May 30, 2009

The Domestication of the Cat


Scientific American have published an interesting article by Driscoll et al about the domestication of the cat and its spread through the world. The authors argue that the genetic evidence suggests that all modern cats are descendents of the variety of Wild cat that lived and lives in the Middle East. The earliest evidence of cat domestication seems to be a tomb in Cyprus in about 9500BC which has a cat and human buried together- that would fit in with the genetic evidence. What is more interesting perhaps than the date is the way that the authors hypothesize that cats slowly and steadily moved outwards from the Middle East, facilitated by the trade routes within and without the Roman Empire and by particularly the need for humans to take a rodent killer on board ship with them. Cats reached China for example about 2000BC- though Chinese cats are an interesting sub-category for they seem to have been interbred seperately from European cats at least from 1300 onwards, hence breeds like the Siamese are both very ancient and yet closely related to the domestic cat in the rest of the world. This is fascinating because it suggests that trade, even at very early dates, bound the world together- this is in harmony with our evidence from the period but it also provides us with a very apt example of that fact.

The scientists also proceed to argue about why cats became domesticated. They start from some assumptions, unlike say dogs, cats are not naturally herd animals, unlike cattle they don't provide an obvious benefit to human beings, and yet human sites provide obvious benefits to cats- both in terms of rubbish that can be eaten and mice that can be caught. Driscoll et al probably go too far in thinking about this from the cat's point of view- afterall its a pretty useful thing to have a rodent killer in your house or in your farm- but the central point may still be true. Cats may have domesticated themselves- choosing to live by human beings. One of the interesting points that Driscoll makes in supporting such a thesis is that cats, unlike dogs, have seen little genetic mutation since they began living in our houses. Domestic cats are perfectly capable of living in the wild. There is no such thing as a 'sheep' cat or a cat trained to hunt rabbits down holes- as there is such a thing amongst dogs. Cat behaviour essentially modified itself only to the extent of becoming friendly with humans- apart from that cats in the domestic setting do what cats in the wild do, chase rodents, eat meat and generally perpetuate their genetic line.

It is an interesting thesis and prompts two thoughts in me. The first is that we are always in great danger when we infer from how an animal looks, how that animal thinks. A cat may look adorable but its ultimate reason for living with human beings may in some sense be contractual- indeed it may have no idea of adoration in its head. To assume such an idea is to assume too far. The second thing though is to wonder about whether we need that illusion and whether the relationship between cats and their owners is a substrate of something much more basic in human society. Illusion ultimately is the font of many of our relationships which when reduced to an evolutionary level seem purely contractual- a man and a woman are together for sex, a baby with its parents because it needs food and they want genetic continuance, etc etc. But we know that the 'reality' of those relationships is not purely contractual- or at least the contract is so deeply embedded in our psychologies that it is not something that we realise openly. Perhaps that is ultimately the distinction between contractual and non-contractual relationships- that in the one we realise that there is a contract, in the other we know there is a contract but do not in every day life realise it.

To bring us back to the cat, knowing that there was an original contract between cats and human beings does not neccessarily imply that either side realises it when they interact today.

May 29, 2009

Isaiah Berlin

You may have guessed by reading this blog that the late fellow of All Souls and Chichele Professor of Political Philosophy is one of those figures that dominates my thought. If you did guess that, then you would be right. Isaiah Berlin is, as J.G.A. Pocock once called him in a British Academy lecture, one of the master spirits of our age- one of the intelligences that shaped any response to the realities that we face. Berlin did that through using the craft and art of history and of one branch of history- political thought. He came out of the logical positivism that he found in the Oxford of the thirties, particularly in the circle around J.A. Austin and A.J. Ayer but migrated across the faculties to write intriguing works on the Russian intelligentsia of the 19th Century, the Romantic revival in Germany and last but not least on Giambattisto Vico and what Berlin deemed the Counter Enlightenment.

Berlin is often naively interpreted as a prophet of freedom (as in this article here) and to some extent he was- but he was so much more and so much more interesting. I think it is worth therefore here just outlining very briefly why I think the above article and much that is written about Berlin fails to capture him as a philosopher- I want to issue a disclaimer of course- there is no way that I can capture in a couple of paragraphs Berlin's peculiar talent. As ever I hope you use this article not as a final statement but as a point of departure into the subject it discusses. To return to my central point, Berlin was not merely a prophet of western liberty. Partly the range of his learning- from a biography of Marx to working on De Maistre- meant that he took up positions within his life that involved him in key creative intellectual battles of the twentieth century and partly also Berlin was able to, in a simple insight, perceive what liberty was not: it was not happiness, morality, common sense or material satisfaction- it was liberty. If others like Huxley have had this insight then noone expressed it with the learning that Berlin expressed it with. Berlin though went further and it is where he went further that I think lies his most paradoxical and intriguing, not to mention dangerous idea lies.

