July 14, 2007

Jonah Goldberg is entirely right

Jonah Goldberg today complains about the circus surrounding David Beckham- and how pseudo an event it is- how the event itself has no meaning but has meaning imparted to it. Beckham was one of the best footballers of his generation- probably still is one of the best crossers in the game even though he has lost his pace to the extent which he ever had pace. Beckham though has never be seen as solely a footballer- he has always been a celebrity as well- and there is something very odd about the divinity that doth hedge a celebrity that creates an aura around them and there is something here in which the psychology around Kings has been replaced with the same sense around the celebrities. When Beckham goes to play football with disabled kids, the echoes of the functions of Kings are manifest. There is something interesting here- though I'm not sure how to isolate it.

July 13, 2007

Gracchi abroad

Quick post to say I've three articles up at Bits- one on Gordon Brown and terrorism which is here, a defence of the BBC here and a discussion of French and American trade here.

July 12, 2007

Paddy Ashdown

Lord Ashdown is an interesting figure within British politics- former soldier, diplomat and Liberal Democrat leader, not to mention an international civil servant as High Representative in Bosnia, interviewed here. He has recently written a book about peacekeeping particularly in the context of his acheivements in Bosnia. His views are fascinating as someone who has been shelled by the Serbian army, involved both in fighting and in negotiating in the Middle East. Ashdown's views on Iraq are worth hearing- his view is that the maximum that we can obtain in Iraq is the preservation of Iraqi territorial integrity- that we have failed in Iraq to achieve the political ends that we designated when we set out to do. He compares the situation in Afghanistan to the situation of Somalia before Black Hawk went down. We are putting less resources than ever before and have a disunited command and are in his word failing- and that failure is not inevitable but likely. His gloomy prognostications include problems in Pakistan- with a possible regional civil war in the Muslim world.

Lord Ashdown rightly showers the American administration with scorn- attempting to create an American democracy in Iraq has failed completely. President Bush and Vice President Cheney may stand accountable for thousands if not millions alive at the bar of history, if indeed there are historians left to chronicle it. But lets not either let Europeans off the hook- the unwillingness of European powers to commit proper forces to Afghanistan or allow them to fight has weakened the western alliance and weakened NATO- the Europeans have betrayed the cause by their pusalliminity, whereas America has failed the cause by their folly. Europe needs to take more of a role- Germany, France, Italy and the UK need to beef up armies and military expenditure particularly for Afghanistan. The United States needs to work out that sending only 7 people speaking Arabic to its embassy in Iraq was folly- that having too few troops on the ground was a mistake that you can't do occupation on the cheap especially if you hope to rebuild a country and that losing control of the security situation at the start is something you must not do- Jay Garner was right the Americans had too few troops and disbanded the Iraqi army too soon.

All in all Lord Ashdown leaves copious evidence to document the fact that both sides of the Western alliance still live in the 1990s- the Americans trying to remake the world without knowing about it, the Europeans still failing to spend enough money. Both sides of the Atlantic need to do a lot more- we must learn from Afghanistan and Iraq- if the world is not to get more dangerous.

Long Campaigns

I am not a real political enthusiast- because Long Campaigns do bore me- unless anything spectacular happens the news headlines in America will be dominated by a top seven candidates that we became aware of around March this year until early next year. But Long Campaigns do have their advantages possibly- they test the mettle of the candidate and how responsive they are to media pressure. The recent travails of the McCain candidacy though demonstrate something else as Rich Lowry of the National Review reflected upon today recent revelations that McCain didn't know how much money his campaign was spending and the fact that he was taking all of the decisions reflected McCain's lack of executive experience. What they also supply the voter with, and I'm sure that McCain will not be the only candidate to run a bad campaign, is evidence of how competent a person would be at running a far larger organisation- the executive branch of the US Government. In that way despite the long campaign boring people like yours truly to distraction- it may well have its uses as a winnower of those unsuitable for the most powerful office in the world.

July 10, 2007

The mysterious case of the Lithuanian Embassy in Italy

Well that's what I've been writing about in Bits today. Its a rather interesting dispute about the status of the building that housed the Lithuanian embassy in the 1930s, the Lithuanians want it back they call it the last occupied part of Lithuania in Europe, the Italians insist though that there is no legal way to give it back. What is interesting is that you have the contest between an imagined national identity in which a particular building is Lithuanian no matter what its current legal status whereas the Italians are sticking to the law of the land and who it belongs to under that. Its interesting because it reflects the way that different types of languages about history- in this case the nationalist (Lithuanian) and legal (Italian) come into conflict- both are imagined constructions linking the present to the past and as such in each others' terms make no sense.


