March 16, 2007

Freedom of Expression

Matthew Sinclair has, in a friendly way, rebuked me for my recent post about Dr Kuntzel. Matthew beleives that rather than examine Dr Kuntzel's arguments I should have examined the incident involving him which was an incident where a University was coerced into withdrawing a speaker from delivering a paper.

My own reasoning on this was that I didn't know much about the case- I still don't. I don't know what motivated the university so can't comment on their policies. As to violent threats against people speaking in public, I take it as read that this blog opposes such threats and when they are made beleives that police investigations into incitement to violence and other crimes are neccessary. Do I beleive that the University if it was concerned about the safety of its staff and students had the right to cancel? Yes. Would I like the University to hand such evidence of threats to the safety of those people to the police? Yes. But that is all out of my ken- I don't know the nature of the threats, I don't know the people making them, I don't know the reasons why the University abandoned the talk and nor do I know whether the people giving the talk had prepared adequate security.

Rather what I can examine is the published works of Dr Kuntzel and what I found was sloppy thinking and incorrect analysis. I do worry that occasionally when incidents of this sort happen we make martyrs of those they happen to- just because I agree that people should be able to read pornography doesn't mean that I consider it literature. Similarly its important that Dr. Kuntzel's work not be treated as the work of a martyr.

Dr Kuntzel is able to publish on the internet and he has published his work. To treat it then as a kind of separate category- that we mustn't talk about his work even though its out there because of these threats is perversely to let the radicals govern the conversations that we can have. I thought and still think that the substantive points I could make about this controversy surrounded not the free speech issue- my own view is that Dr Kuntzel's arguments are wrong but they aren't inciting racial hatred or anything of the sort but I don't think that is a unique argument. Rather I thought what I could do was look at Dr. Kuntzel's work like I would look at the work of any other thinker upon this area- and I found myself in profound disagreement with Dr Kuntzel.

Matthew's post has made me think though that some of what I said might have been ill timed- it might have seemed like I beleived that Dr Kuntzel's paper is objectionable enough that it shouldn't see the light of day- I don't beleive that and I take Matthew's criticism. All the same though I do beleive that one way to stop those who want to stop us having conversations from succeeding is to have those conversations. I'm not sure that the radicals who see Dr Kuntzel as a man deserving violent threats would like the tenor of my post about him- of that I am proud and I think that is the way forwards. It also by the way demonstrates to them that there are other ways of disagreeing than hurling bricks!

Just to reiterate though, it is my view having read the draft of a similar paper delivered by Dr. Kuntzel at Yale that there was no ground for restricting his freedom to give that paper upon any grounds of offence he might have given. There might be public order grounds which is a different issue but there was no reason why in my view you could morally object to that paper being given and I agree with Matthew that freedom of speech is a key value and that we should stand up for it and I apologise to both Matthew and to anyone reading this who had Matthew's reaction. I should have been clearer. Equally though I still don't think Dr Kuntzel has done a very good job, but Matthew is right that doesn't effect the fact that he, once invited, should have been allowed to speak and that threats made against him were totally unjustified upon the evidence I have read.

The Payroll Vote

The House of Lords has in general a good reputation- filled with individuals who have contributed a lot in their respective fields in scrutinises British government leglislation with an expert eye. Individuals like Baroness Kennedy, Lord Lester and plenty of others bring an intellectual lustre to Parliamentary proceedings and debate with intelligence and expertise on the matters brought to them by the lower house. Many at the moment are considering reforms of the Lords to make it more democratic- but few wish it to lose the element that it provides to the British polity of reasoned, expert scrutiny of leglislation.

