March 31, 2007

Carnival of Cinema

The new carnival of cinema is up at Kaboom Review. His blog is good too so if you are feeling like reading about action movies and how they rate on his unique Kaboom scale then I'd go over. Possibly one of the cooler blog names as well!

Mauritania's new Democracy

Professor Hassan Nafaa raises in Al-Ahram the interesting case of Mauritanian democracy and its implications for the Arab world. Professor Nafaa argues that Mauritania is distinct from most Arab countries in setting up a true democracy- and suggests that it is because the army, a force that he beleives most within the country stand behind, has stepped into politics to back the new democracy that Mauritania has succeeded where so many others have failed. He suggests that this fits a recent trend where it is not the great regional powers- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq- that lead the next developments within the Middle East, but increasingly its in the smaller countries- Qatar in media, the UAE in finance, Mauritania in democracy where all the most exciting political developments are taking place.

Professor Nafaa in my view is both wrong and right in his assessment of the development of Middle Eastern Politics. Its worth remembering that Mauritania has only faced one set of elections and them only in March- the status of its democracy is uncertain- and as the experience of Pakistan over the fifty years since independence would demonstrate once the military acquires a taste for intervention, its difficult for the generals to go back to their barracks. Armies often are the only meritocratic or vaguely meritocratic structures in some societies- but that doesn't make them invulnerable to all the weaknesses that we attribute to men in general- a lust for domination and power, corruption, and all the weaknesses of civilian politicians. The example of Egypt, where the revolt of the Colonels in the fifties led to Nasser's regime and then on to the present dictatorship today, would suggest that things aren't that simple.

Professor Nafaa is right though to look outside the Arab 'core' for inspiration. It often is true that the smaller countries of a region develop in order to keep up with their bigger neighbours, institutions which allow them to do things more efficiently. Thinking of European development, the Netherlands, Britain, Prussia and Switzerland were all places where constitutional and financial innovations took place, largely in all four cases motivated by the presence of a much larger, populous and threatening neighbour (in the cases of Britain, the Netherlands and Switzerland, France, in the case of Prussia and Switzerland Austria). What is interesting about Professor Nafaa's article is that the focus is very regional- and at that very ethnic- it is limited to members of the Arab League. Staring at him in the face is possibly the leading example of the effects of military intervention in the politics of a democracy- Turkey- but such an important case for his thesis is never mentioned. Parochialism in political science is not a virtue, crossing ethnic boundaries to understand the politics of one's own country or region is not a vice.

Professor Nafaa's article is interesting though. Throwing attention back upon the army as a force for stability within many Arab countries is definitely worthwhile. However in my view Professor Nafaa is too naively optimistic about military dictatorship, about the prospects of democracy in Mauritania. He needs to stretch his horizons both Turkey and Pakistan have struggled with the role of the military in politics since the second world war. Many African countries have fallen under the seductive lure of the principle that the armed forces can do no wrong and have discovered that that axiom is not neccessarily as true as it would appear. Despite that it is true that the Arab militaries are an underrated part of the regimes and often one that is anti-Islamist and popular, if we are to understand the development of the Middle East and the wider developing world into the future then the militaries and the way that they engage with different regimes will be part of the story.

LATER Can I apologise profusely- for some reason my classical education led me to suppose that Mauritania was spelt the same way as the Roman province Mauretania, it isn't and I made an idiot of myself. I have no altered all the spellings to the right spelling and I apologise for any offence or confusion caused.

March 29, 2007

The Legend of Napoleon

On 1st March 1815, a group of ships containing 1,100 men drifted off the southern French coast, they put into land and began a revolution whose consequences reverbrated through the history of France for the next hundred years. They brought within them the exiled Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. Within days, Bonaparte's small band of companions had marched through France receiving support, especially from the units sent to oppose him by the terrified Bourbon government in Paris. By the 20th March, Napoleon and his band reached Paris. The experiment of reviving the empire was however shortlived- on 18th June 1815, Napoleon was defeated by a combined British and Prussian force near the town of Waterloo. Napoleon was exiled to St Helena and died in 1821, his cause one might have thought was lost. Though as any historian will tell you, of course that isn't quite true because his nephew Napoleon III 30 years after the death of Napoleon himself became a second Emperor of France. Sudhir Hazareesingh presents some rather interesting evidence that even that does not tell the full story- that under the seamless restoration of the French monarchy lurked regrets for the reign of the Emperor and for what he represented- for what Hazareesingh calls the legend of Napoleon, a factor he feels lay behind not merely the revival of Bonapartist politics in the second empire but also lay behind the fundamental instability of restoration France after 1815.

