April 14, 2007

The Curse of the Golden Flower or plugging one's own articles

I went last night to see the Curse of the Golden Flower with Matt Sinclair and Vino Sangrapillai- both of whom have their own blogs. Matt has reviewed it here- Vino's blog is here and as soon as he reviews it I'll edit this post and add a link to his review in it. Anyway I thought that regular readers of this blog might be interested in reading my review of this film for the Bits of News website and particularly how I interpret it as part of an ongoing preoccupation in the cinema of its director with the idea of tyranny.

Labradors and Political Thinking about the family

Matt Sinclair has provided an interesting analysis this afternoon of what he calls Labrador Conservatism (Matt failed to provide a picture of a labrador in an uncharacteristic slip which I hope I have redeemed). Matt defines this as a refinement of social conservatism- a social conservatism stripped of its religious baggage and redefined as the proposition that stable families (whether gay or straight) provide a better place for children to be brought up than other kinds of families. Matt's argument is much more non-judgemental than the traditional social conservative line, he isn't arguing that single parenthood is sinful merely that in most cases its easier to bring up a child with two people rather than one in the house, he specifically argues that issues like abortion, contraception and gay marriage have no place in this new social conservatism- indeed one could argue as Andrew Sullivan has that a conservatism that truly sought the promotion of commitment without prejudice would have to endorse and promote gay marriage for homosexuals.

Instinctively there is a lot of good in these attitudes- but there are problems too about Matt's article. He launches into what I think is an ill advised attack on Harriet Harman's recent critique of David Cameron's marriage policies in the Guardian. What Harman mainly argued is that the kind of financial incentives that Cameron wants to bind into marriage make little sense- few people will marry because of an extra hundred quid of benefit and if people do marry because of that will they set up the kinds of stable relationship that Matt wants to see. Harman's agenda seems to me from the article to be about sustaining a social agenda for marriage- a kind of ethic of marriage which seems to get lost in the purely financial accounting that Cameron proposes. Matt describes Harman's argument as 'statist' but she is arguing against the provision of a tax break by the state to married couples- this is not really about statist versus non-statist arguments but about what kind of state action is best to support marriage- tax breaks on the married don't seem to me to encourage the kinds of behaviour that Matt wants to encourage.

That is I suppose the second big objection to the way that Matt sees marriage policy developing. There is if you like a Puritan problem about this issue. Matt summarises in his post the goods attached to good and stable relationships and then argues that conservatives ought to fortify the legal arrangement- marriage- which provides those goods. The problem is that there are some relationships that maintain the name of marriage whilst not conforming to what Matt and I see as the idea of marriage- the sustaining companionship of two people of whatever gender together for each others' good. In those relationships, it may be better for both parties and for their children if such a relationship breaks up- domestic violence of all kinds, affairs and even less important emotional abuse are very good reasons for a relationship to break apart. By endeavouring to promote marriage by building up its fortifications- by say making it tax advantageous to be married or stiffening divorce law- you may make it difficult for people to escape from relationships that are harming them and harming their children (children who are brought up by parents that loathe each other are often damaged in the long term by that- their ideas of how you behave in a relationship can often be adversarial and manipulatory). Furthermore if Matt like me deems it more difficult to bring up a child on your own than with someone else- if we make it more difficult through tax breaks and like measures to do that then probably the kids who are left, through no fault of their own, with parents who may, for no fault of their own, be alone will be penalised even more than they already are.

Matt's post encodes some very worthy ideas- but before being entirely happy with where he is going I would personally like to see some details of what he would do. Government can help married couples a lot- Harman's idea of mediation in divorces seems a good one for example- one of the problems with divorce is that if it becomes bitter it can cause a lot of damage to kids who are used as a political football between their parents or even aren't allowed to see a parent. A role for counselling provided by the state for couples that are having difficulties might be an interesting one as well- and information for couples about how having a child will impact on their relationship with each other is already available but could be made even more available. My sense is that it is this helping attitude, or facilitation of marriage and of family, that will help the most not swinging tax breaks. Another means of facilitation might go wider into the development of public spaces- like parks- and the protection of those spaces so that they become safer for communities to use and for kids to use, we have developed a cult of strangerhood in our society which is useful for some reasons but also damages us.