The Lords however it functions is not perfect though. Yesterday Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove, a Liberal Democrat peer raised a question with the minister Lord Davies of Oldham concerning how many Lords served on bodies as chairs or even board members which were in the gift of the Prime Minister or Ministers of the Crown, Lord Oakeshott is not alone in expressing concern, the formidable conservative ex-cabinet minister, Lord Tebbit has also questioned ministers with regard to how many Lords serve on these quangos in the gift of ministers. The Government's list of public bodies appointments does not provide an easily observable list of peers with connections to such bodies- it does provide a list of the bodies and their appointees but it would take an enormous ammount of patience and time, more than your humble correspondent has, to sift through all 300 odd pages of the report that Lord Davies referred Lord Oakeshott too. This is an area where the Government ought to publish data- we ought to know how many members of the leglislature are members of bodies that lie in the gift of the Prime Minister.

Its long been rightly presumed that the House of Lords is an independent body- rightly in many cases this remains the case. But how much confidence can the public have when it appears that some Lords hold positions- some might be unkind and say sinecures but we would not wish to stigmatise in that way- that are in the gift of the Prime Minister. I find it hard to beleive that Government Whips would not crack the Whip on those who hold such positions- and anyway the conflict of interest ought to be removed. This has been an issue in politics for a long time- in the seventeenth century Parliament even ennacted a self denying ordinance whereby members of both of the Lords and Commons resigned government offices because they feared the influence of those offices on their deliberation, the use of sinecures was a scandal in the eighteenth century where men like Walpole bought majorities. Lord Oakeshott and Lord Tebbitt are adressing a matter that needs addressing- the Lords has the virtue of independence from the executive and must stay that way. Any appointments from the Prime Minister to Lords call into question the appearance of independence and potentially the substance of independence, I would second any calls to regulate what looks like a potential abuse of power.

The Lords are well known for their sensible deliberations- they are almost certainly unclouded by corruption- but they must not appear corrupt either and therefore we need another self-denying ordinance- let the Lords on public bodies choose- their quangos or their peerages. Afterall it takes two to quango- the government and the appointee- but being a Lord should be a matter of applying one's judgement in solitude, uninfluenced by Ministerial threats and influenced only by one's perception of reality and the arguments.

March 15, 2007

Foreign Policy Deja Vu

For longterm observers of international politics the recent years with the resurgeance of interest in central Asia as American, European, Russian and Chinese troops face each other in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kirgistan, Kazakhstan, southern Russia and western China with disputes about pipelines and whether they should run out via Turkey, Georgia, Russia or China has seemed to revive the classic Great Game. Recent discussions in the US intelligence services and across the world has focused on another revival of nineteenth Century norms- a new Scramble for Africa between the United States and China. Recent discussions have focused upon the Chinese attempts to diplomatically seize the initiative in holding a summit for African leaders. Hard on the heels of that development, comes the inauguration of a new American command Africom. As Paul Rogers has argued in this week's Open Democracy, the creation of a new African Command reflects US insecurity about resources within Africa and terrorism. He suggests a parallel to the creation of CENTCOM in the early 1980s, an effort to stabilise the Middle East and provide the US with a rapid response force for crises in that region. Similarly Africom reflects the rise of Africa, its potential terrorists and also its resources in the thinking of those interested in the future of International Politics.

Dr Kuntzel's Middle East

The pro-war leftwing blog Harry's Place carries an article today about Dr Matthias Kuntzel who was to give a paper at Leeds University on the subject of the relationship between the Middle East, Naziism and anti-semitism. The paper was cancelled following concerns from the University about the security of Dr Kuntzel and his auditors after threats. I don't know the substance of what went on and don't want to comment more about what happened than just a bare outline of the facts. No doubt others will proceed to do that elsewhere.

