October 27, 2007

Wonderful definition of the Abortion Debate

by Jon Stewart here about half way through,

Do you condone what some would consider rape to prevent what some would consider murder?

October 26, 2007

Alex Salmond goes Ballistic

Alex Salmond is no stranger to publicity. He has just returned to lead the Scottish Nationalists and in the last Scottish elections took them into a majority in the Scottish Parliament. But neither is he a fool. His recent letter to the 189 leaders of the signatory nations to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty asking for Scotland to have observer status at their meetings blatantly controvenes the spirit of the leglislation that set up the Scottish Parliament. The Parliament has various competencies- most of which are to do with Scottish domestic policy- but has absolutely no powers to deal with the defence policy of the UK- which is a matter for Westminster. Alex Salmond knows that as much as anyone does- and he does this conscious of this knowledge. He might be able to have an observer there- but the observer could have no more powers than any other observer.

He doesn't seriously expect to be at the nuclear proliferation talks in any capacity- British allies around the world and there are lots of them will pay no attention to his declaration- well apart from a mildly amused grin or an exasperated sigh at yet another piece of paperwork going through a busy bureacratic machine. Mr Mugabe and some more of his ilk may choose to grandstand about the dealings of an 'independent Scotland' but it will make little difference to their standings internationally or internally. This is not an important international issue- but it might just be important domestically- and that's the debate that Mr Salmond is trying to influence.

Mr Salmond makes no secret of his real desire- Scottish independence. That's been his desire all along- and the desire of the SNP themselves. The Scottish Parliament was designed all along to assuage that concern. The Labour party wanted to indicate that it was sympathetic to the concerns of Scots who wanted independence, and so it designed a commitment to devolution. It also wanted to appeal to Scots who believed in a federal constitution- and to English and Welsh people who were less attached to the idea. Labour thus brought in assymetric devolution- creating real constitutional problems, Scottish MPs for instance can vote on English issues whereas their English counterparts can't vote on the same Scottish issues, but they also never faced up to another central problem. But there was another problem that no Labour politician ever addressed in the relationship between the Parliaments.

Mr Salmond at present stands up as leader of the Scottish Parliament- not of a Scottish party. He stands as the representative of Scotland and to be honest the election at which he came to power is more recent than the election which brought in the British government. So Mr Salmond can justifiably claim to be more representative of current Scottish opinion than the Labour Party led by Gordon Brown. Previously when he sought to make points about Scottish constitutional independence he did so as the leader of a party, now he does so as the representative of the Scottish nation- indeed he does so with the dignity and majesty of his office. This makes Mr Salmond's intervention more important in UK Politics.

His reasons for making the intervention are also entirely predictable- as predictable as his increased power. He makes the intervention in part to get away from domestic politics. Domestic politics is always difficult for politicians- battling Westminster particularly over nuclear weapons enables a politician to look strong and brave. Dealing with the latest crisis in the health service is much more difficult- especially when like Mr Salmond you don't have a majority in your own Parliament- Mr Salmond is running a minority government in Scotland and in a minority government posturing is easier than policy. Mr Salmond has the political inclination to do this- as a nationalist- but he also has the interest to do it- it leaves him looking noble, fighting for Scotland against Westminster without having to take an unpopular decision. It risks him looking like a comedy figure, too interested in his own ego, but at the moment with Mr Brown's government an unpopular one, Mr Salmond can probably afford the political gamble.

I expect this gamble to be repeated again and again. Bashing Westminster is in the self interest of any Scottish government as is bashing England. Jack McConnell (Salmond's Labour predecessor) did it last year when he told the tabloids that he wouldn't support England in a world cup. The issue that the Labour party never explained was how these neccessary tensions between the two Parliaments would not lead to opinion on either side of the border growing more and more divided. Scots defining themselves away from England and asking why their Parliament didn't have powers over nuclear weapons or the war in Iraq or whatever other cause becomes the flavour of the month. The simple politics, as Sir John Major argued in 1997, propel a devolved assembly into combat with the central Parliament and eventual independence. That is even more true when the structure is left uncomplete and incomprehensible by the adhoc opportunists of Millbank.

