May 26, 2007


Rachel from North London is a survivor of the events of July 7th- she has been running a blog since then- called appropriately enough Rachel from North London. On blogs we all have our running disagreements- I have mine with several bloggers and disagree with some of the causes that Rachel advocates as well- but it appears for Rachel things have gone further than that with one particular blogger who has been convicted in absentia of stalking her. That person, called Felicity Lowde, has the chance to appeal the conviction because no defence was offered on her behalf during the trial. However it is imperative that she turns up to the court for either an appeal or sentencing- consequently Rachel and the police are asking for anyone with information about Lowde's current whereabouts to phone crime stoppers or the police. Rachel provides an account of the incident here and asked bloggers to display this button: Lowde's photo is on it and she could be either in North Oxford or London,

Help Catch Felicity Jane Lowde

Monty Python - International Philosophy

This is brilliant- I don't put many football posts on here- but I'm sure everyone will appreciate this is a special case and I bet you that even James, King of the Youtube Football post, can't beat this.

By the way watch to the end or you'll miss England's great midfield trio- Bentham, Locke and Hobbes! Obviously even our philosophers do best playing 4-3-3!

May 25, 2007

Mr Dillow's Rights

Chris Dillow posts his usual interesting musings on the recent news, today he has taken on John Reid's arguments about rights- which Chris points out in a polite way, without actually saying it, are completely incoherent and make no sense. As Chris says 'rights' only make sense if they aren't something granted to you by Parliament but are something independent of leglislation and if they override other claims particularly those of circumstance. Chris is of course right- it makes no sense to have rights separate from the law without them trumping the law and being in some sense above the law.

Chris is right but what the moment illustrates is something rather serious about our political culture. I'm often rebuked, by Matt Sinclair amongst others, for being over academic in my analysis but I think this illustrates it. Mr Reid is not a great philosopher- the interesting thing though is that lots of far more intelligent people than Mr Reid often say similar things about rights- that there is a tension for instance between rights and security has become a commonplace of the intellectually barren. So what is the confusion?

Well lets turn to Chris Dillow's discussion- its obvious that people don't really know what they mean by the word, right. Furthermore though we often discuss rights, human rights and other things of that nature, we very seldom turn in the newspapers or the news to what rights are. Often it strikes me that most who use the term and ferociously argue about it have different definitions of the word, right, but because noone defines that term persist in thinking that they should agree and can't really work out why they do disagree.

Perhaps in this one area- a bit more discussion of what we actually mean by words might help in elucidating where arguments are going.

Sarkozy's voters

Just posted an article at Bits- its about the rather amazing news about the French election. According to post election polling, Sarkozy the rightwing victor lost every age group save the retired. Amongst those over 65 he won 75% of the vote whilst winning somewhere in the forties in every other demographic. Its interesting- I'm not sure maybe Vino could enlighten me but this might be the first election decided in this manner- ie where simply winning the pensioners has won you the election. I've pontificated about some of the implications- but it is a fascinating statistic.

May 24, 2007


Just noticed a new set of awards for blogging- amongst the nominees is the consistently interesting Not Saussure and the very good leftwing blogger Unity. There are many other good blogs there- but Not Saussure I have been reading for a while and he always publishes some very interesting stuff with an intelligent and thoughtful spin on it. Unity also is good- his taking apart of the BNP in this post is a joy to behold. I'd reccomend you read both blogs...

And I should have mentioned that Chris another great blogger is also up there.

Jurgen Habermas and subsidising the Press

I have just posted a few thoughts on this over at Bits of News.

May 23, 2007

The Dilemma of the West: the Battle of Algiers

One scene from the film, the Battle of Algiers, stands for the dilemma in which we all are transfixed. A disco is taking place with French expatriates, kids who are having fun, dancing. A pretty girl in the corner swings her hips to the rhythm of the song and drops her bag- fifteen minutes later the dancers come onto the street having heard an explosion- a gas bottle one assumes, they go back in- the music starts again and they sway in time and then a bomb goes off, you hear screaming, the screen is filled with smoke which clears to broken rubble and crews of ambulance men carrying away the bodies of young innocent French boys and girls who had gone out for a date little realising that their date was with eternity. Its a scene I watch again and again to try and understand the realities of terrorism- to try and detect in a flicker of an actress's eyebrow the motivations of Osama Bin Laden.