Matt is right to highlight this as a wider area of interest for conservatives and I appreciate that a single post is not a set of policy prescriptions. What I think we have to be wary of is fortifying marriage with a series of policies that would make life for unmarried parents difficult whilst not really helping the married, rather I think we need to think about the much more difficult issue of how we help people that are married and want to be married face the challenges that marriage provides to them. I don't think those answers are all governmental- diplomas for rearing kids are not on my agenda- and some of them possibly require as easy measures as the construction of leisure centres and providing municipal spaces in council housing. Overall though by directing conservatism away from the judgemental prophecies of social conservatism and towards the compassionate philosophy of labrador conservatism, Matt is pointing in the right direction. But it is upon the policies that we should judge labrador conservatism- will it actually help married couples or will it merely entrench marriage as an institution, forgetting that that means damaging the lives of people both inside and outside marriage.

April 13, 2007

Does being not guilty mean that the accuser made a false accusation?

In this morning's New York Post, John Podhoretz makes a comment about the recent Duke rape case in the United States. A group of lacrosse players from Duke University were accused of rape by a stripper that they had hired for the evening- all sorts of racial and class based antagonisms were bound up in the case and it became a cause celebre in the United States. Yesterday the prosecutor in the case announced that the accuser's story didn't add up and consequently the lacrosse players have been discharged and vindicated.

Podhoretz wants the accuser in the case convicted of the crime of bearing false witness and making false statements. I don't know the circumstances of the case and don't wish to comment on a case which I don't know about. But there is a general principle as well as this particular argument- a general principle which Podhoretz may or may not agree with- I don't know- but which does explain why in all cases the accuser is not accused of being a false witness just because the accusation doesn't reach the court or find favour with the jury. If someone does lie obviously there should be a trial but as I hope to show it is possible that the prosecution witness isn't lying even in a case in which the defendant isn't convicted. I want to outline two reasons why this might be so, based on my limited knowledge of the law- but I'm sure others could find more reasons why such a prosecution is not always likely.

Firstly if an accusation, any accusation is made, and the prosecution decides not to prosecute or the court not to convict, they are not making a statement about the prosecution witness at all. They are making a statement about what can be proved about the defendent- proof requires reasonable doubt to be quieted and consequently is a very high standard to reach. To take the classic problem in a rape trial, one man, one woman alone in a room and the woman claims that she has been raped- if that is the only evidence to convict upon, then it is very difficult to convict- why should you trust one witness over the other. But equally it is very difficult to convict the woman of lying because then you have to know beyond reasonable doubt that she was lying and the problem is reversed. Saying that someone is innocent in a court is tantamount to saying that you cannot eliminate a reasonable doubt that they might be innocent. Saying that someone can't be prosecuted is saying that you don't think you can convince the jury that they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It doesn't mean that the witness is lying though.

The second issue concerns perception. Many crimes involve an action that takes place in a complicated world which doesn't divide easily into the categories given by the law. Lets take the crime of intimidation. If you walked up to me and started screaming at me outside a court room and I was a witness against you, I might feel intimidated and want to bring a charge against you. On the other hand you might be unable to express your opinions any other way, because of the emotion of the moment, and be intending merely to remonstrate with me- not to intimidate me. The law is an unwieldy instrument for resolving what happens between human beings. It is a neccessary instrument- and it protects us all. Ultimately though it is an unwieldy instrument and it is perfectly possible for the accuser to think that something happened to them that was wrong and erroneusly fix a legal term to it that strictly isn't right.