Hazareesingh has accumulated a great deal of interesting evidence demonstrating how the cult of Napoleon grew up. Looking into the local French archives, he has found evidence of all sorts of Bonapartist activity- peasants and townsmen arrested for chanting Bonapartist slogans, for using the colours of the tricolour and not the monarchy, for distributing via networks of travelling salesmen and women Bonapartist artefacts- busts, medals and even books. Sites like the gates by which he had reentered Grenoble or the inn where he had slept the night of March 1st became tourist sites, attracting visitors who wished to witness the imperial myth. Moving onwards Hazareesingh shows how this cult of Napoleon became allied to other forces against the Bourbon monarchy. Bonaparte stood for the French Revolution and his image became Republican in form. This started in Napoleon's brief second stint in power, when he summoned Benjamin Constant, the noted French liberal intellectual, to draft a new Bonapartist constitution. Seizing on that statesmen and scholars as various as Constant himself, Victor Hugo and the French liberal conservative Adolphe Thiers were able to see in Bonaparte the France that they wished to recreate.

Giving vitality to the cult of the Emperor, Hazareesingh spots the former members of the Napoleonic armies. At one point France had had over a million men in arms- mostly very young, indeed so young that they became the shock troops for Napoleon III's later coup in 1851. These men provided a human connection with the feats of Napoleon I, they gathered together to remember him, from 1857 the roughly 400,000 veterans who were still alive were given special medals to wear and processions were held in their honour. (The last survivor from the Grand Armee died in 1906 in Poland- direct memory of the Napoleonic wars lasted until then.) Perhaps the most vivid memorial erected by the troops was erected by Louis Petit, a soldier from 1812 to 1815 who rebuilt his house in the village of Saint Riquer in the shape of Napoleon's hat! The troops and Napoleon's political successor, Napoleon III, created a Bonapartism that was more liberal than Bonaparte himself. The great general became remembered as a great lawgiver, a French Solon, who had been forced by perfidious Albion and her German and Russian allies into war, as a Napoleonic veteran wrote in a poem of 1859, Napoleon's diplomacy's other name was peace. His acheivements were no longer seen as imperial but as popular as well- as one French author argued Napoleon was the only King the French loved because he was the only popular King of France.

Hazareesingh's account of the effects of Napoleonic stories upon French politics is convincing. The presence of a large number of decommissioned men within a society creates tensions- especially if those men become defined by their wartime experience. In the divided France of the 19th Century where royalists hated members of the Grand Armee that was not surprising. He is right to note the parallels in modern French history- the cults both of Joan of Arc and of Charles de Gaulle, especially the latter, bear examination alongsides that of Napoleon. One might mention the interwar reputation of Petain as well as the incarnation of the French spirit at Verdun. Napoleon's significance can't be underrated.

My only quibble with this volume lies not in the account of the history- but the implication that such imagining of politics through a historical figure is a unique French preoccupation- think of the way that British Conservatives squabble over the figure of Winston Churchill, how American conservatives discuss Ronald Reagen or Pakistanis regard Jinnah, Turks Attaturk for that matter. These historical figures become metaphors by which we discuss present politics- just like Napoleon was for the 19th Century French. Just like Napoleon, Churchill say has become associated with causes which he, a British Imperialist to the core, would never have understood. The historical dangers are evident- and Hazareesingh may be right that Napoleon's cult has contributed to the illiberalism of French liberalism- but he is wrong to insist that this is a uniquely French phenomenon. The content of the myth, not the fact of having myths itself, explains that perception.

Having said that, for an introduction to French politics in the 19th Century- particularly the era from the fall of Napoleon through the rule of the Kings both Bourbon and Orleanist to the second Bonapartist restoration under Napoleon III- this volume presents an interesting survey. The myth of Napoleon was undoubtedly created in those years and sustained as an ideology of opposition and then as a way to legitimate the new regime. Its dominance in the discourse of the French imagination of their own past meant that it formed their thoughts about their own nation, in many ways features of its story lie behind senses of France that French people have today. Whether it reflected the actual emperor is another matter- but the myth contributed to what we think France is today- as such it is a key part of the history and politics of our own day. As such, Dr Hazareesingh has performed a great service by exploring it, bringing the past to life whilst also illuminating the nature of politics in France in the present.

Karl Rove's Future

On the basis of this video I think we can conclusively state that Karl Rove, whatever he does next, should not take up a musical career!

