May 04, 2007


Just thought I'd note that I'm going to Manchester tommorrow- to visit a mate who is doing a PhD up there- I'll be back late Sunday but there may not be much posted on the blog either tommorrow (except maybe some early morning posts depending on my insomnia tonight!) or Sunday until the evening and possibly not much then. Just thought I'd let any regulars know...

The UK Local Elections

I have posted my analysis of what the result might mean for the British Political Scene on Bits of News- my basic thinking is that the results don't demonstrate much about the next general election- UK voters tend to vote anti-government on these occasions but tend not to vote the same way in General Elections (that's been a trend for a long time) but structural, in that the parties gaining seats gain extra power in areas and consequently can swing constituencies towards them through more vibrant campaigns.

One of the interesting dynamics at play here is against the alternating model of how the parties might come in and out of power- ie that one election you would have the Tories, the next Labour etc. If local elections are an early indicator of party dominance in an area, but lag national elections and if its only possible to win in areas where you have a base already, we could be seeing longer periods of alternation as a structural feature in British politics. I'm not sure about this and of course political exigiencies could blow it out of the water- but its worth pondering over as a thought.

Harvey Mansfield: A response to my critics

Ashok has posted a comment under a previous post on this website and has posted a critique of my critique of Harvey Mansfield on his own blog here. I want to respond on to three questions that I think he poses me- one methodological, one historical and the third political. Before I begin though because the tone of this argument may confuse people, I have the utmost respect for Ashok- he is a very good scholar and his writing about particular texts interests and intrigues me. He is a kind guy as well- and he definitely is someone that every single person reading this blog should also be reading- he is one of the bloggers that truly makes me think and reconsider my views- and as you'll see below, as in all good discussions, my interlocutor has influenced me.

Ok the methodological question concerns what might seem to outside observers a rather arcane debate- but actually is crucial to how you understand a text in historical thought. I rely here upon a set of essays published by Quentin Skinner- incidentally contrary to what Ashok says none of the people I'm talking about here have taught me indeed I've never met most of them. Skinner argued that if you were going to read a text like Locke's Two Treatises then you had to understand the context in which that text was written- the texts which it attempted to counter, the arguments it was seeking to have and only then could you understand what the text was saying. Resting his case upon some analytical work on language from John Austin- Skinner suggested that if you read a text in this way you understood it far better than if you abstracted it completely out of its time and attempted to read it as though it were published in 2007.

Ashok beleives that this shows disrespect for the theorists of the past. It doesn't. Professor Skinner has even in his lectures on liberty attempted to reconstruct a theory of liberty out of ideas he has retreived from Republican political thinkers. Furthermore placing ideas in the mouths of those that did not have them strikes me as more disrespectful of the past than actually trying to look at what they did say and retreive it. Locke upon whom Professor Mansfield bases a lot of his case is a key instance of this. Professor Mansfield argues that Locke's Two Treatises formed the basis in some way of the revolution of 1688. Its a pity for his thinking that Locke wrote his treatises six years before that revolution in a totally different atmosphere, wrote them to contradict a specific text, Robert Filmer's Patriacha which had been republished after sixty years. Whatever Locke was doing, he couldn't have been writing about a revolution that hadn't happened yet, and he was writing within a context where advocating a contractarian theory of sovereignty was a very unusual move- his friend William Petyt for example argued on a totally different basis for sovereignty. If you don't see where Locke was radical, where he was different from thinkers of his time, what he was doing to conventional arguments, then you don't understand what his intent was, where he was moving the debate. Its like trying to understand Hayek without having heard of Marx.

Ashok makes a historical point as well. I have to say on the history- as I hope I made clear in the article I am most confident about the 17th Century bits- those are the bits I know very well and whereas Ashok is an incredibly learned and widely read man in other historiographical landscapes I know more about a particular era- a time. My criticism is more aimed- and I have added a note to the original article where I agree with Ashok I was too confident about the Federalist Papers was about the way he had described the 17th Century. I am sorry to say this but Professor Mansfield is just wrong- and does not understand what the civil war was about or what Locke's position within contemporary political discourse was.