Berlin was obsessed with nationalism. What he meant by nationalism was the darker strain invented by thinkers like Herder and Hamman in the 19th Century and which offers a whisper of ideas first stated, if ignored, by Vico. Berlin was an ardent Zionist- a friend of Chaim Weiszman and an ally of David Ben Gurion. But his advocacy of nationalism and the many sides of the 'crooked timber of humanity' (a phrase of Kant's that Berlin picked up for the title of one of his books) was more complicated than a mere affection to the state of Israel. Berlin detected that the enlightenment thinkers- especially some of the more minor French figures like Helvetius- had miscomprehended some of what it meant to be human. What they had believed was that one might sweep away moral principles that failed to fit into an overall structure of morality. Berlin though had a radically different approach to political morality- far from arguing that there was some kind of seemless fit, some structure into which we could place our moral principles, he suggested that moral principles conflicted. That they neccessarily conflicted and that every moral choice was in a sense was a tragedy.

Berlin therefore did something so radical that I think few amongst his disciples understand what the philosopher was trying to do. His enemy was coherence itself- whether religious or secular. His enemy was the easily assumed moral posture. This led him to a political faith in freedom and nationalism- in the sense of both British and Isreali nationalism. Berlin's interpretation of both the enlightenment and counter-enlightenment can be questioned (reading him before I read Vico I did not realise how central to Vico was the counter reformation) but in a sense that is to read him the wrong way. For Berlin, Vico, De Maistre, Herder, Herzen, Marx even were all places to leap off from, peaks from which his soaring intellect could explain the crookedness of human experience and the reasons for which freedom was needed.

May 27, 2009

Time and Loyalty History and Nationalism


Partly inspired by this post by Vilno I am writing about different aspects of nationalism-now here I seek to look a bit at the role history plays in nationalism. Observe the Low Countries from space-and how lacking it is is in natural borders. It is history not Geography that has created the nations and states that exist within it.

Partly this can be explored using the example Vilno gives Belgium. For a start why should the overwhelmingly Catholic southern Netherlands not have joined in the 1830revolt that created modern Belgium? Vilno I think rightly identifies history as the major reason. They'd been subjects of the Dutch state for centuries- and thus identified with it. -while a mere fiteen years had been the case for what's now Belgium.

I think there are other reasons Wallonia at least was experiencing enormous economic growth for example which would have aided self confidence (the legacy of Belgium's early industrialisation can be seen in a map of European railways-they're cantered on Belgium|. Over centuries loyalty had been given to a state in whose wars Dutch Catholics had fought. Meanwhile a modus operadi to their second class status had been set up(note the king of the Netherlands abdicated in part because marrying a Catholic was so unpopular!) - Dutch Catholics may have wished to change the status quo but they had adjusted to it. The same was not true of Belgium Catholics-indeed the Habsburgs had been much more intolerant of Protestants than the Dutch state was of Catholics. Thus it was a shock to become second class citizens-and they battled it fiercely.

Lastly I suspect history mattered another way- the Spanish Netherlands/Austrian Netherlands/south Netherlands/ Belgium had been the result of a massive Dutch gain in 1815- the south of the Netherlands proper was part of the Dutch patrimony-the core of the state the heartland . The Southern Netherlands by contrast was territory that had been acquired but was not central to part of the nation. It's notable that in public perception the former can become the latter (and the latter the former) one reason why Algeria was so divisive o long for France and then abandoned by 90%-even very rightwing and nationalist Frenchman no longer regarded it as of the heartland. In a sense it’s a kind of mental map of the land-which effects how hard people will fight for it. Mahinda Rajapaka’s mental map of Sri Lanka clearly includes the whole island- and for that he is willing to use the military to make this a living reality. If he and his electorate did not the reality on the ground would not exist.

Simple length of time a border has existed then is enormously powerful effect on national identify- because nationalism is to a certain degree the story people tell themselves about whose side they are on. However odd a border may appear it can work given enough time - German Belgium’s seem as far as I can tell quite happy with being Belgium-even though it is pure historic accident they are on the side of the border they are and they used to be violently opposed . Similarly a rebellion against grievances like the American (and if successful the Confederate one) can by providing a legacy of blood and enmity create a new nation.

