September 29, 2007


'There is no equality, there is always a winner and a loser'

Interview, the film might be summed up in that exchange between Sienna Miller's character Katya and Steve Buscemi's character Pierre. Katya is a star, a sex kitten who lives in a high rise appartment. Buscemi is a Washington reporter, sent against his will, to interview this starlet, to find out what motivates her.

They both resent the fact that they have to spend any time with the other. Katya has been there, done it and got the picture, she can't face another interview and thinks the press are scum. Pierre thinks that the starlet is vacuous and irritating, he turns up for the interview without doing any preparation and unsurprisingly its a disaster. He doesn't know or care about her, she has nothing but contempt for him. Then because of a car accident, she takes him up to her appartment and an evening of talking and drinking begins.

Discussion is a way to communicate between human beings. In this film, discussion is used communicate indeed. But it communicates all sorts of things that normally are viewed as unconstructive. Both characters make clear their contempt for the other. He views her as an idiotic pretty head, she views him as an ugly old man, who looks like her father. Both of them though want to control the situation, both of them see social interaction as a competition, an occasion to anialate the other person. What that produces of course for both of them is an agreeable frisson. The old reporter gets to kiss the young starlet, she gets to know that her sexuality charms and delights him.

There is more to it than that though, they genuinely do manage to charm each other because their impressions are actually wrong. Miller is not a braindead fool, but is impressively cunning and witty. Buscemi, she discovers is a guy she can feel attracted to. Their flirting works ultimately because they are in some sense both attracted to each other. When Buscemi says to her that he feels like a father to her, its true. When Miller responds affectionately to him, it has a certain truth to it too.

But neither can retain that for long. Every comment comes with a barb. Every overture or opening is seen as a vulnerability and neither of them actually care about how or whether they lose. The night is rounded off with Buscemi leaving Miller's apartment and a twist in a tale- which you'll have to see the movie to find out. But the essential truth is that this film is a contest where there needed not be a contest, an exchange of fire where there needed not be such an exchange. Whether they sleep together or not comes second to the fact that for a moment they both taste the flavour of intimacy, but both draw back before they can sip.

That drawing back is at times a conscious lie. By telling an untruth, even in a moment of intimacy, the two characters end up betraying that intimacy. By telling an untruth, they reserve the right to opt out of intimacy. Both Buscemi and Miller are lying throughout their conversation- she provocatively kisses him and invents scenarios which aren't true, he tells her stories which are blatantly false. Both are in the utmost degree whores- she is constantly referred to by both of them as a whore, a crack whore, a whore, and he also is a whore, selling his stories to the best bidder. Both of them are for sale- and yet neither of them really have anything they want to buy. Miller's character seems to have no joy in life, no empathy with Buscemi's character. He seems to cynical to find any friendship or emotion which pleases him.

This film is a tragedy for both characters. Part of the reason it is a tragedy is that neither of them could diagnose their own condition. Miller doesn't at the end believe that she has lost anything- she is still the sexy young woman about town. Buscemi may believe he has lost, he might not have got the sexual fulfillment he might have wanted. The real loss though is the opportunity to meet another person's subjectivity and try and understand, neither character can break through the walls to do that, they both have to lie to maintain the illusion that they exist invulnerable within a world they presume cheats them at every stage. Both of them hate humanity and hate themselves. That is the tragedy.

Right at the beggining of the film, Buscemi's character talks to his mute brother. He shows real concern but the brother isn't a human being, it's not fair because the brother can't respond and its not fair because Buscemi can't really engage. Miller acts the same words, for her too its not fair because though everyone loves her, she can't love. This film includes amusing, sexy dialogue, and communication. But despite words upon words upon words, neither of the characters are ready to converse.

Every piece of communication in this film is subject to doubt, every time someone says something you can rely on the fact that they are lying, that their words don't mean what they mean. Every exchange is a feint, a tactic, unreal because of that. You can only really relate to the injured or the mute. These two people present for all their undoubted wit and sexiness, a dystopian nightmare for the human soul, where all conversation is like wrestling.

This film, like Closer before it, is an examination of the worst in human nature, its worth seeing and its worth avoiding the fate of its characters.