Lets look at Professor Mansfield's argument about Locke and subject it to some scrutiny- because I think it is completely and utterly incorrect in every particular: the key passage of his article is thus,

Locke was a careful writer, so careful that he did not care if he appeared to be a confused writer. In his "Second Treatise of Government" he announces the supremacy of the legislature, which was the slogan of the parliamentary side in the English Civil War, as the principle that should govern a well-made constitution. But as the argument proceeds, Locke gradually "fortifies" (to use James Madison's term) the executive. Locke adds other related powers to the subordinate power of executing the laws: the federative power dealing with foreign affairs, which he presents as conceptually distinct from the power of executing laws but naturally allied; the veto, a legislative function; the power to convoke the legislature and to correct its representation should it become corrupt; and above all, the prerogative, defined as "the power of doing public good without a rule." Without a rule! Even more: "sometimes too against the direct letter of the law." This is the very opposite of law and the rule of law--and "prerogative" was the slogan of the king's party in the same war.

Ok so why is this wrong. Firstly Locke in the key section of the Second Treatise on Government states the principle of his arrangement of power within the state very simply. Power in Locke's state derives as it does in most seventeenth century parallel cases- Henry Parker would be an interesting one- from the people. Consequently Locke argues that the end of the law is the public interest or public good- its worth keeping that in mind as we proceed. In his Treatise- the executor of the law, or magistrate, is authorised only to act as 'the phantom or shadow of the law'. Locke is very keen to emphasize this and again and again he does so. Within that context, the magistrate cannot act against the law- and to do so Locke argues dissolves his authority- ultimately he is only owed obedience as he executes the law. What Mansfield suggests are exceptions, are actually not so exceptional at all- every seventeenth century theorist who beleived in the rule of law- even Sir Edward Coke who beleived that there should be no new law and judges should just make the law- beleived that the executive should make foreign policy. Even a veto operates according to the law- it operates in a legal manner- and Locke doesn't say here that a magistrate should have a veto, he says he could have a veto- a different matter entirely. To turn to the issue of the public good- the real gate through which Mansfield wishes to drive. Again I know of no seventeenth century theorist who did not beleive that somebody ought to have that power of dealing with a case which the law did not deal with, but where the public good was at stake. Henry Ireton, Cromwell's son-in-law, argued that that was what the civil war was about. Henry Parker argued that Parliament should have that power, Edward Hyde that the King should have it. Noone argued that that power- the power in their language of acting in a case of neccessity should not exist. Locke is interesting here because he does say that the executive should act in the public good, but he also says that when the executive breaks the law the executive is dissolved and the public acts in its own good- I don't see those statements as contradictory, what Locke is envisaging there is say the invasion of a foreign army which the executive might resist through taking property for the public good and breaking the law, but as that's a step that the public would take anyway its justified.

That gap anyway isn't huge- it is the gap of an emergancy situation- and Locke establishes quite clearly that it is for the public not the executive to decide when such an emergancy has been reached.

Upon the Federalist Papers- I don't have a text near me. I am willing to accept Ashok's corrections on that- I am not an expert on that- I have no more knowledge than the average reader and haven't really delved too deeply into the Federalist. I agree with Ashok that Machiavelli is an incredibly complicated text to decode- I don't think I've managed it in my article but in my defence I think that Professor Mansfield is too simplistic in his discussion.

So to sum up- my real quarrel historically is with Professor Mansfield on the areas that I know well- the seventeenth century, where I think that he gets the civil war wrong and that he gets Locke wrong. Furthermore how you can read these things and not realise that the account of the executive especially in the civil war is profoundly about the religious inspiration of particular persons or a particular person, I'm not sure. Perhaps I don't show enough respect to my sources, to realise that when they say God, they don't mean it, they are really atheists. Or perhaps the last two parts of the Leviathan merely exist in my imagination or indeed the first Treatise where Locke tells us that the law of nature was a creation of God, or indeed in the second treatise where he quotes a theologian Hooker to substantiate his assumption that man is naturally equal. Obviously a discussion of Locke, seventeenth century political theory, US revolutionaries (a notably irreligious bunch- whose great awakening was only a myth) must miss out God- to include him would be insulting to them!