I've just reviewed Michael Moore's new film Sicko at Bits of News- personally I think Moore is right- for a civilised society- however you run it whether the French, British or any other way, universal health care free at the point of need is something that should happen- lets hope that the States gets there in the end.

July 09, 2007


When I began blogging I didn't hope rightly for a vast audience and I wasn't disappointed. But I have found myself surrounded by some excellent people- and those I'm referring to know exactly who they are- one of the things about blogging is that you tend to travel around and visit friends who are good and interesting thinkers as well. Plenty of blogs merit my daily attention- though I apologise if I don't comment as much as I should- and it may be invisible due to a lack of bloglog and the fact that curiously the more I visit a Blog, I begin to remember its address and tend to type it in rather than go from the link here.

As I said blogging is a social activity and many of my friends in the blogosphere have become electronically part of the furniture- to see that one of them is becoming discouraged with the whole activity is sad. James Hamilton is one of my favourite bloggers- I have encouraged friends offline to read him and read him as much as I can- as a football blogger he is only matched by people like Jonathan Wilson (an example of whose writing is here). The popularity of Mr Wilson's articles is boosted by his presence on the Guardian but they still make me wonder whether there is an audience for intelligent football comment- the question is finding the way of advertising your blog. James is though discouraged by the lack of audience for what he is writing- its incredibly sad that his thoughts seem to be tending to giving up the blog (its also an indictment of the blogging audience that his blog doesn't get enoguh readers). If you have never visited it I really encourage you to go across and have a look around- he is one of the most impressive bloggers on the net- much more impressive than many of the more mainstream ones- and even if you are not interested in football, his informed social commentary whereby he discusses how football evolved in the UK is worth reading. Let's hope he gets encouraged and continues!

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost

Ismail Kadare likes setting his novels in spring- Broken April for example is set in the Albanian Spring- so is this latest novel of his. Kadare is interested in the way that the Albanian past and present interlock- his Albania is the land of the Kanun (the ancient clan law) or of Homer- from novels like Broken April or the File for H forwards he has been fascinated by that historicity. Furthermore Kadare grew up and lived much of his adult life under the regime of Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator of Albania and again has charted the insidious and secretive workings of the totalitarian state- through novels like the Successor. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost set once again in the spring is yet another meditation on those two political themes- but its a meditation with a difference because both Communism and the Kanun are bound together in this fable of the coming of modernity to Albania.

The story is told through the medium of an artist, Mark Gurabardhi, who is the son of a policeman and whose options in life were dual- to follow his father to the police force or to become a painter in an obscure town, B.... Mark lives in B... alone, and spends most of his time roaming through the streets and bars of the place- a time interrupted by lovemaking with his girlfriend, whose name is never mentioned, whose nude body is the subject of his latest study. Mark's fantasies and dreams fill part of the novel- and are immersed in both kinds of historicity- the idea of a trial- in particular the trial of Tantalus, who stole immortality from heaven, and was punished by being placed in a pool of water from whence he could see all kinds of luxurious food but could never reach the plates in front of him is central to Mark's fantasies. Motifs are picked up and laid down again and again- myth and secrecy dominates the tale.

Modernity as it intrudes does so as a mere material reality- from which Mark's dreams and reality spins away. So for example constantly we are told of memos being sent from the Council of Europe to Albania to regulate this and that- to find out this and that about Albania- constantly political parties offstage are plotting to exploit this and that. Constantly Mark himself comes up against the reality of modernity and translates it into his own language- so for example in thinking about a man drowned beneath the straight of Otranto- his fantasy of the ghosts screaming out that the straight itself be punished by being dammed, takes place amidst a scene where condoms sink to the bottom of the sea accompanying sepulchral mirrors and the caterwauling of the gibbering and vengeful underworld.

Myth and Communism though are related in the tale by one facet that we often forget about both- the extent to which they are filled with secrecy. We know from Mark's tale that somewhere in the mountains lies hidden the Book of Blood- the book recording the debts in blood payable from clan to clan, we know that an Albanian leader- indeed at the end we are told that Brezhnev himself- have visited the mountains and torn at the roots but whether its the book of blood or photos of the central committee killing people, Mark and we do not know. Ultimately Communism came into Albania to eliminate the Kanun, but what Kadare leaves us in no doubt through this story that it did was merely to replace the Kanun with the secrecy of hushed words in the ears of the secret police- the Kanun therefore survived as an interpretation a structure into which the world might fit. Myth survived as Mark uses it as an explanation of reality, an insight into reality.