In 1997, Labour came to the country with a constitutional agenda that was shoddily drawn up and incompetently executed. You could back federalism and House of Lords reform and still think that incidentally (I am close to that position myself). The problem is that Labour left too many threads dangling and didn't think through much of what they did- most of it was done on the spur of the moment and the future left to sort itself out. The success of that approach was that whilst things went well there were no problems. But perhaps as Labour begins to suffer in the polls and lose its majority in the devolved assemblies- or even regain that majority and lose in the Westminster Parliament- they and we might regret Tony Blair's shoddy workmanship. The major three parties are unionist now- though they all mumble about increased devolution- but that might change. Such disatisfactions may lead to more radical constitutional reform than Labour ever intended.

Tony Blair famously felt the hand of history on his shoulder- I wonder if he ever considered where it might be pointing!

October 25, 2007

Stephen Colbert for President!

Were Guiliani and Clinton the candidates it appears Mr Colbert would get over 30% of the votes from people aged 18-29! The source is here.


Guys- just thought I'd note that Ashok of In rethinking and Sharon of La Philosophe and me have just started a forum together. Basically the idea is to kick around the odd thought about all sorts of things. Anyway if you are interested in it- here is the forum.

The Argument about Abortion

Reading Unity's excellent fisk of Nadine Dorries and Sunny's most recent post on abortion and the comments under it, something suddenly struck me. If you look carefully at both posts and the comments under Sunny's various people consider the issue of abortion. However there is something rather interesting that had never struck me before about the way that they discuss the issue. The pro-life camp discuss the issue from the point of view of the rights of the unborn child, but rather than trying to defend or sustain those rights as a philosophical project, they jump straight to images or ideas about the dead foetus, using words like murder. The pro-choice side don't really attempt to deny the images of the pro-life side- they immediatly jump to discussions about abortion clinics in back streets and the fight of women for equality down the century as well as the pain of childbirth.

I don't want to get involved on either side of the debate, however there is something rather intriguing in thinking about the way these arguments are being made. Unity is a great blogger and one of the most impressive thinkers on the net- but I think when he says that the abortion debate is about a contest of rights, he is actually wrong. He misplaces the moral language that the argument is being had in. Actually this is about a contest of empathies- the question is who do you empathise with- the unborn embryo or the mother. Consider a website like the US Pro-Life Alliance- the website entrance contains pictures of smiling babies and the statement that 'abortion stops a beating heart'- this isn't an argument being made to your concept of an abstract right to life but an argument being made to your capacity to sympathise with another human being. Rights are used as a way of trumping the other empathetic understanding- but this is morality based upon empathy not upon an understanding of right. The word 'right' is called into service here as a trump card- because the recognition of human rights is (rightly or wrongly) deemed an absolute within our culture.

Looking at the abortion debate, the most interesting thing about it is that it denotes I think the basis for most modern moral judgements. The basis for most people's morality it seems to me from this and other debates is concepts of empathy. In this sense Adam Smith was right- in that he predicted that the marketisation of society would lead to more empathetic understandings of morality. Whether you are a Christian pro-lifer or a feminist pro-choicer the basic vocabulary with which you talk about religion is exactly the same- its about the sympathy that a particular object should receive. Phrasing it in terms of rights is a mere rhetorical choice. This also explains to me the presiding causes of our time- the way that pictures of African orphans or victims of the Tsunami can become cause celebre and evoke millions of charitable donations. One of the interesting things about abortion is that it is an issue where empathy can justifiably be evoked on both sides- both the mother and the embryo can be said to deserve our understanding- that makes it a difficult and controversial issue within an age where the dominant moral climate is partly an empathetic one.

Of course there are more principles involved within our moral climate- but I think the abortion debate reveals something very interesting about the way that we think about right and wrong. It reveals how important empathy is in our decision as to which way to go on an issue- that is the way that both sides make their arguments. And it also reveals the way that the language of rights, is in this case at least, more of a trump card than an actual argument.

October 24, 2007

Great Political Misjudgements

Paul Linford has put a list of great political misjudgements up here- they are all from British politics during the last thirty to forty years. Its a pretty good list and I'd reccomend having a look. His list reinforces to me though some of the conclusions of earlier posts on this blog- politics is ultimately about how you confront issues. Whether its Harold Wilson not devaluing the pound in 1964 or John Major forcing Thatcher into the ERM in 1990, the arguments mattered but it was the caution or inventiveness or decisiveness of politicians that really counted. Timing is crucial. For example bad timing cost the Tories in 1974 and Labour in 1979. Counter factual is always difficult to do in history- but it reinforces something that Matt Sinclair said recently about the way that causation in politics doesn't have a simple pattern, but relies upon the chaotic movement of individual choice and disposition. Its always worth remembering that- and the effect of political misjudgements- because it demonstrates to me that very few of the trends in human society are inevitable.

