September 22, 2007

Blogs under Threat Update

Unity has a very good suggestion here- given the libel laws are so unfairly rigged, why don't we nullify them by refusing to find anyone guilty if charged with libel in a UK Court (accepting obvious cases like the Sun and the Mirror versus Joe Public).

September 21, 2007

The Triumph of Mayor Sanders. Statesman

Today, as this video shows, the mayor of San Diego, made a stunning announcement. The Republican, Jerry Sanders, announced that he would not veto and would sign a council resolution calling for the City to file a brief in support of Gay Marriage. Sanders may have flung his career away with this gesture, his career has taken him from a senior position in the police, a directorship to the mayor-ship and now he may have thrown it all away. Its interesting to consider for a moment, why he has taken this momentous step and also how such momentous steps are taken.

Mayor Sanders has taken this step because he didn't feel he could look gay constituents, gay workers for his administration or his gay daughter in the eye after rejecting gay marriage. He used to support civil unions- and no argument based on logic or the subtle reasoning of philosophers persuaded him but the vision of his daughter growing up without the kind of support that he himself had from his relationship with her mother. Ultimately that vision of his lonely daughter, deprived of the legal security of marriage, was stronger than any theoretical case on either side. Emotion trumped reason and a tearful Jerry Sanders seems tonight to have cast his career upon this one moment of empathy.

In doing so, Sanders is not alone. Most of us to be honest make our political decisions based on emotional pulls not rational arguments. We justify our politics upon the basis of rational argument, we may even change our minds on the basis of those arguments, but they are fortified and directed by emotion. Most moral theory is based upon kinds of empathetical understanding- justice requires the recognition of another to whom goods can be distributed which we hold ourselves. We may reason ourselves to the reasonable conclusion that that which is admirable is to be loved: but until we see it or more accurately feel it that conclusion is as barren as stone and dust. The pulse of emotion is what makes us act.

That isn't necessarily a good, but sometimes emotion works to advance the cause of human kind. More often than not that advancement is through the working of what we might term generous emotion. This is a case in point. The mayor, Sanders, obviously feels deeply that his daughter and his workers deserve the same rights as he held when he married his wife. Extension of rights, whether in the past to Blacks, Women, Homosexuals or other groups has always worked through that same emotion, why shouldn't this person have the rights that I have. Sanders stands in a long line stretching right back to the first master who manumitted a slave based on the slave's fundamental humanity.

There will be plenty who argue that Sanders today has stepped away from his conservative instincts- and they will be wrong. Ultimately there is nothing more conservative than the opening up of institutions to new members. One might compare this action to Disreali's creation of a new voting franchise- Disreali brought in new voters and they fortified the political establishment- Sanders wants to bring in new men and women to fortify marriage. Those new men and women won't marry the opposite sex but the same sex, all apart from that remains the same- and the fundamental argument rests on the greatest doctrine that an American ever uttered: that all men are created equal and given therefore equal rights over the earth to create and pursue their own happiness.

Its quite likely that this empathetic argument will be the one which sweeps aside attacks on gay marriage. Dick Cheney's reluctance to be questioned by Wolf Blitzer about his daughter during the last election was of a piece with this trend. Cheney rightly felt uncomfortable, the contradiction between his sense of where his daughter was in her private life and his public position as a loyal servant of the current evangelical President were such that questioning would explode them. Cheney like Sanders faced the strife between empathy and public policy- and as Vice President the administration policy won through. Sanders though has been braver, actually uttering his empathy and allowing it to erode his policy position. Changing your mind and realising that your attitude ultimately was unfair and unempathetic is difficult and to do so reveals a strength that is, dare I say it, statesmanlike. Mr Sanders deserves praise tonight.

One wonders whether this is the way that America and indeed the wider world will gradually come to accept homosexual equality- including marriage- through the working of empathy and kindness.