The Colonel, Colonel Mathieu, sent to repress the terrorists arrives to tell us the true story of 'an unknown, unrecognisable enemy which blends in with the people' that is 'everywhere, in the cafes, in the streets of the Kasbah, in the streets of the European quarter, in the shops, in places of work'. Showing this- demonstrating it through a camera film of the checkpoint through which the girl who blew up the dance floor went, the colonel demonstrates that there is no way of knowing who blew up the dance floor. Furthermore he demonstrates that the suspects can only be marked out by their ethnicity and yet the majority of those with that ethnicity are innocent- and even those who look suspicious are not neccessarily those who were the perpetrators. The Colonel singles out a man who stopped his case being searched- but we know its the pretty girl flirting with the guards who is the perpetrator.

The director shows us the opposite way round- he shows us how the racism of the French at the beggining of the film turns from a casual response to the Algerians to a vicious anger against them. Kicking and beating up a young kid merely for the crime of looking like a potential bombing. The soldiers on the checkpoint behave with brutality. Our terrorist protagonist, Ali La Pointe, running from a petty theft is casually tripped up by a young French man who thinks its funny to get an Algerian arrested. The FLN seek a liberty from colonialist oppression- that's at least how the radicals of the sixties for whom this was made would have seen it- the French to tyrannise over them- as one of the terrorists says to some journalists, you have your bombs, we have our baskets, if you give us planes and bombs, you can have our baskets. Its a vivid explanation of what Sartre called the boomerang of terrorism- the way that a deficit in power turns into a terrifying instrument of revenge.

The film was made by a Marxist, Gillo Pontecervo, but its acute observations of the way that terrorism and counter-terrorism work is an amazing piece of work- still shown in the Pentagon to train specialists in counter terrorism going to Iraq. Colonel Matthieu is sent to Algiers to repress the FLN- and declares that he has the answer interrogation under torture. The first scene of the film (the film is strictly a flash back demonstrating how we got to this point) shows Colonel Matthieu's men casually torturing an Algerian to force him to lead them to the headquarters of Ali La Pointe. We see Algerians submerged in water, attached to electrodes, hung upside down and whipped and burned with flame throwers in order tot extract information. At a press conference, Mathieu makes his strategy clear interrogation is the only 'valid method' against a clandestine terrorist organisation, 'it' he says 'is a vicious circle', the problem is that the French want to stay and that this is the method to stay by. Matthieu a veteran of the Resistance reminds the reporters that he served against the Nazis and in Buchenwald and that if they are going to resist terrorist movements the only way to proceed is to torture to get information. From the legality of the police, to the brutality of the army, to the organised torture of the paratroopers policy responds to circumstance and grows more vicious.

And what is the consequence on the other side? Superficially there is very little. The FLN is a coalition in the film of petty thugs, elevated by events into self proclaimed national heroes, and totalitarian semi-intellectuals who wish to move society by force not argument. Their violence is restrained only by their lack of capability but they are willing to bomb, to drive cars into civilians, to dash out onto the pavement killing and shooting people with machine guns. The violence does perhaps escalate with police violence but you remain confident that these guys would commit it anyway. Their organisation revels in violence and blood- perhaps the most symbolic moment is when a group of terrorists are trapped in a house. Matthieu offers them a guarentee of a trial- they want it in writing and lower down a basket to get it, but inside the basket is a bomb which goes off killing a soldier. This is a society of the inhuman- but it is flanked by the normal Algerian populace and melts back into them- the difficulty lies in extracting the terrorist without loosing the support of the Algerian.