(The picture is for non-UK readers of Jim Callaghan, the then Prime Minister, telling the Trade Union Congress that there wouldn't be an election in 1978- a year later Margerat Thatcher was Prime Minister and Callaghan's party preparing for 18 years of opposition- 18 years which changed the Labour party completely.)

October 22, 2007

Khufu's Wisdom: Pharonic Follies

Naguib Mahfouz seems to be equally able to write about ancient and modern Egypt. His novels about Ancient Egypt concern themselves with an analysis of high politics, often through using mythic stories to indicate political concerns. So for example, his novel about Akhenaten, the ancient Pharoah focuses on the links between faith and politics and questions about how far religious motivations can justify political actions. Khufu's Wisdom, his novel about the Pharoah Khufu (also known as Cheops) focuses on similar issues. Mahfouz is fascinated by the way that the personality of the ruler effects his power to control and rule his nation. Khufu's Wisdom concerns the succession to Cheops, from the beggining of the novel the scent of death rests over the realm, after ten years the Great Pyramid is still unfinished. The real story though concerns Khufu's effort to avoid a prophesy that says Djedjef, son of the priest of Ra, will succeed him and not his own sons. The novel shows us the way that despite Khufu's best efforts, Djedjef does come to succeed him, ultimately through the Pharoah's own intercession.

Statecraft is central to this novel. Khufu's actions rest upon the fact that as Pharoah his interests and the people's interests are presumed to be exactly aligned. Throughout the tale though two concepts of the Pharoah's power debate each other- we might to borrow Walter Ullman's language call them the ascending and descending views of Khufu's power. On the one hand we have the idea expressed by vizier, Hemiunu,

Why differentiate your lofty self from the people of Egypt, as one would the head from the heart or the soul from the body? You are my Lord the token of their honor, the mark of their eminence, the citadel of their strength and the inspiration of their power. You have endowed them with life, glory, might and happiness. In their affection there is neither humiliation nor enslavement but rather a beautiful loyalty and venerable love for you and for their homeland.

Notice that Hemiunu makes the Pharoah's power conditional upon the fact that he is a symbol for his subjects- it is through his subject's support and their identification of him as the symbol of the nation that he receives legitimation. They do that because he is a good ruler. In that sense power ascends from them to him. Khufu himself says that he agrees with this interpretation- he says that he is no mere king- he is Pharoah of Egypt- the stress is on the last word, it is the people that endows the authority. And in that context Khufu stresses the fact that the individual- himself or any in the room with him matters little besides the majesty of the nation in the thought of the statesman.

His son, Khafra, who throughout is offered as a counterpoint of folly to Khufu's wisdom, has a different view. After Hemeinu has spoken, Khafra gives a descending view of authority. He tells his father that

You rule according to the wish of the Gods not by the will of men. It is up to you to govern the people as you desire, not to ask yourself what you should do when they ask you!

For Khafra authority descends from God to the Pharoah and then to men- the Pharoah is not the King of Egypt but is King by Ra's authority and is entitled to rule for his own individual purposes. And despite what he says above, Khufu is not wise enough to follow his own advice. During the course of the novel he does act in the interests of himself and not in the interests of Egypt. By attempting to kill the young Djedjef in his cradle, the Pharoah attempts to commit a horrendous crime and use the soldiers of Egypt to do it and furthermore he attempts to put his son Khafra on the throne- a young man who would use Egypt as his chattel slave domain. The Pharoah's retirement into his study to write down his wisdom is a way of attoning for this crime- Khafra presses him to use Egypt's military power- at a cost to soldiers that Khafra cares little about- but Khufu wisely restrains his son from committing the further crime of killing the innocent troops in the cause of a useless war.