But the substance of Dr Kuntzel's arguments about Islam and the relationship between current levels of anti-semitism in the Middle East and the activities of the German Nazi party in the 1940s, as laid out here deserve some attention. My own view for what its worth is that Dr. Kuntzel's methodology is flawed but that he is not a racist. In discussing anti-semitism he is very careful to say that this is not an inherent property of Islam nor of Muslims, its a property of certain Muslims at a certain point in time- in that sense what he is saying is similar to me arguing that medieval Europe was anti-semitic or that modern Europe is Islamophobic, both statements could be right or wrong, neither are racist because neither imply that it is an essential property of Europe or Europeans to be either anti-semitic or Islamophobic. Historians are entitled to investigate the origins of prejudice and to try and account for it- and it is indisputable in my view that various societies have been throughout history prejudiced. To argue that they have been is not racist, nor is an argument which seeks to find the cause of that prejudice racist. What would be racist would be to argue that Arabs were neccessarily by virtue of being Arab, antisemitic, or religious prejudice would be to argue that Muslims were neccessarily antisemitic (given that Kuntzel comes close to saying that Christians might be more predisposed to Anti-semitism, in reality an accusation of Christo-phobism might be more realistic).

Dr Kuntzel's Case
His argument though focuses on a historical case and draws forward from it some political parallels. I disagree with both his history and with his politics and I think that it is interesting to point out why. Dr Kuntzel is not a racist but he is an essentialist- he beleives in an evolving Arab mind which is subject to influences. That is the central flaw in his thesis. His argument is that thanks to three particular political movements. He argues that Islamic anti-semitism is a revolution against modernity. Often anti-semitism whether in 20th Century Europe or the Middle East has drawn on the image of the cosmopolitan Jew (often lending money)- a tragic irony given that most Jews in both the Middle East and Europe during periods of anti-semitism have not been at all similar to that stereotype. The second argument he puts forward is that there was a relationship between Nazi German propaganda, especially Radio Zeesen, and the growth of Anti-Semitism in the Middle East. Thirdly he argues that Nazi arguments continued to be heard in the Middle East long after the death of Naziism in Germany- though he labels no Nazi personell who left Europe to disseminate this propaganda he only suggests that the Mufti of Jerusalem, briefly sheltered by the Germans, was allowed back into Palestine.

The first argument seems to me to be very perceptive- Kuntzel quotes plenty of Arab modernizers expressing pro-Jewish views and definitely throughout the Arab world, the rise of the Islamic radical was coordinated with the rise of the concept of takfir, of expelling the non-Muslim from society. The second point he makes though is problematic in my thinking- Radio Zeesen's success suggests to me a very local and temporary phenomenon- there must have been receptiveness within the Arab community as a whole at the time for the calumnies of the Germans to have found a reception. As for the third argument, I'm slightly mystified, he cites the Mufti of Jerusalem as having escaped from Nazi Germany and the sustenance of Nazi myths by Arab authorities, but that's the key it wasn't Nazis doing this but Arabs. It strikes me that the causes of anti-semitism in the Middle East are much more complicated than what happened in Europe- they have more to do with a reaction to modernity than with either of his other two causes and any Nazi arguments were lifted into an Islamic context but Nazi Germany itself is a minor factor in the growth of Middle Eastern Anti-Semitism.

The Elephants in the Room
So if Dr Kuntzel's theory is not racist neither is it particularly credible- I would isolate a couple of factors he has left out. Firstly there is no discussion in his paper of varying anti-semitism levels in various countries- unfortunately I haven't found any polling data on this but I don't beleive that all countries exhibit the same levels of anti-semitism in the region- differences may be telling. Secondly no matter what the attitudes of the elites at the time, the effect of Jewish immigration to Palestine and thse eventual 1948 war (no matter who was to blame for it) was bound to create tension within the neighbouring areas. If you think of the way that immigration in the UK has been blamed for stimulating latent racism recently- then think of that magnified by four and with a couple of wars thrown in. Racism thrives in atmospheres of rapid change and in atmospheres of conflict. The historical change in anti-semitism Dr Kuntzel beleives occured at some point between 1920 and 1960, exactly the period of time that the state of Israel was founded and that Arabs and Jews fought a series of wars. (To take an analogy, in 1870 Britain was much more anti-French than anti-German, by 1945 after fighting two wars with France against Germany, that had changed.) Thirdly there is the role of Arab regimes- Dr Kuntzel nowhere addresses the point that for many dictatorial regimes anti-semitism is useful. Take Syria- an Allawite government is despised by many Muslims but the Syrian government can appear patriotic by playing off against a bigger enemy- Israel. Similarly the Saudis have to persuade their population about why oil wealth hasn't contributed to the average citizen's lifestyle- blame the Jews is a good strategy for evading responsibility. Fourthly Kuntzel presents us a picture of universal love followed by universal hatred- but is this correct. I would imagine that there was plenty of anti-semitism in Islamic societies before the 1920s and that there is plenty of philosemitism now- the question is the way that the balance has moved and the reasons for that. In Europe and the US plenty of anti-semitism still exists but the general climate has moved against it- it could revive at any moment. The picture is much more complicated than Dr Kuntzel has made it appear and there will be factors I haven't even mentioned here. There isn't one cause of Middle Eastern anti-semitism, there are many- some related some unrelated.

