February 09, 2008

Rowan Williams should not resign

There are calls coming in from various places for Rowan Williams to resign over yesterday's comments. I don't think he should resign at all.

Firstly what Williams has done is fly a kite about a particular issue- he has mused in public. He has got it wrong and yes he has been naive: but the speech is intelligent and thoughtful and furthermore it is part of a real debate (not a politician's debate which means a debate with only one answer). I think if more public thinkers actually made some speeches reflecting actual ideas even unpopular ones in public that would be better for everyone. I don't agree with Williams's view- but I don't think its a resignation matter and I think if it was made such it would reflect a lamentable real decline in the way that free speech is practised in the UK. The Archbishop of Canterbury's job is partly to think about religion- that means he will get it wrong sometimes- but he should be allowed to as should his bishops: if we demand they are sacked everytime they get it wrong, we won't have public discussion, merely public discussion as governed by the Daily Mail! (Incidentally I'm particularly disappointed by the reaction on the right- normally rightwingers are so fond of free speech- but in this case they seem to think that people ought to lose their jobs if they disagree with a particular line which doesn't have any relevance for their job (Williams isn't in charge of any courts).)

Secondly I actually do admire Williams as a person. I think he is an exceptionally clever and intelligent person. He was appointed because he was a semi-academic who understands theology perhaps better than any other senior cleric of our day. Furthermore he says interesting things, provocative, yes but interesting. In that sense he is a pastor to the nation because he actually talks about our concerns- and though he may not do it in the perfect way he does do it. This can't be undervalued- the other archbishop I've known was George Carey whose ponderous pomposity was a very different kind of rule from Williams's intelligent questioning.

Yes Williams was wrong, yes Williams should probably not have said what he said- but there is no case for resignation here.

February 08, 2008

Civil and Religious Law in England: Contra Canterbury!


I have heard Rowan Williams speak and unlike some am fairly well disposed to him- he gave a fascinating talk on art and philosophy at Cambridge in 2005. I suppose that makes me a perfect advocate of the argument that today the Archbishop has made a complete idiot of himself. Partly he has made an idiot of himself through the fact that whatever Rowan Williams does understand, the media isn’t one of the things that he gets. Partly though he has made an idiot of himself because he has advocated a concept of law which I think is dangerous and creates a special privilege for established Churches in this country which they should not have.


Williams’s speech has usefully been put up on the Guardian website. Reading it one notices a couple of things. Williams is not really talking about Sharia- the discussion of Sharia is just a bridge into a much more important theoretical issue which is the attitude of the law to the citizens who live under it. What Williams wants the law to do is to distinguish between citizens based on what they believe: he tells us that

there is a risk of assuming that ‘mainstream’ jurisprudence should routinely and unquestioningly bypass the variety of ways in which actions are as a matter of fact understood by agents in the light of the diverse sorts of communal belonging they are involved in.

Williams of course over emphasizes the communal (and Matt Sinclair has criticised the Archbishop adequately on those grounds here): but he also mistakes what the law is about.


The law is the instrument by which we maintain peace and mark out civil goods and bads: it delineates that which the country considers private and inoffensive and that which the country considers public and dangerous. The law insofar as it does that cannot respect the will of the particular agents who operate under it, even if they have a sense of ‘communal belonging’ which say excuses murder: the question before lawyers is what did they do and what is the punishment. In some situations the law also arbitrates and here you could argue that the intentions of the agents matter- but that is only in the sense that the law intends to respect both of the agents. The sense of the agents is not what governs the process of arbitration but its a factor in it. For example, say I am someone who believes that animals are equivalent to children: the fact that I believe that is a factor in the decisions the court might make, but it does not govern those decisions. Williams is right that the law should not be blind to the intentions of agents as factors in any decision, but it should not be governed by those intentions (and he knows it shouldn’t- at one key moment he qualifies his own position to exclude the religious courts ever destroying someone’s rights- quite how he would do that when almost all law concerns questions of right is a different and interesting matter). Ultimately the standerd to which the law aspires is not Muslim, Christian or Jewish justice or Mormon or Scientologist justice but its justice as defined by statute and precedent within Parliament- justice as it applies to everyone who is any of those five religions and to anyone who isn’t from the Sikh to the Satanist, from the atheist to the polytheist.