That is where ultimately Colonel Matthieu fails- he extracts the terrorists- by the end of the film he has captured all of them- but at the end of the film the Algerian population themselves take to the streets in spontaneous protests against the French adn hence the French are forced out. The terrorism has provoked an escalating reaction that in the end has led to victory for them. Matthieu's strategy has convinced the Algerians that they are different from the French and need to be independent and the FLN has succeeded.

Ultimately that is our dilemma too- because every false arrest and accusation of torture creates problems. Both in that as Matthieu comments it creates Sartres who criticise the West more than the opposing side, and because much deeper it creates new movements to aid the old movements against us. Its the problem of what to do about a bully- leave him be and he creates victims of his crimes, the bodies of the young French boys and girls above call out that what happened to them must not happen again, but torture him and you create a victim yourself. You transfer a terrorist into a martyr. There are no easy answers- Colonel Matthieu's analysis of why interrogation is important, why you have to work out the membership of the organisation is absolutely right- but it leads to disaster. Always policing walks on a tightrope- and faces a problem in dealing with terrorists.

Gillo Ponteverco was a Marxist and very sympathetic to the Algerian cause- but this film watched in the light of 9/11 and 7/7 avoids the easy answers. Ponteverco may have beleived them- in an interview he says that Ali La Pointe is a hero- which he isn't but the work of art that he created leaves us in the end with as many questions as answers- it is a fascinating film about a terrifying issue. Ponteverco's use of his non-proffessional cast, his choice of camera shots to make the film seem like a documentary and his ability to get at the streets of Algiers and shoot them in a way that conveys the setting wonderfully- demonstrates a film maker truly in command of his art. Cinematographically this is one of the great films- and deserves to be seen if only for that reason- beyond the issue that it illuminates.

Ultimately though whenever I think of the film and I've seen it both on a big screen- if you are in London the Institute of Contemporary Arts is showing it for a few more days and its worth seeing on that size of screen- and on a little- I think of the issue of terrorism. And I think of that girl dancing slowly and inconspicuously, beautiful with a sympathetic face casually dropping her bag and leaving it there to blow the French kids to oblivion and think there but for the grace of God go I- and hope we can find a way to stop her without giving her the status of a martyr, a way of stopping her that doesn't turn her death and the death of her helpers into excuses to create even more terrorists.

May 20, 2007

An additional article at Bits

I ought to mention I have just published an article on US-Pakistani relations at Bits.

Thoughts on Kershaw's Hitler

Adolph Hitler must amongst the most famous people in history today. Used by many as a personification of evil, and rightly judged one of the most awful tyrants who has ever lived, he has not lacked for biographers or for historians to chronicle his terrible deeds. Like a modern Genghis Khan, he stalks the stage of our imagination, his name forever tied to the iconography of Auschwitz and the horrors of the Holocaust. Hitler's reputation is justified- and no reading of the evidence or the history can expulcate one of the greatest mass murderers in history- Hitler's grim attempt to wipe out an entire race is perhaps unique in human history- his place is assured in a contemporary circle of hell.

Making Hitler the embodiment of evil though doesn't help us much in trying to explain why he arose when he did. Why in one of the most civilised countries of Europe- Germany- did this monster seize control and why did so many Germans go along with and aid in his terrible and ferocious policies? This vast question has perplexed people since the fall of the Third Reich- Ira Katznelson has documented how a host of thinkers attempted to work out what had produced Hitler and why the enlightenment project had gone wrong. Philosophers and thinkers as various as Frederick Hayek, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss and Isaiah Berlin mused upon the development of Naziism and the fact that it had seized control of German life and destroyed the Jews.

Away from the philosophical aspects of the longue duree that produced Hitler, historians have also dug into the reasons for the temporary and bloodstained success of Hitler's regime. Amongst these one of the foremost is Ian Kershaw whose two volume biography of the tyrant straddled the millenium. I have only read the first volume and this post contains some reflections upon that volume but I make no apology for not anticipating the content of the second volume- nor for not representing all of what Professor Kershaw has written about in a vast and wonderful book about a nasty and terrible subject.

