August 17, 2007

Women's Position in the World from India to America

Sunny Hundal in his usual balanced way on these issues discusses the issue of women and partition really well in this article for the Guardian. Sunny demonstrates in his article the way that during the partition of India in 1948 women were used as counters by nationalists- rape and suicide were strategies to attack or protect women on either side. Traditionalists on any side are always keen to 'protect' women, surprisingly often from their own desires. At one end of that extreme lies the emerging problem in the UK of honour killings, at the other more benign end you have a character like Dennis Prager who informed his readers in 2003 that women going to see male strippers were betraying their true nature,

It has told them that equality means acting the same as men. That is how you have the utterly false spectacle of women acting thrilled to have anonymous men strip and rub themselves on them.

Mr Prager ought to remember that women are quite capable of working out their sexuality without his help and that furthermore their sexuality will vary. Mr Prager's real concern though in stating this difference is his idea that women are the basis and buttress of the family unit- and consequently can't behave in the way that he perceives them behaving- in that sense like the honour killer he sees the world as one where women are men's property, in mourning what he calls the "death of femininity" what Mr Prager mourns is the period in which a woman's sex life was a way of signifying the virtue of the community in which she lived in.

Look at the conservative or even just the rightwing rhetoric about sex and this is what you come back to again and again. The insidious thing is that this sentiment goes with the division of humanity into groups and tribes and when this collides with a strongly held view of that division and indeed a prejudice based on it, one may slide quickly into the idea that a woman's virginity is a trophy of war. What Sunny chronicles therefore is a mindset which comes in two parts- firstly the nationalism and secondly the sexism- parts which are actually related through the idealisation of women as the signifiers of the virtue of the community. An idealisation which renders them passive and feminine- instead of allowing them to choose their own futures. There is a lot of ground between Dennis Prager and the honour killers- actions are important and Mr Prager would never consider murder- but ultimately there is a continuity of thinking. Sunny is right to draw this problem in India to our attention- right to remind us of the link to honour killing and to the BNP- but he is wrong to stop there- there have been horrible events in other wars in other places- and the mindset that sees women's sexuality as property and passive is one that is still prevalent in the West as well.

Siegfried Sassoon Banishment

Understanding war means not merely understanding its causes- the reasons which drive statesmen and women to start the armies marching- but also means understanding its consequences- the way that men on the battlefield relate and the way that their relations can effect the consciousness of whole generations. Perhaps in this case the First World War, whose effect on many countries in Europe was dramatic, is the ideal case- a war which consumed a generation led to that generation having a consciousness of the evils of war that never left them. Whether it be the conservative J.R.R. Tolkein's recollection of the trenches in the dead marshes outside Mordor or the young poet Wilfrid Owen writing more directly about the experience of machine gun fire, the horror of war is never far away from the writing of those who had experienced it in that generation.

It is necessary to ask though why they were so interested in publicising what had happened- for this its worth considering and thinking about Siegfried Sassoon's poem, Banishment. The text is here....


I am banished from the patient men who fight
They smote my heart to pity, built my pride.
Shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side,
They trudged away from life’s broad wealds of light.
Their wrongs were mine; and ever in my sight
They went arrayed in honour. But they died,—
Not one by one: and mutinous I cried
To those who sent them out into the night.

The darkness tells how vainly I have striven
To free them from the pit where they must dwell
In outcast gloom convulsed and jagged and riven
By grappling guns. Love drove me to rebel.
Love drives me back to grope with them through hell;
And in their tortured eyes I stand forgiven.

There are two motifs running through this poem- the first of which interestingly should help us answer our question, the second of which places the poem within the context of its times and links it say with the earlier Sassoon who in the August of 1914 reveled in going to war.

Sassoon obviously in this poem feels guilty about the men who have fought with him, probably under his command and died. Rhetoric about what they and he shared dominates the poem, the experience of trudging through war, 'shoulder to aching shoulder, side to side'. Sassoon without referring directly to the trenches gets at the hard physical labour involved in conflict there. But also note that he describes the trenches not as they were but as they might appear- his men and he are lifted from life into some spiritual hell not into something that they can comprehend. Of course Sassoon and Owen and the rest of the war poets often wrote in realistic terms- but in this poem I believe that Sassoon is trying to create a particular ideologically driven impression of war alongside his evocation of the hard labour and solidarity of the trenches.