The problem with Rowan Williams is in part that he is deceived by his own subtlety- go and read the lecture it is an example of encasing yourself in sentences like a mummy in wallpaper and then trying to walk through a crowded tube platform. But its more than that. As a theologian Williams wants us to think about revelation all the time: but revelation doesn’t have that much to do with politics. In a democratic secular state, revelation is a factor in any decision but it doesn’t govern what the government should or shouldn’t do. Ultimately people who believe owe just as much as people who don’t to the state because the state is not a religious formation- it is on its Western model a secular foundation which exists to perpetuate the well being of its members. The point isn’t that religious people can’t be religious, or can’t be members of society, but that the state isn’t interested in their religion. They can use religious justifications for their political actions if they like- but those justifications will only appeal to those that share the same religion and will irritate those that don’t- they will produce communities struggling against each other. The state is a minimalistic project in the sense that it talks a minimalistic language of politics- the problem with Dr Williams is that for him that just isn’t enough.


Its a common problem that you can see here and across the Atlantic- the current Pope is another person guilty of demanding accomodation on his own terms alone. But what people need to realise is that as soon as you create a legally privileged religion or argue that all argument has to take place in religious terms: you do abandon the whole idea of a secular state- a meeting place between people of different religions and none which does not proscribe any faith but tolerates almost all. There is a lot of modern work been done on these questions- Mark Lilla has just published an interesting book I mean to write about here in the future on the philosophy of this area. But ultimately it all comes down to the reasoning of the earliest modern philosopher of secularism, Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes had a dark vision of where arguments like the Archbishop’s could lead us: towards a hell of civil strife and communal violence, towards religious tyranny and massive unhappiness.


Despite my admiration for Rowan Williams, who is a very intelligent and thoughtful person, this time I’m with Thomas Hobbes.


Crossposted at Liberal Conspiracy.

February 07, 2008

Tell No One

This French Thriller from last year is a sophisticated effort and it asks some interesting questions- particularly about the nature of love. A man's wife died in a horrific murder eight years before the action of the film, he has barely been able to recover since from the incident, still traumatised he throws himself into his work, until that is he gets an email from her. There she is standing in the entrance to a building in a foreign country- the film then winds itself round the question of her return and what actually happened in to her and to her murderers in a wood long ago in rural France. Our hero is by turns bemused and confused, he seems to have lacked any real sense or purpose to his life and now he finds one in the returned wife that he thought he had lost. The film's denoument is a little trite- too much is brought together- but that's not the purpose of the film, rather its a study of the effect of loneliness and obsession upon the life of one man.

There are some fantastic sequences here- especially as the hero runs through the motorway traffic at one point. But its the psychological dimensions that are most interesting. The man, Dr Alexandre Peck, is played wonderfully in particular. One gets in his face the image of an unending loneliness- a solitariness that he cannot relieve in the absense of his life. Its particularly well crafted as early on in the film we see him before his wife's murder, sitting together with friends and enjoying a beer on a perfect summer night. By the time we make his acquaintance again he has become haunted and lonely, withered amidst the storms of life and sent sprawling backwards upon his own solitude. When his wife intones to him the words 'Tell No One' on the video she sends him, its an instruction he is almost perfectly capable of fulfilling- there is noone almost that he can tell.

That almost is there as a qualifier becuase he does have two friends. A Lesbian friend of his wife and himself who becomes his confidante. Her relationship too is threatened by the whole unfolding drama and she too is a victim in her own way eventually of the events in the wood. His other friend is a wonderfully played Parisian thug- who assists him in escaping from the police and in avoiding capture. You see by this time the police themselves are beggining to suspect whether Alexandre had anything himself to do with his wife's death or the deaths of others- the corpses do begin to mount up in this drama in the true style of a Hitchcock thriller. What is interesting therefore is the way that the loss of his wife has rendered this man a deeply sad but brilliant man- it drained him of his core and placed him in the position of maintaining a facade of a successful doctor whilst actually being vacant inside.