Kershaw's Hitler is fascinating for a number of reasons- firstly as those who know a little about Hitler may already appreciate, Hitler was the politician as megaphone. He was completely incapable of holding down any job or doing any work until he went in his twenties to fight in the trenches. Hitler's relationship to the First World War was profound: he emerged from being a footloose tramp in Vienna onto the front and discovered for the first time a purpose, a reason to be, a reason to exist. Kershaw shows us how Hitler was anti-semitic and had many of the views that he was later to hold before the war, but how the war and particularly the aftermath to the war crystallised them. For Hitler the crucial year was 1919 after the stab in the back (as he thought of peace in 1918) when he was used by the General Staff as an orator. For at last he had discovered his metier- making long and often hatefilled speeches against Marxism. In the crucible of this vital year, Kershaw suggests Hitler developed his views, views which he held in the main part right up until the fall of the bunker in 1945- definitely for the first time in 1919 we read rhetoric within Hitler's speeches about eliminating the Jews for instance. Hitler's rise was aided by the structures of defeat within Germany- by the fact that many within the army craved his ability to give speeches and win minds over against communism. In the chaos that ran up until 1924, Hitler was shuffled out of the army but into roles within the newly formed parties of the right- in particular the party that was to become the Nazi party- of which he became chair in an unpremeditated set of moves in 1923.

There was no plan, Kershaw argues, behind Hitler's rise. Much of the idea of a planning genius, a Fuhrer, arose later. The simple truth was that Hitler never had a great analytic understanding of politics and was bored by party work- consequently he was often caught unawares by events. He could have been stopped at many different moments- a long gaol sentence in 1923 after the failed Munich putsch could have prevented him from rising further and the Nazi party was an incoherent bunch of ne'erdowells inspired by his oratory but little else. Hitler's position within the party relied on the promotion of the idea of his leadership- as later in the Nazi state with the legal theories of Carl Schmidt and others- the Nazi party of the twenties was a vehicle for the leader. It lacked any ideological coherence or statement of principles beyond that it lined up behind Hitler as a figure. In the German state of the 1930s, Kershaw shows a key influence on why things happened was that functionaries sought to anticipate their lazy fuhrer- similarly in the Nazi party of the 1920s- Hitler was never in control of events and was far more interested in propaganda than in anything else.

This is an interesting portrait- I haven't captured half of it and will no doubt post more about Kershaw's work here- perhaps the most interesting thing is the way that Kershaw documents at length Hitler's evolving thought. He was born and brought up in an anti-semitic part of Austria and so absorbed anti-semitic ideas, despite having some Jewish acquaintances in Vienna, Hitler was latently anti semitic there and it merely took the war to crystallise that. The main thing that emerges from this is that Hitler was a fundamentally unimpressive man- he was no evil genius- but rather a man with little learning and no imagination but with a loud and insistant voice. His learning was particularly meagre- he never read but to reinforce his own views and relied on excerpting instead of reading things. He was a waster an idler and a scrounger who through the lucky accident of a war, a period of instability and the bad judgement of the German establishment came to power.

That is the last thing I want to write about tonight and that is the way that the German establishment of the time let this happen. From Erich von Ludendorff to Paul von Hindenberg and Franz von Papen the right of German politics continually aided and abetted Hitler's plans. Despite losing votes in the 1933 elections, he was called into government. It is often stated and is worth doing so again that the issue with the right in politics in Germany at the time was that they opposed Weimer and socialism so much that they saw no problem with Naziism. Kershaw shows how the regime swiftly eliminated opposition, how swiftly it made institutions coordinate with the central state and how the victims were naturally the Jews and the Marxists for whom noone would weep a tear. The story of mistakes and errors is worth telling again and again to make people realise that an ignorant corporal could become dictator with the right demagogic skills and the unwillingness to resist the executive power by most on the right and centre of German politics.

There is more to say- how could there not be but I will finish here- and will resume with another article soon- unfortunately I am again away for a couple of days but I hope these thoughts on the tyrant give you something to ponder and I'll be back on Wednesday morning!


For those interested, a friend of mine from Cambridge, Dr Robert Freedman has supplied a brief retrospect for Jerry Falwell.