May 12, 2007

Sport, Politics and Boycotts

Recently the Australian cricket team like the English team before them have come up against the problem of whether to play matches against Zimbabwe and potentially legitimise the regime there. Of course cricket has been here before- there was a boycott of South Africa launched in the 1980s thanks to that country's abuses against its black population. Many argued at the time that the English team under Nasser Hussein ought to boycott Zimbabwe in the cricket world cup of 2003. Likewise now it seems that many Australians are calling for their team to boycott a prospective tour of Zimbabwe- James Higham has more details at his blog. The issue of whether to boycott or not is an interesting one- especially with the Olympics in China, a country that abuses the rights of Tibetans and its own population continuously and refuses to recognise the democratic integrity of the island of Taiwan, coming up- but this post doesn't really concern that issue.

It is difficult- especially for sportsmen and women whose careers rest upon their decisions to take those decisions. Most of us would agree that most of the time sportsmen ought to play abroad- we would all feel a little odd should a leftwing footballer refuse to play in France because of the Sarkozy government or a rightwing one refuse to play in Scotland because of the SNP- so there are degrees. Human rights alone might not furnish enough justification either- firstly again there are gradations of abuse and secondly it might not always necessarily be always true that not playing will help the local population. Many of these decisions to have an impact needs a corporate decision say from a players union in order to have effect- even a decision from an association for the sport- this opens up a new question.

The reason that sporting teams should not play in repressive countries, according to supporters of boycotts, is because it encourages the dictatorial regime. Now the problem is that sports teams in a sense represent countries- individuals and even associations take decisions ultimately only representing themselves- but a decision to go to say Zimbabwe is seen as a decision to tolerate the government by the UK. Hence it seems to me justifiable that it ought to be the government that reccomends and helps the sporting bodies take the blow if there is one. Politicians ought not to be cowards and advise but not tell the associations not to go. Doing so is the ultimate in political cowardice because ultimately the politician hides behind the sporting authority and lets that authority take a sometimes massive financial hit- something that the politician ultimately doesn't have to worry about whereas the sporting body does have to worry about it.

Ultimately if a decision is to be forced upon anyone, politicians ought to have the courage to do the forcing rather than use the press to force sports authorities to boycott. Utlimately as well sportsmen ought to be able to withdraw out of conscience but take the cost of such a withdrawel. Where a national association withdraws from an engagement with a foreign side on grounds such as those that the cricketers are under pressure to withdraw in Zimbabwe, they are making a statement for the nation and ought to be guided in that choice by politicians and furthermore the cost should be born nationally because the sporting association is acting as a national institution, not a private one.

Michael Howard and Alastair Campbell

Michael Howard takes apart Alastair Campbell in this Newsnight Broadcast- I didn't see the original program but came across it from the excellent Chicken Yoghurt blog- Campbell's response doesn't even reflect upon the idea that he diminished public discourse- he did and if I were him I would not reflect upon my time in politics with any pride.

Yes Minister at the Post Office or Christmas should come every day

Bearing this in mind, I was wondering about a new page from a Yes Minister script recently discovered in London (the story is that my mate Rob sent a friend of his a Christmas card and it has just arrived).

Minister: Do you realise Humphrey that the Post Office delivered a Christmas Card six months late?

Sir Humphrey: Yes Minister its normal practice

Minister: Humphrey I'm amazed you say its normal practice to deliver letters six months late?

Sir Humphrey: Of course Minister. Staff are very overworked at Christmas- the public continue to send cards, despite the Post Office informing them that it would make much better administrative sense for cards to be sent on every day of the year rather than one- the stress it puts on resources is incalculable.

Minister: But its for Christmas.

Sir Humphrey: Well Minister, the Post Office realises that- but we still face huge staffing problems. So they decided that they would receive the letters over the month before Christmas but to avoid staffing problems and taking on temporary workers, deliver them throughout the year- giving everyone an equal chance to receive their cards on Christmas Day but avoid employing more workers on overtime.