This is a really interesting thriller- its well worth seeing- its exciting and clever in equal measure and should delight anyone who likes cinema on any level.

Guido vs Gracchi the Counterpunch

I give this article a more confrontational title than I want it to have, because having read Guido's response at Samizdata I have to say that I think he has something right and that some of my critique of him was not as plausibly phrased as it should have been. Lets isolate I think three points- one on which we agree, one on which I think I am going to move a little backwards and one where I think we can also establish a point of contact. This is an interesting debate: it has forced me to be much more positive about the kind of blogging that Guido does.

Guido and I agree that perceived self interest is much more important to politicians than self interest- we agree that politicians have a world view in which they do things and that they operate in their own interests. I am interested in what degree politicians are a different species from the general population in this: I'm still thinking about this one.

Where I concede is that Paul Staines is right: there is a separation between Paul and Guido, between the person and the blog persona. Perhaps because this blog is so much the creation of my personal whim and not of any attempt to create a persona, that means that I underestimated that. I should apologise that criticisms of Guido were meant to address the persona and not the person lying behind that persona. I accept the assurances offered that Paul has a long record of thinking about policy- I am sure that he does- most libertarians afterall get to their position after a lot of thinking. Throughout this post therefore I'm going to be quite precise- when I say Paul, I mean the individual behind the blog, when I say Guido I mean the persona in front of the blog so to speak. I hope that is a distinction that we can all agree on.

Lastly he is possibly right that the 'struggle' so far as it is one is going on on his blog and not this one. For the sake of this one I don't care- were the struggle going on here, I couldn't write so many film posts for a start I'd have to be disciplined and stick to politics. That isn't my style. But the real issue I suppose is dual: firstly its about what Paul says is Guido's anti politics. I can see as a libertarian why anti-politics works- in a sense the libertarian answer to the dilemma is to abolish politics itself. Remove stuff from the politicians and things will be fine- I am personally not so sure, as I have written elsewhere I don't think coercive power is simply the same as state power. Nor do I accept that political power is not exercised in other ways in a libertarian society: the people might be different and wear different hats but underlying my suspicion of politicians (something I share with Guido) is a suspicion of people- and ultimately I'm not sure about an anti-political approach to dealing with that. We need to work out systems for constraining and checking individual power and though libertarianism has a lot to contribute to that, I'm not sure that it has the answers.

The second point is about where the struggle is. Paul is right- I shouldn't care about Guido and I don't really care about millions of other blogs like Guido, but I do care about Guido. Thinking about it, its not Guido that I care about, so much as the fact that a gossip blog sits atop the blogging heirarchy in the UK. Its not envy precisely- I don't want this blog to be at the top of the blogging heirarchy- its a sense that Guido's blog doesn't allow his readers to understand what they should understand about the political world. Simply put I think that Guido should exist, but I wonder about the state of the political landscape if its the biggest in the country. That turns me I suppose to a bigger issue which is what blogs do and why people read them: I often wonder whether people's readership of blogs is simply to get a quick fix and whether we bloggers over analyse our output.Whether what people want is just to go over to Guido or Iain Dale and quickly read the latest on there as they take a break from work.

In the end Paul is right when he says that everyone is free to blog as they like- and then popularity comes. I suppose what I'm more interested in is what blogs tells us about politics and whether the story that they tell helps us understand politics. I'm not sure Guido is helpful there- because I think he makes us think that politics is about scandal only. Ultimately though I wonder whether we are still in the Drudge stage of the political cycle and whether as in America we shall see the slow growth of a wonkosphere eventually alongside the blogosphere. It does strike me that the problem with Guido as a blog is that it presents a naive view of politics- even if its writer doesn't hold that view of politics. That so many people read it says either one of two things- firstly that most people reading blogs read them for entertainment not enlightenment, and secondly that most people don't really understand politics that much and turn to sites like say Chris Dillow's or Matt Sinclair's which explain the thinking behind policy much better. I think its a mixture- my real issue is that its hard to find really good political commentary around about ideas and policy at the moment, you don't get it in the newspapers and you don't get it on many blogs. Its hard I think to know about the world of thinktanks and policy making (that world extends far beyond think tanks into the civil service and the business world as well) unless you are in the midst of it. Policy discussions go on over and above the general population who just get the gossip. In that sense Dale and Guido are just extreme versions of the MSM,

and what Britain needs is a stronger Wonkosphere- someone like Matt Yglesias to appear from somewhere!

