October 20, 2007

Isolation and the Executive

President Bush has now spent six years in the White House, by the time he leaves the place in January 2009 he will have completed his eighth year in the seat of US government and have left a momentous legacy. Bush has attracted hatred and praise in ways that few US Presidents have in the last fifty years- he has been compared both to Sir Winston Churchill and Harry Truman and to Adolf Hitler. What hasn't been addressed though are some of the real lessons from Bush's time in the White House and those of his predecessors. When the Americans elect a President, they elect a man or perhaps a woman who then serves at the apex of their government for the next four or possibly eight years. One of the most interesting facets of that service is the ways that it effects the person in control- it is their whim that ultimately decides and has to decide great questions of policy and the pulpit that the White House is afforded is still the most powerful in the World, so the question of how the office shapes its holders is a vital and important one.

Bush's Presidency is the first War on Terror Presidency. But his Presidency reflects trends that have been present for a long time- at least since the second world war and which are present as well in other democracies- the UK for example. As this fascinating article from Todd Purdum (husband of Dee Dee Myers an official in the Clinton White House) makes clear the US President is an increasingly isolated figure. Its part of the nature of the office that the President is surrounded by security and occupied by the business of a vast bureacracy. In the early Republic men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were connected to their fellow countrymen through the exchange of vast volumes of correspondence. The fears of anthrax mean that the present President is unlikely to receive directly a single letter from an ordinary voter. Bush dined outside the White House three times in the last six months- his contact with the outside world, even with longterm friends is mediated always by the vast military machine surrounding him. There can be and are almost no spontaneous social contacts with non-employees available to him, there are very few moments when his every interraction isn't planned for and leglislated long in advance.

President Clinton and other former Presidents have spoken about how this strange position effected them. Clinton used apparantly to walk past the lines of tourists and chat to them whilst going in to work in the morning, he found this gave him human interraction. President Reagen rang up charity phone lines to give money and had to convince the rather terrified interlocutor on the other end that he was indeed the President of the United States. We don't know about life inside the Bush White House yet- and probably won't until the term of the current President ends though Mr Purdum has gathered lots of information. What instantly strikes me though about the kinds of lives led by Presidents and Prime Ministers is that increasingly they are veiled from outside sources of information- they are by the nature of their office out of touch with people's lives. Whether that matters or not is another matter. I think it does partly because it makes the President into an icon not a personality- the trappings office must change a personality especially over such a long time and give that personality an exaggerated sense both of its own importance and also of its own omniscience.

The most worrying part of the Bush administration's rhetoric to me is often the way it sites their man within history. Mr Blair, the former Prime Minister, has the same rhetorical preoccupation and Mr Brown his successor shares it. David Owen, the ex British foreign secretary and neurologist recently argued that there is a condition of hubris into which politicians whilst in office descend. One wonders whether their unique position means that they think they are uniquely placed to anticipate the verdicts of historians long into the future. President Bush for example recently reminded visitors to his White House of the experience of President Lincoln in 1864 when he was deeply unpopular- of course he is right to remember that unpopularity isn't neccessarily a mark that one is wrong, but nor is it a mark that one is right. Mr Bush lives in the White House, burned during the war of 1812, a war which few now consider a success either for Mr Maddison or for his British counterpart the Earl of Liverpool. Isolation though breeds that sense of superiority- of communion not with your peers but with a long line of historical predecessors and successors.

Of course, isolation is a fact about modern political lives- the recent events in Pakistan demonstrate why. And Presidents and Prime Ministers from Spencer Perceval to John F. Kennedy have paid with their lives for the access their public gets to them (fortunately that list neither in the UK nor the US extends no further, though President Reagen was almost another victim in the early 1980s). But it isn't a good thing- it perpetuates the distance that supreme power creates by surrounding it with a barricade of security. Still more, the President and Prime Minister surround themselves with attempts to avoid scrutiny, a careless comment can kick up a controversy and the way that President Bush for example can't make a self deprecating joke without Michael Moore putting it in a film demonstrates the unreality of the office and the difficulty of living with it. Isolation may be a fact of life for these people, but it isn't a good thing. Casual interraction, the battering of meeting with equals and friends, all these things are crucial to living a real and a full life. Its one reason why wives and husbands are so crucial to political life- as Peter Hennessy commented recently in an interview with Iain Dale, its crucial to have a wife or husband that takes you down at the end of the day to normality. One can see in Oliver Stone's film about Nixon that Nixon loses contact with reality when he can't even talk to Pat Nixon about his life in the office: he can only talk to Haldeman and Ehrlichman.

