May 19, 2007

Gracchi at Bits

I've just put up an article about Wolfowitz's resignation.

May 18, 2007

True Crime Writing: Is it worth it?

Laura James, one of the best crime bloggers on the internet, is angry with those that beleive that writing about crime is a voyeuristic activity which profits from that which it seeks to denounce. She fulminates that

I hate it when people say that true crime authors "make money off murder." You'd never say policemen make money off crime, or doctors make money off disease, or soldiers make money off war, or social workers make money off child abuse, or reporters make money off tornadoes.

Laura writes about an interesting issue- there is no doubt in my mind that crime writing done well is not mere voyeurism but actually has a rationale behind it- and I think its a rationale worth understanding.

The first reason why crime writing is worth doing well is that a good crime writer makes us empathise more in two ways. Firstly he or she displays to us the true horror of the crime- the way that lives were cut off and the barbarity of that destruction. One of the greatest chroniclers of man's inhumanity to man is Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, I have only read two volumes of his classic chronicling of Soviet oppression- the Gulag Archipelago- but Solzhenitsyn is one of those writers who brings you to the point where you can imagine the way that the Gulag felt- you feel a sympathetic pain for its victims and consequently an anger that they were betrayed by the society and the times that they lived within.

The second way that a good crime writer can help us understand the world is by helping us understand the criminal. Lets take the work for instance of Ian Kershaw on Hitler- again not strictly a crime writer- but a historian writing about perhaps the most important criminal of history. Kershaw takes you deep into Hitler's mind- analyses his speeches but also analyses his context. He shows how the young man embittered by serial failure and incompetence and elevated into a life of lazy incomprehension developed into a ranting bore in the Vienna cafes, and through the first World War when his talents for spouting at length were recognised by the Army high command into an anti-communist agitator and hence into the leadership of the Nazi party. Kershaw shows how the crimes of Hitler developed out of a unique personality- full of hatred and bile but also with a magnetic charisma- and out of a society around him that for a variety of reasons let this instable and frankly incapable man rise to its top and then dominate European and world history in the 1940s to the detriment of many- not least the 6 million his minions murdered on his instructions during the Holocaust. Again though by showing us why and how this happened- what kind of person Hitler was and how he rose to the top of German politics and how his minions thought obeying him was right- Kershaw succeeds in providing us with something that deepens our understanding of the world we live in without losing the capacity to judge the crimes that Hitler produced.

Laura is right therefore to argue that there is more to writing about crimes and misdemeanours than just voyeurism. A further thought strikes me now. Crime writing enables our faculties of empathy- but it enables us through thrilling us. Classic crime writing- ie writing about domestic crime- can acheive both the sympathetic pain that Solzhenitsyn conjures up and the explanatory force that Kershaw deploys- but does it within a medium that is much more familiar to us- rather than dealing with states, Laura and her companions in the genre deal with families, with things that are much more immediate. Stalin a great mass murderer once said that a million deaths were a statistic, whereas a death was a tragedy: taken as an insight about psychology and the way that we see death I think there is a great deal to what Stalin says (taken as an insight about morality it is repugnant). It is true that it is easier to empathise with the tragic death of x rather than the tragic death of a million- its why in wars poster soldiers develop that seize the imagination- its harder to imagine all the suffering in Afghanistan- but Pat Tillman's death makes it all more real. A great piece of film about crime, Scorsese's Casino or Hawks's Scarface, uses the individual instance to make an observation about much wider issues. True Crime can and I'm sure does do the same thing.

I haven't read much true crime- but I do think that it has a great deal more utility than its critics accord to it- it has the ability of presenting to us issues about life that we may not have thought about seriously without it, making us empathise deeply with other people's losses and also develops our understanding of what makes criminals- something that hopefully may develop our understanding both of how to catch them and how to prevent them committing crimes in the first place.

Carnival of Cinema

Hi guys, unfortunately this week I didn't have time to post my usual cinematic stuff- but Scott Nehring did collect together the cinematic output of the week here.

May 17, 2007

Gracchi away

I should note I'm going to be away from the computer till Friday evening so no posts or comments till then- sorry chaps.