John Podhoretz's article deals with a particular legal case, and not knowing the facts I do not want to comment. But the overall principle that the prosecution if they can't find the accused not guilty, should turn round, look at the accuser and convict them of lying doesn't seem to me to stand. We should remember that the burden of proof is such that it is very difficult rightly to find someone guilty, often finding someone not guilty is merely saying that there is doubt as to their guilt. They go free rightly without a stain on their character. But there is also a doubt about whether their accuser was lying. When we put that together with the fact that the law is a blunt instrument, we can see I hope that the principle of convicting a prosecution witness when their case fails is wrong. Podhoretz might be right on this particular case, I have no idea and don't want to enter that debate (partly because I wonder about anyone having any idea beyond those intimately involved in the case)- but in general I would not like to see the same principle adopted in all criminal cases.

Democratic Assemblies

Ian Appleby has written and posted a fantastic article about proto democracy amongst the Cossacks on his blog. I have made some comments over there about historical parallels but as they are on Ian's blog I will leave them there. What is interesting about Ian's article though is the way that it instantly calls to mind the fact that behind our word democracy lurk many meanings or concepts that we attach to it. The Cossacks basically used their assembly to elect a chieftan- an Ataman- or deselect him. In much the same way as the Romans voting in tribes elected a consul, the Cossacks filed through to elect their chieften having no doubt partaken in lots of political intrigue and infighting beforehand.

Ian has drawn some interesting conclusions about nascent nationalism from this and I won't contradict or discuss those ideas. One of the things which struck me though that he hadn't brought up is how the Cossack experience or indeed the Roman one and many other experiences in the past of forms of democracy, relied on gathering everyone together in a small area and then letting them vote after a bit. You could place experiences as different as the Athenian Assembly, the Polish Sejm and the New Model's election of Agitators in this category. It strikes me as interesting because of course that is the format with which representatives began too- the oldest representatives involved not mathematical proportions but the delegation of particular members from particular regions to the centre. There lie the origins of the English Parliament or the Spanish Cortes or indeed American government.

That has a consequence that is often forgotten about today but is brought out by Ian's piece. There was a formal franchise at such meetings- often though not in all cases wielded by those owning large ammounts of property or those of high status. Often though the most dramatic results of such elections took place outside the formal mechanisms of election- riots and brawls might errupt between rival supporters, in some cases leading to lynchings. In England election riots in the 18th Century were a common event, in Poland the Sejm was often punctuated by rioting and murder. E. P. Thompson wants wisely commented that whilst 18th Century England allowed property owners a degree of latitude in what they charged for their goods or did with their property, it also allowed rioters for instance to force people to sell bread at a certain price (such a case occured at Preston in 1791 for example). The same thing is true for elections- often rioting and threats of physical force became a way that the disenfranchised acquired a voice.

Its interesting to think why these meetings were important for those that held the franchise as well. Often they were occasions where bribery took place but also they were occasions when it was possible to see and evaluate a candidate. Replaced in the Nineteenth century by the great speeches delivered by politicians in order to make themselves known, the election meeting or indeed the Cossack meeting was a place where you could go and evaluate the character of your chief or representative. Its interesting that as the modern media has developed the franchise has become geographically widened. The media filters through to us a sense of what the politicians are- we can watch them on Television, read about them in Newspapers and the fact that we never will see any of them makes little difference to our ability to assess them as individuals competing to lead us.

At times it is useful to dangle a foot in the past to realise what function various bits of the political scene perform today- without the media we would have to have much more fixation on the meetings politicians would address. By conceding the function of filtering to the media, most of us now no longer have to listen to Gladstonian five hour addresses or partake in a day's electoral rioting, in that sense we have a classic division of labour. A division of labour that allows us to listen to music, to bring up our children, work or do one of the other myriad of things we do today, confident in the knowledge that the media in some form will bring us in a quick five minutes what we can't be bothered to spend five hours finding out. In a sense that is what blogs like this are about as well.

The key in this system therefore is to have a media which delivers the information in a fair way to us, making us understand what we don't need to find out- there is a problem potentially there of the way that we incentivise the delivery of information within the media. That is an issue probably too big to be dealt with at this time- but considering the way that a Cossack voted and the information that he used to vote, its possible to work out what an important part of our democracy the institutions of the press, television, blogs and radio are.