Sassoon's picture here is ultimately religious. It is ultimately about his men marching off to hell- to a bitter waste. Sassoon wants to believe that because he shared that experience and writes about it- witnesses it- he can be forgiven by them. Ultimately this is a poem which is deeply about the forgiveness that the suffering can extend to the survivor. Sassoon of course was banished quite literally from fighting in the First World War when diagnosed with mental illness after he declared his opposition to it. Interestingly though it is again the Christian influence of the notion of love and the redeeming power of the love that Sassoon extends his men which is at the forefront of the poem- the anguish of a war being fought for ends which no man really understands is built upon the foundations of a love which Sassoon helps redeems him for his lack of suffering. The bargain between love and suffering is implicit within Christianity but here Sassoon uses it to expiate his survivor's guilt.

Also that equation between love and suffering is implicit in the reasons that Sassoon and his generation went to war so eagerly. The idea of suffering for that which one loves which motivated them and created poems like Brook's elegy to an England on the swamps of Flanders is related to Sassoon's idea of the love of an officer expiating the fact that he cannot be there with his men. What Sassoon's vision has lost is the easy idealism of Brook, Sassoon is cynical about the political powers which drove him and his men to war- furthermore his nationalism is now based on the camraderie of the front rather than the romance of the ideal of chivalric war. The suffering here is both the suffering of a viewing the beloved suffering from far away with no help of aiding them, and also the awful and purposeless suffering in the trenches- the love is not the mystical love of a nation or a cause but the love of comrades fighting to survive till the next day.

Sassoon obviously writes from a particular time and place and has translated a common idea into the parlance of the early twentieth century. There isn't as I have argued as much of a break between the ideas of banishment and the ideas that drove him to war in the first place- perhaps that is wrong- there is an obvious break but there is also an obvious consistency that is worth noting. Sassoon translates the realities of war into a framework of love and suffering- very much of his time and very different to say how the Cromwellian soldier translated his experience- but the experience and anger are in common.

August 16, 2007

Well done

Matt Sinclair has had a triumph and as a member of the freemasonry of blogging I feel I should stick my oar in. Basically Matt has managed using his rather nimble intelligece to outwit the lumbering elephantine Whitehall bureacracy- including that Solon of modern Socialism Tessa Jowell. Matt pointed out that building Olympic buildings might have an effect on inflation- but Tessa responded with the accuracy of a coiled snake that of course it couldn't- because and I quote the Olympics are an investment- and obviously nothing bad can come from an investment. Most of the details from today and yesterday's Metro and Telegraph are here but suffice it to say it appears to me that Matt has succeeded in making his point- and making a government minister reel back on some obscurantist jargon- now where have I ever seen a politician resting back on some indecipherable jargon given to him or her by civil servants without fully understanding what was going on- ah yes that reminds me...

Lets hope someone is getting some rather serious questions in the Department of Culture tonight!

August 15, 2007


David Frum's most recent article for the New York Times is a brilliant discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Karl Rove. The Rove of Frum's article, brilliant at tactics, terrible at government, brings to mind for me the similar problems experienced on this side of the Atlantic with some of the people around Blair. I wonder in a sense sometimes if despite the major philosophical differences in terms of mindsets the Blair and Bush administrations are actually that far apart- both concerned with spin at the expense of policy, tactics at the expense of strategy and too focused on elections to actually govern well at times.

America's Mayor, America's Enemies

Rudy Giuliani is not a man to whom doubt comes naturally. He is a man of conventional common sense and his views about foreign policy reflect this. Mr Giuliani has obviously attempted to learn the lessons of the Bush administration and the Clinton administration before it- but he has perhaps learnt some of the wrong lessons- and through absorbing conventional wisdom he has perhaps neglected to see bigger and more complicated, difficult issues than the ones he assesses. Ultimately though it is worth bearing in mind that Mr Giuliani like any presidential candidate is limited politically in what he can say- however its also worth remembering that after a candidate's accountability moment (phrase copyright the present incumbent) the electorate have little chance to make a real difference for another four years on the direction of the administration. Mr Giuliani's thoughts deserve therefore analysis.