Dr Kuntzel and his policy prescriptions
Dr Kuntzel also makes some policy prescriptions based on his evidence. Again I would suggest that even if we were to accept his historical argument his policy prescriptions seem to me to be erroneus. He identifies a key cause of Middle Eastern semitism to be the propaganda of Nazi anti-semitism but nowhere does he argue that we need to answer such propaganda with our own propaganda- a Radio Free Arabia- nowhere does he say that we need to ally with modernising elements within Arabic society. His argument is that force not appeasement will teach the Arabs not to be anti-semitic- but it wasn't force even on the basis of his own logic that made them anti-semitic. He argues that we can ignore Arabic protests because their protests are unrelated to our actions but to a visceral anti-semitism. There I think he is wrong and actually crosses into racism- because the implication is whatever an Arab says is racist per se- something that in my view is complete folly. That belief comes out of the central synthesising element of his thesis that all Arabs can be represented in a singular evolution.

Conclusions to be drawn
I have spent so long fisking Dr Kuntzel, not because I beleive that he in himself is very significant but because I beleive that we should not get sidelined into debating whether Leeds were right to ban him, and holding him up as an academic martyr. Dr Kuntzel is insignificant- his ideas are key and they are easily accessible and I beleive seriously flawed. Dr Kuntzel has done some good work- particularly on the links between resentment of modernity and a fear of the Jew as a manufactured image (not a reality) and also on the Nazi propaganda campaign inside the Middle East. His work though is deeply flawed- if he had stopped by adding to scholarship rather than rejecting other explanations it would have been fine. But to suggest that that is the whole story of anti-semitism in the Middle East is wrong. Dr Kuntzel's policy prescriptions arising from that are also wrong and need refutation- even upon the basis of his own arguments he maintains a flawed position. And given that his history is so flawed, his policy ideas that flow out of it are equally problematic.

There is a last point though- Anti-semitism has existed for aeons. Dr Kuntzel wants us to imagine that anti-semitic argument (by his third argument) are largely Nazi- that's not true, Martin Luther, most of the Popes, many atheists and many Muslims were all anti-semitic. I would suggest that this link of anti-semitic argument to Naziism is not merely been made to rule out anti-semitism but also to rule out appeasement. Kuntzel wants us to respond to Arab aggression against Israel in the same way that we responded to German aggression against Poland- the point though is that the phenomena of German Nazi anti-semitism and anti-semitism in the Middle East aren't the same- they may lead to different places and they may also be only successfully dealt with in different ways. We need to be careful about drawing historical parallels.

History can help us when we study politics- but we must be careful in the way that we write it and use it- Dr Kuntzel has not been careful enough in my judgement. Whether his paper should have been withdrawn or not, is not for me to say- but I can say that in my judgement, the paper is deeply flawed and needs considerable attention. That is not a reason to withdraw it- but it is a reason for its arguments to be picked apart- I wish Dr Kuntzel could have delivered it because maybe he might have then gone back, rewritten some sections and used his talents to deliver to us something more worthy of them.

March 14, 2007


It should be noted that the great German film M is free for anyone to watch on the internet. Its well worth seeing.