Isolation encourages madness, hubris and mistakes. It is one of the worst and most neccessary elements of modern political life- and its one that modern politicians have to strive to find their way to break through. In the end politics remains as it always has been an intoxicating brew- but once you lose your soul, the point is that you are on the way to losing the world.

October 19, 2007


This is a very interesting article by Seymour Hersh on the current status of American and European relations with Iran. What emerges from it for me about the situation is the difficulty of knowing much about what is going on at all. Take for example the issue of whether Iranians are smuggling weapons into Iraq, David Kay the former chief weapons inspector for President Bush in Iraq believes that quite a few of those weapons came in earlier when the Iranians were arming the opposition to Saddam or are going around a vast black market in ammunitions inside Iraq. The article is worth reading at any rate just to get a sense of how complicated the issues in the Middle East are at the moment.

October 17, 2007

L'Argent: Robert Bresson in a Sinful World

L'Argent was the last film made by the famous French director Robert Bresson. Bresson was a highly individualistic director who drew deeply upon both his Catholic faith and his experience as a prisoner of war in world war two. He was conceptually innovative: he used his actors or models as blank sheets upon which the mind of the viewer and the director imprinted images. Consequently a Bresson film is difficult to approach because the actors don't seem at times to be acting, but merely saying or speaking the lines. Their faces become enhanced with emotion but they are not themselves the providers of emotion. Bresson believed that actors can get in the way of their characters- he endeavoured not to allow that to happen in his film. He was also a film maker who refused to provide explanation- his films move swiftly along a set of sentences, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. He was an economist of the screen and consequently when you see a Bresson film, it is your mind that fills in much of the detail and the psychological realism behind the story.

Nowhere is this more true than in L'Argent. L'Argent was one of Bresson's more difficult and interesting films. Even by his standards the motivations which lead the leading character, Yvon, down to committing a horrific mass murder are opaque and hard to understand. The basic story was taken from a Tolstoy short story- The Forged Coupon- and concerns a man who is prosecuted for a crime that he did not commit. He ends up handing over fake money to the owner of a cafe, the police investigate him as a distributor of counterfeit notes and because the store owner that gave him the notes commits perjury, Yvon ends up in jail. Various other things follow as well from that moment. The store owner's assistant becomes a criminal as well having seen that criminality forms the basis for such a respectable bourgeois business and the original criminals, the young counterfeiters, escape without a bruise to their reputations. But the story in its way is insignificant besides the real drama which is interior to the characters.

Bresson's camera never takes you into places that you cannot see. He never exposes the motivation of his characters and yet you can at times get something of a sense of it through comparison and thought. Through analysing the action, contemplating the play of images upon the screen, you can see some kind of sense emerging. In that way, Bresson's camera manages to tell you less and more about his characters- less obviously but more implicitly. L'Argent is a film about guilt indeed- and the bills of paper are the inspiration for the evil acts that take place. But Bresson undermines his own McGuffin, he teaches us in this film that crime proceeds not from an act of want but from an act of will. Various of the criminals, including Yvon, that we see populate the screen have moments of desperation where their crimes are motivated by 'l'argent' but ultimately the greatest crimes are committed out of a vicarious and Nietzschean sense of will. Bresson was fascinated by the whole idea, explored by Dostoevsky of crime as a willed act, he remade in the 1960s the Russian master's novel Crime and Punishment as Pickpocket. L'Argent picks up on that theme of willed crime to a greater extent than its deceptive title might warrant.

Yvon may be propelled into crime by the unjust episode involving money- but it is clear to Bresson the Christian and to his audience that Yvon should resign himself to the event and rebuild his life. He doesn't. We know that Yvon's wife thinks that way, she wants him to explain himself and the reasons why things have gone wrong to his firm. Yvon's pagan sense of pride and manliness couldn't cope with such an explanation and in a terse one liner (so typical of the film) he turns down that option. Rather he goes into jail as the accessory to another crime, the story continues with Yvon continuing in his search to reemerge as a civilised man, to reshape the world by his will and undo the past injustice. His first effort, to use contacts in the criminal world to make money, fails. He is offered redemption again through the agency of a family that he lives with, but again he wants to will the act that will emancipate him. He steals and asks right at the end of the film, where is the money. The point is that Yvon never ceases to try and will the money's existence- the forged note has taken away his respectability- and he tries to recreate that respectability through remaking the world and not accepting it as it is.