In the end Khufu yields to his son. We get the impression that Khufu by this point has grown old and more easily swayed by those around him. But he unlike the Prince still recognises the underlying sadness of war, that he betrays his trust towards the 100 Egyptians who die. Interestingly the war is also the instrument which brings about the change of dynasty- for Djedjef is promoted to be the commander of the armies which victoriously destroy the tribes of the Sinai. However Djedjef like Khufu reveals himself to be a great ruler- as opposed to a ruler who rules in his own interest not the interests of his community- he has compassion for the soldiers who have died in the war and also before admiring his own triumph attends to the captives of the Sinai tribes. In that way he too recognises that ultimately the justification of Egyptian power ascends from the people to those in power, it does not descend from the Gods to the Pharoah. The Pharoah is ruler of Egypt, not just a ruler by the grace of God. Djedjef therefore proves himself a more worthy successor to Khufu than Khafra ever did. In the last scene of the novel, Khufu himself is led to recognise this. Having spent his last years, writing a book of wisdom, the old Pharoah finally realises that his family's good and that of the state are separate and recognises Djedjef as his heir and the husband of his daughter.

It is not the Pharoah alone but minor characters too are called upon to make similar sacrafices. Bisharu is Djedjef's adoptive father and at one point has to consider the merits of his adopted son against that of the state- or the Pharoah's will- he argues within himself:

Now which of the two do you think will be first to be sold? Duty or the avoidance of doing harm. A pupil in the primary school at Memphis could answer this question immediatly: Bisharu will not end his life with an act of treachery. No he will never sell out his sire: Pharoah is first, Djedjef comes second.

Notice that for Bisharu it doesn't matter ultimately whether the Pharoah is Pharoah by order of the Gods or for the good of Egypt- duty would lead in the same direction. But one wonders whether the certainty with which Bisharu comes to his view at that moment would be the same- Khufu's status as the servant as well as the master of Egypt leads Bisharu to a desperate certainty that he must betray his actual son for the good of his country. Bisharu in this case acts in a better way than Khufu who when offered that choice decided the wrong way.

Ultimately though this novel is not about subjects but about sovereigns and the argument it makes is on behalf of what Ullman called the ascending theory of government. That government exists primarily to serve its people. The descending theory that government exists to serve an external force and the people must obey it is implicitly left dead on the floor with the Prince Khafra- the longterm good of Egypt is the same as the interests of the fates in this novel, it is a plan that the wise Pharoah ultimately has to carry out. Furthermore the rise of Djedjef is the rise of a sovereign who truly serves his people, whose power flows from acts of loyalty like those of his father, acts of loyalty which stem from the fact that a good subject, faced with the same dilemma as a good King, acts more virtuously, sacraficing his son where a King would not. This issue of political engagement as a form of service is something that recurs right up to the present day- Rousseau is one modern political philosopher who explores it- the general will is another way of discussing the idea that we ought to centre sovereignty on the good of the whole public not the interests of our own part of the public. Ullman's notion of descending and ascending views of authority is an interesting one- and it still applies though in a democracy we are of course all in the position of Khufu- the interesting issue is whether we beleive that we have a responsibility when we exercise authority to look to the good of the people or whether we are endowed with authority to arbitrarily act in our own interests.

Khufu's Wisdom is a fascinating novel- and this isn't the only issue it explores- the subtle way with which Mahfouz interweaves ancient politics and myth with modern political philosophy is fascinating but there are other interesting questions in here- particularly about motherhood that this review hasn't scanned. Ultimately though one of the most interesting questions that arises out of the novel is a further insight- when we talk about the wisdom of Khufu are we talking about a faculty or an inclination. Khufu's last piece of wisdom is his renounciation of his own family in favour of the state- is that something he is wise because he knows or in this case is it that wisdom is the right emotional inclination- is the wisdom of Khufu actually not wisdom but political virtue?

Crossposted at Bits of News- from whom I nicked the rather nice image as well!

October 21, 2007

The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters is a film all about suffering and guilt. Its central character is one of those people caught up in the terrors of the twentieth century- having lost his family in the awful aftermath of the Russian Revolution, he himself is caught up in the terrors of Hitler's dictatorship. Salomon Sorowitsch was a counterfeiter of bank notes in the 1930s in Berlin, we see him operating in a club which reminds one of the great cultural landscape of Weimer Germany and also of its tensions (one of his customers on learning that Sally stands for Salomon turns away in disgust at meeting a Jew). Having been arrested, he is taken to the camps as a criminal and forced into a harsh, horrible environment- into which he is joined by his fellow Jews gradually, as the screws of the final solution were turned up and up. Sorowitsch manages to make the whole experience less terrible by catering to the vanity of his commanders, painting their pictures and sketching them to be noble Aryan warriors. Escaping the Holocaust by prostituting his talents.