The Weekly Standard just published a tribute to the computer game, Civilisation. As someone who has played many versions of this computer game, I acknowledge it can consume one's life but it is also one of the more interesting computer games around and does genuinely have some educational content. People often knock computer games from afar but I think civilisation gives the lie to that. I'm not sure about its history- but introducing concepts like feudalism, democracy and communism to a kid must be useful, no matter how problematic the definitions. There is another aspect though to the game which is its complexity, because its so complex it stimulates I think people's strategical sense- especially kids of a young age. It also helps teach them hopefully that politics isn't just left and right but is a bit more extensive than that. Having said that like all good things- if you thought politics was game play you'd be on to a nasty shock and as to the definitions of concepts, personally Marx is much more fun than managing a communist dictatorship. Overall though this is a good game- it teaches people things- its worth playing and isn't mindless, it can be addictive- you have been warned. Most of all its great fun.

(Apologies to the Inky Circus, but the topic for this had to be nicked from them- it was too good.)

LATER Matthew Sinclair has reminded me in the comments that he posted on this a couple of weeks ago- his article is well worth reading too and is here.

The Protestant Doctor: Sir Theodore de Mayerne

Hugh Trevor Roper's posthumously discovered biography of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, physician to a King of France and two Kings of England gives a fascinating insight into the world of seventeenth century medicine and politics. Mayerne's career intersected with two of the great controversies of the age- between chemical and Galenist medicine and that between Protestantism and Catholicism. It also illustrates some of the perils of standing too close to the court and also some of the advantages of standing so close to the courts of Europe.

Mayerne's career as a doctor was heavily influenced by the period of time that he spent within the court of Henri IV (r. 1589-1610). Mayerne served as one of the more junior of the King's physicians alongside two other physicians Sieur de Riviere and Joseph du Chesne. He was involved by their side in continual battles with the medical faculty of the University of Paris which possessed at the time the ability to award licenses to study in Paris. Mayerne was influenced by the two physicians above and by his own training at the University of Montpellier, to become what in the seventeenth century was called a Chemical physician. He was interested in the theories of the German alchemist and physician Paracelsus. What Mayerne did was work on the basis of chemical theories and empirical experience to provide his patients with chemical remedies. The phsycians of Paris objected, for they argued that the only true source of medicine was to be found in the texts of Galen- for them Paracelsus was a quack selling snake oil to credulous customers and Mayerne and his friends were aiding him. Mayerne's close relationship with the royal family and with many of the leading lords of France protected him from the Faculty's wrath- what he sought to do was to bring about a union between Galenist traditional understandings of medicine and Paracelsian chemistry and empirical concerns (Mayerne was contemptuous of physicians who prescribed from books). His method was incredibly empirical- he left behind him detailed records of his cases and his cures. Having said that, he was also deeply credulous beleiving in witchcraft and in the occult powers of various substances.

His association with the French Huguenot laws brings us to the second important facet of Mayerne's life. He was a Huguenot. His father was an advanced Huguenot, his godfather was the great divine Theodore Beza. Mayerne himself shared little of the spiritual interests of his father, though he maintained a strict attitude to his life characteristic in Trevor Roper's view of many of the leading Huguenot intellectuals of his age. What he did maintain was the political allegiance to International Protestantism which his father had left him. At the court of Henry IV Mayerne used his influence against the devot Catholic faction that wished to make France a purely Catholic country. At the court of James I he became an ambassador for the Swiss republics of Geneva and of Basle, representing their interests to James and the English Court. He was used by James as an agent to contact Protestants in both France and Switzerland. At one point he was expelled by the French government for his intelligence activities. Mayerne maintained throughout his life a personal allegiance to the French Huguenot leader the Duc de Rohan, even sending his son to fight with Rohan in the 1630s in Switzerland. Mayerne helped many Huguenots who fled France to England in the 1610s and 1620s- he maintained associations with men like Isaac Casaubon whose scholarly work contributed to the defences of the Puritan intellectual position. Mayerne's political influence dived under the reign of Charles I when the new King declared himself less interested in sustaining the Protestant international- after the defeat of Rohan's rising in France in the 1620s and Charles's prohibition on his Protestant physician travelling abroad, Mayerne was forced to watch European politics develop in disgruntled silence.