Crossposted at Bits of News

September 20, 2007

Blogs under Threat

This morning I was reading a conversation at Harry's Place about Craig Murray- several links to the former ambassador's site were made and they all malfunctioned. I wondered what had happened and thought no more about it. It appears though that the links were taken down after Mr Murray made some accusations about a Uzbeck millionaire who wants to invest in Arsenal called Alisher Usmanov. Instead of suing Mr Murray or attempting to take on Mr Murray's accusations by disproving them, Usmanov contacted Mr Murray's internet service provider and got them to take down his website- the details are at Pickled Politics and Chicken Yoghurt. His website has gone down, so has Tim Ireland's website which linked to the accusations made by Mr Murray, so have some other websites that were constructed by Tim Ireland. This is a classic abuse of power and bloggers from the left and right are rightly furious about it. Mr Usmanov should argue his case out here on the internet- plenty of people say rude things about others on the internet- I've been called an agent of Israel over the last few days for example. Mr Usmanov should learn to take it- its called free speech and without it our democracy is in danger. Hiding behind his wallet, Mr Usmanov is attempting to hush up his critics- which personally though I don't know the substance of the allegations makes me doubt his credibility all the more. Mr Usmanov should remove his legal threats and take on people in argument. The government should look into this- its pretty clear that in this instance as in others UK Libel law has become a tool of the powerful to abuse, not a tool to protect innocent people against press intrustion.

Dr Johnson

James reminds me that it was Dr Johnson's birthday on the 18th, unfortunately I missed this anniversary. Its worth remembering Johnson though for his dictionary obviously, for his essays on notable poets and for his novel Rasselas- as well as for the efforts of James Boswell to describe Johnson's life. However Johnson is one of those interesting personalities that one feels we have lost something by losing- what I mean is that Johnson was famed for his conversation as much as for his output by his contemporaries. Its like say the great actors of the past- we don't have Garrick- we don't even have John Gielgud's Hamlet (supposed to be the greatest of that generation's Hamlets) we have descriptions but we have lost so much through losing the real thing. We will never place Dr Johnson where he deserves in our literary history, partly because we will never be able to evaluate him for his chief strength, conversation. Its yet another reminder that what is significant about the past is as much what we have lost as what we have gained.

Iran- the idea of airstrikes

Much ink is being and has been spilt on what to do about Iran and its possible development of nuclear weapons. As yet the IAEA have declared that they do not have the evidence to say that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and yet the world's major powers seem in bodies like the UN security council to be justly nervous about Tehran's intentions. Its often been argued that, given events in Iraq, it is folly to contemplate at this moment another occupation or invasion and some argue for a set of airstrikes to pulverise the Iranian system and destroy any possible nuclear sites. Given that we don't actually know where the sites are, it would probably be a set of airstrikes which would take in say one or two hundred possible sites. Its worth in this context assessing what the impact on a country is of vast bombing raids- particularly when that country sits right beside an area of global instability.

Thankfully we have such a historical example- in Cambodia. During the early 1970s the United States dropped vast ammounts of bombs upon Cambodia in pursuit of Vietcong bases in the Jungle there. The consequences were profound for Cambodian society- with Khmer Rouge officers explaining to journalists that their success was built upon the bombing raids. There can be no guarentee obviously that Iran would end up like Cambodia- but its worth pondering what the consequences might be. It might for example strengthen conservative elements within Iran or even reactionary elements, that might make us look back with nostalgia to the days of liberal Ahmenidijad. The effects of such bombing raids on Iran need to be part of any calculation before you made them- at the moment such extensive bombing is viewed almost surgically, in truth unless it is very limited (and given what we don't know about the nuclear sites I don't think it could be) it would have an impact and that might rebound to the disadvantage of ordinary Iranians.

Its something worth keeping in mind at least as discussions are held throughout the world about the prospect of an Iranian-American war. Air strikes are not neccessarily a costless way through the struggle and shouldn't be viewed as such.

Wernher von Braun

Some may have been slightly surprised a couple of weeks ago when I posted masterpiece by Tom Lehrer about Wernher von Braun, the German scientist. Hopefully therefore this review of a biography of Von Braun from the Washington Post will help. Essentially the story is easily told. Von Braun was a brilliant engineer and scientist. During World War II he realised that the root to advancement and to securing his ambition of space flight lay through the development of the V1 and V2 rockets, both of which were used to bomb southern England and could have been used to carry a more devestating payload had Hitler wanted to exploit physics. Von Braun's work was very effective- but it relied upon the use of slave labour camps which built the actual structures. Von Braun was whisked away by the Americans at the end of the war in order to help with the construction of nuclear facilities and ultimately to provide one of the leading minds behind NASA during the 1950s and 1960s. His engineering work is what took the Apollo project to the moon and contributed to a giant leap for human kind.

What Lehrer of course and plenty of others have drawn attention to is the price that Von Braun paid for that. The giant leap was based upon the bones of the slave labourers and the victims of the rockets throughout southern England- a row of tombstones is about as adequate a memorial of Von Braun as is the manifest destiny of Neil Armstrong. Von Braun's political neutrality led him into a situation where he was a war criminal- protected but still a war criminal.