Ok moving on. The political point. The argument to my mind is simple. We all agree that if a nuclear bomb drops on Washington or New York, then legal nicety can wait, and the President can take what action he wishes to secure the people. We all agree that in times of war where the safety of the Republic is threatened the President can take the action he deems it right to take to protect the nation- though with the sanction of eventual review but probable exoneration on all charges. So we agree on that. The question is what the circumstances now are- that's what Mansfield offers me no discussion of. I know that there was an early modern discussion of how the state should react in matters of neccessity, when the chips were down, when there was a sudden and unforseen crisis, how should the state act. And I agree that the state should be able to act, despite the law, in the public interest in that case. But I don't know if this case is that case- and Professor Mansfield offers not one word to substantiate that argument. That's the key. Not that Locke, Ireton and Parker all agreed that such a power in such a case existed- but are we in those circumstances- I saw no evidence of that provided.

To sum up, I am willing to take Ashok's corrections on the Federalist Papers. I am unwilling to retreat however at all on my arguments about the civil war where I think he is wrong, on my arguments about Locke where I don't see the textual evidence to warrent a suspision that he was doing anything to combine royalist and Parliamentarian cases (a point Professor Mansfield made) and I am unwilling to retreat on my basic political point which is that I will acknowledge and yield to executive power in an emergeancy- but I don't know if this is such an emergancy. Curiously this was an argument had in the seventeenth century- before the civil war and not during it. Before the civil war, Charles argued that the nation faced an emergancy such that he could collect taxes without legal recourse, some Parliamentarians argued that he was wrong, it wasn't such a case and he needed a legal way through.

I have been perhaps slightly harsh here, Ashok is a friend and a good guy- I hope he takes this in the right manner as a contribution to debate and not an insult. I'm listening to politicians give speeches having won elections- please excuse any infelicities by the fact I'm listening to everyone claiming that a defeat is actually a victory!

May 03, 2007

Gracchi elsewhere

I've just posted a critique of an article by Harvey Mansfield, Professor of Government at Harvard, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal in favour of a strong executive. I hope its an interesting article!

Clive James and Stephen Colbert

This is a wonderful little excerpt- sit back and just enjoy!

May 02, 2007

Scarface (1932)

Scarface has gone down in history more for its disturbing portrayel of violence and the reign of Al Capone in twenties and thirties Chicago than for its qualities as a film. Despite that it is worth analysing the film as a film rather than as a moment in the history Hollywood censorship. The central point of this film is the performance of its star- Paul Muni- and the way that that performance captures what for Howard Hawks the director was the essense of the gangster's character. Muni's Tony Carmonte is surrounded by almost no gangster organisation- we see a little bootlegging (scenes reminscent of the later Jimmy Cagney film The Roaring Twenties and a scene whereby the gangsters of Chicago are bullied into backing a local boss but for the purposes of Scarface, the organisation of organised crime is less important than the individuals who make up the crime syndicates. As a journalist says in one of the first scenes 'every guy that's got money enough to buy a gun is going to try and step into his place'. This is the thirties gangster as Martin Scorsese envisions him in his journey through American movies, the individual with a gun who wants things and doesn't have the means to acheive them at this point.

The policemen following these gangsters view them with absolute contempt, within the confines of the movie, the policemen personally hate the gangster and want to 'slap it out of him' in order to get evidence. At one point one of them makes an interesting analogy between the gangster and the cowboy: he tells us that the gangster unlike the cowboy is a coward- his shooting is done behind the suspect's back or during a moment of surprise not face to face down the mainstreet of some Western town. Indeed most of the shootings in the film- a full 28 people get shot on screen in this film- are done as the gangsters race past in vehicles machine gunning shops or when they trick others to line up against a wall. But 'take your gun away and you'll squeel just like the other rats' at least that's the policeman's view of Tony Carmonte.

Its a true view as well- Tony Carmonte is a hustler in the same frame as those of the old west. He is an inventive man- his language is under his arm but he has a certain ability to distinguish a good strategy- unlike his boss he can see that expanding an empire is easy- fear and the odd killing can make a criminal empire thrive. He has the ability to bind henchmen close to him- two in particular a comic but hopeless bald guy with a slow tongue and a quick gun and George Raft in one of his first important roles as Rinaldo a coin tossing thug, the definition of cool, and Tony's murderous sidekick. He can see a sign which says that the world is yours and seeks to acheive it. Carmonte though is not merely a charismatic opportunist- he is also almost wholly an animal- lacking any feeling for anyone besides himself. Cars, suits and jewelry, he lavishes it all upon himself. Muni even strides like an ape moving his limbs with a large swinging motion, but maintaining throughout a viscious and brutal command of all his relationships.

