Sunday 31 January 2010

Nobody expects the Chilcot Inquisition!

I like old comedies, shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, full of anarchic humour. Watching Blair’s performance before the Chilcot Inquiry on the Iraq War reminded me somewhat of the Spanish Inquisition scene, the one where the old lady is threatened with such dire tortures as the cushions and the comfy chair!

It’s just so frustrating, that panel of old dogs with gummy jaws, whose toughest questions have all the force of the cushions and the comfy chair. Yes, we are repeatedly reminded by the chairman that the object of the inquiry is to get at the truth not to apportion blame. But how does one get to the truth without asking demanding questions; how does one get to the truth, in other words, without detailed cross-examination?

There he was, Blair, a perfect target, not at all looking like a former prime minister of this country, rather a shifty prisoner in the dock, his hands shaking according to witnesses. But then he got into his stride; then he produced what was obviously a rehearsed strategy. It was the same gung-ho approach as Alistair Campbell; defend everything and apologise for nothing. Yes, there he was, he might as well have sung Non, je ne regrette rien.

I so wanted to be there also; I so wanted to conduct the kind of cross-examination of which the Chilcot worthies are incapable. So, former Prime Minister Blair, 9/11 changed the ‘calculus of risk’, to use your expression. Tell me, why was it necessary to attack a secular state actively hostile to terrorist movements like al-Qaeda? Did you not consider the possibility that removal of Saddam would immeasurably destabilise the whole region to the benefit of Iran? Were you not advised of the logistical and practical difficulties of invading and occupying a country like Iraq by a panel of academic experts in November 2002? Did you not then ignore that advice, saying that Saddam was ‘evil’? Would it be true to suggest that the invasion was based on a dubious value judgement, not on solid intelligence and practical politics?

Oh, I could go on like this. How I would loved to have tackled him on the bizarre logic of the March 2010 question; that weapons not there in March 2003 would have multiplied, nothing begetting nothing! The truth is simply told; the First Gulf War was absolutely necessary; the Second was a Bush war, unfinished family business into which a man, never fit to be Prime Minister, drew this country on the basis of half-truths, outright lies, shady deals and dubious manipulation. He misled parliament; he misled the nation. Hans Blix, the former UN weapons inspector, has compared Blair and Bush as latter-day ‘witch hunters’, only interested in such evidence as ‘proved’ their case.

The same day that Blair gave his evidence by some ironic coincidence BBC screened a repeat of Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain, the episode dealing with Suez. This was a foreign policy disaster that effectively destroyed Anthony Eden, a bear of very little judgement. Still, for all his faults, he had qualities of simple integrity and decency, entirely alien to Tony Blair. I’m convinced that future historians will judge Iraq to be a far greater mistake than Suez. Meanwhile, the ‘calculus of risk’ is immeasurably greater now precisely because of Blair’s Bush War.

The Loss of a World Entire

I wrote a piece earlier this month (A Love Greater than Hate) lamenting the death of Miep Gies, the Dutchwoman who supported Anne Frank and her family when they were hiding in Amsterdam and who later rescued Anne’s now world-famous Diary. Subsequent to that another wartime diary of a gifted Jewish teenager was drawn to my attention, that of Dawid Sierakowiak, who died in the Lodz Ghetto in August 1943, aged nineteen.

I had never heard either of Dawid or his account of life in the notorious ghetto, one of the longest-standing in Eastern Europe. My ignorance has now been made good and I offer this brief assessment of his remarkable day-by-day picture, drawn under the most unimaginably difficult circumstances.

To begin with, I should say that I would not make a direct comparison between the accounts of Anne and Dawid. Anne lived in fear of discovery but her Diary is concerned with so many aspects of life, thought and experience that might be shared by any perceptive teenager. I read Anne’s Diary as a kind of dialogue, with me as the other party. She never knew what lay beyond, and when she did she was no longer able to write.

Dawid did know. His account, therefore, is more of a strict record, an insight, lacking in the same degree of intimacy. But what a record it is; one of despair, occasionally punctuated by hope, only to fall back into even deeper levels of despair. He has a brilliant mind, an acute understanding, giving a painful and detailed record of the degradation and dehumanisation that was such an important part of the Holocaust.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Germans hardly feature at all in Dawid’s Diary. They are mostly a distant threat from over the wall for a community that was effectively sealed off from the world. It’s other Jews who do the Nazis’ work for them; bureaucratic elites that presided over the unequal distribution of an already inadequate supply of food; a ghetto police service which selects those to be sent beyond the wall to their ultimate death in the gas vans of Chelmno. It was a hierarchy all presided over by Chaim Rumkowski, one of the most controversial figures in Jewish Holocaust history. Here are Dawid’s own words from an entry in March, 1943;

Lunatics, perverts, and criminals like Rumkowski rule over us and determine our food allocations, work and health. No wonder the Germans don’t want to interfere in ghetto matters: the Jews will kill one another perfectly well, and, in the meantime, they will also squeeze maximum production out of one another.