Ultimately as with any prominent German of that generation- Wernher Heisenberg would be another- the stench of what they did and didn't know and when they knew it hangs over their reputations. Perhaps one of the best things we can learn about Von Braun and Heisenberg is that whereas they were accepted in the West, they were also lampooned and criticised, they never escaped. Whereas a tyrant like Mao went to his grave secure in the praise of his fellow countrymen, Von Braun went to his with the words of Tom Lehrer echoing around him. It would have been better had they stood in the halls of Nuremberg and heard the judgement of history, but I suppose ridicule is better than nothing- even if it was not universal.

September 19, 2007

Charity and the Welfare State

Andrew Lillicoe opposed the principle of equality of opportunity over at conservative home over the last week. His argument is actually quite interesting and presents some problems- which I shall move on to. But it basically goes thus: Andrew thinks that if we have a system that dispenses welfare and creates equality of opportunity basically that rules out charity and provision by parents for children and friends for friends. In his view, "the current welfare state offers very limited opportunity for these expressions of love and social bonding." Parents have no reason to provide for their children, friends no reason to provide for their mates because the state will instead.

Its an interesting argument but not one I accept. There are two functions to this argument- one is that Andrew forgets that not all expressions of friendship or parenthood are monetary. The welfare state actually equalises the capacity of us all to express ourselves in non monetary terms- it doesn't negate the fact that good parenthood and kindness will exist, but it does open up the possibility of allowing us all the capacity to be kind to the same degree. That is the issue about income inequality- it makes kindness an affair of wealth or poverty.

But he does have a point about the whole idea of equality of opportunity. I think its worth just thinking for a second about what that concept is. Often its useful to contrast two concepts in order to understand them. What therefore does inequality of opportunity look like? Inequality of Opportunity could be defined say as the old boy network, the way that people get jobs not because of who they are, but because of whose son or daughter you are, whose surname you bear. Equality of Opportunity is taking people seriously as they are the people they are. It means that you judge them by their virtues and vices. That doesn't mean that people won't be there to help you if you fail and shouldn't be allowed to- for whatever reason they chose- but it does mean that those who have merit but not connections can ascend.

The problem with Mr Lillicoe's view of the world is that firstly its so determined by money and secondly so determined by the way that people should stay where they are in society. He believes in a static society. I'm not sure that that is a promising way forwards or indeed way to think. It ends in an injustice.

This is the beggining of an answer- not an answer.

September 18, 2007

Happy Birthday to me

I should note that its this blog's birthday today. Officially I started posting on 16th September 2006 but the actual first post was this thought about the Pope's speech which caused a furore last year. Its a post I'm still quite proud of, though to be honest not so much of the formatting- I hadn't actually learnt at that point how to hyperlink or indeed to blockquote- the things one learns blogging. Anyway in that time I've made a large selection of friends through blogging and met some of them like James Hamilton and Matt Sinclair and many of them are friends I only know online- Messrs Higham, Ashok Karra, Political Umpire and Ian from Imagined Community amongst so many others. They have all as have so many of those commenting on this blog made me very welcome and I hope this site is quite welcoming as well- lets go on for another year and see what happens. I'm sure whatever does I'll learn a lot!

Alan Greenspan: City Slicker

Alan Greenspan has made some rather unconventional friends recently. In his memoirs he argued that the Iraq war was about oil- he said that

"I'm saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows -- the Iraq war is largely about oil."

Greenspan should not be interpreted, as some naive columnists from the Guardian, have been saying that 'we went to war to get the oil'. Rather Greenspan suggested that the security of oil supplies was the key issue, he seems to be suggesting that America went to war to avoid another oil shock of the 1970s, to stabilise supply rather than gain control of the reserves. But is even that a plausible argument about the motivation for the Iraq war- and if it isn't, why did the Central Bank Chairman seem to think it was

The thesis that the Iraq war was all about oil has never seemed particularly convincing to me. For a start had the United States wanted to get its hands or its corporate hands upon that oil, there were much cheaper ways to do that than to invade. Invasion is an incredibly expensive enterprise and that could have easily been predicted as soon as the first gun fired. The United States government had no real need either to invade: Saddam Hussein needed to export his oil. Had the US made his readmission to the international community conditional on handing over contracts to American companies, Saddam would have complied. The dollars were more important to him than his opposition to the United States, indeed for a dictator trying to stay alive in a difficult region like the Middle East, ultimately the most important thing is to get hold of that oil revenue and start using it to arm yourself. Saddam therefore can be disposed of as a factor in this equation, if anything Iraq needed to export more than the rest of the world needed to import oil.