Relationships between Tony and women stand at the heart of this film. He wants his boss's woman- and takes her when he takes him down. Poppy, the girl pictured here is a mess of materialistic ambition and low cunning- her respect for men derives purely from their value to her- the ultimate gangster's moll, she is an impassive shrew demanding good clothes and good jewels no matter who gets them for her. As Tony comments at one point, she is expensive- a gangster's pet. Tony treats her almost as an inanimate object- she is there to be taken and used- there is no love between them, only desire. She seems bored by his company- irritated that he messes up her clothes and mildly amused by his bravado- but she goes along with him because he offers gifts.

If Tony's relations with Poppy are purely artificial and reflect the materialistic, grasping element of his nature- then his relations with his sister represent another part of his animal nature- his desire to control and hold his sister to what she wants. He beats up her and her boyfriends. Gives her money to win her affection, but desires her to render everything she does to him. There is a faint degree of incestuousness about their relationship- Tony certainly has an unbreakable jealousy for her boyfriends that might derive from lust, but also might derive from control. In a paroxym of rage, he even slays his own best friend Rinaldo after Rinaldo gets married to his sister whilst he (Tony) is out of town.

Tony's failure is therefore not a failure to stand up for himself in the true American way- to be a Western hero- but its the failure to translate that into principles. Lacking any sense of consequences, he will murder and attack his way through the city looking as if he is courageous but he can't translate that into actual courage. Kindnesses too are not real kindness because there is no principles behind them. Its often thought that films like this attack capitalism- but actually they provide a justification for Smith's point of view that capitalist competition has to be accompanied by moral sense- because Tony lacks any empathy and any advance from feeling to principled thought, he cannot operate morally in the marketplace. Because of that ultimately his career is destroyed- as he himself is gunned down at the end of the film.

Away from such political meditations, the film functions as a meditation on the life of the gangster- unmediated through meditation, Tony lives from day to day, minute to minute. His responses are instinctive. The film sets the tone for later films- like Tarantino's Pulp Fiction- the same amorality pervades the characters in the film from the thirties and the film from the nineties and Scarface seems to have established an ethic running right through to the modern day, whereby gangsters and their molls are shown as lacking the feeling and empathy that goes along with modern life and our present regime. Tony has the cunning that the world demands- but what he lacks is any sense of empathy or fellow feeling.

The film is summed up in a moment- Tony takes his moll Poppy out to dinner, and the resturant ends up being shot to pieces- he doesn't have the empathy to fear that she is dead or injured or that anyone else is, nor does he have the imagination to speculate on an alternative future where he is shot through with bullets- what he has is the sense that what the opposing gang has done is really cool and the desire to acquire his own machine guns so he can do the same. The lack of empathy and imagination are the source of his power, the source of his danger for society and ultimately the source of his fall from power and eventual death.

Netroots and Politics

Jonathon Chait at the New Republic has written a timely and interesting analysis of the netroots (a shorthand for a group of bloggers gathering around such sites as MyDD and Eschaton) and the way that they have influenced American politics. His analysis is accurate- the netroots have essentially provided a sounding board for Democratic memes or framing of debates within the internet- an evangelisation project similar to that offered by Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly on the right (or even the rightwing circles gathered around such blogs as the National Review Corner.) The Netroots are basically the activists of the Democratic party- and consequently they, like the National Review, offer us not a search for truth but a brand of truth (I have argued this case before).

There are all sorts of reasons why this might be good or bad for particular political parties- and hence for the body politic. Arguably the presence of a strong group of leading conservatives in the media ready to rebut liberal claims and scream elite has helped the Republicans in the United States- definitely that is the impression in the UK, where as Jeff Jarvis has argued British conservatives have set up their own internet television station, 18 Doughty Street (the station advertises itself as anti-establishment and willing to back any small c conservative candidate or policy). It is also the opinion of the founders of the netroots- people like Markos Moulitsas who argue that the Republicans have dominated through their domination of the media in this way. But is it good ultimately for democracy?