Crossposted from Bits of News

September 28, 2007

James Purnell's nonstory

James Purnell was all over the news today for a scandal or an embarrassment, term it what you care. A mix up at an NHS hospital resulted in the minister being included in a promotion photo that he was too late in reality to attend. His image was photoshopped in with a couple of other MPs. The Tories are demanding an apology or even resignation, the press are on the hunt and have been all day and the BBC are making it the story of the hour. But nothing has actually happened beyond a minor mix up. Even if Purnell had deliberately wanted to fake the photograph, who cares. He was late, he missed something for a reason we don't know, and the photo was faked, end of story.

You might wonder why I'm writing about this. Because amidst all the rubbish about BBC bias and leftwing and rightwing newspaper bias, this is what is irritating about the media today. It is this bias towards triviality. This led the BBC Radio 4 News at 6 o'clock this evening (after Burma), this not efforts to come to a treaty about oil in the Caspian, not human rights abuses in Africa, not the climate change summit in America. This was the second most important thing according to the BBC going on in the world today- it makes one wonder. This is a non-story, it is a nothing, a scandal that doesn't exist. It is so far from a story that I don't even care whether Purnell photoshopped the image personally having arrived late because he slept in.

This is precisely the kind of media bias that hurts us all- not a bias leftwards or rightwards but a bias towards stupidity and triviality. If this is the kind of thing that gets broadcast on the news, I'd rather they didn't broadcast the news. Tell us about Turkmenistan, tell us about China (on which we get almost no information) or about our own government's economic policies- explain concepts like inflation- educate us- don't get wrapped up in stupid crises. Purnell, I know from friends involved with his previous job at pensions is actually a rather good minister. Lets start getting rid of ministers for stupidity and not making tiny mistakes. This goes for politicians as well of all parties.

To all involved, just stop, this is hurting us, hurting democracy.

Hillary's Robotic Laugh

September 27, 2007

Zodiac and the art of Comprehension

Film is a medium for communicating- a medium for communicating a message. Viewers of a film assemble pieces of the film, finding a story amidst the shots and scenes that they see, finding a meaning often in the portraits on the screen. Critics often, including your correspondent, do that too, putting together the various shots, the various ways of seeing things that the film embodies. For a moment, we become involved in a story which is not our own, which seems to us a signifier of much larger and more powerful currents. We interpret our lives, as Slavoj Zizek has argued, through the media of film. Consequently in some sense, we become film, through investigating and contemplating the film our object, we ourselves assimilate its conclusions, turning slowly into that which we investigate.

David Fincher's film, Zodiac, definitely explores such ideas. Zodiac concerns an investigation into the identity of the notorious serial killer who terrorised southern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In real life the killer was never caught and there remain several plausible theories as to who it might have been. But Fincher's film isn't really so concerned with the Zodiac himself or why he committed these murders- he can't be, we just don't know, as with the effects that those murders had on those investigating them. The film is about the investigators- both a pair of journalists and a pair of police officers- who for a variety of reasons become deeply involved within the case.

Three of these characters become deeply involved because of their roles, as the officers assigned to the case and the San Francisco Chronicle's crime reporter, but one of them doesn't have any such direct connection. For him and increasingly for the other three the Zodiac is an intellectual phenomenon. He tells his wife at one point in the film that all he wants is to be able to see the Zodiac and know that that is the man who terrified all those people for so long. There is no sense of justice in this. Afterall the Zodiac committed according to the police officer at one point, only 5 murders, whereas there are hundreds of murders in California during the time he was active and almost certainly unsolved murders as well by the legion. But this man presented a conumdrum, he sent codes in ciphers which still defy the US police, he left very few clues and those that he did leave were contradictory. In addition, as he became more famous the chances of fake letters and phone calls rose, so there was also the question of which calls and letters to decipher.

One is tempted to say but this is the generation of Vietnam and Chile and countless other disasters. All the minds involved in searching for the Zodiac were tempted by the intellectual complexity but also by the simplicity. For taking on the question of Vietnam exposes one to all sorts of moral dilemmas- there are difficult choices to make every time you put down a foot. The Zodiac case though was complicated but also simple. Simple for it was clear- there was a murderer, there were victims, there was a problem. In so many intellectual problems there isn't such an easily graspable issue- the deaths of American soldiers have to be weighed against the deaths of Iraqi civilians for example.