Greenspan however isn't really dealing with that point. His worry was not so much that Saddam would stop exporting oil or would be unconcerned with the export of oil, as that Saddam would use his reserves of oil to manipulate the price. In particular, Greenspan believed that Iraq would withhold oil strategically on the international market in order to provoke a price rise beyond 100 dollars. I will return to this motivation later- but I don't think it explains the US's conduct in Iraq since day one. Because if the United States had been so motivated by stability, they would not have proceeded to do what they did in the aftermath of the invasion. They would not have dismissed the Iraqi army and tried to build a democracy in Iraq, rather Americans would have strived to find another Baathist dictator, get stability and get out and reap the rewards of huge contracts. The point is that the Americans did not act as though stability of supply was their number one objective, they acted as though other things dominated their thinking.

The administration and its allies in Iraq were motivated by a large number of things- and obvious conflicts were present right from the beggining. Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz had different agendas at the Pentagon, Colin Powell had another agenda at the State Department as did the Vice President and in the midst the President had his own ideas, reflected in his rhetoric, about bringing freedom to the Middle East. I doubt we will fully know for many years anything but the outline of what happened in Iraq and how the factional battle turned out inside the administration- but briefly set out I think there was a rational for what happened in Iraq, and surprisingly I think oil was peripheral to it.

The rationale was that dictatorship and terrorism are linked. The argument goes thus: the dictatorships of the Middle East are the root of the problem of Islamic terrorism. It isn't something natural to either Muslims or Arabs to be terrorists, it is something natural to those living in tyrannies. If the central tyranny in the region is decapitated and replaced by a functioning democracy there is a chance that the example will spread and benificent consequences will follow from that. Its often forgotten how many proponents of the war like Christopher Hitchens wax lyrical about the Kurdish democracy in the North of Iraq, something one hopes that can be preserved out of the wreck. It should also be remembered that the most influential people on the administration were Iraqi exiles, Ahmed Chalabi for example, who fostered dreams of a Minnesotan democracy in Messopotamia. Furthermore it would, they hoped, provide an example within the Middle East that Western cultures of rights and democracy can be reconciled with Muslim populations, something that Osama Bin Laden is striving against. It will also provide the United States with a way to evacuate its forces from Saudi Arabia, the ultimate cause of Bin Laden's hatred of America, and furthermore would weaken the position both of Iran and Syria.

Alongside this there were genuine worries about weapons of mass destruction. I have never ceased believing and the evidence in the UK in particular from both the Hutton and Butler inquiries bears this out, that many of the key actors involved in the invasion of Iraq believed that Weapons of Mass Destruction would be found there. Tony Blair believed it for example. For Blair and those in the UK administration and I'm willing to wager many in the US administration, the worry was that given Saddam had these things (as they thought) he might either hand them to terrorists, or as he fell lose them to terrorists in a future situation. Blair talked of the nexus between failed states, weapons of mass destruction and terrorists enough to take him seriously. What he meant by that was that only a state could develop Weapons of Mass Destruction, but through instability it might lose them to another group.

Obviously there were other motivations alongside this- some members of the Bush administration just wanted revenge on Saddam, others like Michael Ledeen (a pundit from outside the administration) thought that America ought to go and take some small country and thump it every ten years and yes there may have been some people in the administration who were concerned about the security of the oil supply. However one wonders quite how much they were concerned about the Iraqi oil and how much about the security of the oil regionwide. Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction could destabilise a region full of oil and in that sense the fear about regional insecurity, is as Matt Yglesias points out, a fear about what Saddam could do to oil supply. A stable democratic Iraq as a side result would have the effect of stabilising oil revenues for the West, and victory over the jihadist opponents of Western capitalism would promote the profit not only of those in the Middle East but also their ability to sell oil on Western markets.

Why though be so sanguine in dismissing the views of Mr Greenspan? This comes back to my second question, why would Greenspan believe this or want to say it. Well the words are taken from his book, but in an interview with Mr Woodward of the Washington Post, Mr Greenspan has clarified his views. Mr Greenspan's reported statement to Mr Woodward was

"I was not saying that that's the administration's motive," Greenspan said in an interview Saturday, "I'm just saying that if somebody asked me, 'Are we fortunate in taking out Saddam?' I would say it was essential."