There is an undoubted pessimism to this film. Contact with the modern world through money is shown as an unambiguous ill. Bresson leaves us in no doubt that it is the Marian dedication of an old woman on a farm who works for nothing that we should admire. She is connected to rural life and sacrafice in a way that none of the other characters are. She does not will but merely accepts her place in the God's scheme and his providential and unjustified pattern of existance. If there is a mirror text to L'Argent, then it is the Book of Job. Suffering comes through the very nature of living in a fallen world, through the fact that Satan holds dominion down here and inhabits the specie that we pass between each other. One strategy is to attempt to will onesself out of that situation, a strategy that in Bresson's terms leads to spiritual suicide. Another is to merely accept the grinding injustice and terror of life- to live through it, placing onesself always upon another cross, always in the position of Christ before Pilate.

For this is a work that is deeply anti-establishment and quietist. The French authorities are never shown as anything other than ceremonially dressed incompetents. As in Le Proc├Ęs de Jeanne d'Arc, the judges of the case are judged and found guilty in Bresson. In the first trial, they manage to convict Yvon of a crime he never committed and hand down a harsh sentence. During the second trial, they convict Lucien, the shop assistant turned idealistic burglar, of thefts that he has committed. But Lucien commits those thefts to reveal the pomposity of the system and to give to charity. His act is an act of will and spiritual pride- but in rebuking him for it the judges merely reveal their inability to see further than their own natures. One thinks of Proust's story about the dinner party where the guests demurely tell each other how much they disagree with anarchism, whilst they each earn over 100,000 francs a person. So with Bresson attacking the system may be ridiculous, but defending it is worse.

Getting to the bottom of this complex and interesting story is a never ending journey. Bresson made his films in the way that he did to reflect the fact that life itself is something which you cannot get to the bottom of with a glib phrase from a superstar. He wanted his audiences to look deeply into the midst of his films and notice the subtle economy of his script, to take every line, every action and consider it as a semiotic revelation from the soul. When Bresson shows a car chase, he shows the foot going down on the accelerator, the policeman's hand on the steering wheel, cuts between them and that is it. When he shows a spiritual drama he leaves his viewer with the opportunity to try and wrestle with the issues provoked by his intelligent and economic direction. Ultimately just as the recitation of a life-story is easy, so is the recitation of the script of this film, but as with a life-story it is everything beyond and above the obvious facts that is hard to ascertain. For Bresson film was meant to reflect reality and reality was hard.

L'Argent therefore has like many Bresson films a double mission. In both senses it incarnates a sceptical Catholicism. Bresson wanted to remind us that telling stories was the easy part of life, working out what they meant and where each of the characters stood was harder and at the centre of that question for him lay the omnipotent deity. If Bresson's tactic was to evoke the mystery of life, then his subject in L'Argent is bad luck and its effects. Luck is symbolised through money. Machiavelli told us that we had to master or even rape fortune in order to have success. Bresson tells us that that option does not exist. Yvon tries to control his fate, he fails. Lucien tries to rescue mankind, he fails. The beneficiaries of the system, kids who have rich parents, judges who have red robes, always win. The point though is as the old woman does to struggle on, to exist and to make a sacrifice of your own ego in the service of devotion.

Bresson's film has often been called pessimistic. It isn't. Bresson himself said that L'Argent was his most lucid statement- it is and it is one of the most lucid statements of a quietist faith that I have seen on screen or anywhere else. Whether Bresson was right or not is of course another issue- but you cannot critique the power with which the message is delivered.

Iraq: The Post Mortem

British troops are slowly leaving Iraq, and in the States the American Presidential election will offer voters a choice between a Republican probably offering a new strategy and a Democrat offering some kind of withdrawel. In both countries and throughout the West, the popularity of the war is lower now than it ever was before- a considerable acheivement given the divisive nature of the invasion in the first place. Much attention has therefore focused on the ideas and judgements that took the UK and United States into war in the first place. Amongst the major culprits the school of thought known as neo-conservatism has come in for the most resolute attack from all sides- from traditional conservatives angry that we attempted to impose a democracy on Iraq and from liberals angry about the abandonment of the due process of international law and international consensus as expressed in the United Nations.