Fincher shows us how these intelligent men became dominated by the cause. Behaving at times like a madman, the cartoonist Robert Graysmith loses his marriage, almost loses his children. The Crime Correspondent loses his job and perhaps his mind. The Policemen both end up transferring out of the department, one with issues hanging over him. All of them are upset by the clue that fails to yield. Graysmith in particular is shown as living in a twilight world, where every stranger could be the Zodiac, where every basement could be used to store murdered bodies, where suspision hangs over everyone. The investigation becomes his life. He turns himself into the hunter, and thus becomes hunted by his imaginary Zodiac in every window. The serial killer dominates his conscious life and he becomes taken over by that life- his escape at the end is through solving in his own mind the murder.

There is a sense in which intellectual pursuits can lead this way. In which seeing the world in a flower means that one's world becomes that flower. You can be taken over by seeing the essense of everything as part of a great pattern whose ultimate resolution is to be found in this particular instance. Films provoke this as well- they too are a pattern that we break down and solve and that as Zizek argues can become part of us, can dominate us. The Zodiac as a film suggests that there is peril as well as achievement in obsession. Fincher shows us what happens when a man or men in general are so dominated by one idea that their whole lives become dedicated to it. In a sense during an investigation, they become the investigator and that is all.

Definitely that is the place which Graysmith, superbly played by Jake Gyllenhaal ends up at. Indeed as he is the character whose inner life is really portrayed here, more than any other, it is within him that we can see this at its strongest. But other characters too end up as investigators rather than characters, they lose their humour, take to drink, lose their sense of self and hope for the future, all because of a killer, who has killed a fraction of those killed in the city over the years that he functioned in. They don't learn from this instance but the patterns they derive are false.

Fincher's film calls into question the nature of intellectual obsession, what if your obsession drives you into dark corners and believing that the nature of the world is darkness, you recede ever further into the black whole of a disturbed and suspicious mind. In this film it is neither the Zodiac nor his victims who are the focus, its the slowly disintegrating investigators, who swirl around the murderer, pulled in by the gravitational fascination that they feel to him, to seek light in the heart of darkness.

Crossposted at Bits of News.

September 26, 2007

What should the US Presidential Candidates be discussing?

Ashok has asked a number of bloggers to think about and address this issue- amongst them me. As a non-American I don't know enough about US domestic policy to really presume to highlight an issue there and thought I'd stick to foreign policy in trying to work out a neglected area. I have two neglected areas that the American Presidential candidates in my opinion ought to at least be thinking about it not discussing. I'll briefly lay out what they are and why they are interesting, without advancing policy ideas because as I hope you'll appreciate both areas are incredibly complicated.

The first issue which I think US politicians ought to think about more is Central Asia, excluding Afghanistan and Pakistan. Part of the reason, many believe, that we face a war on terror is because of the conjunction of dictatorships and oil. Terrorism is seen by many as the reaction of Middle Eastern peoples to their own governments as much as to the West or Israel. Let's take that as a presumption for a moment. If so then conditions in Central Asia are just as worrying. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are all ruled with varying degrees of corrupt autocracy. Many of those nations have huge oil reserves underneath them or are potential conduits to the outside world for pipelines. They sit on the edge of Southern Russia which has its own problems with radical Islam, and throughout these countries there is an upswell of support for radicals, especially Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The conditions are not good. This region should be a priority for any forward thinking US President who wants to anticipate the problems of the future.

Another region which should be discussed more and isn't and hence represents the second of my points is the Taiwan strait. If there is to be a nuclear war anywhere in the world involving the United States, the probability is that it will arise over the Taiwan strait (the other most likely nuclear war, more likely and another issue that Americans should be thinking about is over Kashmir). Taiwan though is a democracy, its a democracy where many of the people want to vote for complete independence from China but China threatens continuously to invade Taiwan should they vote that way. China tells anyone who mediates that Taiwan is part of China. China also fires missiles over Taiwanese territory and always ramps up military pressure when Taiwan goes to the polls. There is no clearer place in the world where democracy confronts aggressive, nationalistic dictatorship than over the Taiwan strait. The military balance on the South China Sea and Chinese and Japanese recent build ups of power there should also be a major concern for the United States. China ultimately is not just an economic issue, but a political one.

There are two issues- the former especially- which I don't think are being discussed enough in the current Presidential campaign, I hope they get some attention.