On the basis of the article recently published in Foreign Affairs, Mr Giuliani represents the conventional wisdom within Republican foreign policy circles. He acknowledges that mistakes have been made in the war on terror- and yet Mr Giuliani beleives that Mr Bush's record compares with Mr Truman's in the 1940s. For Mr Giuliani like Truman and Reagen, Bush has spotted the danger that we need to confront and despite his mistakes has performed better than his Democratic predecessor by virtue of that act of insight. For Mr Giuliani the way forwards might best be represented as refined Bush- looking further into the problems that Bush and his team have examined and using the benefit of their experience for example to avoid some of their mistakes in Iraq and Palestine. Mr Giuliani replaces the concept of a democratic revolution- the subject of Mr Bush's second inaugural- with a concentration on good governance. He beleives that good governance in the end will produce democracy- but that democracy does not neccessarily produce good governance- and uses Hamas as an example of the latter- an illegitimate but democratically elected regime.

Furthermore Mr Giuliani displays a welcome attention to two different aspects of the Bush regime, in both of which he would represent a vital change: the military revolution Donald Rumsfeld inaugurated where a small army would wipe out and then occupy places will under the President Mayor be abandoned- the army will be increased by at least 10 brigades. Furthermore an administration led by hizzonner will he promises pay more attention to public diplomacy, doing more to sustain for example Arabic versions of Radio Free Europe than previously has been done and focusing diplomatic appointments away from political favours and towards those willing to actively engage with anti-Americans far from the US.

Much of this is positive- it is undeniable that the idea of doing war on the cheap has failed in Iraq. Undeniable also that many US diplomats have not proved an adequate voice for the US in the countries that they were sent to and undeniable that the US could do more public diplomacy. Positive though these changes would be: there are two interesting areas where I think that Mr Giuliani's approach may backfire because hizzonner may mistake the real nature of the United States's situation within the world.

The first is that he concentrates on the Middle East. The Middle East is a vital region for the world and the collapse of Iraq would be a disaster for the region- the possibility of a Shia bomb in Iran, a Jewish bomb in Isreal and a Sunni bomb in Saudi Arabia with a devastated Iraq lying between them, remains terrifyingly plausible and it will be a major part of any American successor to Mr Bush to avoid coming to that brink in whatever way he or she can. But there are other pressing issues in the world- the collapse of Afghanistan which receives upsettingly scant attention from Mr Giuliani is at least as terrifying as that of Iraq. If as the British senior commanders are warning we are on the verge of failure in Afghanistan. If as seeems more likely by the day the regime of General Musharref is tottering on the abyss thanks to the situation in Afghanistan- then disaster could be round the corner. Ultimately should Afghan instability spill over the border into Pakistan, then the legacy of concentrating on Mesopotamia and not on Kabul could be a mushroom cloud in New Dehli.

The second is that Mr Giuliani establishes his priority as to take on terrorism. Undoubtedly terror is a danger- particularly after 9/11- and its consequences in terms of the impact on order are a danger but ultimately terror does not threaten civilisation. Terrorists if they perform actions like 9/11 or 7/7 will bring tragedy and loss but they will not destroy the world, nor inflict the suffering that say Hitler was able to inflict on London during the Blitz in the awful autumn of 1940. The real danger with terrorists is not that they on their own can do a lot but that if they were armed and equipped by a sovereign state they could then do much worse. Most likelily that sovereign state would not arm a terrorist grouping with really serious weapons- civilisational threatening weapons- until it itself was semi collapsed- like Russia was in the 1990s.

Mr Giuliani therefore may be missing the point- that American foreign policy may well not be best aimed at destroying terror (incidentally it is my belief that you will never end low level terrorism), but aimed at propping up and stabalising nuclear and other powers that threaten to destabilise the world's system through their collapse. Pakistan would be an immediately salient example of somewhere where the Bush administrations' concentration on terrorism (and indeed others' inability to see the wider issue- see Barack Obama's call to bomb Pakistan should Al Quaeda flee across the border) misses the wider issue. It is not the plane going into the World Trade Centre that could precipitate the end of the world- but the collapse of Pakistan could.

It is interesting that Mr Giuliani does not dwell much on Iran in his essay- perhaps the most difficult society in the world today to read- particularly as the longterm impact of US policy in Iraq may be to set up a society rather like Iran's there- but also given its nature as a theocratic semi-democracy, the Iranian regime presents particular challenges. The most crucial of which is the question of weapons of mass destruction again- it will be interesting to see what a Giuliani administration would consider about that- or indeed what hizzonner's views on the situation in the Sudan another dangerous region of the world are- where anarchy is leading to strengthening Islamic radicalism. It is worth considering as well the destabilisation of such uranium rich countries as those in central western Africa- what exactly we do there could have larger impacts than our strategy to do with the Middle East.