Mayerne the Chemical Physician and the Protestant Doctor was a key political actor upon the contemporary scene. His power though derived ultimately solely from the character of the monarch whom he treated. At several points both his chemistry and his protestantism were threatened by the desires of his princely masters. As Henry IV died in France in 1610, Mayerne almost submitted to pressure for him to convert to continue to tend the royal family. In the 1630s as we've seen his friends abroad were undermined by the monarch that he served. Mayerne's private ambition to build up an estate to leave to his children was made easier by the fact that he served monarchs, they protected his private practise and paid him well for his services. Mayerne by the end of his life was treating most of the English elite and was able to instruct them to write to him about their symptoms only in French- the doctor could afford to be arrogant. But serving monarchs brought pain as well as peace- his efforts to establish a hereditary estate in Aubonne in Switzerland for his sons in the future was jeapordised by his ban on travelling abroad from the 1630s. Mayerne was reduced to spluttering from the sidelines as his agents in Aubonne cheated him.

Mayerne's private life is more difficult to inquire into- Trevor Roper has done an exceptional job at trawling the archives to find letters from Mayerne. Those that he has found demonstrate Mayerne was a kindly man- interested in many aspects of the world, including not least his table. In his seventies indeed the great physician grew so fat that in addition to learning French, his patients had to come to him, to live by him as he cured them. His kindliness was manifested both in his dealings with his friends and in the care he took over his patients. There was though also a spine of self righteousness running through his life- Mayerne's relations with his children were very difficult, indeed despite his desire to establish a house almost none of them survived him and both his sons had turbulent relationships with their father.

Reading Trevor Roper's biography one gets the sense of what Europe looked like at the beggining of the seventeenth century, for a man like Mayerne the period was exceptionally exciting. Intellectually the development of chemistry, the development of Alchemy and of Hermetic 'magic' revolutionised medicine. Politically the early years of Mayerne's life became part of the great story of the wars of religion- Mayerne's place as a cog within the great machine of the Protestant International and the way that that place determined both his intellectual contacts and also his political orientation is key to understanding his life. But Mayerne also took the time to be an entrepreuner, investigating such matters as the possibility of exporting coal from England to France and setting up a company to exploit the oyster beds around England. The world that Mayerne knew both intellectually and politically was overthrown largely by the end of his life- the coming of the scientific revolution consigned hermetic medicine to the dustbing of history, by the 1620s it was evident that France would not be reconquered by the Huguenots. Perhaps Mayerne's most lasting contribution was his analysis of the chemistry that made some of the most vibrant colours in seventeenth century paintings.

This post may give some indication of the spread of Mayerne's life- filled with incident and with areas of interest, Mayerne lived on several different planes at once. From a spy to a physician, to an entrepreneur to an amateur artistic chemist, he was a polymath. Trevor Roper is one of the few historians who one could imagine grappling with the difficulties of a biography of a man who dabbled in so many fields, and who spoke French, Latin, English, German and even had interests as far afield as Russia. This is a wonderful biography- it is also a sympathetic portrait of an interesting man and his life. It is biography as it should be written by a biographer to whom the best tribute is to say that his interests and abilities are equal to that of the incredibly intelligent Protestant doctor who had an amazing Catholic taste in fields of interest.

