or indeed Jews or Muslims in Christian Schools might very well be one of those moments.

March 09, 2007

Carnival of Cinema

Yep the new one is up at Nehring- he has linked to an excellent post from Ian for whom I blog sat a month or so ago which is well worth reading and there is plenty of other good stuff to read as well.

March 08, 2007

Bureacratic Infighting Nixon Style

On 21st December 1971, President Nixon arriving in the United States was informed that a leak inquiry into the leaking of classified information to the journalist Jack Anderson had come to a conclusion. The conclusion was that for many years, a Navy Yeoman in the National Security Council Charles Radford was leaking confidential documents from the National Security Council, personal correspendence between the President and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, Kissinger's military assistant and later deputy. The controversy blew up, with Admiral Weller, Radford's boss saying that he should be sent to jail, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Moorer wanted to imprison Weller and Kissinger wanted to throw the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in Jail himself. At the end of the story nobody was jailed because Nixon wisely decided that politically the consequences could be too damaging.

The story though does demonstrate one of the perpetual problems in government- it isn't merely journalists but also other government agencies that seek information. Bureacratic infighting is a disease of any large system of government and particularly one which neccessarily involves the production of secrets like a foreign policy bureacracy. Bureacratic advantage can be gained by the possession of the right piece of information, the right word for the right moment. No doubt for example in this White House similar fighting and information went on between Powell's State and Rumsfeld's Pentagon Departments, no doubt it has gone on throughout the history of government. This Radford episode is fascinating because it demonstrates to us that conflicts can happen and as in this case spin out into the realm of leaking to the media. It also demonstrates though how Nixon's paranoia was based on a culture of bureacratic infighting- in his conversation with Haldeman, recorded and now held by the Nixon archives and linked to below, he commented that

don't be too sure of anyone. Don't get too sure of anyone.

When the Pentagon is spying on the White House one can understand how the President might become paranoid about leaks- a paranoia which of course led to formation of the plumbers and eventually Watergate. (Incidentally I don't mean to say that this was the sole determiner of Nixon's attitudes but one can understand Nixon if one understands the climate he was operating in and this was part of that climate!)

I should note that much of the documents this is based upon are linked to here including extracts from H.R. Haldeman's diaries and information from the Nixon Presidential library archives is disclosed here.

March 07, 2007

Sexual Assault and the American Army

This is a shocking report about the way that female soldiers are treated in the United States Army. I don't know anything about the research done but it seems to be good quality and the author Helen Benedict cites three studies which claim that a majority of women in the United States Army have been raped or sexually assaulted during their time of service. Quotations from serving female soldiers who claim that

"There are only three kinds of female the men let you be in the military: a bitch, a ho or a dyke"

or
You walk into the chow hall and there's a bunch of guys who just stop eating and stare at you. Every time you bend down, somebody will say something. It got to the point where I was afraid to walk past certain people because I didn't want to hear their comments. It really gets you down.

or
My team leader offered me up to $250 for a hand job. He would always make sure that we were out alone together at the beginning, and he wouldn't stop pressuring me for sex. If somebody did that to my daughter I'd want to kill the guy. But you can't fit in if you make waves about it. You rat somebody out, you're screwed. You're gonna be a loner until they eventually push you out.

are truly shocking and need investigation. Given that women are bravely fighting and dying in Iraq it seems to me self evident that they shouldn't be sacraficing that whilst risking sexual assault or worse- I don't know if this is a problem in other armed forces (the British forces have a longstanding problem with bullying and I would not be surprised that for similar reasons they would have a problem with sexual assault)- but it definitely seems like the Pentagon needs to get a grip on the situation. This is an article everyone should read in order to keep the pressure up for proper procedures to protect women who go and serve in the army.

