September 06, 2008

General Idi Amin Dada

A film made in the early seventies followed Idi Amin. The journalist responsible allowed Amin complete control over the message, she added references to Amin's atrocities- but there are only two really. Apart from that this is the film that Amin wanted to make- the way that Amin wanted to present himself to the world. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about it is that this is the way that Amin wanted the world to see him- and that tells you enough about the man- his wounds are visible all the way through the film, his sense of greivance against the British and his complete ignorance of economics and of war. This is a character study- it is not about politics for it is directed by a man who did not understand that he was a vicious tyrant- politics as we have already noted stops at the edge of tyranny. Each tyranny though is governed by the whim and personality of its ruler- the depression of a Tiberius or a Domitian no less than the exuberance of a Nero or Commodus creates a political regime and a particular type of terror.

Amin overrated his own importance in the world- 'the whole worlds are looking at the future of Uganda and General Amin' he says at first- of course the fact is that the world paid attention to Amin as a curiosity but not as a factor within international politics of any significance nor as an ideological bellweather. His third way between Communism and Capitalism was a disaster. But then so much of what Amin says in this film is a fantasy- he tells us that he always speaks the truth to the people which is why he cannot tell us the strength of his army. He rose to power on the back of a military career, influenced by the fact that after the British left, he was lucky enough to be one of the few African commissioned officers in Uganda. He has charisma- he has the ability to make you like him- despite the fact that what he says is bizarre and often unpleasant. That does not make him unique amongst human beings (a quick stroll around the blogging world will show many people whose rancour exceeds their wisdom by a considerable factor)- what made him unique was the power he had to effect his beliefs.

We see a cabinet meeting which lays bare the extent to which Amin had no idea of how to run a country- he sits at the head of a meeting and berates his cabinet ministers for not ensuring that there are more than four female hotel managers and for not controlling the minutiae of the administration. He attacks the foreign minister- significantly the foreign minister was found two weeks later in a river, dead. Amin governs through anger- through noticing something he doesn't like and shouting at the person responsible- assuming that the system is irrelevant to how it is performing. Amin believed that his own fiat could create and destroy. Not merely that, but he believed that when he came across obstacles they must be the result of global conspiracy- the Jews, the Bilderberg, the New World Order- all the paraphenalia of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. All bizarre, all wrong, all used in this case to justify genocide and excuse Hitler, not to mention to drive out the Ugandan Asians. The truly terrifying thing is not that Amin is crazy- several people in the world are crazy- but that noone could stop him in Uganda and no-one could tell him that he was crazy without ending up in a river, naked with a hole through the head.

Ultimately the fact about Amin was that he was driven by resentment and a confused idea that if the world did not work, it must be because of the nefarious conspiracies abroad and incompetence at home. You can see him visibly struggling with the reality of a confusing, complex world and trying to reduce it into his categories of conspiracy and calumny. This psyche became the psyche of a whole country though- Amin immitated the attack he hoped to launch on Isreal, using real tanks and planes. He ranted at cabinet ministers, not friends down a pub, or readers of a blog. He sent insulting joky letters not to insignificant friends but to the President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere. Amin was mad- but he was in government. Politics in this case became personality and throughout the film one can see that for Amin those two entities are not distinct. That all the science and art applied to politics over the centuries became as nothing in the hands of a man with a gun.

Amin emerges from his own film as the classic tyrant. He is incapable of understanding the virtue of meekness and kindness- incapable of understanding the world as a place of confusion and complication not conspiracy- incapable of acting without cruelty and brutality. What is so interesting is of course he presents us this picture- whilst beleiving it is entirely to his own credit- what that exposes is that tyranny not merely creates great suffering, it destroys the tyrant. The tyrant becomes unable to see what is true and what is false- he makes his own reality and that reality does not map to the reality of the world. The darkness gathers and the shrouds of suspicion haunt the head that wears the crown- the throne is a dangerous place- and as Roman Emperors found the illusions created by power are the first step from the throne to the place of execution. Amin was overthrown within five years- after inflicting great damage upon Uganda, historically one of the richest countries in Africa, after Amin it was one of the poorest.