April 12, 2007

Against Hysteria

Graham on Harry's Place has posted a good article about an incident in a northern school where one teacher didn't teach the holocaust to his or her class because of fears of Muslim anti-semitism. Graham is right- if this was twenty or twenty thousand teachers it would represent what the Daily Mail has called it the end of civilisation- but we are talking about one teacher. Grahame rightly draws attention to a real problem in our contemporary discourse- even in blogs- drawing attention to one worrying incident and then assuming it represents the whole. John Derbyshire for example on the National Review site has argued that the actions of fifteen servicemen represented the end of Britain. Again a small incident becomes magnified into a vast thing which represents the conduct of all British people. Chris Dillow suggested yesterday that sometimes we unjustly assume that individuals share all the characteristics of the groups that they may belong to and that we should implicitly be aware that this isn't a useful mental habit. Equally the opposite habit, assuming that the character of the individual instance or indeed person is a just representation of the whole or a trend within the whole- one should be wary of this and recognise the difference between a single incident, a set of statistics about a group and a trendline.

April 11, 2007

Sunset Boulevard: Love, Power and Eternal Youth

Sunset Boulevard is one of the most harrowing of the great Hollywood films of the 1940s. It chronicles the life and death of a young man who is ensnared within the hold of an older woman- a young man who effectively by the end of the film admits that he is a prostitute, sleeping for hire with his mistress in order to maintain his standard of living. The man, Joe Gillies, is tempted into this web, a web which invites him with luxury but revolts him at the same time. From the moment he enters the older woman's house (she is a faded Hollywood screen siren- Norma Desmond) he perceives everywhere a latent sweetness, a sickly sugary taste whether it is the champagne she serves him, the melodramatic script he is being invited to consult on or even the decor that he observes, he feels like he is entering a world of sticky overindulgence- a world of sweetness and cloying honeycoated reality.

Sunset Boulevard really focuses not upon this young man- who narrates the story and his own downfall but upon his mistress- the Hollywood starlet, now faded, Norma Desmond. Desmond (played excellently by Gloria Swanson) is literally over ripe. She dresses in clothes appropriate for a woman half her age, beleives in her own never ending attractiveness, behaves like a child with temper tantrums and like a young woman who senses her power over men. The problem is that Norma's attractiveness has faded, her tantrums prompt nothing in young Joe and her power has evaporated. She is dressed and dresses her house in monuments to a never ending youth- tributes from men she has loved, old pictures and old film reels of her at the cinema, all the parephenalia of success- but all these monuments are but lies, she thinks she can create youth but she can't, all she creates is a picture of a formidable and yet frightening tragedy.

Norma's early career, we are told, was one of the most successful in Hollywood. She beleives she is still in the films but moreover her life has become shaped by those films- she sees drama where there is only bathos. She has refused to accept the vissicitudes of life- and instead longs for the spotlight, for the endless attention. At one point in the film, in a quest which everyone but her knows is unrealistic and doomed, she drives to Paramount to reclaim her starring role and affectedly weeps to be back in the movie studios but then makes outrageous demands which her status don't merit. Living in a drama that she has created, she has become the very definition of insane. Towards the end of the film, she cannot even realise what is happening- everything now complies to her narrative, in her own head all the other lights have gone out and the only one that is on, follows her in an imaginery film.

Joe is faced in the last reels of the film with a choice between two women- on the one hand old yet rich Norma, lush yet infertile and on the other a young reader in Paramount Betty Schaefer. Betty is everything that Norma isn't and the contrast between the two women is deliberate. Whereas when Joe smells Norma all the metaphors are of lush, overripe sweetness, when he smells Betty just after they kiss for the first and only time, he smells a scent of freshly launded hankerchiefs, of a new car just off the driveway. Betty pretends to be ornate for comic effect but she never is ornate and the distinction between the two woman is a distinction that Wilder the director wants us to think about, its the distinction between someone who has created a simulcram of the world, an artful piece of failing deception, and someone who has accepted the place that they stand in inside the world. Betty is Norma's opposite not merely because she is young and Norma is old, but because she is not coated in exaggeration but accepts her role in life without regret- Joe at one point asks her does she wish she was not a reader but a star (she had tried at one point) but for Betty what she has is enough. Norma of course would never see it that way.