March 28, 2007

The Killers


The Killers is a film made by Robert Siodmak from an Ernest Hemingway short story. Siodmak begins his film using the scenario bequeathed to him by Hemingway's story- the explanation of how we got there though is all Siodmak's. Basically the film begins as two men walk into a bar, after beating up the bar staff and mocking the other customers, they reveal themselves to be in search for a third man, called 'Swede' Anderson. His co-worker goes across to warn him but 'Swede' rather than run decides to wait for his murderers, just lying listless waiting for the fate that will come and inevitably get him. They turn up and pump his body full of bullets. The rest of the film constitutes the investigation of who sent the killers, why they were sent and what Anderson was mixed up in. An investigation which is prosecuted by an insurance investigator on behalf of his company and which turns up the entire story behind Anderson's decline and dismal fall.

So much so film noir and within the killers you find the stereotypical characters- the hoodlums, the gangsters, the old hands who know what darkness looks like when they see it, the insipid heroes who excitement is that they are mixed in with the darkness and the women who offer nothing but innocence as attraction. You also find the femme fatale- around whom the hero and most of the men in the picture twist in the wind, played superbly by a young Ava Gardner, Kitty Collins is the nemesis of our Swede and also of any man who she comes into contact with, until that is she herself right at the end of the film faces the chair. These stock characters circle though a main character played by Burt Lancaster, 'Swede' Anderson, a boxer who is unable to fight any more and who turns to crime to fund him in the way that being a celebrity boxing once did. A man besotted with Gardner who ends the film, his face blasted with bullets and emblazoned with guilt and a lack of innocence. For the Swede himself has ended up conniving in robbery, has ended up taking the rap for a girl who didn't deserve it but more than that has ended up as a cog in the machine that the desperadoes and the femme fatales put together. The darkness literally swallows everything but his pathetic hand clawing the side of his bed as he dies but that's because he himself and his entire life has been swallowed by darkness, from the days of his boxing career's demise onwards he is a crook and he dies because of it.

This film though casts a sharp light on investigators and upon the innocent suburbia of America. Gardner by the end of the film seems to have redeemed herself, but of course she hasn't and at the end her and her husband's suburban relationship is merely a mask for their criminality, the table cloth that hides the grime beneath. Her emblematic moment is when she appeals to a dead body, crying tell them I'm innocent, tell them I'm innocent. Screaming out her innocence she is dragged to the chair that she well deserves. Her guilt reveals that her suburban lifestyle is built on criminal theft, her beauty hides the knawing of the worms of conscience and her protestations of innocence hide the knowledge that she has attempted at separate times to kill everyone on the set. Because we see the story of Swede we perceive her as the villain but during this film there are few heroes.

Most of the heroic impetus is provided by ciphers- most prominent of all of these is the investigator: Reardon. He goes around talking to people but like Thompson in Citizen Kane, Reardon doesn't contribute anything to what his witnesses say, his role is to stand as a cipher, the only thing that shows through is his unorthodox professionalism. Reardon is an insurance agent but ultimately the company he is involved with cares nothing for the person who has died: at the end of the film he is told that his successful investigation has resulted in a cut of a tenth of a cent off their premiums for 1947. A man's life is priced accurately at a tenth of a cent cut.

Of course we know and running through it we can see that its the excitement which pulls Lancaster in but the excitement means that Lancaster loses in the end. The tradeoff in the film is Achilles's in the Illiad, you exchange glory and a swift death for monotony and a long life. There is much more than this in this film, and these incoherent ramblings fail to sum up what actually went on. It is a film that's great to watch- a performance from Gardner in particular that stands up there with the best of the great noir femme fatales.

Guido Fawkes and the News

Guido Fawkes, a prominent blogger, has just done this video for Newsnight criticising the network. Fawkes criticises them for not being hostile enough or for following through scandals enough. I have explained before why I do not agree that the best political journalism is prosecutorial. Many journalists do do good work- but I fear that the influence of the blogs on the net is purely pernicious- it guides journalists more to gossip, more inside the Westminster machine and less to explaining to the viewer the ideas, the policies, the leglislation and the events that we face in our lives. My own personal view is that I would like journalists to explain more- to for instance do features on what the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims are, to do features on what the effect of the Budget might be interviewing economists, to do programs like Adam Curtis's recent flawed effort on liberty recently (at least where Curtis failed, he tried to present something that was interesting). I need that information in order to make an informed choice at the next election- without it I have difficulties deciding how to vote and what to do.