This is a fascinating film- a fascinating insight into the brutality of tyranny and into the mind of the tyrant. It made me think of that classic British TV drama I Claudius- as directed by Caligula!

September 05, 2008

Sammy Davis Jr and Mr Bojangles


One of the great performers- one of the great songs- I admit that I love Nina Simone's version too and one day will post that- but this is still amazing. Its such a moving story- the fact that it is true is another matter- and the way that Davis sings it makes it even more moving.

Confession of a Murderer

On the banks of the seine, a group of Russian emigres meet. Amongst them is a German who speaks Russian- our narrator. The rest of them sit around in the loneliness of exile with their small glasses of liquor. The cafe we learn later is transplanted directly from its original abode in Odessa- everyone in the room has a past- these are not aristocrats but the servants of the Tsarist state. Alone amongst them is the object of the fascination of our visiting German, a Russian with a queer smile and a grim face- who we later learn is called Golubchik and considers himself both a murderer and a good man. The novel plays with our beliefs about the truth- for which you need to read to the end- and also with our notion of morality. I do not want to discuss the problems of truth here- I don't think I could without giving away the plot- but there is something said here about the nature of what it is to be good that is important. Something that we need to understand about this 'good' murderer, this paragon of the bloody- and his haunted imagination.

This is the story of a haunted imagination, a character that might easily be described as a haunted imagination. Golubchik is an illegitimate son- the son of a Russian Prince, the Prince Krapotkin, who has harboured since his youth anger and ambition fused together in a poisonous passion to reintroduce him to his natural father. We know that Prince Krapatkin hardly recognises the stripling lad- granting him a snuff box- whereas he does recognise his own legitimate son- the young Prince. The young Prince and Golubchik go through life in a curious parallel trajectory. Golubchik becomes a secret policeman- a member of the Okhrana. The young Prince consorts with revolutionaries- but everything that Golubchik so supposedly the member of the most feared caste in Tsarist Russia does rebounds against the formidable reputation and power of Krapotkin, a prince with the ear of the Tsar and powers boundless in the land of Russia. Both are stalked by a sinister charming Hungarian called Lakatos.

And so we go through this fearful dance- feudal right versus totalitarian secrecy. In a sense this is a commentary upon the Russian Tsarist state- its a commentary upon the curious land where the Holy Father ruled his subjects through the apparatus of a secret state, the discipline of a state church and the awe of a divine monarchy. But it goes further than this- for it goes to the roots of morality. Golubchik says that he is a good man- what he means is that he has taken no action that was not neccessitated. He did what he did because he had to do it. That 'goodness' means that he can escape the way that he has used his power. If he had been born in a higher station, if he had been born to a greater destiny, or even if he had not had the luck to join the security services, he would have been fine. He transfers his evil deeds to the Mephistocles of the tale- the Hungarian- but the tale undercuts this brutally and dramatically.

Start with his conversations with Lakatos- he converses with Golubchik but Roth is keen to demonstrate to us that though he influences and proffers options to Golubchik, he never forces him to do anything. The moment I remember is that Lakatos gets arrested as Golubchik gets onto a train- and rather than stay on the train- Golubchik gets off it. Every time he gets off the train. Every time he chooses to perform an immoral act. So he falls in love with his half brother's model-girlfriend- he chooses to impersonate a Prince Krapotkin. He chooses all the way through and his actions are the product of his moral decisions. Furthermore he himself is the product of his decisions. There is no way to separate his situation from his person- he is a Russian of a certain class- he is his dreams, his haunted thoughts. To claim that he can be exonnerated because his circumstances would be fine if you could separate the person from the personal history- but you cannot. He is his history- and he and his history are judged and found in this tale wanting.

This tale is written beautifully, translated impeccably, and the atmosphere it produces is akin as many recognise to that produced by Dosteovsky or Kafka- the simularity is because of the similar theme. Like Dosteovsky we are dealing with the struggles of the individual soul- the moral person in modern society. Like Kafka we are dealing with those struggles within a system- not the system of the Trial's bureacratic nightmare- but the system of a self created hell. What Roth proffers is a Protestant novel in a world without God. A novel about guilt and sin in a world where there is no escape- where the mutilated corpse of the victim knocks at the door of the bar in which you are sitting- a world in a which all roads lead back to the conception of your own guilt.