All the characters in the movie are manoeurvering around Norma- they are trying to accomodate her hopefully in the best way possible for her and for them. They humour her, as Joe says "You don't yell at a sleepwalker. He may fall and break his neck." Max her butler lives out his entire life sustaining a fantasy world in which Norma is still a star, in which everyone loves her, in which there are no problems for her. The other option is represented by Betty Schaefer- Betty right at the end of the movie walks into Norma's household, takes one look, realises the occupant is mad and then runs away. Joe though takes a different approach, initially he plays along with her fantasies for her own ends, then he plays along with them because he follows Max's advice, finally he in a series of scenes breaks from her fantasy and attempts to show her the reality that she lives in. The problem for all the characters is that none of the strategies work- Max leaves her in her madness, Betty leaves her mad but alone. Joe by presenting himself as outside the madness but sympathetic makes her want to claw him in, her failure to do so is a failure to convince him that her vision of him is the correct version of him to present to the world and to himself. Her failure to pull him in results in the possessiveness she feels for him- in Max's case she doesn't care because she knows that he will be there for her, Betty she sees as merely a competing female and not as someone who could share her vision, but Joe she senses is sympathetic and yet has rejected her.

So much to this film is deeper than this- it has interesting insights for any scholar of Hollywood into the process of ceasing to be a star. Impressively acted, the direction is wonderful as well. Swanson overacts partly to ressemble the silent movie stars, partly so that her madness is reflected in her charismatic over emotional persona and gesture. Joe underracts, demonstrating his fatalism through weak smiles and wan looks. A central point though to this movie is how we should deal with madness- when people see the world in a certain shape- should we confront them? Sunset Boulevard doesn't give easy answers. Should you exploit the mad for your own ends- to live off their money? Sunset Boulevard shows that Joe pays a high price for his early nonchalent attempt to exploit Norma. What is madness? Well there Sunset Boulevard does present some interesting answers- it shows a human being who is so solipsistic that the world and her own body have in her eyes become what she imagines them to be- the problem for her is that noone else sees it that way- that turns out both for her and them to be a fatal mistake!

(Incidentally I saw Sunset Boulevard today at the Brixton Ritzi, its well worth seeing this at a cinema if you can find it.)

Blogging (if uninterested in little local blogger disputes please move on to the next post)

Bloggers are good, if at nothing else, at introspection. Recently there has been a great deal of this on various websites- some prompted by an editorial in the Guardian. For those who want to catch up with the controversy- and honestly it isn't that fascinating, James Higham has a useful digest. At the same time as all of this, Tim Ireland has declared war on various aspects of Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes's blogs- most of the stuff is linked too from Tim's Bloggerheads blog. There has also recently been a controversy in the states about a blogging code of conduct- the relevant details are here. Given the amount of conflict that has gone on- I think its worth just making explicit for a moment the way that this blog operates and what I personally think of many of these issues. This is a post I will link back to on occasion.

This blog operates very simply- I am interested in politics, history and culture. I want to have discussions with people about those issues and also to for my own purposes record my reactions to books I have read and movies I have seen (like an eighteenth century common place book if you like). One of the advantages of running a blog is interacting with other blogs and discussing things in the comments. My general principles is to assume, though I have to say obvious link spammers are excluded from this, that people on this site genuinely think what they think, are genuinely interested and are basically well intentioned. I expect the same kind of treatment from those that visit this site for me. I am not out here to attack anyone particularly- possibly my rudest comments are reserved for journalists and commentators like Polly Toynbee or Bernard Lewis but even then I hope both could take what I write and correct it and I would be happy to accept any correction should I be shown to be wrong. I do and will delete gratuitously insulting comments- on the other hand I am very welcoming to those that disagree. Personally for me that's the right way forwards and it does not represent censorship at all. I do occasionally tweak the blog to make it more transparant- I am no techie- but as I discover how to do things like date stamps on comments (I'm trying to work out permalinks to comments any tips would be gratefully received and utilised) I put them in. I do allow anonymous comments at the moment- and will continue to allow them I think, if people start making unproven allegations or hiding behind anonymity to insult then anonymity will be removed as an option but so far anonymous comments have not been like that here and even if some people start doing that I may just switch to moderation and taking out comments rather than not allowing anonymous comments- this is something personally I am undecided about but at the moment things seem to be ok. Primarily I write this blog because its fun- and most comments, agreeing or disagreeing with me are fun to respond to even if they make me think again, an insult or a swear word directed at me or another commenter isn't fun and so I'm going to delete it.