That statement presents a slightly different view of what Mr Greenspan was saying. He was saying that the destruction of Saddam was 'fortunate' because of the oil issue. Indeed later in the same interview he denies that any administration official ever told him that oil supply was crucial to it. The impression I receive from that interview is that Greenspan was outside the whole decision.

Greenspan is through his book attempting to define what the Iraq war was about after it happened, having not really participated in the decision. His reasons for doing this are clear as well. Greenspan wants to define the decision to go to war, because the course of the war is at the moment up for grabs in the United States. Greenspan is a canny political operator. He has his own ends in mind. As someone who seems immune from the neo-conservative virus, and as a pragmatic financial operator, it seems to me more than likely that this was an attempt to remind people about the oil reserves in Iraq and their importance to global energy security. A reminder that Greenspan may conceive some Democrats might need at present- however his comment has boomeranged spectacularly, providing the more insane parts of the left with credence to their views.

We must also recognise that this may well have been the reason that Mr Greenspan supported the war. People, even at the top of government, have different ideas about why things should happen and support things for different reasons. The US government during the period of the invasion of Iraq and the UK government are classic examples. Did Donald Rumsfeld care about Iraq for the same reasons as Anne Clywd? Both supported it. But the veteran defence secretary may have had an eye on the balance of power more than the leftwing firebrand for whom human rights is a religious cause. Greenspan therefore may be pronouncing his own reasons for supporting the war, reasons which have nothing to do with the official reasons that the war happened. That interpretation becomes even clearer once one realises that Greenspan confesses that no administration official ever suggested this reason to him for the invasion.

Greenspan's comments have given a respectability to conspiracy groups on the left who will believe that oil is the root of any American policy in the Middle East. The problem with the 'its the oil stupid' reaction is that it can be used for any plausible US policy unless it is combined with evidence. Given that people much closer than Greenspan to the US decision seem to have been concentrating on other problems and issues- terrorism, democratisation, the regional balance of power- and given the counter intuitive nature in terms of costs to the US itself it does seem an implausible argument. It won't stop people making it, and for them Greenspan's revelation will be an affirmation like no other.

Ultimately Mr Greenspan's comments tell us more about Mr Greenspan than about anyone else. He believed that the war was justified because of global oil supply worries. Did anyone else? It doesn't seem so from the evidence we have at the moment. As I have said that may need to be revised in the light of further disclosure- one day we will have the records of what went on in meetings between President Bush and his advisors and there will be surprises. But at the moment I think its reasonable to say that there were a variety of justifications for the war current amongst those making policy. There were those who believed in a democratisation project. There were those worried about terrorists getting WMD. There were those worried about the regional balance of power. It now appears there was one peripheral figure worried about the oil price. There were probably people concerned about a mixture of the four (I would suggest mostly the first three) with different emphasis depending on their views of the world.

What I think we can definitely say is that the Iraq war was not only about Oil. Its comforting to believe in a great conspiracy running the world to their own benefit, its less comforting to realise the truth that the world is run through a mixture of motives by a group of fallible and flawed human beings.

Crossposted at Bits of News.

September 17, 2007

Defending the Twelve Angry Men

Leo McKinstry in this week's Spectator has launched a ferocious attack against the Sidney Lumet Film Twelve Angry Men. Made in 1957, the film takes place entirely (almost!) in a jury room and concerns the deliberations at a trial. You don't see anything outside the jury room, we have no idea about the process of the trial save for what is said by the jurors. All we know is that they are trying a capitol case, a case of murder, and they then present the evidence. McKinstry sees the film as a sophistical attempt to create doubt in the mind of the viewer. He is though entirely wrong.

McKinstry's critique of the film contains several vital errors and misses almost all of the points that the film actually makes about the judicial process. The central point of Twelve Angry Men is about doubt. Again and again Fonda's character comes back to ask the question could x or y have seen what they testified to seeing, could they have heard what they testified to hearing. There are two eye witnesses in the case- an old man who lives downstairs and heard a boy murdering his father, and a woman who lived across the alley who says that she saw it happen. It's established that as the father is murdered a train was passing by, substantial evidence to suggest that the old man could not have distinctly heard the boy's voice. It's also established that the prosecution have concealed that the woman wears glasses. Both of these facts don't establish the witnesses are lying but they do establish a degree of doubt within the minds of the jurors which means that they cannot convict.

