June 09, 2007

The triviality of people's interests

Unable to sleep for a various reasons, I surfed around the blogpower blogs and came across this typically excellent post upon Ruthie Zaftig's blog about Paris Hilton. Ruthie is rightly full of ire- noting that Miss Hilton's brief noteriety and jail term has this week obscured the G8 summit, the deaths in Darfur, riots in Caracas and other problems of the world. As I myself have documented this week on Bits, Miss Hilton has had predecessors and like her they seemed vast at the time but in the light of subsequent generations the fame of a Lola Montez has collapsed like a bubble of soap into the air.

This is a question that I often ponder- this blog afterall (Edmund and Matt Sinclair this is meant for you) has been accused of taking the intellectual highground, to as Matt might say fractal subtlety but that's because it reflects my interests. The news filled with what happened in big brother and what a blonde who I couldn't care less about felt about her first night in jail seems at times to be about as remote from my interests, as the Emperor Claudius is from my group of friends. So what is it ultimately that appeals to people about these kind of things in the news?

The News in my view performs two functions in our society. I want to concentrate on one- as the wonderful film Network suggested the news is entertainment. In Network the TV company goes as far as to encourage soothsayers to predict the political future, to stage Maoist insurgencies against the US government and ultimately a mental breakdown on air- but what Network gets to is that part of the essense of news is to entertain. Most people sitting at home are there to relax- they have a cup of tea, have eased up their feet and are watching a program that they want to relax them into the night- which is perfectly fine. Therefore the kind of gossipy fun that Paris Hilton provides, turning everyone into a neighbour leaning on a park fence and tutting over the latest scandal du jour, is precisely the kind of thing that the news ought to be doing. Its providing a service and its making people's lives better.

But the News has another function- and that's to illuminate the world. You see in part when we watch the news, we are the relaxed worker- having worked a full day we are entitled to a little rest and enjoying gossip is a human faculty that no age of enlightenment has yet worked out of us- I must admit to enjoying it myself! But there is another deadly serious sense to the news- and that is that for most people its one of their chief sources of information about the world. When one votes at an election, perhaps the most serious other regarding issue that as a body of a people we take, the normal voter (and that's most of us) relies upon the news for their perception of events. We rely upon newspapers and more often than that Television. In that sense the fact that we don't understand about the G8 but know the ins and outs of Paris Hilton's case is a real disgrace.

TV companies constantly are trying to balance those two considerations. For me they fail more often than not- by not providing a more serious output and so I agree with Ruthie- but its always worth reminding the Gracchis or Ruthies of this world about the lawyer who has come home from a hard day at work and just wants to absorb some fluff before bed- its always worth reminding those who take the opposite view about the grave duties of citizenship and the price of ignorance.

June 08, 2007

President Eisenhower: the skills of a general in politics

At the height of the second world war, the diaries of Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, recall a meeting had between President Roosevelt and the then commander in chief of the US armed forces General George Marshall. Roosevelt had summoned Marshall to meet him to decide on who should take charge of the expedition to Normandy- both he and Stimson wanted Marshall to take command of the invasion because of his unrivalled skills at military administration. During the lunch though Marshall (despite the fact that it was his dearest desire to command at D-Day) turned down the opportunity, he told the President that there was only one man in the entire US army who could replace him, who had the strategic vision to see all the fronts and the organisational capacity to decide between the virtues of a machine gun post in Surrey versus an anti air craft gun in China- that man he said was the most junior of the American generals, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Well Roosevelt took Marshall's implied advice and kept him in Washington- and he sent Eisenhower upon his general's reccomendation to command in the Normandy beeches.

I tell this story in part because it reflects well upon the great and now forgotten centurion of the United States army, George Marshall, a man whose acheivements in the first and second wars and indeed the cold war are beyond doubt and down till today retain importance. But also it demonstrates something about the character of that other crucial military man of the mid-century- General Eisenhower. Eisenhower or Ike as he came to be known, the commander at the D-Day landings and later the President of the United States on the Republican ticket (the only Republican to serve as President between the inaugurations of Roosevelt and Nixon), was an incredibly competent President. That might seem faint praise- but in reality it is the highest complement that may be paid to an executive officer with such power- for the assessment of Marshall, a shrewd judge of men, proved right and Eisenhower both as general and President proved well able to manage a huge organisation, to take advice when needed and to realise the limits of his own understanding.