Right next issue- the credibility of blogging. In my view, my blog does not fit within the criteria of the blogs that Oliver Kamm was attacking. I do not consider myself a gossip blog and I tend to give the government and anyone else for that matter the benefit of the doubt- where I don't I'm willing to withdraw allegations very quickly. I consider this blog to be part of a group of blogs- I'll leave you to guess the other names but its not difficult- that consider politics, history, literature in an interesting, semi-academic way. That is very different to the Guido or even Iain Dale style of blogging. Its different too to what you get in a newspaper- to be honest I think blogs like this do a job which no newspaper ever even endeavours to do- ie bring academic articles, films, literature together and try and represent the world in all its complexity. Broadsheets today in my view are poor intellectually- when was the last time that anyone on a broadsheet wrote a serious scholarly article about the distinctions between Shia and Sunni Muslims- given we are in Iraq I would have thought that that might be an interesting question. I report on things like that and comment on issues that interest me. I see this blog as analytical and thoughtful- I hope that's how others see it. Therefore I think Mr Kamm is wrong- he misunderstands that all blogs are not the same- furthermore he misunderstands a central point about blogging that it can and does bring out things that the media doesn't succeed in describing- just look at the article below this one and tell me which British newspaper has covered the Meiji Restoration's links to Russian anarchism in the last year or even decade. And there are plenty of other blogs like this out there- many that I've discovered, some on my blogroll, others that I haven't even seen yet. There are also other kinds of blogs out there- Mr Eugenides for example is a formidable destructive debater who deals in quick rebuttal.

The last point I suppose concerns the whole Ireland/Dale/Guido dispute and the new code of conduct for bloggers that some American bloggers want. I don't want to comment on other blogs- I don't care particularly about Guido Fawkes, I don't read him and am not interested in the kind of things he writes about. Iain Dale I do read- I think he is engaging- but I know where he is coming from and I wouldn't expect him to write fairly about Labour party policy or say Gordon Brown and the Smith Institute. I don't think either Guido or Iain should be banned. However one of the main things about having a conversation with a person is that there are social conventions which limit that conversation- there are ways that you shouldn't speak to people- those behaviours aren't banned but they are frowned upon and being impolite is seen as being wrong though it shouldn't be illegal. Sometimes it seems to me that blogtopia can be a bit like a conversation without the conventions of politeness- part of what I perceive Tim Ireland doing is a creation of those conventions- creation of conventions like for example not deleting comments just because they disagree with you, being transparant. It is in my view fine that there are blogs who aren't as mild as this blog and say will swear and shout, but so long as they are fair, ready to enter debate and transparant I have no problem. Overinsisting on conventions and being very technical about their breach of course can be abusive, but in general my view is that conventions are a good thing and holding people to those conventions, especially when they are big blogs, isn't a bad thing.

To roundup, in the 17th Century they used to talk about a republic of learning. What we have in the best of the blogosphere is just such a republic which now includes millions of people, reading important and interesting blogs, in such a republic there will be different tones of debate- everything from partisans to philosophers debating. There will be different types of debate- some will be very intelligent conversations in a pub (see Devil's Kitchen for some examples of what that could look like), some no more intelligent discussions in a seminar (see Chris Dillow for some examples of this). But all of them I hope will be conversations which abide by one rule of politeness- that you do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So if you swear and rant and rave, you won't mind people swearing and ranting and raving back. Personally I prefer bloggers who are open minded as well. I hope that is the rule by which this blog is run- I personally think its the rule by which many of my favourite blogs are run- a great character in this sense is James Higham for whom nothing seems to matter as much as community, we need more Highams in the world. I don't think that answers all the specific points raised in the blogwars- but I hope it does suggest firstly what kind of blog this is, and secondly what kind of blogtopia I personally favour.