What McKinstry cannot get is that the concept of jury trial, restated in dramatic form here, is precisely that. Once you have acquired a reasonable doubt about some evidence you cannot convict upon its basis. There are other reasons to doubt the testimony provided in the trial. Some of the evidence in the trial, members of the jury are able to show, was actually wrong. The boy's knife it was argued was a unique weapon, but actually Fonda's character manages to purchase one round the corner from the court. Furthermore it is suggested that the stab wound into the father's chest came from a downward action, another juror who lives in the slums suggests that anyone habituated to using the knife would only use it going upwards, never downwards. Further doubt is therefore cast on whether the weapon could have been used in the way that the prosecution allege.

Not merely that but Fonda demonstrates something about the boy's alibi as well. There is a long discussion about whether the boy should have been able to remember what films he had seen on the night in question when he claimed that he was in the cinema. As Fonda shows its perfectly possible to forget such incidental detail, even without the shock of one's father's death and one's own arrest for murdering him. The point is made therefore that the boy is not neccessarily lying or at least that a reasonable doubt exists as to whether he is lying or not.

To say all of that is not liberal or conservative- at least in the way that those terms are conventionally explained. McKinstry seems to miss this- he seems to miss that if there is a conservative critique of jury trial it could indeed rely upon this film suggesting that reasonable doubt is too difficult a standerd to meet. One British judge, in private conversation with me recently, doubted as to how a jury could ever convict beyond reasonable doubt and its a sensible position to have, but that's a philosophical argument. If you oppose this film then you oppose the whole concept of jury trial. For in this film jury trial works perfectly. Twelve men sit in a room and debate and find that there is a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the accused.

Lets be clear about what that means. McKinstry isn't. He says that the case for the defence involves inconsistencies. There is no question that the case in the film for the not guilty verdict is not neccessarily internally consistent but it doesn't have to be. The jurors are not called upon to evaluate the man's innocence but to evaluate his guilt and what they find is that he is, as the verdict has it, not guilty. Amongst the cleverest things about the film is the way that it never informs you about whether the accused actually is guilty or innocent- he could be either. What can definitely be said is that there is not enough evidence to send him to the chair. McKinstry fails to realise that the burden of proof is not upon the defence but upon the prosecution.

The process of the juror's discussion is the film's main subject. Much of those discussions demonstrate that the jurors voting for guilty are voting on the basis of prejudice. One juror has racist feelings about 'them' and what 'they' are like. Another juror wants a quick verdict so he can see a baseball game. A third juror has confused feelings about his own son which he transposes over to the trial. All these jurors end up facing moments of revelation or moments where their attitudes are revealed in their entirity- and often they bring their own lives from outside the court room into the room. So for instance an old man is able to say that another old man might just might have seen things he hasn't because he wants to be important.

There is something else here though which McKinstry objects to and yet again is wrong to object to. At one point, in his first speech Fonda says that he votes not guilty because the accused has been kicked around all his life and he thinks he should have a chance. Lets be clear about what Fonda is saying here. At this point in the trial Fonda doesn't know the kid is not guilty, he doesn't suggest that he actually is. He just wants to kick around the evidence and think about it. He wants to give the kid a chance of having someone deliberate seriously about his innocence or guilt. What this reflects is two things. Firstly an eminently moral instinct. Fonda doesn't believe that any human being should be sent away to his death without a hearing. He is sympathetic to that extent. Secondly it reflects the fact that during the trial with one exception the jurors all take the process seriously. Whether they vote guilty or innocent they have all thought about it, as a member of a jury that actually matches well with my experience of the way that jurors behave.

But Fonda's point is a point which comes from outside. A robotic intelligence would not see the need for a discussion, Fonda does. Part of the reason that we have jury trials is because we trust the people, the twelve in this case men, who sit down and find guilt or innocence. They do that using their own native wits and their own experience of life. Not all experience is equal: Fonda's sympathy which allows the boy a hearing is more equal than the racism of the other juror but it is all relevant to the process of the trial. Jurors must decide the case on their own common sense. McKinstry at one point hammers them and especially Fonda for being prejudiced, again he has failed to understand. For the soul of jury trial, is that prejudices are tested, the experience of being in a jury room tests your prejudices by confronting them with the prejudices of the others there. But also there are some prejudices, for instance Fonda's to sympathy or the old man's instinctual understanding of another old man, that are useful. Not all judgements can be rational and not all judgements are rational. There is no test which can decide, except debate.