There is also another way history can influence such decisions and that is much more subtle by the changes in what cleavages matter. Vilno emphasise the importance of the rise of literacy. I think that's part of the story but I would put it differently what matters is what matters for the operation of the state. So as the state rose in its impact what language it operated in mattered more and more (obviously the rise of literacy further helped expand this). Once you have government schools or government jobs-then what language they are in matters a great deal indeed it strikes me one explanation for the rise of Flemish nationalism post war is that the size of the Belgium welfare state. By contrast under the Austrians the language of the rulers (German) was barely used below the ruling council of the whole of Belgium (I'm not sure even they used German rather than Latin) - a set of civic and ecclesiastical bodies used a wide variety of languages as they saw fit the "German" nature of the state did not matter.

Again this is not a matter unique to Belgium. For example the Czechoslovakian government post World War 1 fired around half of its German civil servants because they failed an exam in Czech! If any one policy decision explains why the Nazis in Czechoslovakia were as popular among the German community as to be the biggest party not just among them but in the entire country that would be it.
Similarly where a state (however secular) continued to use religion as a marker for treatment then it could still stay as the ultimate marker. An example of this is the population transfers between Greece and Turkey after the Greco-Turkish war. The language of the treaty arranging the repatriations uses the "Christian religion " and the "Muslim religion" as markers-and indeed thousands of Greek speaking Muslims entered Turkey and thousands of Turkish speaking Christians Greece. Thus even though the Turkish regime was militantly secular religion remained a powerful marker of the Turkish state- unless you are broadly "Muslim" (under a broad definition that includes Muslim atheists and Alawites) then it is very difficult to be Turkish however secular you or your government are.

Finally another historical issue that matters is confidence and feelings of strength. Flanders was the poor backwater of Belgium in the 19th and early 20th century-by the post war era they're superior growth led to a huge surge in Flemish confidence that in turn helped precipitate the surge in nationalism.

May 26, 2009

God and Soil Nationalism- Religion


This post by Vilno inspires me to briefly exmaine the protean nature of national identity. I don't wish to comment on his post but rather to use it to make some points about national identify.


One is the importance of religion as Vilno rightly points out the rebellion that crated modern Belgium was on religious lines-religious not ethnic. The fact that Flemish is much closer to Dutch than French as a language was simply not nearly so important. It’s important to realize this is not some unique exception. Ireland can perhaps best be understood as the part of the British Isles that failed to become fundamentally Protestant- it was Catholic inhabitants of Ireland not Gaelic ones who became Irishmen- there would never have been enough support for independence if it the divided had been linguistic. . More secular is German nationalism -not usually thought of as a confessional based nationalism-and rightly so. On the other hand the modern southern boundaries of Germany were essentially deliberately created by Bismarck to make a clear Protestant majority in the new "Reich". Even more remarkably in one referendum on the Germany borders after World War one Protestant Polish speakers voted by over 90% to be in the new Germany rather than the new Poland -so even in Germany nationalism had a religious component.

Or rather it might be truer to say that that was the case for Polish nationalism- Polish nationalism had been an elite obsession throughout the nineteenth century (for example this books shows the famous 1848 rebellion led to massacres of nationalist rebels without encouragement from the has burg authority-indeed to their slight horror). This owed a great deal to the indifference even hostility of the church- the leading Polish prelate in "German Poland" (Poland at that time being divided) in the 1870's didn’t' even speak Polish properly! Bismarck’s vicious Kulturkampf ironically partly out of paranoia of Polish nationalism predicated the end of this state of affairs as the cleary and laity identified Polish nationalis with the struggle for their faith- by the early 20th century Polish nationalism was a mighty popular force. To this day Polish Catholicism and Polish natoinalism are almost inextricably linked.

Religion can often be mixed up with issues of national identity today elsehwere as well. This is not just rue in pious countreis. The former Yugoslvaia was exceptioaly secular among it's population-but the division between Serb, Croat and Bosnick are essentially religous in nature-even if this difference is one of what church or mosque you don't go to. This can be true even in Finland often identified (probably wrongly but it can't far from it) as the most secular country on earth. Nonetheless One candidate for the Presidency of Finland was however repeatedly interrogated in 2006 on how a Catholic could be president of Finland!

Indeed more generally my understanding is that religion is exceeded only by language as a cleavage that determines national identify.