The Trial of Joan of Arc



The Trial of Joan of Arc is a fascinating film from the French director, Robert Bresson. Bresson used as his source material in transcript of the trial of Joan in 1431 before the inquisitorial court set up to try her for her life. Using his peculiar directorial style which eschewed deliberately the use of professional actors (none were employed in the making of the film) and was exceptionally minimalistic, Bresson acheives a degree of focus upon Joan that marks out his film as a great study of an individual character. We have on the one side the inquisitors, mostly Monks and Bishop Cauchon and English soldiers and commanders and we have on the other side Joan herself, played perfectly by Florence Delay who uses the actual words that Joan used at her trial. The film is stark, very little of the dialogue is dialogue that Joan did not use and was not in the transcript but it still conveys an intense emotional power and is the prototype in many ways for films which try and maintain a realism through using the actual records of trials, like the recent German film made about the anti-Nazi heroine Sophie Scholl.

To say all this though gives a false impression because this film is not merely a styllistic masterpiece but also a cinematic one. Florence Delay's performance lies at the heart of the film and it is worth analysing it a bit more if we are to understand what the film brings us in terms of any message or thought at all. Delay is incredibly impressive as the title character, she plays Joan with the minimum of artiface. What shines through from Delay's performance is that she isn't designing it in a historical way- this is Joan as an impressive, thoughtful, intelligent and honest young woman. The words though crafted by Bresson out of the transcript of the trial give this portrait a 14th Century realism that you would not expect from what I've just said and because Delay is attempting and succeeds in portraying Joan as sincere and intelligent suddenly the film viewer is evacuated into a different world. When Delay honestly and sincerely answers her inquisitors by saying that when approaching the King, an angel went in first and then she went in after- she says it with a matter of fact honesty that conveys more than any ammount of histrionics the reality of her beliefs.

The inquisition itself is perfect as well. Again Bresson's direction gets to something that few films about this or any era manage to. The inquisitors are often indecisive in the way that they ask questions, more often than not they are impassive. The impressive way that the inquisitorial process- the judicial method of investigation by repeated question and answer- is drawn from the record makes one see the insides of a medieval trial. This is a film which concentrates not on the reality of the setting- Bresson's characters are dressed in the right clothes and in a castle but that's the only basic concession to the conventions of costume drama- but upon the reality of the ideas those characters are expressing. Symbolised perhaps perfectly in the moment of Joan's execution when the Bishop Cauchon hands her over to the secular branch which puts her to the flames- for a moment it captures the sincerity of his belief that he has not sentenced her to death but merely expelled her from the Church and surrendered her to the secular arm to do as it wishes with her.

Jean Claude Forneau's interpretation of Cauchon is also interesting. The questions he delivers are precise and scholastic- testing for heresy he advances axiom by axiom through the beliefs of the peasant girl in front of him. The subtle scholastic distinctions made by the Bishop coming out of the trial record demonstrate the distinctions between his world and the world of popular piety out of which Joan proceeds.

But the overall focus is the wonderful performance Delay gives as Joan. She manages to capture Joan's belief in what she is telling these men and also her simplicity and her youth. The petty cruelties she suffers in jail, she takes with a stoic assumption of her own eventual martyrdom and her confidence in her salvation makes her actions appear logical. Its very hard to imagine deliberately running towards the stake that will burn up one's remains, but by the end of the film when Bresson shows us a montage of Joan's running feet pacing the ground from the cell to her stake, the audience glimpses for a moment why a 14th Century visionary chose to die in that way. The final scenes are some of the most moving in cinema in an understated way because we know this character through her answers to questions.

Bresson once said that in this film it was the sound which was important and the action on screen was a mere accompaniment to the sound- the acheivement of this film is that it takes an actress who had never acted and places her in a role where she acts a typical 19 year old girl who has received a vision and makes it beleivable. More than any other film I know this transports you backwards into the world of Joan and the world of the 14th Century where it is perfectly conceivable that angels would introduce peasant girls to Kings in order to save France, where any indignity was preferable to losing one's chance of paradise and where any suffering could be redeemed by the knowledge that such suffering was a martyrdom for the cause of the living God.

LATER Apologies for posting an addition but it just struck me that an aspect of this film that I left out is a very important one. Bresson also attempts and acheives a distinction in the way that he portrays the faith of the individuals involved- Joan's faith is faith itself, just strict belief- her accusers are much more scholastic in their approach. There is an aspect here of another famous encounter- that between Christ and the Inquisitor in Dostoevksy's Brothers Karamazov. It shouldn't be overplayed- the clerics all have faith as well- but there is that aspect of a beleiver confronting the institution that is interesting and important to this film.