Money and Thought

Ashok makes an interesting argument on his blog that money taints the freedom of thought. I have often wondered about what advertising would do to this blog- apart from earn me a miniscule amount of money- and personally decided a while ago to reject it- though do think occasionally of the Amazon ads that one can do when reviewing a product. I do think that Ashok has a point in part- and I want to clarify my thinking on this because I do think it is interesting and important.

There are two ways in which adverts can effect one's writing. The first is that they can lead to bias in what one says- so that one becomes less of an advocate for one's own views and more of an advocate for another group's views. Say for instance I ran adverts for the Australian National Party on my blog- I'm not sure that it would be a good thing for them or me if beside that I ran stories attacking them. Running their adverts would condition the kind of blog that I could have- it would govern to some extent what I could say- and therefore anyone reading this blog could rightly assume that they were not going to find upon it an unbiassed analysis of that party.

The second way that adverts effect the stance of a blog is more interesting though because it brings to my mind a key question- the relationship between a blog and its audience. Ashok's blog (I hope he won't mind me saying this) is a rather high minded affair- it is a blog which deals with intellectual issues in an honest way- and hence Ashok often writes posts which require a lot of thought- they require one to test out one's ideas. This blog aims but fails to do similar things. I think one of the things that adverts bring is a desire for an audience. My own feeling is that Westminster Wisdom has an audience- people who read it often, I know some of them, and frequent commenters- I would love to have an audience that was numbered in the millions not the hundreds but I don't and personally I think that I would not like to sacrafice my way of writing, the topics I'm interested in for the sake of advertising revenue. In order to make ads worthwhile I would have to change my focus- and I won't.

That's for a last reason- that this blog is really a way for me to have fun. Heated disputes will happen often- Lord Nazh is a frequent and welcome disputer for instance who has been keeping the political debate going here over the last couple of days. But really this blog centrally is a place for me to talk about what I'm interested in- and that happens to be the subjects that are most discussed here- film, history etc- if I were to begin earning money from it, this blog would cease to be fun, and the parameters of what I wrote would be deformed by a desire to maximise traffic. It isn't that adverts would subvert my political views, but they would subvert the purpose of the blog- in that sense I agree with Ashok I would have lost something- a space to think aloud about what interests me, without regard to whether anyone's listening- though I hope you are and what I have to say interests you- whether if its only 4 people or 40 or even 400 or 400000 doesn't matter to me and that's something I value.

May 16, 2007

Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani on the War on Terror

Ron Paul argues in favour of a non-interventionist foreign policy. He suggests that one of the reasons for September 11th 2001 was because of what he calls blowback from our interventions in the Middle East. Undoubtedly those interventions have made terrorism more attractive to people throughout the world.

Rudy Giuliani's riposte to him is beneath contempt because he doesn't pick up on the points that Paul makes (Paul didn't say that 9/11 was caused by Iraq) and seems not to beleive in blowback. Far more interesting would be for Mr Giuliani to take on the original argument that intervention provokes violence in return and show that actually in some circumstances like NATO in Western Europe actually intervention can be very benign. But he didn't make that argument- and stuck to a far more glib but intellectually incoherent comment about blowback not happening.

The Republican Party's evolution

Two interesting articles have recently appeared around the same topic- the question of what the Republicans will do in 2008 and how much it matters. Both articles take as their starting point the fact that the two major figures on the Republican side running for President- Giuliani and McCain have doubtful conservative credentials and the third Mitt Romney has been less than solid in expressing his social conservatism. Social conservatives increasingly are looking outside of those running for President and hoping that Fred Thompson makes a run- or that the campaign of Mike Huckabee or Sam Brownback catches light. What does this mean for the Republican party?

Well first we ought to acknowledge the role of fortune in this- the right's prince was supposed to be George Allen who lost his senatorial seat in part through a gaffe that no one could have predicted, Rick Santorum who had the profile likewise lost his seat in Pennsylvania and a third possible candidate Jeb Bush is ruled out because of the fact his brother is the sitting President. So in part the reason why there isn't a conservative big hitter running is because through accident there just isn't a conservative big hitter out there. This has happened before- conservatives aren't always good at finding candidates- indeed going back in time most of the Republican party's candidates have been from the moderate wing of the GOP- George Bush senior, Gerald Ford, even Richard Nixon were all accused of selling out. So the lack of a conservative candidate may denote nothing more than a combination of accident and outreach.