One might argue that it is- afterall this is the truth and the problem is that it is not being sold well enough. Anyone interested in and absorbed by politics can understand the frustration of perceiving something- some disaster- for example the coming of Global Warming and seeing it so obviously that the fact that everyone else can't see it means that they are being either wilfully blind or have been deceived. So consequently one develops mechanisms for convincing them. Anyone interested in people knows of situations where a mindset has developed amongst a set of people- for instance that anything Manchester United do is great- that is unreasonable and every fact is twisted round to make United seem excellent. Putting two and two together it is perfectly reasonable for politically interested individuals to conclude that the facts aren't getting out there because all the Manchester United supporters won't listen and they control the media.

Perfectly reasonable but in my view incredibly dangerous. Politics is about rhetoric- we do need to convince others but it is also about self-examination. A problem of political psychology is the false belief that one is completely and totally right- listening to the echo chamber one hears what one wants to hear. In that case, there is a danger which some have perceived emerging on the left in the United States of making policy because you already know the answer, that leads you into the situation where your only worry about your policy is about its presentation and not about whether it matches to reality or not. Where you are concerned with ideological challenges- not as challenges which might make you seriously re-evaluate where you stand- but because you see them as lies which might seduce- the Delilahs of political thinking.

There is a further consequence to this. Much ink has been spilt in the United States over the increased polarisation of the American electorate- the cartoon above taken from here is one such satirical attempt. Intelligent observers have noted similar trends in the increasingly partisan British blogosphere. Part of this, but not the whole, is related to the fact that people on both sides simply beleive the others to be categorically wrong. If I cannot imagine a way that you hold your opinions beyond the fact that you are evil then we really can't have a conversation and it won't be very easy to respect you. Ultimately this kind of politics is deeply immature- there are many political issues from the perrenials like abortion through to the issues of the moment like Iraq where there are good arguments on either side. Failing to acknowledge that and using extremist rhetoric means that you deny your opponents any legitimacy as principled advocates: instead of being honest citizens struggling with their consciences they become evil and once you've taken that step, then any measure, as in the Nixon White House, becomes a neccessary means to the ends of your virtuous society.

The development of the Netroots, the development of Fox News and their commentators, of 18 Doughty Street, of the hoarse and often bellicose advocates of peace on the left and the self-righteous Christians of the right saddens me. Part of politics is self doubt- part of politics is questioning your own views as much as other people's views- is realising that changing your mind is a sign of maturity and that beleiving you have reached a truth that you need not doubt is a great sign of arrested intellectual development. This isn't a call against principle or against argument but it is a call for tolerance- all the phenomena I listed above seem to strike against that fundemental principle underlying all democratic discussion. In the end you might just be right and I might just be wrong- lets have the debate in those terms instead of hurling insults at each other and treating politics as though it were propaganda.

I fear this post will fall upon deaf ears...

May 01, 2007

Introducing... Yascha Mounk's European View!

I'm having a fairly unintelligent day but may post later. Anyway I thought I'd mention that I've added another blog to my blogroll. Yascha Mounk was at Cambridge with me and is now doing a PhD in America and researching in France for a year, his primary focus is political thought but he is also a good historian, his blog is here and is called A European View (fairly suitable for a man who can claim to have links with the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Poland- not to mention a couple of others he'll remind me of in the comments that I'd forgotten about!) He is one of the most learned and intellectually exciting individuals I've ever come across and his blog promises to be both provocative and interesting. Anyway I thoroughly reccomend it- and I should be posting a discussion of one of his posts round here soon but am too unintelligent to do it right now- he is a good lad and his work should be well worth a read. Enjoy!

April 30, 2007


Is the BBC biased and does it matter? Edward Driscoll, writing at TCS Daily, definitely beleives that the BBC is biased and brings forward some evidence to substantiate his claim. Mr Driscoll isn't alone- there is now a UK blog whose main subject is BBC bias, not to mention plenty of articles and even videos all documenting bias. Most of these websites are rightwing- but like the last one quoted there are quite a few leftwing critiques of the BBC as well.