This is an interesting meme- I know its an imposition but anyone who reads this can consider themselves asked what neglected issues you think the US Presidential candidates should consider and put it on your blog, with a link preferably back to Ashok, as he is going to compile the suggestions later.

Renewed assault on the Blogosphere

Richard Brunton is someone I know through Bits of News. I'd noticed that he hadn't posted for a bit on Bits, and I wondered about it- the reason seems though to have been much more serious than Richard's upcoming wedding (for which congratulations from me), Richard has been threatened by soliciters and by a large company, all of this because of comments left on his blog. His full story, which in my view is tantamount to harrassment by the company and their lawyers, who reached for their writs before doing anything else is here. Rightly terrified, Richard hasn't disclosed the names of the company or their soliciters. The case is fascinating because in the opinion of a lawyer that Richard consulted he had a defence, but it was not worth him taking the company to court because of the disparity of income between him and the company. I don't know anything about the case concerned but it sounds like Richard has been bullied directly by this company, bullied by the fact that they have the wealth and organisation to completely overrun him despite the fact he may well have been in the right.

It fits with the behaviour of Schillings, the firm involved with Tim Ireland in the past, I don't know if that is the firm involved. If Richard's account is true, then it demonstrates that there are plenty of trigger happy law firms out there and that the law on blogging especially commenting isn't yet clear.

September 25, 2007

Self Congratulation

I know its been a slow blogging day- and an article will go up this evening.

But I thought I ought to mention the fact that this blog somehow was voted in at no 10 of the non aligned Blogs in the UK. Iain Dale organised the list and his readers in the case of non-aligned blogs voted for it: can I say thank you to Iain for organising it. Thanks to anyone who voted for me. It made me feel pretty good about life this morning when I learned.

Congratulations as well to other bloggers who have featured-Matt Sinclair, Chris Dillow (of stumbling and mumbling) and Dave Cole all made it. However all of them should have been higher. Matt is definitely one of the top conservative bloggers around, Chris is one of the top bloggers full stop around, Dave Cole doesn't post often but when he does its well thought through and interesting. That is the ultimate problem I have with lists like this, and no matter what the methodology this problem would remain, the best, most thoughtful blogs are not always the most popular. Truth like a basterd comes into the world, said Milton- I'm not sure he was entirely right but analysis is harder to sell than gossip, you can't break stories in the same way and that has proved to be the oxygen of much of the British Blogosphere. Its what Dizzy owes his rise to this year according to Iain Dale. The prominence of the gossip blogger is not something to be celebrated in my view- half truths are so much better peddled by the press, afterall they are professionals at it. Intelligent criticism is not something that the dead trees are so good at.

Ultimately this is a nice accolade to wake up to, and thanks to everyone for voting for me, but I'm not entirely sure that the lists give a true reflection of the strength of the British blogosphere and where it is to be found.

September 24, 2007

Patrick Graham on Iraq

This is a really good article on Iraq by someone who has been there many times and obviously knows the country very well. Go and read it.

Truth, Politics and Gandhi: Towards an Anglican Political Theory

In the Doctrine of Divorce, John Milton the great English poet commented that truth comes like a bastard into the world with nothing but ignominy to he who gave her birth. Thomas Hardy quoted those words with approval in his poem entitled, Lausanne in Gibbon's Old Garden, when he put them into the mouth of the equally cynical historian. Not all throughout history have agreed with Gibbon and Milton, many have seen truth as a weapon whose potency is underestimated and in the light of the resistance to colonial rule conducted by men like Mahatma Gandhi that perception seemed to take on reality. Indeed the idea that truth itself is an ideological weapon of surpassing strength is what backs up the modern idea of protest as a political weapon. Every Trotskyite standing remotely by his banner for redistribution, every peace advocate marching in their millions through Trafalgar Square, all reject by their presence the idea that Milton so cynically expressed and that Hardy through Gibbon so enthusiastically affirmed.

The position of truth in politics is one of the key questions of our time. Its one that the current Archbishop of Canterbury in his lecture at Kings turned to. Attitudes to it provide a clue in my view to the theological battles in all three major religions about their direction and their implication in modern political struggle. Rowan Williams believes that there is truth within the world and that he as a theist has found it. He also believes that because of that he needs no protection from law or even political activism to vindicate his conduct. All he needs to do to achieve his aims is to explain them and people will come onside. Williams is interested in social change but through explanation and conversion not force.