February 06, 2008

The Republican Race

Waking up this morning, the immediate big story is the American Primary. There is an interesting discussion to be had about the Democratic race which pitches different kinds of characters against each other- but ideologically the Republican race is much more fascinating. In 2000 the Republicans decided that John McCain the Arizona senator was too moderate for them: many Republicans still think that that is the case. In that sense many may interperate the result as a massive defeat for conservatism in the Republican party: I think they are right but probably not in the way that those pundits confidently predicting think that they are right.

Apart from in the North East, this hasn't been a crushing McCain victory. A typical result is that in Oklahoma where with 100% of the precincts reporting, McCain got 37%, Huckabee 33% and Romney 25%. Admittedly these are early results- but even so it looks as though McCain has only got above 50% in three primaries, all in the North East. In most other places the results look slightly higher than what he got in Oklahoma but not that much higher. Percentage wise, John McCain has not captured over half the Republican party primary voters: and that's with the fact that he is much more popular with independents than either Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. And yet despite that there can be no question that McCain seems to have gained the nomination- he has at the moment 487 delegates whilst his nearest challengers Romney and Huckabee both have under 200.

So what went wrong for conservatives tonight? Looking at the numbers, I would argue that it wasn't that they lacked voting strength. Put it this way in the majority of states, the not-McCain candidate won the majority of the votes. The reason why that doesn't come out in the delegate numbers is that the Republican party has a first past the post Primary system- you get past the winning post and you get rewarded. Now the point is that if this was the Democratic primary, which is PR, Romney and Huckabee combined might have equal numbers of delegates to McCain and be plausible challengers. They don't and aren't. The key thing about the conservative primary vote here is not that it didn't exist: but that it split. The Conservatives in the Republican party haven't gone away, they have divided neatly down the middle.

Look at the places where Romney and Huckabee won. Romney took states like Utah- the midwestern states. Huckabee won in the south- Alabama, West Virginia, etc. Most people would suggest that Huckabee won the evangelical vote- as he did earlier in Iowa, whereas Romney won the traditional conservative vote, coming second in California for example. This isn't because the two eliminated each other though: it is because both were deeply unsatisfactory candidates on their own. Look for instance at this Gallup poll, which demonstrates that if Huckabee had dropped out by a vast number his supporters would have gone to John McCain and not to Mitt Romney. Huckabee has been accused of socialism by Romney's supporters and Romney's Mormonism was a real problem for many of Huckabee's guys. The ultimate thing about the conservatives in this primary is that without George Allen or Bill Frist, they simply didn't have a good candidate (or perhaps their only good candidate, Fred Thompson, was fast asleep when the possibility came calling). The weakness for the conservative movement lay not so much in its base and motivating voters as in its leadership.

Part of that is just accident- had Allen not had his Maccaca moment or not faced Jim Webb in Virginia he might be the presumptive Republican nominee now. Whether there is something deeper I'm not sure- it might be that the conservative movement, naturally an oppositionalist movement has found government over the last eight years a fissaporous experience and will find renewed unity in 2012 against say a McCain Presidency or a Democratic Presidency. Or we could be seeing the effect of a quick primary season- given another two or three months the conservatives might have found their guy. The quick Primary season did not leave enough time for Conservatives to unite behind an anti McCain guy having decided which of their men they liked the most. All could be true. But what I think is definitely true is that the conservatives in the US in this election didn't lack for the troops and footsoldiers, they lacked for a plausible general to follow. In the South they marched for Huckabee, everywhere else for Romney and thanks to the East and West General McCain stormed to victory!