The focus of the film though lies not so much in those events- Sorowitsch and others with the requisite skills are taken out of the camps and sent to a special unit. Sorowitsch as a counterfeiter is taken to this unit and put in charge of counterfeiting the pound. Alongside him are bankers, printers and photographers, all at work inside the camp but with better conditions than the normal prisoners. They sleep on comfortable beds, they have a ping pong table to play games on, they get weekends off and receive cigarrettes from the guards as a reward for their acheivements. Of course, as they realise the notes that they are forging will go to support the Nazi war effort and undermine those who seek to rescue them from what is still an undignified and horrible situation. You realise that when a German soldier pisses down Sorowitsch's neck and also when a Jew with TB is just shot without ceremony. The indignity of bankers working alongside counterfeiters, both for those that want to kill them, is captured with wonderful acuteness. They know as well that as soon as their work is finished they will be killed, the better to conceal the operation and also as part of the final solution that Hitler envisaged for the Jews.

So the dilemma facing Sorowitsch and his comrades is about what to do in those circumstances- save yourself and kill your cause, or kill yourself and save your cause. Throughout the film several of the characters make reference to the fact that their only obligation is to save themselves. From Nazi officers who say that they only served Hitler to save themselves, to the Jews in the camps saying they counterfeit to save themselves- they all repeat this nostrum as much as they find it difficult to beleive it. Burger one of the Jews keeps making the ideological argument for sabotage- in the end Sorowitsch is forced to sabotage the sabotage in order to save the rest of the Jews from being killed one by one. But that tension remains throughout- Sorowitsch knows that it exists as does everyone of his comrades- they also all can hear the sounds of the normal life in the camp going on outside, the screams, the deaths, the trudge of prisoners being walked until they collapse- all these things remind them of their privilege inside the walls.

The moral dilemma here is a difficult one. Imagining yourself standing where Sorowitsh stood during the war, you don't know how you would have chosen faced with such an agonising hell on the other side of the wall- a hell to which you could easily return. Though equally at the end of the film, when confronted by the prisoners from outside, what can those inside the cushioned world of the forgers say to the gaunt figures and faces emerging from the actual camp. The prisoners inside the unit are always trapped between these two things- between the horror of what they are going through, and the guilt that they aren't going through more. Karl Markovics captures the essense of Sorowitsch's angst brilliantly- he gets the sense of suavity that enables Sally to survive and also gives him an increasingly haunted melancholy as the film continues. The other characters are varied but all the performances range from the good to the competent- it is Markovics's performance though that is really extraordinary and gives the film life.

There is a nihilism at the bottom of this experience that Sorowitsh goes through- a nihilism that is created by living solely to survive for so many years. Sorowitsh's haunting eyes are after the war emptied of anything- as he goes to casinos trying to lose money and sleep with women that he is sure care nothing for him. The scars of the Holocaust are such that they have destroyed meaning for him, they have made him see beauty as barbaric (as Theodore Adorno said the Holocaust made poetry barbaric)- there is something terrifying about the mechanical nature of Markovics's performance as Sorowitsch after the war compared to his performance as Sorowitsh before the war- the sorrow is reflected in the emptiness of his face in the later scenes replacing the open joy of the earlier scenes. We see this most evidently because of the way that the scenes after the war come directly before in the film the scenes before the war- the director wants us to see how the first Sorowitsch (historically later) developed from the second earlier Sorowitsch.

Guilt, sadness, horror and betrayel- all these emotions are bound up in this film. A film in which the passport out of moral complicity is to assert that one too has suffered greatly- the German commandant tries to tell Sorowitsch that he too has suffered and more plausibly the prisoners in the unit rescue themselves from the wrath of their fellows outside the walls by pointing to their own catalogue numbers from the concentration camps. It is difficult to come to any sense of what you or I might do trapped in that terrible situation- with the screams coming from outside to motivate working for the oppressor. This film offers no easy answers to the moral dilemma embedded within it. It only offers questions but they are questions worth thinking about and pondering over.

Crossposted at BitsofNews.