As such what Williams's speech doesn't do is define the aims of Christian politics- he talks a little about them mentioning denying euthanasia and more support for the poor- but not much. The real interest is in the means and here he creates an opposition and as he would be aware its a very old opposition. On the one hand you have factions or interest groups, on the other the Church of Christ. The distinction between the two is found in their political behaviour. A faction behaves the way it is because it is not linked ultimately to the font of truth, God. It acts with selfishness and attempts to exclude by force others from the conversation. A true Christian Church is not a faction, but operates by the force of example. Because its actions are undoubtedly, in Williams's terms moral, and because any fair judge would admit their morality, any fair judge will follow their examples. The Christian in politics therefore is not so much a politician as he transcends politics, operating by example and proving by conduct and tolerant argument the equal of his more selfish factional counterparts.

Williams provides a brief account of what he thinks that the Christian can morally contribute to the world. He suggests that the Christian can offer both a vision of politics that rises not out of interest but out of a communion with God. He also suggests that the Christian offers a perspective which is universal- as universal as the love of God.

Dr Williams puts his argument in the context of Mahatma Gandhi's movement of satyagraha, soul force. He argues that Gandhi's movement in India offers us a real world example of the work that superior moral example can do. Gandhi, in Williams's argument, is the man who employed these tactics to succeed. By using Gandhi Williams hopes to rescue his argument from the accusation that such a mode of political education- for that is what he is talking about- is otherworldly, unrealistic and utopian. He suggests that we can see in the actions of Gandhi the example which the Church should follow. Williams does not assert that the Church has always followed the path of Gandhi, but asserts that that is the path that the Church ought to follow. The Church ought to assert both the fact that unlike a faction its prescriptions for society are based on truth, and secondly that its prescriptions are universal. They stand upon the foundation of a universal human relationship with God. This Williams finds is identical within all the monotheistic faiths, drawing from Islam the idea that there can be no compulsion in religion and from Christianity the idea of a Christian individual being, to quote John Winthrop quoting the Bible, a city on the hill.

What sense there is in Williams's vision of Christianity in politics depends on your attitude to theology. Williams's argument is based on the fact as he sees it that Christianity is true. There is though a large percentage of the population who feel that they can derive a morality without necessarily believing in Christ or any God whatsoever. To go further there are many Christians for whom Williams's ideas will seem repugnant, many Christians believe that rationality is an untrustworthy guide to the world. From Cromwell's army to Joseph De Maistre the case against reason has been made again and again by learned and less learned Christians of all kinds of congregations. If truth is something only bequeathed by an act of divine grace, that may be predestined to be reserved from some human beings, then the idea of an example forcing a conversion is merely poppycock. It makes divinity an affair of human reason. Your attitude ultimately to Williams's view depends accepting both his moral outlook and his belief that the example of virtue will convince others to be virtuous. It will need no more positive action.

Williams's vision in this talk is of a Christian engagement with politics that is pluralist. Pluralism is the idea that various competing ideas can coexist. That conflicts obviously with the idea of a thesis that is uniquely true and just. If my idea is uniquely true and just, then why should I respect yours. Williams attempts to get through this dilemma by suggesting that a true faith would be unselfish and unworried by human conflict. He suggests that a true faith would reveal its truth by its meekness and its willingness to lead by example. Hence a true faith sits easily with pluralistic understandings of the world.

Making the claim that you have unique access to the truth may though represent a threat to pluralism still. Many of us doubt that Williams is able to make the claim he is making. Furthermore the claim to truth he is making is based not on argument or repeatable experiment, but upon an inner sense of faith. An inner sense which is fundamentally subjective and therefore individual: I can't argue about your religious experiences because I haven't had them. Public discussion becomes more difficult if your argument consists of ultimately saying, I believe x, I have had an experience that is unrepeatable that x, and I will not produce anything else but it because its the truth. Given that pluralistic societies are based around conversation, satyagraha is ultimately not conversation, it is quiet, pacific, quietist insistence.

That brings me to another issue. Williams wants Christians and religious people in general to ground their faith on the fact that they and they only have access to the truth. Again that isn't easy to marry with a pluralistic society, not only does pluralism involve conversation and its difficult to converse about faith, but it also involves compromise. To what extent can you compromise on the truth. Compromise takes two forms. Firstly of course there is the compromise of electoral politics, to what extent would a satyagraha movement be willing to compromise say on euthanasia with a pro-euthanasia party. But of course secondly it takes the form of realising that people will live in ways that you don't like. Would Williams welcome Christians sitting outside gay weddings and passing out leaflets that say that homosexuals are going to hell? I suspect he wouldn't, but that would be another form of his soul force.