March 13, 2007

The Importance of Rites

Bert Keizer has written a very illuminating article about the importance of rites in our society. A rite might be defined as a performance which we use to deal with something that otherwise is so vast in its implications that we can't comprehend it. Whether you are religious or not, the moment of death for example is so vast that its difficult to comprehend its reality, its difficult to work it out. Having talked to Christian friends and from my own experience, the rite of a funeral is an amazing gain in this sense- it allows you to understand what has happened, to feel you have made some effort, some action, some, even, atonement for what has happened and you can move on. Keiser argues that rites for us are the ultimate human displacement activity. Evolutionarily biologists have often observed for instance that cocks can often in the middle of combat get confused evolutionary signals and not know what to do- so they peck the ground instead of each other. Similarly we find it useful to do something in order to assuage our grief about something that we can't effect. I'm not sure about the evolutionary theory- but the idea that a funeral is a way of reasserting control over death is something that I think is very true- the process of organizing it, meeting your loved one's friends and exchanging memories is incredibly therapeutic- it is activity and sometimes where there is no basic understanding (whatever your metaphysical beliefs the reality of death is something that is hard to cope with), activity is all that we have.

March 12, 2007

Summer with Monica

Summer with Monica is one of Ingmar Bergman's earliest works. It is a wonderful film though, exhibiting the talents of a woman who was to become one of Bergman's main actresses, Harriet Andersson. The film is about the way that kids become adults and in particular about the peculiar stage in between the transition that we call the reign of the teenager. Bergman's story is a perceptive tale strung along a familiar theme- boy meets girl, girl gets pregnant, there is a shotgun marriage and less familiarly it all ends with the woman, Monica, leaving. But of course this being Bergman he does more with the story than just that- his camera work is astonishing and the actors work well- in particular Andersson who really performs brilliantly and captures everything that needs to be said about Monica.

This is really Monica's picture- she is the titular character and dominates the whole landscape from the first moment when she tempts Harry, her boyfriend into a teenage kiss after seeing a movie to the last shot, Monica dominates. Andersson is well cast physically in the role- she has the right degree of physical attractiveness for the role. More than that though, she manages to capture the immaturity of Monica, I don't think I've seen many more effective performances of how a teenage girl can conventionally kiss because its what is meant. She enjoys her sensuality, her body and dances like a woman convinced of her own sexuality to jazz music, she goes out and gets boyfriends whilst her husband is out at work.

What is interesting about Monica though, and what I think needs to be brought out because in a sense it is what I think Bergman was trying to get at is the way that the marriage effects her. Its not just that she is far too young to enjoy being a mother- far too interested in dancing and having fun than in nappies and kids. Its also that her image of what traditional marriage is is not what the reality of traditional marriage in working class Sweden is. Early on in the film, Monica speaks a lot about marriage- but the marriage she imagines is a Hollywood style one where her husband works all day and then she and him go to glamorous parties and she wears gorgeous gowns in the evening. She doesn't imagine life on a low rent, with a screaming child and a husband who for no fault of his own can't provide for her desires. The world she imagined traditional marriage to be isn't the world that it turns out to be- and she seems not to wish to take any other path to live her life within.

Its difficult to compete with Andersson on this form but Lars Ekborg tries. The problem is that his character is very passive. In many ways he is the casualty of the film- left alone with a child at the end. Monica pushes him into sensuality, into sexuality, into escaping with her to an island for the summer where the conception of the child takes place (the summer of the title of the film). Ekborg is much more self contained than Andersson in his portrayel- only erupting into violence near the end of the film when he realizes that his dream of adolescent life has become a nightmare- he has impregnated and now is married to the town slut. In many ways the film is Monica's episode in Harry's life- so Harry is an everyman and Monica is the focus. The end of the film brings Ekborg more into focus- his fury and his despair come out more and more and Monica treats him abominably and he knows it and realizes it. A fantastic montage towards the end of the moments of joy they spent together comes to his mind as he grasps her letter telling him that she is about to leave him.