The Central Institutions of Government

Ken Clarke has been running for the last 18 months a taskforce equipped by the conservative leader to look into the state of British democracy. He along with his committee has produced a first report which looks into the questions of Prime Ministerial power, cabinet responsibility and the role of the civil service. As you might expect Clarke is a bit of a traditionalist- he fears the concentration of power in Number 10 and his main proposals surround the Parliamentary approval of QPM (Questions of Procedure for Ministers- the kind of how to be a Minister guide issued by every Prime Minister at the beggining of his term). He wants cabinet government strengthened and special advisors excluded from cabinet meetings and their role defined, he also desires a civil service act and feels that many of the powers of the Prime Minister should be abolished or handed to Parliament.

There is an interesting issue at the heart of Clarke's analysis. There seems to be a contradiction involved in the way that government works today- and Clarke is arguing for a particular side of that contradiction to be given more prominence but nowhere does he acknowledge the idea of contradiction. Let me explain what I mean. Clarke wants departmental independence as a way to strengthen cabinet ministers and hence the deliberative powers of our democracy. Departmental independence though has withered away for a reason- as Clarke acknowledges in a world of 24 hour media outlets the government slips up less if all communications with the outside world, indeed if most activity, is coordinated from Number 10. You run away then from the danger of different departments appearing to say different things- which creates something that the voters don't want ie splits. The problem here is that good government runs up against the fact that the media and those who consume media stories seem to want bad government with a single mind.

It is at this point that one wonders about the way that modern government is going- deliberation involves complication- no issue is really that simple, go and look at Hansard should you wish to check. Clarke's problem is that taking account of complication, of shades of grey and argument is a necessary part of good decision making, a good government is one which changes its mind, where cabinet ministers dissent from each other without becoming personal and in which the ideas brought by departments to the table are criticised. But that doesn't seem to be what the media and the country want- they want simple clear decisions which take two minutes to announce on the news and two minutes thirty seconds to understand. Deliberation therefore is a weakness for a modern government unless its secret and rigorously controlled from the centre. Mr Clarke's future reports will be interesting- but unless he deals with this contradiction in a satisfactory way I think his desire to install a deliberative democracy will most likely fail.

March 26, 2007

Expertise

Sometimes as you read a post, you feel an inner cheer from the inside. Such an emotion came across me as I read the Political Umpire (a man for whom the term, robust good sense was invented) today on homeopathy. His post is a delight to read but it reflects something that I think is rather insidious. Chris Dillow often speaks about a corrupting respect for experts, most recently here and he is right to draw attention to the way that experts are not neccesarily, especially in politics or on stockmarkets, the best guessers of what will happen. However what I am sure that Chris would agree with and what the political umpire's post suggests is that there are some branches of knowledge- medicine would be one where there is a method to do things and not following that method means that your conclusions aren't very useful. What is interesting is that often in the fields of probabilistic calculation where knowledge doesn't neccessarily help we rely on experts and in fields where knowledge is definite, we tend to allow too much debate.

To be uncharitable you might call it the Today program error. On the one side I have an eminent scientist who beleives in evolution, on the other a creationist who has never done any proper science who doesn't and I treat them equally. One though has done a huge ammount of experiments, rigorously tested out his theories and the other hasn't. Despite that the interviewer and the public adopt a posture somewhere in the middle. There are unfortunately, postmodernism aside for a moment, facts which we can prove, theories which help us understand the world. Experts of course are people and are fallible and wrong often- but there are ways of locating and testing and finding out knowledge- footnotes in history (so that others can find your sources), repeatable experiments in science (so that others can do the same experiment you do), archived surveying in social sciences (so that others can look at the same data that you derived your work from)- if I have something that has better footnotes or experimental data to back it up then unless my thesis is irrational, its true.

Chris Dillow often speaks about expertise in a rather dismissive tone and he is right too- experts aren't very good at predicting. But rigour in finding knowledge is different from expertise in guessing what will happen- and rigour is what we need. That doesn't mean we need a class of experts at all- because human beings are flawed and make lots of mistakes, but it does mean that it isn't legitimate to argue in certain ways. It isn't legitimate to say that homeopathy works just because it feels like it does- you need experiments and trials just like other medicine. It isn't legitimate to say as someone recently told me that the Catholic Church has never enjoined resistance to a sovereign, you'd need a lot of footnotes to persuade me that it hadn't- and you'd need to explain what was happening say Robert Parsons. Arguing like this isn't elitest it is simply to demand that people when they talk about facts work out what the facts are before they discuss them.