In Commentary, the neo conservative thinker, Joshua Muravchik, offers a rousing and well written defence of the doctrine against all comers. He argues that neo-conservatism consists of four principles, which he defines as

(1) Our struggle is moral, against an evil enemy who revels in the destruction of innocents. Knowing this can help us assess our adversaries correctly and make appropriate strategic choices. Saying it convincingly will strengthen our side and weaken theirs. (2) The conflict is global, and outcomes in one theater will affect those in others. (3) While we should always prefer nonviolent methods, the use of force will continue to be part of the struggle. (4) The spread of democracy offers an important, peaceful way to weaken our foe and reduce the need for force.

He argues that these principles are equally applicable to the cold war, the context in which he suggests the doctrine as a foreign policy theory originated, and to the war on terror. He suggests that they victored in the Cold War- there are legitimate questions about whether they did or whether the Soviet Union collapsed out of its own domestic problems- but leave that aside and that they will victor in the war on terror. He suggests that the 'Iraq' case demonstrates a combination of a tactical misjudgement (particularly on the part of Donald Rumsfeld) and over exaggeration by the media of the downside to Iraq- a civil war is not equivalent to an unstable country for Mr Muravchik.

Some of those judgements are sound. I agree with him that there are dangers in assuming, as many conservatives do, that it would have been easy to impose a successor to Saddam- a strong man- in 2003. American force would still have been needed to back any such strong man up- especially had the Baathist army been unwilling to assist. The picture in Iraq is a dark shade of grey and not completely black. Other things that he says I think he is wrong on. The events in Libya during 2003, when the Libyan regime gave up the Weapons of Mass Destruction program that they were advancing on, they did it partly as a result of the kinds of astute diplomatic footwork that the neo-conservatives disdain. Similarly in Afghanistan, the stupendous victory in the war there was the product of tribal leaders changing sides at the right time, and even now as the BBC has reported there are people in government who have human rights atrocities on their hands and links to the Taliban.

Muravchik overestimates the ability to reshape a region through force. He also overestimates the role that force plays in a conflict against terrorism. He is right that terrorism is an unambiguous evil when prosecuted for Islamist ends but wrong to presume that military tactics will root it out. Furthermore linking say Hamas and Hezbollah to Osama Bin Laden is a mistake- the first two have ties to what is a national struggle against Israeli forces- the second is the leader of an existentialist struggle against moderate Islam and its Western allies. Hamas and Hezbollah are horrible organisations and both commit terrible atrocities but misunderstanding their nature doesn't help us explain what is happening in the Middle East- they have other motivations. Muravchik ridicules those who describe the terrorist threat as a policing matter- but in truth to a large extent that is what it is. Many of the terrorists come from the West or allies of ours in the Middle East and are affected by a more general malaise- what Olivier Roy calls an expression of globalised Islam. The solutions to the problem of terrorism are not obvious and Mr Muravchik risks being blinded by a particular interpretation of history into providing un-nuanced solutions.

Lastly Mr Muravchik mentions and does not dwell on another major weakness in neo-conservatism which is its obsession with the Middle East. Mr Muravchik argues that the neo-conservatives have spoken about other issues- if so they haven't spoken very loudly. There are crucial issues out there which neo-conservatism seems relatively quiet about- China and Russia are two major issues. But there are others. Neo-Conservatives should talk more about central Asia- they haven't, however it is noticable that the diagnosis of problems in the Middle East would lead to a pessimistic view of Central Asia. We can see the same conjunction of oil reserves, angry populations, dictatorships and strategical importance.

Mr Muravchik, despite his impressive prose, has less impressive arguments. Some of what he says is right- but much of us is too simplistic and needs nuance and more analysis. Neo-conservatism as an ideological school is fairly nebulous and difficult to define, Mr Muravchik's attempt to define and defend it is an interesting one but ultimately it is a failure.