One instance can sum up this aspect of the character of Eisenhower and that is the way that he treated the scientists who designed the nuclear weapons. Professor John Rigden provides a wonderful analysis of this in this week's issue of Physics Today Under President Truman, Eisenhower's predecessor, the scientists had been relegated to the outside of the policy discussion. Famously Truman could not abide Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Los Alamos project, upon their first meeting the President told Dean Acheson that "I don't want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again." Truman in the late forties gathered together a scientific group to advise the White House but it seldom had any influence on US Policy and indeed its members considered resigning in 1951- they stayed but they stayed only in the hope that the next President, whoever he might be, would listen to them more than the then incumbent.

Well they were rewarded- when Eisenhower was elected in 1952 he faced two urgent problems. The first was the so-called missile gap by which the Soviets were supposed to be during the 1950s accelerating past the United States and threatening the Western alliance with nuclear holocaust. The second was the launch in 1957 of the Sputnik satallite, something that Western military analysts feared meant that the Soviets possessed the capacity to launch long range missiles at Western Europe and the continental United States. As Professor Rigden shows, Eisenhower faced with these problems as they became acute in 1957 did not panic but summoned the scientific committee and actually went into the room to face them, something that Truman had never done. From that meeting, Eisenhower perceived that a formal structure needed to be set up to provide him with the information that those scientists had in their hands- he appointed a liason between himself and the committee and largely after that point he followed policies that they suggested. Arguing rightly that the United States could sign a test ban treaty for instance because as Hans Bethe had proved it was possible to detect whether the Soviets would break such a treaty.

President Eisenhower had the confidence ultimately to walk into a room with several eminent scientists and listen to them and understand their conclusions. Just as he would have done as Marshall's successor in Washington, just as he did during D-Day, the general's mind processed particular information and placed it in the context of a bigger picture that only he was concentrating on. Unfortunately his successors let the system lapse- President Kennedy and Johnson continued to hear from the committee- but under President Nixon the scientists were diluted with a selection of people from industry and other businesses and later the committee was abolished. Scientists now communicate with Washington through lobbyists and other non-scientist organisations all clamouring to be heard amongst the babble of battling ideologues and the pundit class. Hence the troubles that the United States government has had in accepting the scientific consensus on global warming.

President Eisenhower's tenure in the Oval Office though reflects something worth pausing on- the test ban treaty and other initiatives originated (though in that particular case not carried through in his administration) were the products of someone confident enough to listen to experts and have his previous opinions challenged. The President in truth entered the Oval Office a student as much as a director of policy, he adjusted his policy based upon the evidence provided to him by bona fide experts and had the confidence to do so. His successors have not shown that same confidence- a mark perhaps of the way that General Marshall's judgement long ago was absolutely correct- Eisenhower had a skill that every party and person ought to be looking for in a politician, the confidence to know that he didn't have all the answers and needed more advice and ultimately to find those who knew what they were talking about and turn to them for that advice. That's what he did with the physicists in 1957, if only George Bush could do it with the climate scientists in 2007.

June 07, 2007

Blogging awards

I'm afraid that some of you nominated me for a couple of awards in the Blogpower awards- Best British Blogger, most articulate blogger- anyway if you feel like voting for me or anyone else the awards are open and you can vote once a day for various blogs (including this one- hint)- I'm not going to do anymore campaigning than this post.

Incidentally apologise for the absense of articles today- had a busy day- and also have posted an article at Bits on For your consideration a recent film.

Personal Note

As many of you know, in early February my father died very suddenly and without warning after a brain haemorhage. The doctors said that there was no particular reason for it- it was just the kind of thing that happens without explanation. Anyway the Times have just published an obituary of him- and I thought I should link to it for those interested- its here. I'm not going to add very much save for the fact that he was a very great man- loved very much by his family- and I think that's probably all I can write on the subject at the moment.

Killing no Murder

Is it acceptable to kill tyrants after a revolution in a trial even if one opposes the death penalty in most other cases? Michael Walzer has suggested that it is permissable to execute a tyrant- even if one does not beleive in the death penalty- in the magazine Dissent. I at Bits of News have respectfully disagreed with Professor Walzer.

The quotation in my title above is from a pamphlet written by Edward Sexby in the late 1650s about killing Oliver Cromwell because of Cromwell's tyranny, Cromwell was one of the signatories to the death warrent of Charles I in 1649 and Sexby had served as an officer in Cromwell's army. The irony I hope is interesting.