Many of Mr Giuliani's recomendations for developments in foreign policy- the setting up of a specialist nation building corps within the US army and diplomatic services for example- deserve commendation. But unless he realises that the real failure of President Bush's administration has been the failure to see that not terrorism but the anarchy in which terror thrives (as in Iraq) is the real danger then his administration may itself end with as much disaster as the Bush administration's has.

Mr Giuliani should remember that the nightmares of historians have been haunted not by the ghosts of Neville Chamberlaine and Edward Daladier, but by that of Sir Edward Grey staring sadly over the doomed London sky in the summer of 1914. The real danger you see is not that Osama Bin Laden like Hitler will rage a global war of devestation- but that a single shot in Kabul or in Islamabad could sound round the world, the way a single shot echoed so terrifyingly from Sarajevo out into the rest of the world in 1914.

Giuliani forgets something about Bush- when they came in the Bush administration were focused on the great powers and nuclear relations, 9/11 shook them out of that to focusing on terrorism- lets hope that Mr Giuliani doesn't have the opposite shock as the great power politics of southern asia and the nuclear disputes about Indian borders make us perhaps look back on the halcyon days when all we worried about was Osama Bin Laden.

That may well be the challenge of the new US President. Perhaps for political reasons and worryingly perhaps for analytical reasons Mr Giuliani's article doesn't seem to reflect that reality.

Crossposted at Bits of News

August 14, 2007

Roving hypocrit

Karl Rove according to Dave Cole thinks that it is acceptable for any nation harbouring terrorists to be bombed. That is an interesting perspective- I was wondering would he consider it acceptable for the UK to bomb the United States when it harboured Noraid funding Irish Republican terrorists from the 1970s onwards or is it just terrorists who bomb Americans who count. Perhaps Mr Rove in his fulminations against terrorism should remember some rather recent history on this side of the Atlantic and see that bombing those that harbour it may be a more complicated issue than he thought. (The pictures above are of two boys- victims of the Warrington Bomb in 1993 which may have been funded through the United States.)

I do hesitate to say that I agree with Rove- but if you do, what pray makes the St Patrick's Day parade in New York that different to the parades in South Lebanon for Hamas- is it the number of people killed or just their nationality.

An Artist of the Floating World

Kazuo Ishiguro has earned a just reputation as one of the foremost artists of our world. Particularly adept as in the Remains of the Day at drawing the outline of a character from their own perspective and allowing the reader to understand their limitations in their own words- he both seduces with and simultaneously subverts his main narrative. His early work, an artist of the floating world exhibits many of those characteristics. Ishiguro in this novel tackles the subject of an old man who lives in Nagasaki during the aftermath of the second world war- his wife and son are dead but he is surrounded by the rest of his family, two daughters and a grandson, not to mention a son-in-law with whom his relations are tense.

Books which focus on the end of war- art that focuses on the end of war- are always interesting. Wars produce shattering conclusions- which shatter not merely men and women's lives but their emotions and imaginations as well. The narrator of this novel, Masuji Ono, is no different. Ono was lauded by the dictatorial regime of Imperial Japan for producing patriotic masterpieces- Ishiguro allows us to see how Ono became an imperial propagandist through a desire to do good in the world. It was because he saw the poverty stricken slums of the city he lives in, that he ressolved to support Japanese imperial expansion, knowing little of its consequences and drew patriotic pictures- even at one point joining the imperial government in a minor office. Ono ultimately we know right from the beggining was a man of influence- but that was is key- for the world has floated by him and Ono is left now to contemplate the way that his mistakes have harmed his youngest daughter's prospects of ever getting married.

Ishiguro portrays Ono in a very interesting way- from the beggining we are shown this man as an Epicurean- despite having no money he delights in the sensuous and sensual. He remembers fondly the dens of his youth and middle age where drinking could take him through one night, through to the next and the day after. He remembers fondly the beauty of his wife as a young woman when he first met her. He wants to educate his grandson in the ways of the world- taking him to exciting movies about monsters and telling his elder daughter to give her son a first sip of sake (a fascinating moment by the way where Ishiguro firmly captures the conflict between mother and grandfather, the conflict about by whose values is the grandchild to be reared). But behind this epicureanism, this comfortable happiness lurks an idealism which is provoked now to guilt but was once to passion.