October 16, 2007

The lives of Politicians

David Brooks wrote an interesting article this morning in the New York Times. Basically Brooks argues that most politicians are involved in a game which dehumanises them. They have to campaign constantly, that involves both being uncharitable to their opponents and egotistic. They have to reduce policy decisions to tribal political decisions and all these things are demanded of them by the electorate operating within a democratic system. Brooks is right in many ways. What is interesting about this though is the way that our system creates a lonely and often very sad elite of people, so consumed by battling to reach the top, that they barely have time to consider what they should do when they arrive there. He speaks of the fact that politicians don't have time to privately consider or reason about what they do. They don't have that time because they have to spend that time answering questions and dealing with a media that grows by the hour. The problem is that often good politics and good policy contradict each other: the one might be symbolised by a character like Alistair Campbell, an obsessive who finds in every passing headline the panic of a moment, the other by a James Maddison thinking in the very long term and looking into history to write the American constitution. Unfortunately modern politics develops more Campbells than Maddisons and that is simply the way it is.

October 14, 2007

Don't trust your statistics!

Matt Wardman has published an interesting article, for anyone who runs a blog, about statistics here, depending on the statistics program he used he saw a varience of about 100% in how many unique views it recorded. This is probably only of interest to bloggers but it reinforces a suspicion I've always had about statistics and what they record- I definitely noticed a change when I switched from blogpatrol (because it always went down) to sitemeter. I don't think that change was to do with the numbers changing but with the recording mechanism.

A Bill to stop Politicians lying

Politicians lie. This is bad. We should make it illegal. That would stop politicians lying. And then everyone would see that there is a truth, a good policy, which is only obscured by lies and spin and we could follow that policy. That seems to be the logic behind a new BBC documentary which advocates passing a bill to stop politicians lying. Unity at Ministry of Truth rightly blasts the non comprehension of the constitution involved in asserting that the people are sovereign when they aren't, the monarch is sovereign. But there is something deeper which is wrong here- because there is a real problem with what constitutes a lie, what constitutes spin and what constitutes the best interest of the people.

Lets take the recent debate about inheritance tax. The ideological thrust for this has come from the Tories so I'm going to concentrate on them. David Cameron and George Osbourne maintain that an inheritance tax would benefit everyone, it is a tax cut they say for the people of Britain. Actually it would effect a slice of the people of Britain. But the Conservatives aren't lying, they believe that any tax cut for the top group of the population is a tax cut for us all because at some point we might be rich and also for reasons that wealth spills down. The Left would disagree- its a tax cut for the rich and the opinion that its not is a lie. James Higham will then come back and accuse the left of deceit to stay in power. The point is that actually noone is lying, this is a real difference of opinion.

You can see this in other controversies as well. Lying is often a reflex when you don't understand the point that the other side is making. There are genuine cases where people lie. For example Jonathan Aitken is a definite crook. There is also spin. But here again the problem is that the sin is difficult to spot. Lets take an example the invasion of Iraq. I have no doubt that Mr Blair beleived wholeheartedly that the weapons of mass destruction lay in Iraq, two inquiries have proved that fact beyond doubt. I also have no doubt that the evidence behind the invasion was presented as more certain than it was, often though that was partly because these guys actually misinterpreted the evidence, partly it was because their process of government didn't weed information or design information presentation well. There wasn't in my view a conscious lie- and it would be difficult to prove that there was. There was a case for invasion- and over a million people knew enough about that case to say it was wrong and march through the streets of London in opposition. There were factual claims which turned out to be wrong- but they weren't intentional lies, both the intelligence was wrong, for the first time intelligence overestimated Saddam's capability (in the past we had always underestimated the capability) and the process by which that intelligence came to the Prime Minister was wrong.

Lying is too simplistic an explanation for political conduct. I'm afraid that the sources of political dispute and political mistakes lie much deeper. They are about the ways that our politicians, and yes us because we elect them, have made mistakes in the way that we view the world. When Golda Meir denied that there were Palestinians, she actually beleived that. She was terribly wrong but she wasn't lying, no more than a child who can't see that 2 and 2 make 4 is lying. Most often when people are talking about lying they are either trying to excuse themselves from their own opinions, or they are doing something else. Failing to understand that anyone intelligent might hold another opinion, they cry out that a politician has lied. Isaiah Berlin warned against monism- nobody listened- its time to take his warning to heart and try and take people seriously when they say what they beleive instead of just chucking accusations of lying around.

Shouting lie, is a comforting feeling, politics I'm afraid is not a comforting subject.