June 06, 2007

Personality and Politics

Richard Nixon is one of the most recognisable names in American politics- the former President and Vice President of the United States's reputation though has come down to one moment- Watergate- the break in to the democratic headquarters and the subsequent coverup and scandal. Nixon though was much more of a President than his reputation as 'tricky Dicky' might suggest- one might argue that the man who invented the Southern strategy of the Republican Party, brought in the first affirmative action contracts for black applicants in the public sector, made peace with China, ended the Vietnam war and inaugurated Detente not to mention a host of other acheivements and failures deserves a different reputation. Watergate though captured something about Nixon- his suspicion of outsiders, paranoia about the world and rage against the establishment were all illustrated by the Watergate burglary. Watergate and particularly the tapes that Nixon had to reveal which illustrated his temprament casts a shadow over his Presidency.

As George Packer points out in the New Yorker that's hardly unusual. Both for American Presidents and British Prime Ministers and other political leaders a single moment- Thatcher and the miners strike or the Falklands, Major and Back to Basics, Clinton's is that isn't, LBJ and the napalm in Vietnam, Harry Truman and the atomic bomb decision or the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine, FDR and the only fear that is fear itself- sums up their entire time in office. There is a manifest injustice in this- on both sides. Sometimes a political leader like Truman is defined by his acheivements- like the creation of NATO- avoiding some of the opportunities that perhaps he missed. Sometimes a leader like LBJ is defined by a war that he had no real part of avoiding for instance his visionary social programs which were perhaps the most visionary in the whole of American history. Political careers can therefore be unjustly defined- but I think there is also a curious way in which this way of defining leaders by significant moments is actually justified.

Jennifer Senior in the New York Magazine writes interestingly today about the way that modern American campaigns work- again in a completely unjustified way a reporter or even a citizen follows around a candidate watching for a mistake and then might put it on YouTube or the countless other video hosting sites. Such an occurance destroyed the recent campaign of George Allen for senator of Virginia- the then senator was caught mouthing a racial slur macaca and the video uploaded to Youtube, Allen had to go on Meet the Press to apologise and it effected his campaign and possibly even lost him the election and hence the Republicans the senate. Jennifer Senior argues that actually this model of campaigning is good- essentially it tests candidates to destruction, in particular Presidential candidates to destruction- you find out if like Howard Dean they scream when beaten- and that's useful because Presidents come under pressure and no matter what their political orientation, how they react under pressure. If someone becomes a racist under pressure- then they might if there were riots in major US cities return to those beliefs, if they become angry under pressure, well what happens when someone isn't pointing a mobile phone at them but a nuclear missile and so on.

Personality, Tony Benn used to say, was less important than issues. Mr Benn was wrong about many things in British politics- this is one of them. Part of the role of the politician is to take decisions that most of us never have to take- decisions which effect millions- and they have to remain calm. They have to remain calm in front of the most amazing insults flung at them domestically and internationally. Their personal qualities count- the fact that Gordon Brown finds disagreement difficult to deal with or that Tony Blair finds formality hard to understand are faults in them as Prime Ministers and policy makers. Ultimately its very difficult to know much about the government that governs us- the decisions that George Bush made this week on Sudan for example need to be understood in the context of East African affairs that people like me, fascinated by politics, barely understand. We grope in the dark when it comes to policy- which is why personality offers us a clue to the way in which politicians approach areas of policy that we are not informed about.

President Nixon's conduct over Watergate revealing all his prejudices but also an underhand intelligence- a mind prepared to use any means to success as he defined it revealed something about his way of approaching his Presidency. He ran a campaign to unseat the Democrats in the south, whilst offering affirmative action to Northern Blacks. His foreign policy could fairly be characterised as realist- no man could be further than Henry Kissinger from Paul Wolfowitz. Most of the period Nixon's administration different bits of the government were bugging other bits of the government- a fact that blew into a crisis in 1971 when members of Nixon's administration demanded that other members be arrested for effectively spying. Nobody knew that at the time- the majority of the people in the country still probably don't know about it- but because of Watergate- that apt summary of President Nixon's Presidency, they know the man.