Ultimately what McKinstry thinks is that this film is a sophistical film. It stretches to make a point about the innocence of a man who is definitely guilty and manipulates the truth to do it. But he is entirely wrong. The film is socratic. The most socratic institution within our society is the jury trial. It is the place where argument and thought test each other out, where prejudice meets prejudice, and where the ultimate test is not whether you guess x or y but whether you know x or y. If there is a scintilla of doubt in your mind, you must find the person not guilty even though there is then the possibility that you have let free a guilty man. McKinstry is too modernist to have remembered that old rule that it is better eleven guilty men walk free than that one innocent be convicted.

McKinstry also doesn't understand that what happens after conviction and the process of conviction are very different things. He lambasts the justice system and mentions such miscarriages as the OJ Simpson trial where guilty men were set free, but forgets that there have been cases both in the Uk and the wider world in which innocent men have been imprisoned or even hung. The case of Randall Adams demonstrates that a jury that doesn't pay attention to the evidence can end up almost hanging an innocent man, and worse from McKinstry's view letting a guilty one off free. In that case you can see that a McKinstry view of the justice system might well be one where the innocent do less well.

Twelve Angry Men remains a wonderful film and exploration of the jury system. Styllistically its also worth noting- the pictures in this article come from various stages of the film- note how towards the end the camera angle moves lower. That is to give the impression of the room getting smaller and more claustrophobic. With simple devices like that, and a wonderful script, not to mention some wonderful performances, I am definitely willing to agree with McKinstry that the director and his actors did brilliantly. The film is a styllistic tour de force. But whereas McKinstry sees that as part of a styllistic forgery, I rather see it as a wonderful expression of a good idea about justice, guilt and innocence. Thoughtful and interesting, this classic deserves to be watched long after my name and Leo McKinstry's have vanished into the dust.

Crossposted at Bits of News

September 16, 2007

Stephen Colbert Interview

His reasons for doing comedy- that it makes him feel happy- are about the best to do anything.

Sir David Manning and Anglo-American Relations

Sir David Manning is a name that the public today don't recognise, but that those involved in the worlds of diplomacy and politics do. Historians will see him as one of the key actors in the Iraq war and its aftermath- and ever since the mid 1990s in the UK's reactions to the Middle East. He has served in many places at key points in history, he was in Moscow during the coup of 1991 against Gorbachev, served in Israel in the mid 1990s during the peace process, then went to advise Tony Blair after the events of September 11th and furthermore was in Washington during the messy aftermath of Iraq. Manning's interview with the New Statesman's John Kampfner is interesting partly because it shows someone involved deeply within the events of the last couple of years conceptualises their development. This is Manning's story and its a story ultimately of failure.

For David Manning, like most well intentioned people who worked for or cooperated with the present British administration, sees the events of the last few years as being a 'tragedy'. The Atlantic has grown wider and wider over the last couple of years. Tony Blair's aspiration to bridge the sea looks less and less plausible as the years go by, though a different US President may change matters. Its worth remembering that there have been tensions between the British and Americans before- Margaret Thatcher was severely dissappointed with the American response to the Falklands, Anthony Eden was even more upset about the Suez crisis, so much so that American opposition lost him the Premiership. He notes from Washington that 'I doubt very much that people round here [Washington] were thrilled he [Blair] chose climate change and Africa as the themes [of the G8 summit in 2005]'. Such moments of tension reinforce Manning's sense that the relationship between Britain and the US is very close but that the US is not the UK on steroids, whatever that may mean.

But Manning has more to say than just that- for he goes on to describe the major differences and distinctions between the way that the UK sees the world and the way that the US sees the world. Britain is a member of most international clubs going- from the EU to NATO. The United States has seen sovereignty as something to be jealously guarded and scepticism runs deep about anything multilateral from the United Nations to the Kyoto Accord. British and American politics differ in other ways as well. The UK has been far more open to climate change, is more liberal and less religious than the US. In the Middle East, the United Kingdom was always much more pro the Arab case on the future of Palestine. A Yes Prime Minister episode ridicules the British foreign office for its Arabist tendencies. Definitely Manning reinforces the sense that of the two allies, Britain is more open to the Palestinians than the United States- indeed he sees failing to shift the American attitude on the issue as his major failing as a foreign policy specialist.

Over the last couple of years Manning was involved deeply in all of this. Disputing for instance with the Americans that the Palestinian issue was about land not just terrorism. There are also obvious tensions over Iraq. For Manning Iraq has been a failure and Blair's premiership a tragedy. That attitude I would suggest is one reflected in the highest circles of the UK government. Manning reserves the opinion that things might get better- but one senses that he really doesn't believe that. Rather the UK government's attitude is reflected by the recent withdrawel from Basra. Manning recalls that such a pessimistic mood set in early, after the Americans' failure to appreciate the situation in Iraq and their tolerance of looters, Manning refers to 'disquiet' in Downing Street. Ultimately he openly describes the first few weeks of the invasion of Iraq as a 'failure'.

