March 27, 2008

A Pigmy Leaf Chameleon


I was just watching Life in Cold Blood the latest David Attenborough series to get to sleep and saw this: its a pigmy leaf chameleon and is the smallest reptile in the world. Attenborough has been searching for it for the last fifty years.

March 26, 2008

Moses on drugs?

A recent paper argues that he was on drugs. I'd suggest that he hasn't proved anything: there isn't much else to say but if you are interested in a fuller discussion of the argument, then have a look at it. I don't suggest that you can refute the argument but I do suggest that the article doesn't prove its case.

Imagination and History

On November 14th 1959, the Clutter family were brutally murdered in their own home late at night. They were murdered by two drifters- Richard Hickock and Perry Smith- who hoped to find a large ammount of wealth at the Clutter household but of course found nothing of any value whatsoever. The tragic murder of the upstanding citizen Herb Clutter, his melancholic wife Bonnie, vivacious and successful 16 year old daughter Nancy and his fifteen year old introverted son Kenyon shocked the surrounding community. It also shocked America bringing down a group of reporters upon the sleepy Kansas town of Holcombe and in particular exciting the interest of Truman Capote, the novelist and essayist, who himself came to Holcombe and investigated the murders. His investigations turned into his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood and was dramatised in the films Capote and Infamous, both of which are amongst the better films of the last couple of years.

I have just read In Cold Blood- and what strikes me as interesting in reading In Cold Blood is its approach. Capote uses a novelistic format to put together what he says. That obviously means that his account is more vivid than say a historical account: this is a thrilling read about a gruesome matter and Capote gets you inside the mind of his characters. However nagging at the back of your mind is the question of how real what you are reading is. When Capote reports a conversation between the officer in charge of the case, Al Dewey and Perry Smith, the criminal, he cannot be giving you the accurate account of what happened. Dewey and Smith definitely talked to Capote- but it would be incredibly unlikely that their memories of that conversation would be entirely accurate or consistent. One of the best ways of telling that something is historical is that there are gaps and that knowledge is imperfect: Capote's account is too perfect. He also attributes motives where he cannot, even with his interviews, be sure that the motives are ones that the people felt at the moment that they committed the crime. Capote's account is therefore not the truth, it is a series of truths spliced with probable or possible ideas between them.

That may be true. But I would suggest that that has more in common with historical work than we all might think. Historical work relies on the imagination more than you might think. My own work for instance relies on the fact that fighting in a war is a traumatic experience: I cannot prove that every soldier in the New Model found the experience traumatic, but I can imagine that many did. Imagination fills in gaps by which we understand the rest of the evidence. So often for example what a historian does is go through the same process as Truman Capote- generating an imaginative construct and working his evidence into it. The ways that you tell good history is not that it avoids imagination, but that it involves an Occam's razor, whereby you rely on the least ammount of imagination in formulating your construct, and furthermore that you ammend and discard your imaginative construct with regard to what the evidence tells you. In that sense the Capote novel is more historical than we might think- it does not have the caveats that historians would introduce- but it does bring to light one of the real talents of history which is imaginative- empathy is neccessary in order to understand the way that evidence fits together, the person behind the instances of the past.

Why Tibet? Why Palestine? The Rational Choices of Protest

Dennis Prager draws attention to the differing treatment of Tibet and Palestine by the world: the Tibetans have been arguably more oppressed than the Palestinians and have behaved in some ways better than the Palestinians in resisting that oppression. Prager uses some rather extremist language to make his case- but some of what he says is true. Afterall anti-semitism is more prominent in the imagination of the world than anti-sinoism (at least the world excluding places east of Pakistan). Some of what he says is daft: apparantly the world's left dominates the world's media and politics, living with George Bush and Rupert Murdoch, I have to say I'm not sure I agree. Whenever I socialise with the 'left' they don't seem that happy that they are controlling the world- indeed there are reasons why rightwingers are happier with China than with Israel- to come back to Mr Murdoch, there is a market there whereas Israel is a much smaller and less economically important place.

But there is one reason that Prager completely misses and that is the rationality of protest. One of the most salient points made by George Orwell was that Gandhi would have been of little aid against Stalin: indeed one could say that for similar reasons the Dalai Lama hasn't succeeded against Beijing. But what Orwell said points to something really important- its politics not just political languages which govern the way that we respond to crises. The simple truth is there is not that much anyone can do to help Tibet. The government in China is a nasty despotic and tyrannical regime, it does not respond to persuasion and as a Westerner we can only hope that it falls swiftly. A protest in a foreign capital or a letter in a newspaper isn't going to hit the Chinese government, and isn't going to get through, given the censorship in China to the Chinese people. China's regime is opaque and hard to understand- but many of these cadres served the most murderous leader in world history- Mao Tse Tung, and participated in the regime that cracked down under Tianaman. The world's leaders have cravenly kowtowed to China over Tibet and Taiwan- but the truth is that we don't have much wiggle room with the Chinese- military threats and media tirades are unlikely to work so the West has put its hope in engaging with the Chinese and seeking to build a Chinese middle class which could at some point build an alternative regime. The hope with China is that economic growth will create the opportunity for a new regime to emerge, in stability, and that that regime will make progress towards solving issues like Tibet and Taiwan. The hope is that a Gorbachev or De Klerk will come to aid that movement. Its a long shot, but its quite possibly the only chance for the people of Tibet.