One might say similar things about President Clinton's sexual appetites and the Lewinsky scandal- long after Paula Jones and a whole cabal of women have vanished the meaning of is will remind us of President Clinton's sexual desires and the tendency for them to lead him down risky roads. There is more though Clinton's famous comment demonstrates something else about the advocate of triangulation- that sense that he kept just this side of the law and just about succeeded in surviving. The whole investigation, with its prurient claims about semen stains and puritan attacks on lying (led incidentally by the same people who think Scooter Libby's lying was not significant and are campaigning for Scooter's pardon) sums up a particular era when the Republican Congress seemed to be on a witchhunt over Clinton.

There is an issue of course when people get the wrong image- John Major in my view has been unfairly maligned as a British Prime Minister- but in general these personality issues- the froth of politics- are important- we don't have the time to investigate the questions of what policy should be so most of the time we elect someone's judgement to decide for us. The thing is that if that person is a bad enough judge to tell a racist joke would you elect them as a Senator?

Gracchi at Bits

Just thought I'd put in a link to my latest article at Bits- is Patrick Stewart going to make a new Merchant of Venice and what are the problems associated with an attempt to film that notorious play.

John Prescott ill

It appears that John Prescott has got pneumonia- he has apparantly due to both his age and his type 2 diabetes gone into a high dependency unit but is conscious. Mr Prescott is obviously not all right- but I do hope he pulls through this and goes on to enjoy his retirement in peace and health.

June 04, 2007

Blogpower Awards

Just to say that nominations are still open for the Blogpower Awards, to nominate a blog- even this one (go on, go on, go on) or many of the other great blogs on the net (and the categories are open to both Blogpower blogs and non-Blogpower blogs apart from the best blogpower blog which is rather self explanatorily only open to those who qualify by being a member!) just give James Higham an email- his address is jameshighamATmailDOTcom. So nominate away...

British Day

Amongst the more disturbing tendencies of this government is its tendency to want to make laws to deal with every problem that it comes across. Not Saussure has documented one instance of this involving Louise Casey, the Respect Tsar, over here and his analysis is typically astute. Another instance of the same mentality came up today though- when two government ministers, Ruth Kelly and Liam Byrne, proposed that a day to celebrate the patriotism of Britain be created. Kelly and Byrne want to do more than that they want to control the notion of Britishness produced focusing on civic values for example. Quite how the ministers envisage this working is a difficult to work out- state sponsored parties anyone! But there is something broader going on here- as Not Saussure demonstrates the issue is that the government have seen a problem- in this case a purported lack of British patriotism- and then seeks to leglislate for it. As Not Saussure argues though there are some things that cannot be leglislated for- there might be ways that the Government could increase patriotism just as there might be ways for the Government to increase happiness- but telling everyone to be patriotic or happy isn't likely to be one of them!

Lola Montez- the insignificance of celebrity

I've just written an article on that topic at Bits of News.

June 03, 2007

David Mellor

David Mellor, who used to be a British Cabinet Minister until he resigned in disgrace, recently went on the radio to criticise David Cameron. Mellor made several points- almost all of them wrong. Mellor rebuked Cameron for his lack of economic competence- from a man who was Chief Secretary during the period that we were in the ERM (which was the point from which the Tory reputation on economics became cataclysmic) and whose main claim to fame in office was to have sex in a Chelsea strip the attacks on competence are a bit rich. Mellor can't really talk about media management either- this is the man who after he had an affair forced his wife to come out and speak to the journalists about it the day she found out about it. Mellor's scalp was possibly the most universally cheered moment of the 1997 election as he fell in Putney (a seat that the Tories should never really have lost) and his immature rants about football on the BBC, which struck new levels both in condescending and patronising slime, overt bias and blatant disregard for the facts merely reminded the public of why he should never be in politics again. You can criticise David Cameron all you like- and this blog isn't a big fan- but David Mellor is someone unfit to wash the shoes of any of the present leaders of the UK political parties (I'm including Gordon Brown in that as well)- he should grow up- but considering his political record is one of oleaginous climbing, sleeping with women half his age and jibing from the outside- growing up isn't something he seems particularly adept at.

(Apologies was just consumed by wrath- there aren't many politicians that I heartily dislike- Mellor is one.)

The Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party

The race for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party is quite an interesting one. Dave Cole has his assessment up of the latest political betting odds here and Vino has also offered some thoughts on the contest. But I thought it worth offering some thoughts of my own- even though the contest has barely started and these opinions may change. The problem though is that too many within the labour party are looking at the issue from an internal perspective- and I think its more worth looking at the issue from an external one- which candidate would best offer an option different to Gordon Brown. In my judgement John Prescott's deputy leadership was a success partly because he managed to do that for Tony Blair.