But cleavages are not the only thing that determines national identity. As Vilno rightly points out that so does history-and that raises another important aspect -history-to which I will return at a subsequent point

The picture shows the flag of Finland- adopted after World War 1-which as you can see is a religious symbol.

A response to Vino


Vilno has kindly made the following two comments (see comments of my post) on my articles on Dutch Political history I just want to respond briefly here rather than have it buried in comments.

I entirely agree that this is probably true for other small and non English speaking countries "great men" Iganz Seipel is another example that comes to mind-though again I can't help thinking the problems he poses for secularisation theory also matter.

As for Vilno's bigger point I agree it was highly unlikely that there would be be no party of the Dutch Protestant right And at the same time as Vilno says its success was highly contingent However I want to underline how big a difference that "success" can be . AS I said in this post there was every chance that the anti-socialist ant-Catholic party would be very different-and much more like the one that was so successful in 1930's Germany- a party that could perhaps be said to be Protestant but so secular as to be hostile to the churches. Note the nearest thing to a more confessonal rightwing protestant party in Germany was much less confessional- and much less successful And the picture could of looked very different- indeed many secular conservatives and anti social democratic liberals had already started cooperating in late nineteenth century Netherlands- so much so that when Kryper burst onto the scene many conservatives dencoufring him as a bible bashing nuttier. The confessional structure of early 20th century Dutch- and its dominance by a religious majority was not inevitable it was created by politicians and coalition builder’s

The picture shows one of the Mighty Anti-Revolutionary Prime Ministers who followed in Keeper’s footsteps-in this case Hendrikus Coljin who as Dutch Prime Minister pursed such different policies from Germany in the 30's whether on Democracy, markets, the Gold Standard or Secularism.

May 25, 2009

In the Loop


One of the staples of filming is that you take a successful television series, play with the plot a bit and turn the whole thing into a film hoping that the magic that worked before will work again. Armando Ianucci and his cast were therefore asked to wave their wands again (a metaphor that the film's character's would easily give a phallic symbolism to) and come up with a film based on the BBC comedy series- the Thick of it. What they have produced is a film in which a hapless minister is sent by the Prime Minister to Washington to get involved in the American debate about going to war in a hypothetical Middle Eastern Country, at issue is intelligence from a hypothetical single source (Iceman is the Curveball of this metaphorical war) and a dossier produced by a young aide to the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy. The US debate involves a sinister Rumsfeldian Assistant Secretary of State, a pacifist diplomatic Assistant Secretary of State and a General traumatised so much by the experience of war (Vietnam?) that he doesn't want to fight another one. On the British side there is the minister, his own young political advisor and the Downing Street spin operation- not to mention the rather more idealistic men and women at the FCO and the ever present media.

The parallels within the film are hardly exact but they are meant to apply to the situation in Iraq- there are other unwitting parallels that noone could have expected at the time that the film was made (the Home Secretary's husband will wince when the minister says at one point that he is scared of ordering porn as it might be revealed through his expenses!). In general though the film is not really about whether the decision to go to war is right or not- we never see any of the details that suggest either way- but about the process. We can understand that certain people within the process- particularly the caricature of the neocon are unpleasant but we can't see that they are wrong. What the film shows us about the process of politics ties very much in with the way that the process was described in 'The Thick of it': we have the dithering minister and the dominating spin doctor, we have the assorted flunkies whose duties range from making cups of tea to making war and everything in between and we have the sense that everyone involved is pretty mundane. Toby the political advisor in particular is less of a political genius and more of a chancer- a Del Boy with a suit, good looks, a mobile phone and a middle class accent.

The key thing to realise though about In the Loop, and the Thick of It before it, is that it is not really about politics- not in the sense that say the West Wing is about politics. In the Loop is really about working which relates to politics- Toby sleeps with someone who he meets on a business trip, Malcolm is the boss from hell swearing and shouting but ultimately without the bludgeons to back up his bluster and the minister is an indecisive middle manager. The film doesn't make a comment about politics so much as it makes a comment about these people and their methods of management. There lies perhaps the greatest weakness of the film as opposed to the TV Series- because deep down its about management and people not about politics, its kinship to The Office is stronger than to Yes Prime Minister, the political side of it does not work so well. Ultimately the American characters work as characters but their binding to the British situation does not work- that is because with the introduction particularly of the neo-con you have the introduction of a filmic 'baddie'- something that the universe of the 'Thick of it' never had. The material also because its a situational based sitcom works best as a tv show- left for too long in this non-political political Office you begin to wonder where all the politics has gone in the Fing and Blinding.