If Manning is clear about the differences between the US and UK about Iraq- then he is also clear that they arose early and that London made mistakes, crucial mistakes in its evaluation of the internal politics of the administration. In Manning's view the mistakes in Iraq preceded from the fact that the internal strategical battle within the US was won by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon not by Colin Powell's state department. He suggests that assurances given to the British by everyone up to and including President Bush were neglected because of the ultimate victory of the Pentagon in the internal Washington turf wars. Manning argues that Blair wishes it had never come to war- wishes that there had been another way- that regime change had been accomplished by the threat of war producing a coup or even by Saddam acquiescing in the UN process. He also blasts intelligence about Iraq- saying that we never have in the West had good intelligence on Iraq. Manning suggests that the perception that before the intelligence had always underestimated Iraqi intentions- say about the invasion of Kuwait or about WMD and so it was assumed amongst the foreign policy community it had this time too. Unfortunately the dial had slipped the other way.

There is much that is interesting in this. Personally I'm not so sure I believe Manning when he says that Blair didn't want war in 2003. I think that he did. There is evidence to suggest from things that Hans Blix said that there was evidence to refute the WMD charge, evidence that the British and Americans refused to acknowledge. Furthermore Manning is being too kind to Blair- for if he really believed in regime change without blood being spilt or through some deus ex machina then he was profoundly naive. Evidence from others suggests that Blair was inside on the effort to go to war from 2002 onwards- even though its perfectly possible that his principle civil service advisor was never told (another indication of the 'sofa' government that Blair practised). Manning's predecessor as ambassador in Washington Sir Christopher Meyer referred to Blair as being star struck by the American President- that doesn't emerge in Manning's account at all.

What I think we see here is the UK's reaction to Iraq which has been subtly different from the United States's reaction. The British as exemplified by Manning and Lord Ashdown have argued that the real failure in Iraq was the failure to have a reconstruction plan. Therefore people like Ashdown have begun seriously thinking about nation building in a way that the Americans appear reluctant to do. For Sir David Manning such concerns were there from the start- possibly the UK did not insist enough upon them. But the real issue is that it would be unlikely that this group of people will embark on another war where there is no plan for day one of the occupation. There seems a certainty in government circles that that was the key mistake. As Christopher Hitchens puts it in a recent interview the real issue was not whether the Americans were right or wrong, but were they competent to get the electricity on in Baghdad or secure the national museum the day after Saddam fell. If anything emerges from Manning's account it is that this is the central lesson Whitehall has learnt from the disaster- a lesson it may not have needed to have been taught but a lesson whose importance has moved up in the priorities of things to be sorted out before any future invasions are contemplated.

Manning's account represents a sober reexamination by someone at the top in 2003 of what went wrong. In that it represents also a reexamination of the special relationship between the UK and US. There is no question that Manning and most foreign policy experts in the UK consider the US as a central ally. Cooperation in various fields from the economy to terrorism is as advanced and important as ever and our aims are often similar- both nations have a stake in the security of the West and the advance of liberal democracy. But Manning's words and the Brown government's attitudes represent a change of tone if not intention towards the US. There is an increased awareness of the differences between the two nations. For example the British willingness to talk is contrasted by Manning with the United States's ostracism of various states- the North Koreans come to mind. Gordon Brown's administration will, he says rightly, have to work closely with George Bush and even more importantly George Bush's successor but the relationship may be judged more soberly in the days to come. One hopes that never again will a British ambassador be able to describe a British Prime Minister as star struck by the White House.

Sir David Manning is a fascinating character- it would be nice to hear more from him in the future about these issues. More substantive than Christopher Meyer and wiser than many of the politicians who were his titular seniors, his thinking about foreign policy is worth listening to. His interview in the New Statesman is worth reading. At times he exaggerates distinctions that I feel were probably less there at the time, but he does give an accurate barometer of what the thinking in London about Iraq and about America is at the moment. In short his solution, more time devoted to nation building and less to shouting obscenities is one with some merit. It would be good if British Prime Ministers in future speak frankly to their American counterparts- the future of the West rests largely on American shoulders, and the Americans need frank friends.

Cross posted at Bits of News.