Minister: But Christmas...

Sir Humphrey: Well Minister strictly noone knows when Christ was born none of the gospels say when he was born- so this way the Post Office merely verifies our lack of historical knowledge by sending out Christmas Cards every day of the year- we don't know which day is Christmas afterall and the public very ignorantly send their cards out for one day of the year- well we have a system that corrects for that and provides a cheap and efficient service for the nation.

For anyone who doesn't know Yes Minister- you should-

Hattip to Rob for the link!

May 10, 2007

John Prescott's role

Iain Dale has launched a scathing attack on the deputy Prime Minister on his blog today. Iain I think completely misses the role that Prescott has played in the last ten years of Labour government and ever since 1994- Prescott has never really led the policy debate within the Labour party, having said that one never knows what has gone on behind the scenes in meetings that we are unaware of, but he has kept this government going. Prescott's role has been to dominate the party executive, the NEC, to play the game of conciliating the Labour party. He was central to the successful attempt by John Smith to get the party to accept one member one vote in 1993 and was crucial to the party's acceptance of Tony Blair himself as leader. He could always be relied to stoke the fires of class war and rouse the Labour base. He compared himself at one point as holding the brakes on Blair's train driver- an interesting image whcih reflects both the man's vulnerability but also his importance to the project. Prescott at the conference and less noticed by no less crucially at the NEC was a figure that pulled the party along with the New Labour project.

No less importantly Prescott provided much of the personal ballast within the government. As a senior figure, without aspirations to run the country, he was able to perform the role of an honest broker. Just as an example, as the Prime Minister and Chancellor entered one of their periods of mutual sniping in November 2003, it was the Deputy Prime Minister who summoned them together and made a deal between the two of them. As the years have gone by, Prescott's neutrality between the two has meant that he has been able to face down both of them and make them get on. Functioning as the ballast of the government his role has not been so much to govern as to enable other people to govern- in particular to enable the two dominant personalities within the government to continue functioning together.

One recalls, in a comparison Mr Prescott would hate, some words from the Guardian obituary of Willie Whitelaw which sum up Prescott's impact upon the government rather well: he was the

crucial prop and lubricant of a government which transformed both the nation and the... party in ways which he was later to find thoroughly distasteful.

Prescott's role as the lubricant to this government was different from Whitelaw's role in Thatcher's government but no less important to its survival. Indeed one wonders whether Prescott's missed opportunity was in not realising that he could have forced Blair to cede more authority to him- whether the fact he was an outsider meant that the Deputy Prime Minister always shrank to the role of a mediator without realising the true power that he wielded. Having said that, I disagree fundamentally with Iain- the government's acheivements have all been achieved because of the presence of the member from Hull, he may have been absurd, comical and have a love life from a Carry-On Film but his abilities to appeal to the hearts of the Labour movement and understand its procedures (which bored Blair) not to mention his ability to keep the Blair Brown partnership going can't be underrated. In the end this government would not have been as happy or lasted as long without Prescott and that is his achievement.

John Major interview

18 Doughty Street carries an interview with John Major- there are some insights including the idea that Major never had a majority for his Northern Ireland policy within his own cabinet.

I've published an analysis of it on Bits of News.

May 09, 2007

A Salesman for Cigarettes

Thank you for Smoking is an interesting directorial debut from Jason Reitman. It has a nice light and humerous touch, as Roger Ebert argues in his review. This film though is no light piece of froth- though it is amusing and watched without thought could ressemble such a piece, rather it exposes some interesting things about the practice of argument within a democracy. The film concerns itself ultimately with an ancient practice- that has gone by the name ever since it was eloquently skewered by Plato of sophistry. Sophistry the art of making an argument serve an end which serves the arguer is a preserve one might say of both all the lobbying, advocacy and advertising industries. The main character of Thank you for Smoking is by any classic definition a sophist- he argues in such a way that his indefensible arguments become defensible. He even educates his son in the practice- suggesting to his son various rhetorical strategies in order to make it look as though vanilla icecream is better than chocalate icecream. Ultimately, all of the characters involved in the film are paying their mortgages, from Nick Naylor the main character to his bosses in the tobacco industry and even to the anti-tobacco senator, they are all ultimately out for themselves. We don't see principle here, we see the practice of argument.