Having now run its course- I promise never to write such a boringly introspective post again.

Oh and by the way, two further tiny points, I suppose I had better confess that my spelling is atrocious and my punctuation is worse- that's in the interests of transparancy- and if you got through all that you deserve a medal or execution for being boring enough to read an article about blogging- honestly this is the worst article I have ever written!

April 10, 2007

The Anarchist Restoration

Traditionally histories of Japan have told a story whereby suddenly the rule of the Shogunate was overthrown in the 1860s and replaced by the restoration of the Emperor. Historians have traditionally told this tale as a story of modernisation- the Meiji Restoration or Meiji-Ishin of the 1860s and 1870s was a revolt against a society Marx categorised as overwhelmingly feudal in favour of a new capitalist society, in favour of Western style modernisation. Definitely that is the way that many western observers at the time perceived the Restoration- individuals like Ernest Satow, the secretary to the British Embassy, saw the Meiji Restoration as a mere episode of imitation- indeed Satow argued that Japan could never get beyond the third or fourth rank in the list of world powers because it was a society of imitators not initiators.

That was not the only Western view at the time. In the Spring of 1874, the Russian Revolutionary leader, young associate of Alexander Herzen and anarchist, sailed to Japan as a correspondent for a Russian radical newspaper. Professor Sho Konishi has just published a fascinating article about Menchikov's intellectual experience in Japan and how it altered him, Russian anarchism and even Japanese leftwing ideas in the twentieth century. Menchikov came to Japan with pronounced anarchist views- he argued that Russian society should seek a future in agrarian Anarchist cooperative communes. What he found in Japan led him to revise his estimate of anarchism- he became less slavophile and more intellectually curious. Menchikov argued that within the Ishin lay potentials not for imitating the West, but for exploiting the best of the West but within a framework that was more just and more cooperative. Menchikov was distinct from many Westerners in the way that he interpreted the Ishin and its ideology. One of the most fascinating ways that Konishi shows this is to counterpose two transalations of the same passage in the same document, the Charter Oath of 1868, here is Lord Aston, a British diplomat who translated a passage thus:

Our Mikado has become convinced of the necessity of upholding the policy of commercial relations, and has caused our friendly intercourse and trade with foreign countries to be established on a liberal scale. This is the only course by which we can take our place in the community of nations, and remain true to natural principles of truth and justice.


and here is Menchikov translating exactly the same passage,

Our Mikado has become convinced of the necessity to maintain friendly relations with them; only in this way can we take our proper place in the ranks of other nations, without backing down from the principle of mutual aid and equity.


Notice the very important distinctions between the two translations: in Aston's translation the last clause is made much milder and much softer, in Menchikov the last clause is placed in a much more stark oppositional light. Lord Aston's translation suggests that the Mikado will allow reform according to the principles of natural justice- which could include capitalism- whereas Menchikov is much stricter, it is the principle of mutual aid and equity that he sees as the exception, something much more threatening to Capitalism.

Menchikov's view was that the Ishin was full of contradictions and counter-impulses to modernity and capitalism. He argued that the Ishin held within it the possibilities for breaking out of the sterile atmosphere of Western capitalism and encouraged by some of his Japanese friends saw potentials for an anarchistic polity to emerge. Part of the reason for this distinct analysis came from Menchikov's own background- as a Russian he had a more ambivalent relationship to Western Capitalism than either Satow or Aston. Interestingly as well other Russians saw the Ishin in more complicated terms- for the orthodox churchmen in Japan at this point, the Ishin was a rising motivated by religious fervour not any desire for capitalism. Menchikov therefore was not alone.