September 03, 2008

A Foolish Post on Germans in St Louis and American History: An undisciplined thought

The Republican party fascinates me. One of the things that Oliver Stone in his film about Nixon captured very well was the fact that the Republican Party is ultimately the party of Lincoln. As much as Reagen, the gaunt figure of the sixteenth President of the United States and his legacy dominates what the Republican party is today and what the history of the United States has looked like since the civil war. It strikes me that from European and American perspectives the civil war is too often played down as a factor in what America looks like today- just as for instance the great struggles of 19th Century Liberalism are played down in Britain. Superficially there may not be much to link the America of 1868 to the America of 2008- the first a war torn, battered country, whose borders did not yet extend to the Pacific and who faced racial strife, anarchy and civil war- the second a confident, innovative, prosperous and (despite the current election campaign) content superpower which functions as a beacon not a backwater, a protector not a petitioner to the rest of the world. But Lincoln's America endures- and particularly through the constellation of the partys today. I mean to take an undiscipline ramble around American history now- forgive me for my errors but I think there is a thought here- because in my view we can explain some of what happened over the last century by reference to events in the late 1860s involving German immigrants, elections and St Louis, Missouri.

St Louis is an interesting place because its a place in which there were lots of German Americans. German Americans historically were in the 1860s a Republican constituency. They voted Republican more than any other candidate and more than any other ethnic group. They voted Republican because in large part they opposed slavery. And slavery was the defining issue of American politics running up to the civil war- and the second issue (behind the issue of sovereignty) during the civil war. Germans in St Louis though hold a unique place in the history of Republicanism in the United States- not because they were important- but because they drifted away. By examining why they drifted away, we can see how some of the choices made by Republicans in the era of reconstruction have influenced the constitutions of the parties in the states ever since- particularly in the north where within a generation the issue of slavery was settled. If we live in the shadow of the Civil War, we live in it because we live in the shadow of three great movements in American politics- the first Republican moment from 1860 to 1912, the second Democratic moment from 1912 to 1968 and the third that we live in now- the conservative moment.

So what happened in St Louis? (I draw here upon Kristina Anderson's article about the history of St Louis in the American Journal of Ethnic History). Well the German population became disenchanted with the Republican politicians who they found in power. They became disenchanted for two reasons- both of which were tied to the issue of slavery and both of which provide indications of the choices that Republican politicians made in the generations after the war. In 1872, Horace Greeley the Democratic Candidate captured the German wards that had voted both for Lincoln and for his successor Ulysses Grant in 1868. What had happened was that the German citizens of those wards had revolted, they had revolted both on religious and economic grounds. On religious grounds, they feared the emergance of religious language in the Republican party manifesto and in the Missouri constitution. The Republican antipathy to slavery was built on solid evangelical foundations- but the Germans found the intrusion of an alien religion into the form of the state a threat. Particularly they saw that the imposition of an oath that would require clergymen to assert their gratitude to almighty God was the thin end of a very intolerant wedge. Catholics, Freethinkers and Baptists all protested against this measure. They feared that the arrival of black voters, in their view inclined to the majority confessions, would strengthen the Republican Party's nativist tendencies- hence by 1868 the German population of St Louis voted ambivalently about black suffrage.

But there is something else. The something else is that as blacks moved north, they threatened the position of working class whites. They provided a source of cheap labour. Whereas some German Democrats beleived that there was no way a black man could work as well as a white man, most German Republicans, having opposed slavery, beleived that of course he could. Given that they were terrified that black workers would come to St Louis and undercut their wages. Furthermore they saw this in the light of the efforts of the main businesses of the town to deal with trade unionism. When the local newspaper for instance hired a black worker to replace a striking white printer in December 1864, the news spread and became an emblem of what might happen. By April 1865, disappointed with Republicans, radical German workers had set up their own Worker's Party in St Louis to contest town elections. There is plenty of evidence of growing support for this party and growing hostility between German unions and radicals and the Republican establishment. What we see here is that the German commitment to racial equality was real, but that they began to see the Republican party as undermining other radical causes and African Americans as part of that problem. They saw African Americans as being willing to support both nativist Republican religious policy and also undercutting the rights of Missourian and German workers.