March 06, 2007

Scooter Libby and Lord Levy: Prosecutorial Politics

Scooter Libby, former Chief of Staff to Dick Cheney, has been convicted of four counts of obstructing justice, lying and perjury in Washington today. Mr Libby's fall has made many pundits pontificate about the wider questions that it exposes about official Washington. Andrew Sullivan has called for Mr Libby's boss, Dick Cheney to be impeached and from the other end of the spectrum of views on this, Mark Levin is angry about the way that the prosecution was conducted and has even put the word "Fair" before trial in quotation marks. As a non-lawyer and not being present in the court room I don't know whether the evidence warrents the impeachment of Cheney or whether the trial was misconducted, personally I think that in these circumstances I will stick with what the Jury think at the moment. This comes of course directly upon the related news from the United Kingdom about a leaked email which has comes at the end of the Cash for Honours investigation currently being performed by Scotland Yard.

Libby's fall though has prompted people to raise some more provocative questions about the longterm in the United States. Jonathan Martin thinks that it makes it very difficult for the Republicans in 2008, Frank Luntz is speculating about the long term future of the Republican party itself. Personally I think that's overblown- the damage will be to Bush and to this administration, it might make it harder for a Republican but I still think their candidate will have a chance in 2008 besides a lot may change by then. As to the Republicans' demise, we heard a lot about the democrats' demise two years ago after 2004, the Republicans lost the last congressional election but wouldn't need much to win an election very soon. Seachanges in politics are a commodity more advertised than realised.

Is there anything to say about this in the longterm though? I think there is and its a worrying development on both sides of the channel and its this. The last four decades in American politics have produced serious judicial inquiries into deeds by political appointees- Watergate in the seventies, Iran Contra in the eighties, Monica in the nineties and Scooter in this decade. The Republicans used their years in Congress in the 1990s to investigate every nook and cranny of President Clinton's life in a way that now looks very vindictive- many Democrats want to do the same to George Bush. In the United Kingdom the Political Blogosphere has been convulsed by a culture of secret finding- a website like Guido Fawkes is a font of possible prosecutions against Ministers, petty scandals and the like. What this does though is two things: firstly it completely obliterates politics in terms of a policy discussion about various options to pursue. Guido has often said that he isn't interested in policy- which is fine, each to their own- but it says something about our politics that we take his adolescent ramblings to be the best that the internet can do in terms of influencing British politics. Political discussion becomes through Gresham's Law a sort of mudslinging match- and one can understand why noone apart from the partisan and self righteous that hang out at Guido's and his left wing equivalents' want to participate.

The second important issue is that making losing in politics all about judicial enquiries and assuming that our opponents are completely without merit does huge damage to us ourselves and our own reasoning abilities. Part of the problem say with the right in the United States is the argument that if you opposed the Iraq war, you are an appeaser of Fascist tyranny in every situation and are even worse a Fascist yourself. Part of the problem with the left's rejoinder back is painting everyone supporting the war as a stooge of imperialism. We lose our understanding of politics the moment that we say that those who oppose us aren't worth listening to and can't change our minds on issues. As soon as we say that, as soon as we make them non-persons or so unjust that their arguments are all self serving then we destroy politics as a conversation between equals and turn into a blood sport and a rather unattractive blood sport at that.

I hold no brief for Libby at all nor do I for Lord Levy in the United Kingdom but this trend of prosecutorial politics on both sides of the Atlantic worries me a lot. It seems to cheapen our discourse, to turn people off politics, to make those involved stupider and less able to think and to turn our politics further and further into a mob driven chaos. Its always worth remembering that what we are attempting to do is to break a cycle that the ancient Greeks perceived whereby democracy turned through the accusatory abuse of mobs into a tyranny. It is neccessary in my view for us to stop this way of discussing politics. We ought to prosecute political leaders when they do wrong- but such prosecutions are matters for the courts- for Parliament and the public we need to argue and understand, to listen and think about politics and not just to resort to cheap jabs and throwing custard pies.