February 04, 2008

Britblog

I apologise for not doing this yesterday- other things drove it out of my mind! Anyway here we are today with a more limited and yet still illustrious list of posts from the UK blogosphere. We cover a whole range of experience here from the 17th to the 20th Century. Anyway to kick off how about reading James Hamilton's views on Capello's managment style- interesting and thoughtful as ever. Capello may be adopting a distant style to his players, but as Dave Cole points out the Tories are adopting a much more nannying style to the country. Freemania suspects though that the Tories themselves may need some nannying: is Cameron really only just about as good as Kinnock? Who cares anyway? From the desk of George Galloway we have the greatest attack on Imperialist scum ever delivered- may they die in their own individual Trotskyite, Zinovievist, Bukharanist, revisionist running dog hells!

But if they don't it doesn't matter, as they'll start blogging and end up in a legal fight: Mr Eugenides seeks to adjudicate in the latest battle betwixt Tim Ireland and Guido Fawkes. Calm down lads, the real idiocy is about the issues (as I said yesterday), Matt Sinclair's got a bee in his bonnet about the latest paper from the Social Market foundation on climate change- he isn't too impressed. Incidentally happy birthday Matt- for a two year old you are quite articulate. Don Paskini is another articulate lad concerned with issues, this week its sharing the proceeds of growth and how the Tories don't even understand their own policies! And that's good as it means that you don't have to attend SOAS, where the Iranians are putting on conferences funded with our public money- go to Harry's Place and see what you can do about it. Or rather don't, because society is going to pot anyway and its all religion's fault: we've been having the argument over at Liberal Conspiracy, go and start with Kate Belgravia's provocative and well written post on why Jesus Christ should dominate our politics less. Thing is that Kate should calm down, afterall look at what all those Muslims gave us in the Middle Ages: modern science and all- not convinced- well time to bring on the historians!

And here they come, leaping like a herd of wilderbeast through some savannah forest. First up is that classic civil war debate between Pepper and Puddle the two dogs- canine confusion becomes a metaphor for other debates. On a more illustrious subject, the Early Modern Whale circles around the Old Cheapside Cross and finds out what he can about its history. Some of us though are only too depressed by the present, its hard to avoid when you here that the bulbs are coming up even earlier than usual in Kew Gardens. But not everything is depressing- and ending on a high note- just consider the Political Umpire's tale of these two human beings whose bodies are joined together.

So long till next time I host the carnival- sorry for a short one- but I hope there is something there to savour!

Anne Coulter's Endorsement

Anne Coulter, American Conservative extraordinaire, endorses Hillary as the next President of the United States should McCain win the Republican Nomination- she even commits to campaign for her if McCain is the candidate....

Robert Fisk's review of Fisk's biography of Saddam Hussein

You read the title right: here is Robert Fisk's review of his own biography of Saddam Hussein. Well not quite his own. Though Fisk has a biography of Saddam Hussein published in Egypt, it isn't actually by him, its a forgery, published by an enterprising journalist who had heard of Fisk's leftwing reputation and thought he should have written a biography of Saddam Hussein. Fisk's article is hilarious as he traces this man across Cairio but it brings up for me something even more interesting which is this. We often presume on the internet that we have our identities set in stone and the real danger is that people will snoop on what we write from afar and find out that we are secret conservatives or something. I think that's the wrong danger- though it exists- I wonder whether one of the more interesting internet problems over the next couple of years as blogging matures will be identity theft. Tim Ireland has drawn attention to the problem of sock puppetting on the internet- but I think there are more egregious things to come. Take Iain Dale, the reason I advance Iain is because of his electoral ambitions, it would be perfectly possible for someone to fake an identity as Iain Dale on the internet and start commenting on various blogs in his guise giving electorally embarrassing posts- the same goes for any politician blogging from Paul Flynn and Harry Barnes to Nadine Dorries and John Redwood. Trademark theft on the internet is an interesting issue: I'll be fascinated to see how it develops- especially given what Fisk rightly says about the difficulties of enforcing trademarks in various countries.

February 03, 2008

Guido

I know its a hackneyed subject- but Guido posted his own manifesto for the reasons for his blogging and I thought I'd reply and I have here.

McCain a Democrat?

Not all Republicans are happy with John McCain. Some even compare him to Henry 'Scoop' Jackson, and call him a populist hawk.