What is interesting is what this teaches us- the first thing it teaches us is that conventional wisdom is often wrong- I'm not so sure that the Germans were right in either of their beliefs about black Americans- and given the history of the US, in the long run they proved very very wrong. Ultimately some of their concerns in 1868 were to be very similar to the social concerns of Martin Luther King in 1968.

But it does teach us that the way two separate things which are worth learning if we are to understand the impact of abolition and the way that political argument works. Firstly it teaches us that the world is much more complex than we often give it credit for. The German workers of St Louis were amongst the most loyal Republican voters of all- they marched, fought and died for abolition in the civil war. But after the civil war, the reasons which had inspired Republican mainstream thinking- religious commitment and a liberal antipathy to restraints on freedom- did not convince the Germans. Religious commitment led to the development of the Missouri constitutional religious clauses. A liberal antipathy to restraints on freedom led to the ability of businessmen to use black workers to undercut the white working classes. This created and here is my second point, a new opportunity. The opportunity was for a party that was neither religious nor racist nor free market- and that is the opportunity that the Democratic party was able to grab hold of. What St Louis provides us with in microcosm is a history of the United States until Roosevelt- it explains both the success of the Republicans- the way that the nature of their party leads directly on from the successes of the civil war- and also the revitalisation of the Democratic party and the trajectory of that party.

This is an ambitious thesis- and I'm drawing too much from one example (there are plenty of reasons why I shouldn't be so keen on this example- but its late and I am being foolish)- but perhaps in a way you can see the fracturing of the Republican coalition around worker's rights and religion which happened in the late 1920s- and you can also see the facturing of the Democratic coalition in the 1960s- when these Germans supported civil rights and white southerners didn't. In that sense as the politics of today is about the Democratic fracture and the world of Nixon- the politics of today are the consequence of the civil war.

September 02, 2008

Where were you when you heard about...


Dave Cole has just tagged me with a meme- and as I think its an ok one- and furthermore I hadn't got any better ideas of anything to write about this evening here goes,

The Death of Princess Diana- I was half asleep. To be fair I remember being half asleep and my brother coming into my room and saying Diana's dead and we went down and watched it on TV. I can't remember anything else about it- apart from the fact that all the TV networks were showing Diana non stop for weeks afterwards.

Margerate Thatcher's resignation 22nd November 1990- actually this is an interesting one because it is my first significant political memory (before that I'd been far more into Arthur Ransome and history). I was coming home from Sainsburys and school with my mother- we got out of the car and a neighbour shouted across, 'She's gone', no need to know who 'She' was. My next political memory interestingly is a chat about John Major with my dad.

Attack on the Twin Towers 11th September 2001- this actually came at an odd time in my life when every time I was abroad there was a national disaster. It all started with a trip that me and Vino and some others took to Europe- immediatly there was the fuel crisis. The next year again I set off with Vino and the same group to Ireland, and we were on a bus in Ireland, got off the bus went into a neighbouring cafe to wait for another bus to take us to our youth hostel- and this must have been in the late afternoon- they had footage of what had happened on the screen behind us. Cue, as you would expect, political argument ad nauseum...

England vs Germany World Cup Semi-Final 1990- this seems to be a good exercise in picking firsts- this was the first football match I properly and consciously watched, being aware of how it went, aware of what the tactics were etc. I still remember the desperation of the last half hour and the terrible bad luck of the German goal...

President Kennedy's assassination 22nd November 1963: strange to think that this was 27 years before Margerate Thatcher's resignation! But I wasn't alive at that point- it is one of the many events- from the Potsdam and Yalta conferences forward that my generation lives in the direct shadow of. I suspect with Ted Kennedy's speech at the Democratic convention we are moving yet another step further away from JFK- if that is indeed his brother's last contribution to politics- and one of the perilous insights of historians is that all these events will one day, however dramatic they seem now, pass out of story and song into forgetfulness. It is happening with Diana's death- it is happening with that semi-final, will happen to Thatcher and to September 11th. Kennedy's death was so important at the time- but now it is fading and I suspect for my grandchildren will be as important as President McKinlay's is today.