Of course the story itself is equivocal- the Kanun partly explains and partly doesn't what has happened. Our narrator himself is untrustworthy- he assumes his girlfriend is sleeping with her brother simply because a traditional Albanian woman is more a sister than a girlfriend. Throughout the tale Mark wonders in darkness seeking out perpetually the reasons for unexplained actions- why has his girlfriend been called home to see an old uncle who has come down from the mountains, why do the inner party seem so interested in this out of the way town, why has his mistress started taking the pill- and he finds the solutions in the myths and swirls of memory about the region- ultimately the Kanun allows Mark to interpret his world.

And Mark is aware of it- at the last we come back to Oedipus Rex- the story of Oedipus who murdered his father and slept with his mother. Or rather did he- his mother confessed to sleeping with her son- but was it Oedipus- because his mother the queen committed suicide- was it that at the womb of Oedipus's tyranny, the stories became invented about Oedipus and out of the womb of the tyranny was born as well the dragon of reputation that would follow Oedipus and overshadow him even after his tyranny was dead. So with Mark's life the secrets of communism, the secrets of the present, the secrets of trials that never were made public or the secrets of modern bureacratic machines become explained as myths- become part of a textured reality where Oedipus and Brezhnev and Hoxha and George Bush all join hands and fuse in and out of each other- secrets from the immortality of the Gods to the murder of Mark's boss may be hidden but they are explicable, explicable from the framework of myth.

But this leaves Mark with an anxiety, what if the Gods have left, drained themselves away and in the twilight of the world there are no answers, or what if the Gods are arriving- left in the spring of his imagination he can't tell whether the frost of secrets or the flowers of truth are more exposed, all he has is old stories and modern realities.

July 08, 2007

Permission to worry you...

on Bits about a Burmese nuclear bomb.

The Dangers of Plebiscitory Democracy

Michael Meacher, the former Labour Cabinet Minister and at one point leadership contender, wrote an article in today's Observer arguing that Gordon Brown's constitutional reforms whilst good don't go quite far enough. Mr Meacher argues that Britain ought to adopt two particular further reforms- firstly it ought to revive the old practice (Mr Meacher doesn't know that this would be a revival- for him it would be a reform) of petitioning Parliament via the internet- Parliament would then through a committee consider which petitions would be most worthy of framing into a bill for debate. Secondly Mr Meacher argues in favour of a set sum of public money- about 2.5 billion pounds- which would be devoted to projects that the people approved of. I think that both of Mr Meacher's proposals would be errors- and Mr Meacher has not understood one of the central principles of representative democracy.

Let us begin with the petitions- superficially it seems like a good plan- the public would bring up something that is of great concern to them and MPs would then see if they could obtain results on it. But its not. Firstly the problem with a petition- such as the recent road pricing petition on the Number 10 website is that they will never attract that many signatures- that attracted 1.8 million- consequently they will reflect the interests of that section of the population that care deeply about the issue instead of the section that care less but are on the other side. Imagine for example a decision to cut taxes based on a cut in wages for NHS staff- all the NHS staff would sign a Number 10 petition against such a cut- but almost none of the beneficiaries of the tax cut would sign a petition for it, either because they wouldn't realise the connection or because the issue is less immediate to them. The second problem is similar but its based on a slightly different way of seeing the world- I'd imagine that the first petitions up there would be on abortion and the environment- the reason is that on both issues large organisations- the Catholic Church and the Green lobby- can muster huge numbers of signatures of people- again though only representing a section of the population- the potential for exploitation by someone willing to organise or a presently organised group is huge already.

Ok lets move to the 2.5 billion- why is that a bad idea. Well I have already this weekend taken on the issue of the mob over at Bits of News- through comparison of Brutus and Anthony's speeches in Julius Caesar- and I think its time to think about this again. In the history of Xenophon there is a wonderful incident where after the battle of Arginusae- a battle the Athenians lost- the families of the victims argue that the generals ought to be convicted and exiled, they turn up dressed in mourning- and the assembly convicts the Generals out of sympathy for the relatives. The problem with the 2.5 million is that its easy to see for instance money being spent in ways that would ressemble the situation at Arginusae.

Ultimately the way representative democracy deals with these issues is to slow them down till in an election everyone has a vote on them- its imperfect but it avoids two problems the domination of government by interest groups and also the spasm of popular feeling (see death of Diana princess of Wales) that you can often get even in a mature democracy. Ultimately when the public really cares about an issue through protests and newspapers politicians are aware of it- they are polling as well all the time- but the intermediate stage is still useful and we should be wary of discarding it.