Obviously it is harsh to take the Archbishop's lecture and do more than explain its outlook. A lecture of thirty minutes is not sufficient to answer all these questions, and there are plenty more that we could ask both from a theological standpoint and a political standpoint. It is interesting though to watch the Anglican primate making a real effort on these matters. It reflects the fact that during modern times we have become pluralist. Anglicanism and religion in general for most historical time has been monist, banning those that advocate atheism or other religions, persecuting them and persecuting those whose moral conduct the religious disapprove of.

There is a less theoretical concern about this as well. For the Archbishop's concerns don't seem to have reached others. The previous Pope was keen on a reference to God and the unique Christian heritage of Europe within the European constitution. He viewed and politicians in Poland, Spain and Sweden followed him in viewing God as a guarentor of any political system. Far from inspiring via soul force, the Pope wanted legislation to back the special place of the Church in the European community.

The Archbishop seems tentatively to be reaching beyond that, to some kind of compromise with post-enlightenment society. Reaching perhaps towards a compromise between the the insistance that he has a revelation from God and that society no longer automatically will bend its knee to that revelation. He finds that compromise in the idea that human beings will naturally yield to the truth, that Milton and Hardy were wrong.

Perhaps the Archbishop hasn't achieved that yet, but its interesting to see the attempt being made at all.

Crossposted at Bits of News.

September 23, 2007

Sensible Mr Steyn

Well done Mr Steyn. Disputes between Britain and America or any two countries about who has fought more for freedom are about as stupid as they come. Ultimately we can all throw historical insults at each other, and we can all boast of our own accomplishments. Lets deal with the future not the past.

British Blogosphere at its best

There are now around 190 British Blogs referring to the story about Mr Usmanov and Craig Murray- this is the full list at the moment, courtesy of Chicken Yoghurt. Lets keep this list growing in solidarity with the blogs taken down.

Curious Hamster, Pickled Politics, Harry’s Place, Tim Worstall, Dizzy, Iain Dale, Ten Percent, Blairwatch, Davide Simonetti, Earthquake Cove, Turbulent Cleric (who suggests dropping a line to the FA about Mr Usmanov), Mike Power, Jailhouse Lawyer, Suesam, Devil’s Kitchen, The Cartoonist, Falco, Casualty Monitor, Forever Expat, Arseblog, Drink-soaked Trots (and another), Pitch Invasion, Wonko’s World, Roll A Monkey, Caroline Hunt, Westminster Wisdom, Chris K, Anorak, Mediawatchwatch, Norfolk Blogger, Chris Paul, Indymedia (with a list of Craig Murray’s articles that are currently unavailable), Obsolete, Tom Watson, Cynical Chatter, Reactionary Snob, Mr Eugenides, Matthew Sinclair, The Select Society, Liberal England, Davblog, Peter Gasston Pitch Perfect, Adelaide Green Porridge Cafe, Lunartalks, Tygerland, The Crossed Pond, Our Kingdom, Big Daddy Merk, Daily Mail Watch, Graeme’s, Random Thoughts, Nosemonkey, Matt Wardman, Politics in the Zeros, Love and Garbage, The Huntsman, Conservative Party Reptile, Ellee Seymour, Sabretache, Not A Sheep, Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion, The People’s Republic Of Newport, Life, the Universe & Everything, Arsenal Transfer Rumour Mill, The Green Ribbon, Blood & Treasure, The Last Ditch, Areopagitica, Football in Finland, An Englishman’s Castle, Freeborn John, Eursoc, The Back Four, Rebellion Suck!, Ministry of Truth, ModernityBlog, Beau Bo D’Or, Scots and Independent, The Splund, Bill Cameron, Podnosh, Dodgeblogium, Moving Target, Serious Golmal, Goonerholic, The Spine, Zero Point Nine, Lenin’s Tomb, The Durruti Column, The Bristol Blogger, ArseNews, David Lindsay, Quaequam Blog!, On A Quiet Day…, Kathz’s Blog, England Expects, Theo Spark, Duncan Borrowman, Senn’s Blog, Katykins, Jewcy, Kevin Maguire, Stumbling and Mumbling, Famous for 15 megapixels, Ordovicius, Tom Morris, AOL Fanhouse, Doctor Vee, The Curmudgeonly, The Poor Mouth, 1820, Hangbitch, Crooked Timber, ArseNole, Identity Unknown, Liberty Alone, Amused Cynicism, Clairwil, The Lone Voice, Tampon Teabag, Unoriginalname38, Special/Blown It, The Remittance Man, 18 Doughty Street, Laban Tall, Martin Bright, Spy Blog The Exile, poons, Jangliss, Who Knows Where Thoughts Come From?, Imagined Community, A Pint of Unionist Lite, Poldraw, Disillusioned And Bored, Error Gorilla, Indigo Jo, Swiss Metablog, Kate Garnwen Truemors, Asn14, D-Notice, The Judge, Political Penguin, Miserable Old Fart, Jottings, fridgemagnet, Blah Blah Flowers, J. Arthur MacNumpty, Tony Hatfield, Grendel, Charlie Whitaker, Matt Buck, The Waendel Journal, Marginalized Action Dinosaur, SoccerLens, Toblog, John Brissenden East Lower, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Peter Black AM, Boing Boing, BLTP, Gunnerblog, LFB UK, Liberal Revolution, Wombles, Focus on Sodbury…, Follow The Money, Freedom and Whisky, Melting Man, PoliticalHackUK, Simon Says…, Daily EM, From The Barrel of a Gun, The Fourth Place, The Armchair News Blog, Journalist und Optimist, Bristol Indymedia, Dave Weeden, Up North John, Gizmonaut, Spin and Spinners, Marginalia, Arnique, Heather Yaxley, The Whiskey Priest, On The Beat, Paul Canning, Martin Stabe, Mat Bowles, Pigdogfucker, Rachel North (193).