Israel though is a completely different case. Israel is a weak democracy. There are levers the West's governments and peoples can use to help the Palestinians that just are not available to us with the Tibetan situation. In my judgement we should not weaken Israel- that would isolate Israel as a uniquely bad country which is insane given the atrocities that others are committing. But that doesn't mean that protests and articles won't work in the Israeli context, Israelis consume the international media, they know what the view of other countries is of their position in the world. Fundementally the Chinese government is not open to persuasion, it is a semi-fascist despotism. The Israeli government is open to persuasion- just like say the American government is open to persuasion ultimately over Iraq. In that sense protesting about an Israeli occupation, even if its less worse than the Chinese occupation makes sense. There is a greater chance of your protest having an effect on Israeli policy because the Israeli government fundementally cares more about human rights than the Chinese government. Protests work best when they are directed at exposing actions that the governments concerned are themselves secretly ashamed of: the Israeli government has done some horrible things over the years, but in reality it is a different beast entirely from the Chinese government (and from many Arab governments.) It is a democracy with a free press and with free access to the global press. Prager is right what China is doing in Tibet (or for that matter what Russia is doing in Chechnya for that matter and we could go on) is worse than what is happening in Palestine, but ultimately because of the constitution of Israel's government and the exposure to international media of its population, thinking about persuading the Israelis through investigations and protests is worth while (whether those tactics work is a different matter). With China protesting about Tibet is likely to have about as much effect on the politburo as Gandhi might have had on Stalin.

This is a rough outline- but there is something here. The real reason why Mr Prager's point is true is that there is a chance of changing the Israeli public and hence the Israeli government's mind because of the nature of the Israeli regime- there isn't such a chance with China. If you really want an analogous case to the Palestinians which identifies the fact that the West treats them as a special case, you should look at another Middle Eastern democracy with a minority population- Turkey and the Kurds.

March 25, 2008

Le Doulos


I found it hard to review this film- I saw it this evening and it has taken me until now and listening to the dismissal of Stephen Fleming for the last time in Test Cricket (an occasion which is notable for New Zealand cricket if only for its historical significance.) Its not because the film is exceptionally complicated in form- its no Holy Mountain- of which I am still waiting for a review from Dave Cole after the behatted one dragged myself, Mr Sinclair and Vino to a screen to see it last Autumn. That is a call for the blogging community to put pressure on his hattiness to write that review- I am looking forward to it. But Le Doulos is no Lynchian masterpiece of the incoherent, its a very coherent detective and criminal drama, its got all sorts of the elements that one might expect from something like that- an interesting twisty plot, good acting, morose surroundings- dark and dripping with rain, a great jazzy soundtrack and irresistably cool leading actors- not to mention some sleek femme fatales at the side. It ressembles the great American noirs of the forties- deliberately- its structure reminds me of Out of the Past or of the Maltese Falcon- perhaps the closest modern parallels would be the Usual Suspects or LA Confidential. Getting hold of this film's plot is like trying to catch water in your hands, not easy, trying to get its point though is possibly easier.

What is its point? The film begins with a very didactic line- that the alternatives in its universe are to lie or to die. You have to watch the film in the light of the statement at the beggining where the director offers a commentary on his own film: and his commentary, his prologue, is a statement of the ambiguity of the life of his characters. They all live on the edge and to some extent, Jean-Pierre Melville the director, has tried to make us see them as all living in the same world through choices in his cinematography. None of these characters has a style of their own: they all fit into the film's style. All the men are dressed in trench coats, looking like so many Mitchums or Elisha Cooks. The scenes are dark- the interiors all seem underground or the curtains are drawn. When we are outside, we go out there in the middle of the night or in the evening and more often than not the camera follows the rain. This film has a style- and its characters are drawn into that style. They all are part of the same world- the criminal underworld. Most of the film revolves around a couple of robberies- we are dealing here with the classic figure of the depression, an individual gangster without a gang who makes a hit and makes his life through making hits.