Having just seen this film for the first time, the images that keep coming back though aren't to do with Ekborg and his obvious despair and distress but to do with Monica. Part of the way that the relationship doesn't function is that there is a disjunction between her fantasy of the way that adulthood will come out and the reality of what that adulthood looks like. Part of the reason for that is obviously the fact that her part in that adulthood is supposed to be the inactive one- there are three particularly poignant moments in the film- one where Harry tells Monica he will study for the future when they are married. Later in the film Monica tells him that she has nothing to do but he can study, he has the camaraderie of going out with his workmates. She has to spend all day with the baby- her only route of escape is to desert him and for that she receives in the end a measure of condemnation, he receives the virtuous part but his life is ruined. Inaction in Monica's case looks attractive when the inactive life you imagine is rich and filled with interest- the reality of doing nothing but care for your kids makes this bright teenager desert her young husband. As she plaintively says 'when you are young you are supposed to have fun'.

A last grim insight that the film offers is that these characters are doomed to repeat themselves. Harry leaves his home with Monica because his work is oppressive and he spends his time at home in a home bereft of affection- his mother died when he was eight and his father is always ill. Harry at the end of the film is left holding a child- like his father he is a single parent and this child won't even have the eight years of its mother that he had. Monica too fled her home to escape both the sexual abuse she suffers in her workplace and the dirty cluttered house of her parents, filled with bottles, babies and a shortage of space and cash. She ends up though living with an unwanted baby- she ends up having learnt very little about what is ahead of her- going back to live amongst those that will abuse her. We know that Harry is a good man and she admits that he is the best she has ever known, but still she returns to her mire. Furthermore there is no reason to think she has any more insight now about the fact that whilst young love and sex are tempting- they produce results in the form of babies with which she is unable to cope. The shot that symbolizes her life comes right at the end of the film, when the camera focuses in upon her smoking a cigarette given to her by a lover in a club. The directors of the French New Wave took her independence to heart when making their own films, but I think there is a kind of decay in her look of cool, self righteous sin- she looks cool but she has lost her hope of anything. She has no myths- only sordid men trying to reach up her skirt.

On the surface this is a very upbeat film by Bergman's standards about the escape of two young lovers for a period from life and then their return. But actually it highlights some of the real difficulties that people have with growing up, with avoiding their parents' fates and furthermore with escaping the myths that definitely in Monica's case don't fulfill themselves.

March 11, 2007

A Milestone for Gracchi

On Friday afternoon this blog reached a milestone of sorts- it seems like it was then that the 20,000th unique visitor arrived since I'd put sitemeter up in November of last year. Anyway thanks to everyone who has visited and welcome to anyone who hasn't. The writing's been fun, hope the reading has been as well- and all the comments have been good fun. Seeing the names Edmund, James Higham, Political Umpire, Ashok, F, Welshcakes Limoncello, Ian, Matthew Sinclair and many others over a comment not to mention some of the regular anonymous commenters has been a pleasure- often prompting a regret that the post wasn't good enough to convince those erudite philosophic tempraments. That's not to mention those who have linked to this blog or indeed allowed my posts into carnivals or allowed me to host carnivals. A milestone seems like a suitable point to thank everyone- so thanks everyone.

Confirmation Hearings

Michael Meacher proposed on Labour Home that British cabinet ministers should have to face select committees in the House of Commons for confirmation hearings just like Americans have to face Congressional Hearings in the United States. Its an interesting idea and definitely deserves some consideration- not a matter on which I wish to make a decision myself right now.

What is true is that it would alter completely the character of a cabinet minister in the UK. Detailed hearings like in the US would demand that ministers had detailed knowledge of what they were to become ministers of before they entered the government. The United States recruits men and women like Condoleeza Rice who have trained for years in a particular field- instead of as we do recruiting skilled amateurs who rely on civil service professionals to elucidate the detail. Confirmation hearings would begin a very different relationship between the politician and that he was minister of.

It might also change the role of Parliament- independence becoming more and more prized over the kind of dependance that makes scrutiny dangerous to one's future career. Parliament could become a route to committee chairships, as well as cabinet office.

Its an interesting suggestion from Meacher and definitely one worth considering, even if he fails to attain the Labour leadership- I am as yet not convinced either way- this would bring a great change in the qualities we expect from ministers and Parliament.