The Age of Augustus


The reign of Augustus is one of the most interesting periods of classical history- what had been an anarchic republic was seemingly transformed in the space of the 45 years between the Battle of Actium and the succession of Tiberius into the Roman Empire. Augustus created a political order that endured after his death down to the reign of Diocletian in the 3rd Century AD and he created two titles- imperator the root of our modern emperor and Caesar the root of both Tsar and Kaiser which endured and endure into our own century. Augustus though is not an easy individual to approach- we lack sources- Tacitus the most vituperative chronicler of Roman imperial folly for example starts his account with Augustus but spends little time on the founder of the empire before he proceeds on to his successor Tiberius. It is therefore good news that Augustus has found a modern biographer who whilst he does not skirt around the problems particularly with relation to the evidence still provides a coherent and readable account of the life of the first Emperor.

Professor Werner Eck's book, The Age of Augustus was first published in German before being transalated into English. He presents us with an incredibly readable account of Augustus's career- starting basically with the moment of Julius Caesar's death and describing the way that Augustus manoeurvred his way into power and then in power. The first sections of the book running down to the Battle of Actium are basically a narrative account of Augustus's rise over his rivals whether Republican or Caesarian. The second section of the book attempts to anatomise the development of the Principate and what it meant for Rome. In exploring this Professor Eck supplies his reader with a couple of central theses around which he bases his understanding of Augustus's reign.

The first of these principles is that Augustus functioned as a traditional Roman senator. He was fixated on his own families honour- Professor Eck chronicles the way that Augustus attempted to manipulate the succession so that a blood relative would succeed him. The practice of auctioning off his daughter Julia to the suitor who suited his politics most was not merely born of political expediency, he also hoped that an heir would be produced who would continue his line into the future. When that failed he of course adopted his step son Tiberius. Furthermore Eck argues that Augustus's policies in terms of the Roman Empire were resolutely traditional- he sought to expand the Roman Empire into new provinces, making a concerted effort to conquer Germany and succeeding in annexing both Pannonia and new territories in Spain and Egypt to the Empire.

If Augustus was a traditional Roman senator in many of his attitudes, Proffessor Eck leaves us in no doubt that he had little sympathy for the Republic. The second dominating impulse of Professor Eck's account of Augustus's life is the man's ambition. Augustus played a game of unscrupulous power politics against his rivals before he came to become Princeps. Professor Eck is incredibly interesting on the subject of what that role of Princeps meant. He reminds us that Augustus did not take the title Emperor but rather confined his titles to sit within traditional Republican categories. Eck argues that Augustus sought to consolidate his power without repeating Julius Caesar's mistake of antagonising the mob by claiming the crown. His power in Eck's view lay firmly in Augustus's proconsular control of the border provinces and hence of their legions. It was fortified by the particular debts owed to him by legionaries who were sustained by his largesse. Augustus with the army at his back then worked upon the traditional Roman respect for military success and attempted to change the iconography of the Roman capitol, building statues and temples, fora and controlling the grain supply in order to convince Roman citizens he was their best protector. There is also, Eck argues, evidence that he fulfilled this role in the provinces as well.

Thirdly Eck suggests Augustus was a formidable political operator. He controlled the Romans by making them think that he was the best solution to the problems of the civil war. Well aware of the issues that Rome faced, Augustus promised peace to Rome and its ancient freedoms. Though he constrained those freedoms and was outside the empire committed to warlike expansion, he was able to convince the Roman people and senate that he was a bringer of peace. He was also keen via constitutional changes to bring the system around to focus upon his own powers- he for instance maintained a strong interest in reducing the number of senators down from around 1,000 to around 600.

Fourthly and lastly Eck leaves us in no doubt that Augustus's survival for so many years fortified the political order that he had created. By the time that he died there were few if any senators alive who had participated in true Roman senatorial government. There would have been several moments before his death where if he had died the succession would have been uncertain and rival claimants might have emerged, furthermore if he had died earlier senatorial government might have been reasserted. As it was his long life created the impression for Roman citizens that they had always had a first citizen and this is what his authority had always looked like.