Some critics have therefore suggested that the film is empty of substance, such a conclusion is wrong. Actually there is a lot of substance in the way that the film investigates the consequences of sophistry, of turning the whole of society into salesmen. Its worth contrasting the film at this point with the classic American treatment of salesmen- Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Insofar as the film treats Naylor, his family and friends, the film is a direct attempt to answer Miller's account of a man whose success in sales turns into an illusory confidence that a smile and a quick word is the sum of life. Naylor like Willy Loman has a deeply unhappy private life- he betrays his friends to a journalist for a quick bout of easy sex, he has a good relationship with his son but its based upon the fact that he is bringing up his son to admire moral flexibility and his relationship with his ex-wife seems uneasy. Despite that he arouses loyalty- but on the basis that his friends and family expect his betrayels. Naylor's allegiance to the tobacco corps even goes only as far as it will: if offered a brunette with a nice face and body, he is willing to betray the company and leak all sorts of information.

Naylor's charm is maintained throughout the whole film. What it means though is that the watcher becomes tricked into endorsing his sophistry. So for example in the senatorial hearings at the end of the film, by the end of the hearing one almost beleives that placing a sign which says that cigarettes are poison is the same as restricting their sale and freedom of choice- of course it doesn't it means that you supply information which might influence the choice, it doesn't mean that people can't buy cigarettes with skulls on them. Similarly during the hearings Naylor tells the senate that parents and teachers have a responsibility to tell their children about the dangers of cigarettes- but of course when it comes to his own son, or to his son's classmates, Naylor encourages them to think for themselves and distrust experts. Naylor's libertarianism is actually a form of encouraging license- because Naylor refuses to take any responsibility for his own actions- he speaks, but cares not what he says, he makes love, but cares not to whom, he has friends, and is willing to betray them and he has a son, but ultimately tries to convince him that irresponsibility is the way forwards.

At the end of the film, Nick establishes that his talent lies in speaking, in words and convincing people that they are right to do things. What is interesting though in his view and the view of everyone else in the film is that they have no responsibility for the impact of their words- they care not for morality, they care to connect people. Such an argument for liberty becomes ultimately an argument which absolves anyone of the responsibility of their actions- if I persuade you to jump off a cliff, then I have no responsibility for what the end that my words have helped achieve. Everyone in this film seduces- from Nick and his lobbyist buddies, to the young journalist with her inviting eyes and soft skin, and though the film partially absolves them of the responsibility and the consequences of their seductions- I don't beleive we can.

May 08, 2007

Gracchi elsewhere

Just thought I'd pop in and note that I've published two articles over at Bits of News- this one concerns the worsening situation inside North Korea and this the situation after Glenn Roeder's resignation over at Newcastle United. Hope both articles are interesting...

The Cinematic Mannerists: What's the point of Marie Antoinette?

Many of the reviews of Marie Antoinette, a biopic of the doomed and frivolous queen, directed by Sofia Coppola, were harsh critiques of the way that Coppola had excluded from her canvass the starvation and poverty that gave rise to the French Revolution. Her film was ridiculed as a teenage girl's pastiche of French history- all exciting romances, sexy dresses and irritating adult protocol. (There was a faint whiff of sexism about this- one doesn't see equally or even more vapid productions about Casanova attacked in the same way- personally everything I say about this film could be said in the same way about recent productions on Casanova). Recently however Morgan Meis at 3quarksdaily has come to Coppola's defence.