Almost as much as his work in Japan, Konishi points out, it was Menchikov's work upon his return to Russia in 1876 which was key. He took what he had seen in Japan and in his great history of Civilisation attempted to model out of it a description of human progress, which didn't end at capitalism but saw capitalism as a stage through which men went. The experience of Japan made him concede that there were vital and important civilisations outside of the West. He argued on the basis of his Japanese experience that creativity was produced within civilisations not by racial purity but by racial mixing- and he expressed a lack of confidence in any attempt to suggest that the acheivements of civilisation were either black, yellow or white, rather he argued was humanity as a whole that had developed civilisation. He suggested it was geography which suggested the way that civilisations developed. Menchikov divided the world into three periods- the period of the rivers- most importantly the Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow and Euphrates and Tigris, then the period of the seas and then the modern time of the oceans. Each period made a geographical feature useful to developing civilisation but in each time it was ultimately up to human will as to where civilisation would develop. Menchikov used Japan as an example- he suggested that the Japanese were a racially mixed people and that their island situation, buffetted by storms, ultimately formed the nation's history and character.

Konishi suggests that Menchikov's work became well known- forming the attitudes of leading Russian intellectuals such as Plekhanov and Kropotkin, and also establishing the memes for Japanese leftwing political thought right through the twentieth century. He argues that in Menchikov's work we can see both an alternative vision of modernity- and also a model of the kind of cultural exchange that took place in the 19th Century.

The historical argument, Konishi puts forward seems plausible to me- having said that he never anchors Menchikov's thought down to something particular- I suspect brevity may be the problem there. Whether Menchikov's anarchist vision is an alternative for us now depends on economic arguments- the like of which Chris Dillow makes and which I am not expert enough in to either refute or confirm. What is interesting here is that Menchikov offers us a different way to understand modernity- even somewhere like Japan and places like Turkey would also fall into this category I suspect- modernisation was not the simple adaptation to capitalism that often naive students of history think that it was. Other processes of ideological infiltration were going on- and often harmonised with elements of the society infiltrated. Menchikov found friends in Japan and reinforced his anarchism through his visit there, as well as supporting Japanese anarchism from the outside. The part of Konishi's argument that I would endorse is that interraction between societies is often not as simple as it seems- ideas are passed across which contradict each other and battles that are beggining in some places (like in this case Europe) are often finished beyond the boundaries of Europe (as in this case in Russia and Japan).

Chou En-Lai was once asked what he thought the consequences of the French Revolution were, he said that it was too early to say what they were. To rephrase Chou, if we were to ask where the consequences of Japanese anarchism or Russian debates over peasant communes took place, Konishi's work allows us to establish that the two intersected and spun together out into the world, taking a global stage for what were once unrelated local approaches to politics.

April 09, 2007

A Hitchcock Podcast

SPOILERS ALERT IN THE LINK. This is a very interesting podcast (it is part of a series of podcasts on philosophy and popular culture- other topics include James Bond and South Park) which lucidly takes you through basic ethical ideas- like those of Immanuel Kant, using Strangers on a Train as an example, asking Bruno the psycopath in the picture, various questions which a moralist might ask. If you intend to watch the film don't listen to the podcast for a bit- it has spoilers but if you have or don't wish to watch the film, it is an interesting podcast. Oh and by the way, if you haven't seen Strangers on a Train you ought to and one day I will review it on this blog.

April 08, 2007

Happy Easter


I don't know how many regular readers of this blog there are- but to all of you and to anyone stumbling across this page- HAPPY EASTER- I hope you have had a good couple of days whether you are a religious Christian or just appreciate a holiday. I also hope you ate plenty of Easter Eggs.

A wise old man

18 Doughty Street occasionally comes up trumps. This interview with the former Defence Secretary John Knott is a brilliant example of what it is good for. Knott is a superb interviewee with lots of interesting things to say- particularly about Afghanistan which he thinks we should withdraw from now and Iraq which he opposed. But he is almost most interesting in discussing some of the issues I raised earlier. Knott is also interesting on Yugoslavia- his wife is Slovenian. On the basis of this interview, if I were British Prime Minister and like Kennedy in 1962 sought to consult the wise men, the Dean Achesons of British Foreign Policy, then Knott would be amongst those that I would consult.