Ono saw the slums of Tokyo as a challenge when young- a challenge that art might meet by waking the conscience of the people. Crucially as he grew older he viewed that challenge as rousing Japan to a new sense of itself as a nation- to rousing Japanese solidarity in the pursuit of economic colonies which would advance the conditions of the working class. Born out of sympathy his nationalism became as nationalism can both jingoistic and totalitarian- eventually he even denounced one of his pupils to the authorities (naively not understanding that once in the hands of the police no eminent artist could hold back the brute hands of the law). Ono though was as he realises late in the book a fool, but he was a passionate fool- a passionate fool with an idea which was at the stem benificent even if the flowers that it grew smelt ugly because of his lack of ability to imagine the consequences of his political activity for those who suffered from it- the pupil there is the symbol in some ways for the peoples of Asia who were bloodied by the imperial designs Ono hoped would rescue the Japanese working class.

Grown old though it isn't so much that Ono has lost his idealism- but from becoming something affirmatory about himself- it has become something accusatory. His master lived he tells Ono in a floating world and proceeded from guilt about painting prostitutes to a joy in the moments of beauty that he could find in the face of a pretty harlot. Ono though has proceeded in the opposite direction- the straightforward harlotry of a fine idea, distilled in a naive mind, has become the motivating cause of much suffering. Losing its moorings his idealism has turned into an accusatory force, condemning the youth and making the aged man suffer for what he would not suffer for when young.

In many ways this movement portrays quite interestingly part of the dilemma of old age- that youth allows one the opportunity to live affloat and born aloft on winds, fancies and ideas- but that in age the mangled ropes of memory tie one's soul to the ground reminding one of follies, faults and falsities. Ono of course is an outlier in this- not many of us have been the instruments of totalitarian visions- but he is an accurate outlier insofar as he reminds us of one particular facet of middle age- that it is not idealism that is lost but that idealism turns inward and almost incapaciates, parallises either in cynicism or in as in Ono's case guilt- a guilt reinforced by the cat calls of the younger generation. For Ono at the end reaches a kind of peace whereby his own decisions are acknowledged to be wrong- but he sees his intentions were good- whether the peace can last is a different matter.

Ishiguro's masterpiece- for that it undoubtedly is- is laden with other themes as well- and much of Ono's problem is particular to his time and place and the reasons why he is hated. But equally for me I found it a very compelling account of some of the way that the experience of growing old may humble and sadden one- and that that sadness can take the form of a retreat into the shell of an epicure. Ultimately Ono retreats to his house and garden, to rebuilding corridors and repotting trees- from the drama of imperial war he turns in regret knowing that he has fought and through his stupidity failed- he turns now back to the floating world of epicureanism and there is a sense that the knowledge of his imperfection comes at a terrible price in terms of the supression of his idealistic impulses- and in terms of the direction of those impulses against the fragile fortress of his soul.

August 12, 2007


The Conservative policy group on business has just produced its latest report calling for swinging cuts in regulation. The Labour party has greeted this by attacking the Conservatives for being rightwing in putting out this report- of course what we are seeing in that is classic spin. The Tory policy group is only that its only a policy group- this isn't Tory policy until its adopted by the front bench- it might indicate conservative thinking- but to lambast it as a Conservative turn to the right is ridiculous.

But I would go further. Just to say that cutting regulation is rightwing- is to invite a question- is retaining unhelpful regulation leftwing. I haven't read the report, I haven't studied its conclusions therefore I have no view about it- but I don't think that cutting unneccessary regulation should neccessarily be stigmatised as a turn to the right. The issue is that Labour are not criticising the detail of the report- which is legitimate- but merely suggesting that its rightwing.

Ultimately this is an interesting test for the leftwing blogosphere. Studying the detail of the report and criticising it is what they should do- but merely criticising it for being rightwing would be to avoid the issue in reality. The rightwing blogosphere can be just as guilty of this- and have been in the past- and no doubt will have opportunities to demonstrates their seriousness. But ultimately this is a test for the left not the right- so far the government have as you would expect spun- but for pundits to see if they are serious if they comment on John Redwood see how much detail they deal with and see how much the word rightwing is used and then judge their seriousness.