Meis suggests that what Coppola did was not as frivolous as her film may appear. She attempted to recreate the experience of Marie Antoinette as a young woman at the French court in the 1770s, 1780s and 1790s. Using Antonia Fraser's recent biography, Coppola crafted an Antoinette that was naive, thoughtless and a little petulant, but was also charming, kind and under a great deal of pressure as she saw it from kinsmen to have a child. She had all the limitations of her upbringing so the poverty of the French peasant meant less to her than the fact that her husband was unwilling to have sex with her. And despite the rising turmoil in France, as soon as he did Antoinette's life became much more fun- a circus of gambling, affairs and beautiful things- all the attributes that she had been educated to desire. On this basis the film is a recreation of the world as it appeared to Marie, not the world as it existed and as such it must have some merit.

Well, I must admit to having not watched the whole film- but some thoughts immediately strike me. There is a value in doing what Coppola has done in this movie- in part this is what my PhD is designed to do, recreate a world that we are unfamiliar with and show it in all its colour. Robert Bresson does this wonderfully in his film about the trial of Joan of Arc but note the difference. Bresson takes us inside a mind that is genuinely interesting- reduced to the bare canvass he paints on- the question about Joan is her martyrdom for a cause- what did that feel like, why did she do it, how can we understand her. Florence Delay's remarkable performance takes us closer by an inch to understanding those questions. What about Marie Antoinette? What does it allow us to understand? Kirsten Dunst's performance allows us to reach the conclusion that uneducated pretty girls like pretty things, men and gambling. That being a princess in France or even the queen of France was a biological not a political career- like Henry VIII's queens she must produce. That ultimately feminism has liberated women from being wombs, to becoming persons.

All of that is true, but Coppola chose her subject and one has to ask whether the world of Antoinette is sufficiently interesting to hold one's attention. The film struggled to hold my attention- partly because the world of Antoinette doesn't fascinate me. If one is trying to show the world of a French aristocratic woman living vaguely contemporarily to Antoinette, it strikes me say that the world of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress to Louis XV would be much more interesting. Pompadour's life would enable you to explore many of the questions that Coppola explored- but go a bit deeper and further, Pompadour was a patron of the encyclopedie, the great masterpiece of the enlightenment. Writing a film about Pompadour would get you deeper into the age- you could film the great salons of intellectual France- you would find Pompadour as a real defender and engager within the enlightenment. And yet still you would find that Pompadour, this amazingly intelligent, thoughtful and interesting woman, only was able to enter the salons and defend Diderot and D'Alembert from the censor, because the King wanted to have sex with her- her destiny as a woman, despite all her charm and intelligence, was her womb.

The issue that I have with the film is that it is a great portrait of the world of Antoinette- but is this a world we need a portrait of. So much money and so much time and talent was invested in this film- there is no doubt that Coppola is a good director of this kind of films- I enjoyed both The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation- there is no doubt that Dunst is amongst the rising stars of Hollywood and she can act as the Virgin Suicides a previous collaboration with Coppola demonstrates- but was this Antoinette worth so much time- what ultimately did anyone learn watching the film beyond the fact that a queen of France had a lot of nice dresses but was still only interesting to contemporaries insofar as she became pregnant. I would have thought that there were other subjects around which you could have made that point, but who would have allowed you to get a bit deeper into what happened in 18th Century France and make a more interesting film.

If you are going to base your cinematic art on empathy- your choice of subject is rather important!

May 07, 2007

Fred Halliday on the Falklands

In this article, Fred Halliday Professor of Politics at the LSE claims that the British defence of the Falklands in 1982, prepared the way directly for the support of Afghan Mujahadeen in the late 1980s and hence to September 11th. Professor Hallidays argues that

The temptation to see the Malvinas war as an isolated, exceptional event should, however, be resisted. In particular, the covert United States-British collaboration which was central to eventual British victory helped to consolidate a far more momentous (and far less publicised) military project then being implemented, one whose destructive impacts are still reverberating across the region and the world: the jihad against the then Soviet occupation of Afghanistan....