Professor Eck's book is a wonderfully concise and clear explanation of Augustus's rule. It does have its flaws- footnotes to other scholarly work are conspicuous by their absense, it would be interesting to have heard more about Augustus's efforts at the moral reformation of wider society- but then there is a limit to what you can fit in the 176 pages he allows himself. There are I am sure flaws in his account- and flaws in this review- but this is a good introduction to the reign of Augustus and the way that the Principate was created. If anything else it will suggest to you that the empire was an evolving construct- Augustus created it very slowly in his reign and it is arguable that the traditional image of the emperor in our culture dates from considerably later. I mentioned at the beggining that Tacitus doesn't really address Augustus's reign- my view of that is that Tacitus understood this and wanted his history to be a diagnosis of the imperial system's faults rather than a description of how it was created. Professor Eck has done good work here, and I think his book deserves to be recommended.

March 05, 2007

The Faces of a Vanished Europe: Roman Vishniac's portraits of the Jews of Eastern Europe before the Holocaust


During the 1930s the Jewish photographer, Roman Vishniac based in Berlin, toured Eastern Europe taking photographs. He photographed Jews based in the villages and towns of Eastern Europe. Many of these photos according to the Paris Journal are being exhibited in Paris at the Musée d'art et d'histoire du judaïsme. Vishniac escaped Europe in 1940 and headed for America taking his photographs of Eastern European Jews with him. Vishniac had to proceed secretly often under pressure from the authorities and having to hide his camera from his subjects- many of those photographed were Orthodox Jews for whom their own image was a sacrilegious object. Vishniac succeeded though and roughly 2,000 of his photographs of Jews survive- a precious memory of a cosmopolitian world that now has vanished. For those not in Paris who wish to survey some of the pictures- there are 31 on this website (you have to open a pop up window within the site), two more images are here, there are a couple more at the bottom of this page, six or so here and some more photographs are used in the Wikipedia article on Vishniac here. Here is another one that I couldn't resist posting on this website.

Vishniac seems to me to capture in the two photos I've put on this blog something very individual about his subjects. We know of course what was about to happen in Eastern Europe and we also know the grinding poverty in which many of these individuals lived- but Vishniac seems to show them with a certain dignity, his photos show them as individuals. When we think about an event like the Holocaust or any other atrocity, its very easy for the people to become numbers- rather than people. Vishniac's photos to me, like other photos of Jews who died in the Holocaust or other victims of genocide, bring back to me the sense that rather than a number dieing it was a number of human beings. It was not 6 million who were killed but 6 million individual people. As a historian I constantly deal with vast numbers of people who are killed and it is very easy to abstract away to the number. What photos like these bring to me is the sense that it is individuals and not numbers that are involved. Its a tragedy whenever someone is murdered- what happened in Eastern Europe was 6 million tragedies all at the same time. 6 million people were cut off from being fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, sons, daughters and generally from being people. Because these photos show us the Jews as people with plans for the future, aspirations, hopes, dreams and families, it makes the waste of what did actually happen to these people all the more bitter and all the more sad.

Chinese Gracchi

Not sure how I should react to this but I've just discovered that the Chinese censors are letting Gracchi slip through their net- obviously Turkish tobacco smoke and Imperial sex scandals in Rome aren't undermining communist rule. Its quite cool to have a look at this, though I'm not sure how reliable it is, anyway if anyone wants to check this website again (who knows it may be banned in the morning) or check their own- this website purports to tell you whether you are banned or not.

Hattip to Not Saussure who is blocked- to be honest I feel a bit left out- I think the server must be wrong or the censors haven't discovered how subversive film reviews can be!

March 04, 2007

Hugh Trevor Roper


Hugh Trevor Roper was one of the leading early modern historians of his generation. David Wootton, one of his successors, has written a perceptive review of Trevor Roper's last work- a biography of the physician Sir Theodore Mayerne- in the Times Literary Supplement. Wootton's essay turns into a discussion of Trevor Roper's idea of being a Don and the way that in some senses he represented the last of a trend of thinking about the proper place of a scholar. Some of what appears in his review is slightly apocalyptic- but there is much merit in his analysis of what Trevor Roper represented. Wootten writes beautifully about the ideal of scholarship that Trevor Roper saw himself as representing- the article is a fascinating attempt to study another historian's idea of history by a living and working historian.