And he also missed Vino! So that makes 194 blogs concerned with Mr Usmanov!

First political memory

The Thunderdragon has tagged me for my first political memory.

My first memory is one of those Kennedy moments that everyone who was alive remembers which is the resignation of Margerat Thatcher. I remember coming home with my mother, from the supermarket I think, as a kid, and we drove in to our front drive way. I can still remember it really vividly and a neighbour came out and said to my Mum 'she's gone'. There wasn't any question of who 'she' was. I don't remember having any particular view on whether the fact that 'she' had gone was good or bad or discussing it with my parents, but I just remember the moment and getting out of the car. Its a very vivid memory but accompanied by almost nothing in the way of context.

Anyway I think this is quite an interesting meme and in service of that, I'm going to tag, Matt, Vino, Mike Rowley, Welshcakes, Ian Appleby, James Higham, Ashok, Lord Nazh and Yascha. So guys what was your first political memory- (Oh and by the way anyone else who wants to take this up- please do, its quite a cool meme and any of the regular commenters, Pappusrif and Edmund this means you for instance who want to leave a memory in the comments please do as well!)

Djuradj, Prince of Montenegro

The Early Modern period of European history is dominated by the rise and fall of Great Powers. Few powers were greater in that era than the mercentile empire of Venice or the power of the Porte, radiating through the Balkans from the fortress of Istanbul. The Venetians and the Turks enjoyed a relationship punctuated by tension and pride. Both heirs to the empire of Constantinople, the second Rome, both empires vied for control and supremacy in the Eastern Meditereanean. And between them there were a group of shifting client states, sometimes independent, sometimes not, whose fortunes rose and fell with factional conflicts in Venice and Istanbul and the boundary between the Republic of Saint Mark and the realm of the Sultan.

Amongst those powers which thrived for a small time was the princely state of Montenegro. Ruled by the house of Crnojevic during the latter 15th Century, Montenegro existed in the shadow of the two great powers and its rulers attempted to secure the backing of Venice to retain an independent base in the Balkans. Their allegiance to Venice was far from sure, several times they demonstrated their independence of their patrons by going to war with the Venetians. By the death of Ivan in 1490, the Crnojevic were facing dangerous times. A Turkish army was on the march through the Balkans, Ivan's son Djuradj went with his Venetian wife to Venice itself to get desperately needed help in 1496. Djuradj ended up though being arrested, he was released in 1498, and present at the seige of Milan in 1499 but then fearing for his freedom he fled to the Turks in 1500 and remained in Turkey till he died. The attempt to build a Crnojevic state had failed.