I suppose I have to tag someone incidentally- I'm going to go for James Hamilton, the Organic Viking, Ian Appleby, Chris Dillow and Matt Sinclair.

September 01, 2008

Liberty


A girl comes onto the stage and proclaims herself- liberty- a man carries her off to have sex with her. Liberty is a harlot coming to the magistrate of the republic- an image which carries us away from the idealised images of La France at the height of her revolution and into the darkness of the career of Robespierre, the error of the terror to come. Liberty is a play about that process- the process where the word changes from a thing of beauty to a harlot to tyranny, from an instrument of enlightenment into an instrument of torture. All of its characters go through the historical experience of revolution, destruction and disaster. In different ways they tell the story of the French Revolution- a Revolution whose consequences we are still two hundred years later struggling to understand and whose course still we are struggling to chart.

Let us open the scene then, a muse of fire would bring forward now in you in a meadow in the French countryside- but I hope to awake for you a wooden O, with actors and actresses sitting upon it as though they were at a picnic. We have our characters- there are basically six. Three men, three women- two younger of each sex and two older. We have the young French reformer, the girl whose frivolity he loves, whereas she loves his seriousness- we have the artist and the actress, the aristocrat and the lady who believes that connections can tame the beast of terror. The year is 1791 just before the terror, just before the axe of the guillotine. After the events of 1789- after Mirabeau and moderation have quitted the French stage- the one literally, the other metaphorically. We see the rise of our young French idealist to power- elevated by the lady he becomes a judge, takes as his wife the girl, Elodie, who loves him. Across Paris, the terror stalks pursuing the rest of the characters- guilty of innocent it lashes them. Even Elodie, as she becomes an object of suspicion for her lover- who loves the incorruptible heart of revolution Robespierre and the friend of the People, Murat more than he loves a perishable and sinning piece of flesh and blood- becomes a victim. Artless to the end, she is driven from her wits- whilst others have a more literal severing from their brains to contend with.

For us to care though- these characters have to matter. I've only named one of them- and that is because thanks to a good performance from Ellie Piercy, she did matter to me. Elodie because of the vitality of Piercy's performance comes across in the first half as a real live girl- someone that you could imagine falling in love with- and the fact that our young revolutionary is no surprise. Her evolution though does not work so well- we do not see enough to show us how this vital and strong young woman is destroyed, ground down by a revolution she does not care for. She slowly vanishes and the tale of her evolution is dealt with perfunctorily. Our young revolutionary does well too- but conversely he is more beleivable as the play finishes- at the beggining he is just irritating. By the end, he has become terrifying- the servant of a passion that goes beyond human love- to craft a world perfect enough for a supreme being to want to inhabit. He asks at one point about the world that Christ might live in- and his world is one suited to Gods not to human beings- so perfect that it becomes immoral. The acheivement of this play is that there are two halves- one whose masterspirit is Elodie- and whose spirit is of youthful exuberance and a morality centered on people not principles, the second is the world of revoluiton- whose master spirit is our young revolution- centered as one of the characters says upon 'the people' and not upon people, upon principles and perfections. Its not a hard decision to choose between them.

But equally nor is the transition between them managed well. The play is an adaptation of a novel by Anatole France- the canvass would suit a novel. The mould of personal and political would work in the longer format. But a play has to choose and this falls between being a story and a tract. There are fine performances here- Maurice an old friend to our revolutionary and an aristocrat is played touchingly. But there are also very stagy performances- voices which are too nasal to work in any format. Some characters- Louise our Lady- are managed without a hint of nuance. The writer in my view loses control of his story because he wants to experiment with the form- too busy constructing iambic pentameters he forgets the virtue of telling a tale. I wanted to like this play and I liked features of it- its message is right- but somehow it lectures where it should be quieter, its lessons are not profound enough and its soul is split. Good performances cannot save what is more important a good script.