Well that's not the opinion of Thomas Edsall. Writing in the New Republic, Edsall suggests that the Republican Party is changing its nature. He argues that after twenty years where Republican candidates have based their national tactics upon social conservatism- they have switched their focus- terrorism is now the issue in the Primary and a candidate like Giuliani for all his pro-abortion credentials and toleration of homosexuals is acceptable because he is tough. Personally I think that Edsall here is right- the Republican party and its supporters disproportionately beleive that they are in an existentialist battle with Islamic terrorism- just look for example at today's National Review discussion of the candidate's debate from last night. But Edsall is wrong to think that this is new- in the long run Republicans have continually been interested in national security. In that sense the 90s were a complete aberration- the cold war rhetoric of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagen elevated them to power just as the anti-terrorist rhetoric of Rudy gains him support. A key part of the Republican coalition going back to the 1950s and 1940s has always been those worried about national security.

So Edsall in my view is wrong to state that the Republican party is changing, its more that Republicans are refocusing on something that has always been important to them but during the nineties for obvious reasons wasn't as important as the culture wars. Thomas Schaller in the American Prospect argues a very different case- and I think demonstrates why Edsall in my view at the moment is more accurately distinguishing what is happening. Schaller argues that the Republicans may well run a no-hoper like they did in 1964, because they aren't going to win anyway (the margins are too tight to be that confident in my opinion) and because the present candidates aren't rightwing enough. So Schaller thinks instead of opting to run Giuliani and be defeated 49-50, the Republicans will run a Brownback and lose 40-60 (these are numbers I pluck out of the air) and hope such a candidate's run will ideologically invigorate the movement like Barry Goldwater's run in 1964 did.

The issue though with Schaller's thought is that I don't think his analysis is right: he significantly doesn't mention Goldwater who was the only Republican candidate to do precisely this in 1964 and I think its significant because as soon as you do the comparrison between now and 64 evaporates. Conservatives are much stronger now than they were then. In 1964, they were coming off the long years of Eisenhower- indeed since the 1920s there hadn't been a partisan Republican in the White House- and a succession of radical democratic administrations from the New Dealers of Roosevelt, the Fair Dealers of Truman through to the New Frontiersmen of JFK and the creators of LBJ's Great Society. Conservatism was much weaker then- now it doesn't need the kind of sacraficial candidate that it did in 1964. Its much more sensible to argue like Edsall that we are seeing a change in focus within conservatism.

I have previously argued that its worthwhile thinking about politics as a language game- I still think that impression works very well and in this context it does too. The point about conservatives is that the stresses may slowly be moving in terms of what policies are important to them- you can't imagine anyone winning a Republican primary who is pro-appeasement- but you can imagine someone winning who is pro-abortion and that does say something, not that Republicans have abandoned abortion, but that they have taken up terrorism as an issue as well. That's the change that Edsall and Schaller are really noting- but Edsall overstresses it and Schaller fails to see how seriously Republicans take terrorism- they really do feel that a Democrat in the White House would bring a more dangerous world, its worth taking them at their word when trying to analyse their political platform and if you do you suddenly realise why they are promoting electable but dodgily conservative candidates this time around.

Ultimately my impression at the moment- and everything could change- is that most US conservatives are taking the view that without an obvious conservative electorally popular candidate they might as well find someone who is certain to be tough on terrorism. That doesn't mean that other issues are dropped at all- but it does mean that since 9/11 terrorism has become a huge issue on the right, it is the real litmus test for Republicans today, and that abortion possibly say comes second to it. The refocus of Republican politicians is mirrored on the Democratic side of the aisle where Iraq is very much a make or break issue for candidates- Clinton is suffering because of her Iraq stance- the simple fact of the matter behind what Edsall and Schaller say is that today we have an election that will be partly about foreign policy- something you couldn't really say of either 1992, 1996 or even 2000.