These events have become the stuff of national history. Montenegro once again is asserting its independence and sites like this one link that Montenegro to the present state. Indeed that site asserts in discussing the Crnojevic that they were nationalists before the term was invented, fighting for the freedom of Montenegro and left a legacy of patriotism in their people's hearts. They cared for the Montenegran state and ultimately were a Balkan version of William Tell, deserted ultimately by the perfidious Italians to the evil designs of the Turks. Nothing could be further from the truth. New research by Diana Wright has brought to light the true nature of the Montenegran principality, through exploring a document left in Venice by Djuradj, his last will and testament. Exploring its concerns allows us to see that Djuradj, far from being a Montenegran patriot, was typical both of his time and place.

Wright's research suggests that Djuradj was an innovater but not in the theatre of politics, in the theatre of love. She suggests, and she uses an Italian form of his name Zorzi that Djuradj was the first writer of love letters in Venice. Reading the testament its possible to see what she means. 17 times Djuradj uses the word consorte to refer to his wife, he leaves her as sole executor of his will. This kind of thing is typical of Venetians at the time: 88% of husbands by this point were leaving their wives as sole executors of their wills. The innovation here may lie less in Djuradj than in the limits of our evidence- its perfectly possible that this isn't the first love letter but it is the first love letter that has survived. In that Wright is justified in asserting Djuradj's importance as a historical figure.

But notice how far we have come from the nationalistic hero of myth- far from being Montenegran and motivated by patriotism, Djuradj was a typical Venetian of his day and married to another Venetian. Reading the testament something else emerges. Djuradj cared little if nothing about his own country, he doesn't mention it. He cared deeply about family honour. He reminded his wife that she had no equal on earth save for Kings and other princes. He plans for his sons, wishing that one be sent to live with the King of France, the other with the Sultan of Turkey, no matter who wins Djuradj wanted a Crnojevic to be on their side. He tells his wife that the rulers of Venice are obligated to them because of what his father did, he tells her that if he dies and she gets back to Montenegro he wants her to endow a monestory with money to whom he gave a vow. All of this revolves not about Montenegran nationalism but around the House of Crnojevic and its prosperity, in heaven and earth.

Wright's research demonstrates how far Djuradj was a typical Balkan nobleman of his time. He was desperate to survive in the brutal world of 15th Century politics. He could side with the Turks or Venetians, indeed he fled to the Turks from the Venetians. Djuradj sought to secure his family, he failed in that but to berate him for not protecting Montenegran independence or to laud him for his contribution is to miss the point. He was not interested in that at all. Rather than being Montenegran, the testament reveals that he was culturally Italian in many ways. We don't know about its influence, but his contact with Turkey was deep throughout his life and he must have absorbed Turkish ways of doing things too. In the swift changing world of Balkan politics, the divisions of 21st Century nationalism make no sense.

Looking at Djuradj, one might almost see him in a line stretching forward to Ali Pasha, the despot of Eastern Greece in the early 19th Century. A whole series of figures arise to my mind, men who attempted to survive under Ottoman rule or with Western support. Djuradj doesn't form part of the history of Montenegran nationalism, his part in history is as a sign of the double face of the Balkans. Looking westwards and northwards towards Italy and southwards and eastwards to Turkey, rulers in the Balkans were constantly caught in a dangerous dance, where they could very easily miscalculate. Djuradj did and his patrimony did not survive, and he is fairly typical of that.

That part of the world has seen vast changes in the twentieth century, probably the greatest since the era of Djuradj's grandfather and the final fall of Constantinople. The Turkish empire has vanished and a series of independent states have replaced it. Attempting to read the history of those states as though the political and ideological world of today is that of yesterday is folly. Djuradj is an interesting example of the way that 15th Century politics worked. His principality was consumed in conflicts over which he had no control and his attempts to control it relied on his ability to influence others, notably the Venetians and even at times the King of France. Attempts which ultimately failed.

Djuradj is an interesting figure- there is more that we don't know about him that could be found out- but Diana Wright's work leaves me in no doubt that the best way to think about him is as a 15th Century prince not a 21st Century patriot.

Cross posted at Bits of News. (The illustration is of his seal)