On that criterion despite being female and therefore obviously different, I think that both Hazel Blears and Harriet Harmon are ruled out. Both have been such loyalists and based their careers on being close to the leader of the moment that they ultimately would not add anything. Blears in particular as minister for the Today program has been an effective rebutter of attacks but seems always to be rebutting for the sake of rebutting the attack not of making an argument. Harmon's closeness to Brown and her weak performance as minister for social security hardly endear her to me as an option. Having said that she performed well in the debate that I saw on newsnight- surprisingly well- in which case she probably moves into third place in my thinking at the moment.

Peter Hain would be a plausible independent thinker- but my problem with Hain lies in the fact that he is a loose cannon. He makes silly comments. Furthermore he has rowed back politically from many of his original policy prescriptions- making naive attacks on President Bush when in 2003 he argued passionately that we should back President Bush's war. Alan Johnson likewise hasn't impressed me in his ministerial career so far- being responsible for a silly pensions deal with the public sector unions- it strikes me that such irrational exuberence may carry him too far.

The top two for me at the moment are Hillary Benn and Jon Cruddas. Benn came across on the Newsnight debate and comes across in general as a principled statesman- he has the bearing of someone who has ideas and can argue well, he still supports the Iraq war and hasn't rowed back though he acknowledges the problems with it- such a willingness to defend the decision that he took and to also acknowledge problems at the moment is attractive. Furthermore he seems generally to be thought of as a good minister as International Development Secretary- if not a good Foreign Secretary he seems to me to be a good candidate as a number two to Brown. Cruddas is a different kind of politician- a very interesting campaigning MP who doesn't want to be in the cabinet but wants to do interesting things with the Labour party- he offers a very new voice- again like Benn you get the idea of principle emerging but principle which is consistant with the broad approach of a Brown government so that Cruddas would be an addition to a Brown government.

That's my view at the moment- but as I say though I would at the moment rule out Hain and Blears- Harmon and Johnson both could emerge as good candidates for the job. For me at the moment Benn and Cruddas are the most impressive candidates- though whether they remain so or whether the Labour party membership share my thinking are other matters.

Some Awards

Blogging is in part a social activity and all bloggers rely upon a community of other bloggers to keep talking to them and being friendly with them. Blogpower whose logo you see down the side was one such group designed to promote smaller bloggers and help people like me that had just started. Set up by James Higham the group is inclusive of all political opinions- including some that I violently disagree with, more than I disagree with any of the major UK or US parties.

The group was set up partly to protest against the fact that the standard award ceremonies seemed to puff up the bigger bloggers without actually helping smaller ones. Blogpower was an effort to promote each other's blogs- and as such it has to an extent worked- I definitely say look at some of the blogpower blogs often, and have discovered many worth my consideration. It seemed to be a natural development from this to set up an awards scheme- the rules of these awards are that anyone can nominate anyone (and the top ten nominated will go through to a vote) and that when the vote comes anyone can vote. The idea is to unearth lots of hidden gems and there are lots of really good websites up for the awards on the website.

Anyway I hope you enjoy

The categories for your perusal are

  • Best Britblog or Column
  • Best North American Blog or Column
  • Best Blog or Column outside North America and the U.K.
  • Best Fisker
  • Best Ranter
  • Best Political Blog or Column
  • Best Blogpower Blog or Column
  • Best Layout and Style
  • Best Blog Name
  • Best Little Blogger [i.e. under 100 uniques a day]
  • Most Articulate Wordsmith
  • Most Under-rated Blog or Column
  • Most Over-rated Blog or Column
  • Most Politically Incorrect Blog or Column
  • Most Sadly Missed Blog or Column
  • Most Consistently Entertaining Blog or Column
  • Prettiest or Tastiest Blog or Column [refers to food or domestic bloggers]
  • Award for Services to Blogging
  • Best Post of All Time
  • Most Unintentionally Humorous post
So go on- get nominating- you'll find the rules on the Blogpower website- and also keep an eye out in a week's time and get voting!

Ben Goldacre

In the light of Iain Dale's recent appearance on RTE's panel show, I thought that I'd bring back to people's attention this wonderful episode where Ben Goldacre- the writer of the Guardian's bad science column and opponent of all things irrational and hocus pocus which mascarade as science (Gillian McKeith watch out!)- the program is wonderful as Ireland's best comic talents unite with Goldacre to take apart the quacks and hacks!