However one last note- I'm not sure that these articles should even be written now- we don't know who the nominee will be for either party- so everything here is just supposition. Re-reading this post there are two other issues worth noting that I haven't got time to deal with- firstly the Republican party aren't solely conservatives, other groups like Libertarians come into play and secondly that conservatism isn't a monolith- I still think though that the overall thought has something in it.

May 15, 2007

Richard Perle on George Tenet

Richard Perle lauches a scathing attack on George Tenet, the former Director of the CIA, in the Washington Post today. Perle argues that Tenet let down the United States through faulty decision making- and comments like the 'slam dunk' (which Tenet disputes) would seem to support such an allegation. But Perle goes further than that, he argues that the failure was not just Tenet's

George Tenet and, more important, our premier intelligence organization managed to find weapons of mass destruction that did not exist while failing to find links to terrorists that did -- all while missing completely the rise of Islamist fundamentalism.

Mr Perle has had a bit of a memory loss because actually the intelligence agencies were much less confident than Mr Perle about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq- the Knight Ridder news service for example reported in September 2002 that officials expressed doubts about the presence of weapons of mass destruction. As Bill Moyer's recent program made clear the difference between Knight Ridder and other journalists was that the Knight Ridder guys went to the CIA and asked them questions, the others went to Mr Perle and his friends who gave different answers. Mr Perle and his friends wanted to beleive that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and took any indication to say that there were- furthermore it seems that Mr Perle still beleives in the link between Bin-Laden and Hussein- the point about Mr Perle is that in criticising Mr Tenet he is avoiding his own problem. Mr Tenet may well have been a bad CIA head. But plenty of people in the intelligence community had doubts about weapons of mass destruction, plenty of people in the intelligence community (Richard Clarke for one) warned about Islamic terrorism- it was Mr Perle and his friends who erased the doubts and told us that terrorism was linked to Iraq. Until Mr Perle recognises that he and his friends including those in the White House made this war and should bear the responsibility for it, and should think about why they got it wrong, I'm not sure he is in a position to criticise anyone else's behaviour.

Matt Sinclair

Just thought I'd put in a plug- Matt Sinclair is a good lad and by being wrong so often a good foil for this blog :) - he is up for the best young conservative blog of the year at these awards and in my view we should all encourage Matt to continue making statements I have to argue with- despite his employment for the taxpayers alliance- because otherwise what would this blog be about. :)

May 14, 2007

Gracchi on the couch watching football

For those interested- my analysis of Sheffield United's relegation from the Premiership is up at Bits of News. Incidentally just a thought but isn't the picture above the footballing version of Munch's scream- see below

Well maybe not- but I'm sure that's how Neil Warnock was feeling at the time!

A new Hobbes tract?

This review in the Telegraph by Blair Worden, one of the most respected seventeenth century historians around, of Noel Malcolm's new book is interesting- apparantly Malcolm has discovered amidst the papers of William Cavendish, Thomas Hobbes's employer and Duke of Newcastle, a translation of Altera Secretissima Instructio, a tract published in Vienna in 1626, into English. According to Malcolm, who is the most important textual scholar of Hobbes around, the translation must have been done by Hobbes and therefore may be added to his other 1620s translations- that of Thucydides for example. I have not read the book, only the review by Professor Worden, but I would be surprised if both Professors Worden and Malcolm were wrong- having said that without having read the book, I am resting my opinion on their authority. If true, this throws yet more light upon the development of Hobbes as a philosopher- it suggests a personal involvement with a line of European thinking- called by historians the reason of state literature which concentrated on reminding Princes about the interest of their states as opposed to the morality of their actions- which may throw further light upon De Cive, Leviathan and Behemoth.

The Liberal Post-Mortem

Most observers in the UK consider that the next election could produce a hung Parliament- which would require a coalition of two of the three main parties in order for their to be a sustainable governing majority in the House of Commons. Obviously as yet we don't know what will happen- but its worth considering.