August 31, 2008

Lolita

My copy of Lolita has on its cover a blonde girl, reclining in a park, her eyes seductively pointing at the reader. That image of Lolita has persisted down the years- seductive, available, think Britney Spears playing the schoolgirl in her first pop video. That image of Lolita is completely and utterly wrong- it puts the reader into the position of Humphrey Humbert- makes us see him as the tragedy and her as the tempting siren. That image is entirely wrong- this is a book about Lolita, but Lolita as mediated by the gaze of Humphrey Humbert- this is a book about a girl written by a pedophile. Humbert confesses several times throughout the novel that he does not feel sexual excitement about women- that of Lolita's friends, the more physically mature are for him the less sexually attractive- it is the snub nosed, unmade up, chestnut haired, dirty Lolita that he loves and that he eventually rapes (as she says). The novel's artistry is that it presents this picture through Humbert's voice- if you do not read it carefully you can be seduced into being Humbert- and if you do that, you will fall victim to two massive mistakes.

The first of those mistakes concerns Humbert himself. Humbert thinks that he is an artist, he groups himself with Dante, Petrarch and Edgar Allen Poe. He thinks that paedophilia is the prerogative of the poet- the marker of a true distinction of taste. He says that the subtle beauty of what he calls nymphets- girls between the ages of 9 and 14- are available only to those who see the true artistic beauty of the universe. Of course in this he is a satire, a brutal satire and culmination of that romantic tendency to see the existence of art as the construction of an excuse. For Humbert cannot achieve and has not achieved anything- his wealth is a matter of happenstance, an accident of inheritance- he has alternated between the positions of a drone and a madman, running betwixt asylum and attic- and producing nothing in either. He has no books of original ideas out- a couple of translations- poor return for someone who considers himself a poet- only in small town America would he be taken as a cultured individual, with his overt use of French tags and his feckless past, present and future.

The second concerns Lolita. Nabokov allows us to hear once in a while Lolita's own voice- at one point she writes a letter to Humbert and her Mother- and addresses it, as any twelve year old might, to 'Hummy and Mummy'. She is a kid. She is aware of her sexuality- but as a teenager might be- she has kissed another girl, had an experience with a boy and sat on a man's lap and felt excited. But she cannot be a woman- and Humbert wants her to be a woman- he wants her to be a wife. The reason that Humbert is so blind about Lolita is that he completely ignores her. He ignores what she wants, ignores what she is interested in, despises her desires- for films and celebrity magazines- this is not a solid basis for a relationship. Humbert even speculates on the prospect of eventually marrying Lolita, his step daughter, impregnating her and then ten years later molesting his new daughter! Indeed it adds to the idea that whatever emotion Humbert has for Lolita, it cannot be called love- obsession, fascination maybe- but not love for he does not care for Lolita, only for her nymphet (or childish) form. The novel is explicit from Humbert's view- but this is not an erotic novel- rather it is a warning, a fearsome warning.

It is a warning against self absorption. Humbert is phenomenally self absorbed- he desires Lolita because he can control her. Because he can twist her into being the girl he lost when he was thirteen- one of the interesting things about the novel is that Humbert represents all elder women as being not merely unattractive but threatening- their talk threatens his autonomy, his self sovereignty. They threaten with equality! As others have said it is also a formidable warning against tyranny. The tyrant here is the paedophile- forcing the girl to have sex with him for little treats. The tyrant though also writes a history in order to prove that he was what the girl needed- that she was asking for it. It is a worrying sign of the times that we do not read Lolita for what it is- a ferocious counter attack on the tyranny of personal relations and powerful states- but for an account of how Lolita is the guilty party. That pouting girl on the front cover of my volume symbolises the way that we have got this story wrong- the way that we have misunderstood the fact that this dark and brilliant novel is filled with irony, that Humbert here is the great villain and Lolita is the harmless victim. A harmless victim that Nabokov implies can survive- but survives damaged and ultimately of course survives barely longer than her tormentor.

Read this novel, but read it not to be erotically excited, read it to explore the dark sides of the human mind- the ways that paedophilia represents an analogy for the evils of tyranny that Nabokov fled to escape in the West- read it as a terrible warning of how humanity is perverted by power and how our innermost desires can turn into a warped message of self assertion and obsession.