This is a world then of gangsters and their molls. From the first frame of the film, Melville makes another point: that you can't trust a single individual in this world. That the world beyond the state is a world where everyone might be a liar. Its interesting that in the first conversation we hear in the film- after a long establishing scene with a lead character going through the rain to a desolate house- is about who is deceiving who. Both characters in the room don't trust each others' friends- they think that the other's mate is an informer for the police and at the end of the scene, despite the fact that they seem to be friendly with each other, one of these men shoots the other in cold blood. A shooting which the character that is shot does not expect and reacts to with surprise. Its an incredible opening scene and it sets the tone for the entire film: when you watch this do not expect anyone's motivations to be what they say are or to understand why people take the actions they take. This is a film in which one man can be said to have only two friends in the world: both of which he deceives compulsively. Beyond the rule of the law, everyone is imprisoned in his own distrust of everyone else and the most successful man is the most cynical, the most callous. You cannot even trust that when you open your own door, the consequence will not be deadly. In this game, outside the law, you either end up as a bum or dead- as one of the characters says.

This world produces a particular kind of character- Melville goes beyond the Hobbesian analysis he offers of the world beyond the law, to sketch the individual beyond the law. Again its interesting that all of them seem the same. They all have the same style, all speak in the same way- with short sentences, undignified by reference to art or music or anything beyond the matter in hand. This is a world where everyone is an undifferentiated egoist. All of them seek nothing but their own gain in life, their own satisfaction. There are ways of seeing the film as a testiment to one character's kindness to another: I don't completely see it that way. None of the characters demonstrate real kindness- fellowship there is a lot of, but there is a distinction between the thinking that makes you and I part of the same gang and the thinking that places you as a chief object of my actions. The first sees you as an instrument to the attaining of my end, the second sees you as an object of my generosity. The first action constantly recurs in this film: the second is nowhere to be seen. These are characters so free that they conform in every way to a type- they lose their individuality through their freedom. Anarchy here does not liberate but imprison.

And it imprisons them in a last and crucial way- a way in which it imprisons the audience and in which to return to my introductary paragraph makes a profound point about the nature of truth and its relationship to power. In this film, a narrative is offered of events and we all believe it: at the end that narrative is flipped. But unlike say in the Usual Suspects, Melville doesn't allow you the luxury of imagining that one of these narratives is true. Both could be. There is plenty of evidence that everyone in this film is a compulsive and perpetual liar. They tell lies all the time and they never tell the exact truth. At the end of the film, the forces of law enforcement are unable to find the truth about what has happened- at two points in the film anyone objective arriving on the scene would suppose that there has been a shootout between three characters whereas actually in both cases (the first in all seriousness and the second in black comedy) the scene we see has been directed by one of the characters involved. Truth is a casualty of the loss of order, memory is a casualty of the loss of law. These characters don't know what is remembered about them and what is remembered about others. They don't know what to remember. They don't know what to rearrange and who to beleive. Truth in this film is the ultimate reason why humanity beyond the law destroys itself and why it reduces itself into a common denominator- the egoist. Hobbes was right: life outside the law is a state of perpetual fear where man's equality with his comrade in their ability to deceive and kill each other is the only constant. Art and literature, philosophy, music even film vanish into a vortex of criminal suspicion.

Le Doulos is a great film which handles topics which are seldom touched, because it investigates human nature without the constraint of a state and human nature without a state is not a pleasant thing. Life beyond the law is the domaine of wisecracking gangsters, is the domain of noir and film noir is all about the inevitable downfall of all of its protagonists. The only way to escape is to leave that world and yet once trapped within that world, it is almost impossible to leave- characters do try but they cannot escape their pride or their pasts.

March 23, 2008

A great reason for Americans to vote Democrat in November

I complained about Barack Obama's supporters' videos before- but this is something completely different



Hat-tip to Aaron and Andrew Sullivan. Beware watching this is painful- very painful.

Reflexive morality

I think Rowan Williams really gets at something important in his argument here about the essence of Christianity. Dr Williams's article is an interesting one because it captures something important about human psychology- in a way its a counterpart to Barack Obama's speech recently about race. Both are very Christian documents but encapsulate truths which I think go beyond Christianity. You can see morality in two ways- you can see it as a set of things which allow you to make a judgement on others, ethics as a foundation for law in a sense- or you can see morality as a set of things which allow you to make a judgement on yourself. Partly this is a tempramental distinction. The first attitude of course is neccessary for the construction of a political theory: law is related to ethics and is the imposition of public ethics upon private lives, I don't think anyone could disagree with that. However I do think we often lose the second element of that dual conception of morality- that morality is not merely a system for the examination of others and their division into good and bad people, but it is chiefly a system for the examination of ourselves. When one listens to some commentators, particularly but not exclusively on the right, you get the sense of stern upholders of rectitude who rebuke the sinners of this world: but actually that's not true and anyone who has examined themselves thoroughly knows that its not true. As soon as you think about your own actions you realise that moral humility is the only route to any understanding of yourself or others. And that means that it becomes very difficult to say that there are people who deserve being discarded- because in reality their misfortune is often more a result of chance than of moral or other desert. Politics can too often turn as the Archbishop states into a round of recrimination that doesn't solve any problems but just makes those recriminating feel better about themselves. That is not productive and does not recognise the humanity of those who we are opposed to- as soon as we fail to do that, we have lost the argument and in my judgement become immoral.