I suppose to a certain extent what we see in society at the moment is too much respect for experts as magi, as mystical beings who divine truth in a mysterious way, and too little respect for the way that truth is manufactured. The truth is that what an expert says goes no further in its validity than his footnote or his experiment will take him or her, we tend to think that experts are a caste apart when they are just ordinary humans using a method to create knowledge. Chris is right, we shouldn't be too respectful of the prognostications of experts, but when we criticise we should be clear about what we are doing. Noone knows the future, and in many cases your hunch is as good as mine. But there are things that we do know and that we can find out and about those we should be rigorous. Homeopathy is just unproven- we should be clear that is so and reject it until someone does the experiment which shows that it works and is repeatable by others.

(Incidentally I should say that this post is a work in progress- the conclusions are uncertain and I'm willing to accept some discussion on some of these points.)

March 25, 2007

Luigi Pirandello The Wave


Western Art in the Twentieth Century has been filled with stories about the way that men shape and fit women into their view- think of the way for instance that Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is about the way that his protagonist James Stewart continually remakes and recreates a woman played by Kim Novak into the woman of his dreams and desires. Few people have captured the true egotism of erotic love though with as much success as Luigi Pirandello in his short story The Wave, found in a recently translated version of Pirandello's first collection of short stories, Loveless Love. The Wave is a superbly written and very evocatively descriptive short story about a young man who is continually falling in and out of love with his lodgers. However his weakness of the heart for the young maidens who reside below his rooms is normally a fleeting phenomenon, in one case though this young man, Giulio Accurzi, falls deeply and passionately in love with the woman below, Agata, because she ignores him and is in love with another. From then on he cannot live without her. She is jilted by her lover and consequently Giulio courts her, and eventually marries her but as she becomes attainable and particularly when she becomes pregnant she becomes undesirable. The story finishes with a wonderful ending, whereby Agata is useless to Giulio because she is no longer a possession over which someone feels jealousy.

Giulio's love for Agata is just a function of his desire of one upmanship over an unseen rival- her former lover- he wants to demonstrate that he, Giulio, has conquered Agata but as soon as she is conquered in will then she becomes uninteresting and useless to him. There is something in here of the medieval knight, swooning at the sight of far away maidens, but loathe to respect his own wife, searching for the unattainable. In reality, Giulio seeks a mistress not a wife. His desire is merely a desire to extend himself.

But Pirandello is cleverer and subtler than that, he does not merely present Giulio as the creation of a cynical intelligence. Giulio is no Valmont. Rather Pirandello demonstrates to us the subtlety of self justifications which Giulio employs- he is fascinated by Agata, she stimulates him, then he is bored by her and sees her flaws and then after a time when he sees his rival, she once again becomes fascinating though in a last moment, he realises that all her fascination has evaporated because she is no longer worth the struggle. In a sense, Giulio captures a character that C.S. Lewis once described, the man or woman who is always in love with someone different. Giulio's love expresses itself in violent spasms of generosity- efforts to shape the world around him into his image- forever playing on a stage, his craft is to mould the perceptions of others. Giulio's love is a curious combination of the deceiving and the self deceptive- its deceiving because it promises that which it will not perform but it is self deceptive because the end of love- fulfilled marriage- is not the end that Giulio wishes to attain. Emotionally he is attempting to mow the lawn by eating a casserole.

There is another dimension to this little story which is Giulio's relationship with his mother. His aged mother performs the role of his never ending excuse- again when he spends time with her, he is irritated but outside that moment he beleives sincerely that he is in love with her like a son ought to be. In this case, like the case of Agata, Giulio's love is not designed to perform the role he wishes it to perform. He uses his love for his mother to detach himself from Agata and others but he doesn't wish to be attached to his mother at all. The parallels are definitely interesting.

Pirandello's portrait of the way that Giulio's emotions work strikes right to the bone. Its difficult for me at least not to see an image of myself in the feckless Italian man about town and his attitude to other people. This is an aspect in my view of the human experience- our emotions are in a sense tools for the crafting of an illusion which requires our own delusion. What we call mental illness is when the delusion becomes a hinderance to the neccessary illusion. But there is more than that- Pirandello is presenting us with an incomplete portrait. Definitely when I look into myself I see aspects which are to coin a phrase Giulian, but that's not all I see and its important to recognise other ways that we relate to others. When reading Pirandello, the descriptions strike to the core and reawaken ghosts of moments that in my case I should not be proud of, but it also makes one think again about the way that we relate to others. Like a moral clarion call, the portrait of Giulio may be over done but it reminds one of the neccessity of avoiding that Scylla of moral failure, but we must also take care not to be sucked into a Charybdis of depression.

Hons, Dons and Two Smoking MA Oxons

Paul Burgin links to a wonderful video here from Mitchell and Webb, an expose of two hucksters who hold up Vice Chancellors and nick degrees and then offer them to the highest bidders. Its pretty good.