Especially in the light of the local election results- the Liberal Democrats in particular seem to have suffered losses on what Sarah Teather on the night described as a mixed night for them. One of their leading bloggers musing about the results, argued that two of the three reasons for failure were that Liberal Democrats ran councils as a minority and weren't able to achieve much- and that in Scotland the Liberals got thumped for Labour mistakes.

The Norfolk Blogger (for it is he) describes very adequately some of the dangers that the liberals may face soon in national politics- for the last scenario he maps out in particular may turn out to be the Liberal fate in the event of a hung Parliament- especially were they to keep Labour in office. Its an interesting dilemma for the liberals- reflected at local level- that to get into power they need a coalition and yet a coalition could prove their undoing.

May 13, 2007

Pierre Menard, Said Qutb, Don Quixote, Marxism and radical Islam

Theodore Dalrymple has posted an interesting article up at the New English Review comparing Marxism and radical Islam. There are little errors in the article- a bit of Islamic Essentialism but the main focus is on the comparison of Marx and Qutb. Basically Dalrymple argues that both of them seek a perfect man- he is right- and both of them view this perfect man as a creation of politics- there I'm not so sure, he is right about Marx definitely. Qutb though, more like the saints of the English Revolution, an analogy that Oliver Roy a scholar of the Islamist movement has made, argued that Islam reformed the soul and that therefore an Islamic state would reform the people's souls. There is something interesting going on here though- because its true to say that there are traces of Marx in Islamic fundamentalist thought- just as in my opinion there are traces of Neitsche but that could not be said of some varieties of radical English civil war thinking which ressembles it in many ways.

Jose Luis Borges is one of his most inventive stories dealt with this precise problem. He wrote about Pierre Menard, a fictional French author, who had decided to rewrite word for word Don Quixote. Menard had absorbed himself in seventeenth century Spain and Spanish, had attempted to get back to what Cervantes had written but independently of Cervantes- had almost sought to retrace Cervantes's progress towards the Quixote, arriving at exactly the same destination. But Borges argues in his story that Menard, though he wrote the Quixote perfectly word for word, could never write the same Quixote as Cervantes. Though the words were the same- the passage of history between the two works meant that Menard's Quixote was different. One could detect the influence of Neitsche upon it, the influence of a thousand authors that Cervantes could never have read, of the whole movement of the enlightenment etc, the date meant that though the words were the same, the freight that the words carried with them- philosophical, ideological or even literary had changed. Menard's Quixote was not Cervantes's Quixote.

Its a fascinating story- but lets go back to what it means for Theodore Dalrymple and Said Qutb. Dalrymple is right here- the issue is that whereas say a theorist like John Spittlehouse writing in 1653 might address some of the same themes as Qutb writing in 1960 did, Spittlehouse wrote without Marx, without Neitsche, without all the literary and philosophical readings that were available to Qutb. Whereas it is wrong to try and read Spittlehouse as though he were responding to Marx- it is right to read Qutb as though he was and consequently it is right to compare Marx to Qutb. But we can go further- because this suggests something else about fundamentalism that is worth being interested in...

Qutb afterall is concerned primarily with restoring what he sees as the historical essense of Islam. For a moment, lets accept all of Qutb's historical points- even then he cannot be right that it is possible to completely restore the historical essense of Islam. Like Menard rewriting the Quixote, Qutb rewriting what he sees as the historical truth of Islam, ultimately is influenced by his own era and those eras between him and that historical truth. Ultimately neither Qutb nor any contemporary Muslim, nor any contemporary Christian or Jew, can bridge the gap of centuries and rewrite exactly the thought down of the founders of their religion. Obviously its possible to analyse from the outside what those founders wrote, but analysis relies upon later knowledge as well as being an attempt to recover earlier patterns of thought- the historian takes a step into the past but leaves a foot upon his own time, Qutb doesn't want to do that- and in such a desire like Menard with Quixote- he is bound to be disappointed.

Copts and Egypt

Following the recent attacks- I've published an article over at Bits about why the Copts are such a big issue between sectarian and Islamist politicians in Egypt- the argument is pretty simple but I hope interesting.