Its worth thinking a little about this though: some of the criticism appears to me to be fairly accurate- there are times when unconsciously the stories that the BBC chooses to report and the way that for instance it will frame a story with facts reflect the way that its editors and reporters think. That is mostly unavoidable- selection of what to report will always go on within a news organisation and part of that selection will always rest upon someone's view of what is important about the world- and therefore be biased. Such bias though unconscious operates in all parts of the media and at all times. Interestingly such a bias becomes more evident the smaller the ammount of space devoted to reporting on issues- five minutes allows one to share all views, two minutes allows one to mention two views but thirty seconds only really allows a reporter to acknowledge a single view.

Its here that I would want to defend the BBC personally. The television networks often don't allow enough space for proper reporting but on Radio 4- and in particular with a couple of programs- File on 4, Analysis, In our Time, From our own Correspondent and Start the Week- the BBC devotes a great deal of space to a proper examination of issues. All of those programs, in very different ways, put out detailed examination of an issue. Some of them- File of 4- are explicitly campaigning and hence invite criticism and rebuttal- others, In our Time, are more analytical and set out to be a fairly accurate statement of the case of things as they exist in the world. It is on these programs- not the five item news service- that the BBC's reputation in my view stands. The most important and most damaging BBC bias- one it shares with almost all other media networks- is a bias against this type of programming, a bias for bitesize news made accessible. The problem with such coverage is that the news isn't accessible, nor is it bitesize- it requires a program that mentions the Isreali Palestinian conflict say to go into much more detail than you can in a five second segment.

Returning to the question of political bias, the BBC's bias though in my view cannot be equated with the bias of Fox News in the United States. It is important that we distinguish between the BBC's occasional unwillingness to be serious, and its framing of issues in a leftwing way- from Fox's determination to be on the 'right' side of every issue- to stand with the Republicans- and to only report things that serve the Republican cause. The BBC's bias is the kind of unavoidable bias and temporary error that every news organisation faces: Fox on the other hand is a deliberately untrustworthy network that funnels out propaganda for one side rather than another. Such statements as this (the link includes plenty of other incidences) from Bill O'Reilly,

Coming next, drug addicted pregnant women no longer have anything to fear from the authorities thanks to the Supreme Court. Both sides on this in a moment."--Bill O'Reilly (3/23/01)

would never be heard on the BBC. As Scott Norvell recently admitted Fox is a conservative organisation and seeks to be from the start. The BBC does not seek to be a Labour supporting or leftwing organisation even if its unconscious biases may take it there sometimes.

But lastly advocates against the BBC would hold that this unconscious bias means that the organisation should be decoupled from the license fee and that it should be privatised. There is an argument to be had about privatisation- but I don't think that the bias proves that privatisation should happen. The argument is really about the services the BBC provides that noone in the private sector has ever seemed able to provide- the programs I have cited from above which give a viewer or listener an insight into the world unavailable in other places. The problem with privatisation might well be the loss of such programs and consequently the loss of a space for considered reflection about things in the world. No other news organisation that I know of- not Fox, CNN, 18 Doughty Street, Channel 4, or any other (PBS in the States might be an interesting exception) has these kinds of programs on- and without them I feel that British political discourse would suffer. The argument about the license fee is ultimately one that is much wider than this- and I don't want to get into it other than providing this one statement- that the BBC does things that if it were not there, might not be done and we would all be poorer.

At the moment- thanks to a variety of factors- political discussion across the West is becoming less informed and nastier. 24 hour news has not produced advanced knowledge about the news, rather it produces a rolling series of 5 items and bolsters ignorance. The proliferation of channels like the UK's 18 Doughty Street has encouraged concentration in the minutiae of who said what to who at which time- Doughty Street running attack ads as part of its main business symbolises how unReithian it is. UK newspapers too often are less enlightening than they are partisan- it is to the BBC's credit that five or six times a week it ploughs a furrow that few people wish to plough, it educates rather than fulminates- that's something worth thinking about when discussing its bias- because no matter what else the Corporation may be, and contaminated by the sins of the times- triviality for example- as it is, it does maintain those other programs which noone else seems willing to maintain.

April 29, 2007

Leeds United

Just a little note to say that I've just published an article on the decline and fall of Leeds United over at Bits of News- not sure its any good, being a fan of the said football club, the last years have been hard and writing an article about it tends to inspire only depression- oh well for those that are interested, click the link. (Its definitely not up there say with Mr Hamilton's rigorous analysis of football.)