I enjoyed In the Loop, I laughed at many points, there are some good performances there. It carries on the humour of the series- it has few serious political points to make but doesn't really try to make them. But I am still uncertain that this is material best suited ot a film- I still think that taking the cast outside the UK and into foreign policy and clumsily fitting in an Iraq parallel doesn't quite work. If you haven't seen the series its worth seeing the film- and I know people who haven't who have loved the movie- if you have seen the series prepare to be slightly disappointed.

May 24, 2009

Chikamatsu Monogatari: Public Law and Private Justice


Chikamatsu Monogatari has been translated and sold to the West in different ways. Some have it that the most appropriate title is 'The Crucified Lovers', others that the literal translation from the Japanese 'A story from Chikamatsu' is the most apt to convey what the film is about. I bring up the title because in a sense the discussion of the title is really the discussion of the film's theme- this is both a tale about lovers thwarted by marriage and a tale about traditional Japan. It ostentatiously from the first frame wears the garb of a folktale and of a romance. It is important to bear that in mind when you watch and analyse the film because the two strands intermingle- ultimately the real virtue of this film lies not in the romance but in the historical analysis. It is as I hope to show as a folktale that we should understand this story- and as a folktale that tells us something about the concept of law and the way that private law works in a society.

The film is about an act of adultery. It is beleived by Ishun a wealthy printer that Mohei, his leading apprentice, and his young wife, Osan, are having an affair. The printer himself has been making advances to the pretty young maid Otama- we shall return to this in a moment. Ishun rebukes both Mohei and Osan- they flee his unjustified rage and end up falling in love in their flight. The psychological details of the flight of the two lovers is what most critics focus upon and the essense and even existence of their love has been an item of analysis by most people looking at this film- but I want to focus elsewhere. When we first see Ishun we see him and his wife and Mohei inhabiting a complex- a complex which contains tens of maids and men working in unison and providing calendars for the court. Ishun dominates this scene- we see quite clearly that Mohei beleives that he must sacrafice his own life to Ishun's family's prestige- furthermore we see that his employees cannot leave. Otama speculates about leaving because of Ishun's sexual abuse but ultimately decides that she cannot- some tie, 'contract', binds her to him. Otama's situation and Mohei's feelings are one would expect universal. The third relationship binding his servants to Ishun is that they seek to advance on his coattails.

When Mohei and Osan flee, they place Ishun in a difficult position. Ishun keeps stressing to the men that he sends out to find them that they must return with Osan- not Mohei but they must bring Osan back to him. Here we enter one of the most interesting dynamics of the film- that of reputation. Ishun ultimately risks everything in this particular exchange. Ishun's position as the printer to the court is under threat should it be revealed that he has been cuckolded. Furthermore because of that, he is forced to conceal the adultery of Mohei and Osan which involves him in the further crime of covering up a criminal offence. We can only understand Ishun's plight if we relate it to his power: Ishun's power derives from his sovereignty over his printing workshop (I use the word sovereignty deliberately). When Mohei and Osan leave him, they call into question that sovereignty. In essence they damn his ability to administer his own private law within his own domain: the reason incidentally why his own fumbling attempts on Otama are not so damaging to his regime is that they call into question his morality but not his sovereignty. In order for Ishun to maintain his plausibility as a source of private law and government- he has to maintain power over his subordinates- including in this deeply sexist and hierarchical society, his skilled printer and his wife. The fact that he does not do this ushers him towards his ruin.

What I think is captured therefore by the film is an interesting point about the power and role of prejudice. All the way through the film people talk about reputation and in particular the reputation of the family unit- in a sense that is what Ishun is controlling in his printing workshop- a wider family (or familia). The basis of the importance of that family unit is that it is as we see in Ishun's workshop a unit of government- a source of private judgement, justice and law. The only regulation on that system is the outside force of reputation and prejudice- should Ishun be proved incapable of maintaining his control he loses everything. The ritual humiliation of having his wife and leading servant crucified upon a public cross is secondary to the fact that the master printer will lose all his associations and be devoured by those eager to take his place. If Mohei and Osan at the end of the film go serenely to their deaths, it may be because they have discovered their love for each other, but it may also be because in their inevitable destruction (inevitable from the moment that Ishun accused them) they have savoured the sweet taste of revenge.

For us though the film should prompt a reconsideration of the way that the nature of prejudice has changed across the centuries. It has a vital role in a society in which private law functions because it is the system by which the public regulates the private law administered by princes or printers, that function may become less important as you make a transition to a modern state which has relationships not with families or familias but with individuals.