The real legacy of the 1982 war is, then, one of profound strategic and ideological irresponsibility, whose consequences were to be seen in the local wars and pitiless massacres perpetrated in many poor countries in the 1980s - El Salvador and Nicaragua, East Timor and Angola - by the friends of Margaret Thatcher. Those who seek to conduct a balance-sheet of the grisly record of that decade must complement their assessment of the adventure in the south Atlantic by putting it in the context of wars in the Hindu Kush and beyond, then and now.

There are two arguments here: one is that the Falklands invasion was of the same imperialist nature as later invasions, and the other is that it historically caused the British to ally with America in funding the resistance in Afghanistan.

The first argument seems to me to be manifestly wrong. Professor Halliday attacks the British invasion of the Falklands for being a 'grotesque indulgence' to grant 'a population of 3,000 people the right to determine matters of strategy, diplomacy and economic interest', whatever one thinks of his argument, I don't think that is the same justification as the justifications offered for say the invasions of El Salvador or Iraq. Those invasions whether justified on the basis of toppling nasty dictators (a matter of dispute) or weapons of mass destruction (likewise) were not justified in the same ways as the invasion of the Falklands was. Rather the invasion of the Falklands ressembles far more the 1991 Gulf War, it was clear in the case of the Falklands that the population did not want to become Argentinian- and Professor Halliday admits that point and calls British policy on the issue a grotesque indulgence. He may be right, but whatever kind of error it was, the point is that it was not the same kind of error as those possibly committed in Iraq or Latin America.

So if no principle was established by the Falklands War that necessarily connects it with the events of Iraq or Afghanistan or indeed the US interventions in Latin America, to which Professor Halliday also links it, is there a historical link to what subsequently happened in Afghanistan. Again I don't see any evidence that there is. Ok the Americans backed the British- and the British helped the Americans train the Afghans- but there were other occasions where the Americans annoyed Margeret Thatcher- the invasion of Grenada deeply disturbed her and yet there was no doubt on which side the Thatcher government fell in the Cold War even so. If the argument is that without the Falklands, Michael Foot might have won the British election in 1983 and not backed the Americans in Afghanistan- well that's an argument about the 1983 election not really about the fact that there was a necessary connection between the Falklands War and the support for the resistance in Afghanistan.

You might rightly ask why I'm bothering to write this post. Firstly I respect Professor Halliday- I even own one of his books, so consequently I am disturbed to find him writing something I consider wrong- maybe I need correction- readers I ask for it.

The second point though and the more important point is that Professor Halliday appears to me to make an error its very important that we don't make if we are to understand the world. He has decided that the UK in all its actions is imperialist and therefore all its actions must be imperialist and all of them must lead forwards and backwards to and from each other. History though isn't like that. History is muddled, confusing and complicated- simple models in general don't work. If we are to truly assess the relevance of the Falklands War (if it has any relevance) for the war on terror, then we need to understand what it was about- and misunderstanding it as part of a pattern of British imperialism helps noone.

May 06, 2007

Blair's First Cabinet

It is a very interesting exercise to look on Blair's First Cabinet so many of them like say Gavin Strang swiftly vanished into anonymity. Others like say Jack Straw or Gordon Brown have become extremely experienced ministers. Perhaps the saddest note though is that of the original 23, 3 have already died- Mo Mowlam, Donald Dewar and Robin Cook- and Dewar at 62 was the oldest of the 3. All of the three were in different ways respected figures- Mowlam passionately cared about Northern Ireland, Dewar personally came up with the Scottish assembly and Cook was one of the greatest Parliamentarians (both as an opposition spokesman, a Leader of the House and lastly a rebel) of the age- and it gives one pause to realise that none of them are now alive.