One of the most heartbreaking episodes of all was Rumkowski’s ‘Give Me your Children’ plea, urging families to sacrifice all children ten years and younger to be handed over to the Germans. The point is that people did not know how the children –and the elderly – were going to die, but they certainly knew that they were going to die. The ensuing agony is recorded in detail by Dawid, as is the loss of his own elderly mother.

There is a dominant theme to this book – food, and the lack of it. Entry after entry mentions rations, what is available and, more often, what is not. It’s an impossible situation, a race of life against death, the only possibility of avoiding death being an end to the war. News does sometimes seep into the ghetto, snippets of information that make it clear that victory-and life –is hopelessly distant.

Parts of the Diary are missing and it breaks off abruptly in April, 1943. It did not have the same impact on Holocaust literature as Anne’s Diary essentially because the post-war Polish authorities attempted to submerge any document bearing on uniquely Jewish suffering.

I’m so glad I read this, so glad I now know something of the life of Dawid Sierakowiak. It also saddened me, not just his personal tragedy, his death and the death of his mother, his father and his sister. But there is something more; his loss may also have been the world’s loss. I’m thinking here of a passage near the beginning of his record, before the outbreak of the war, written when he was only fifteen;

I read and began to write a work I planned a long time ago about the immanent future of Jewry. The Semite covers a programme of reconciliation and cooperation with the Arabs.

Yes, what possibilities were ended forever in the life of Dawid Sierakowiak? The loss of a single life is the loss of a world entire.

Ana and Annette

I’ve been riding, as I’ve written before, for a good part of my life, beginning when I was six years old. I simply love everything associated the horses, even the basic chores. Over the years I could not honestly say who many hours I have spent in stables and on horseback, including a couple of dedicated riding holidays; a lot, anyway.

I’ve learned to love a variety of horses, including Viking, a beautiful appaloosa father bought for mother when I was in mid-teens. But when I was eighteen I was given my own horse as a present for doing so well in my A levels: she is Annette, my wonderful Andalusian

I joke about her sometimes with my friends, fellow horse enthusiasts, saying that I’m never quite sure if I own her or she owns me, but there is an element of truth even in jest. She has a personality of her own, a character even more determined than mine. If she’s not keen of something she soon lets me know! Oh, but she moves beautifully; we move beautifully together.

We go riding every weekend, weather permitting, a nice long hack over some lovely bridle paths close to the stables in Sussex where she is liveried. I continue to practice my jumping with her, though I no longer go in for the sort of county show stuff that I did in my mid-teens; there is simply not enough time. Annette and I have been to hunt meets also, something she loves as much as me; I enjoy the company of other riders; she enjoys the company of other horses! She does not like me to get too familiar with other mounts, though, oh no. If I do I’m liable to feel a sharp nudge in my back!

Riding is such a part of my life; I cannot imagine being the person I am without it; cannot imagine being without Annette.

Great, Good, and Just

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I on 30 January, 1649, a cold, tragic day in English history. Here is the poem that always comes to mind when I reflect on his murder and martyrdom

Great, Good, and Just, but I could rate
My grief with thy too rigid fate
I'd weep the world in such a strain
As it should deluge once again
But since thy loud-tongued blood demands supplies
More from Briareus' hands than Argus' eyes
I'll sing thine obsequies with trumpet sounds
And write thine epitaph with blood and wounds

Thursday 28 January 2010

Supporting Uncle Porfirio

Yesterday Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo was sworn in as the new president of Honduras in place of the caretaker ministry of Robert Micheletti, in office since Manuel Zelaya, that left-wing demagogue and Chávez clone, was booted out of the country last June.

The election held last November was generally held to be free and fair, though Honduras is still in the international doghouse. The inauguration itself was only attended by the presidents of Taiwan and Panama. Still there is hope, with the United States, Peru, Columbia and Costa Rica all recognising the legitimacy of the election. Even centre-left governments in Guatemala and El Salvador are keen to normalise relations with the orphan republic.

The key now is getting rid of Zelaya, who returned in secret last September and is now holed-up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. He came back hoping to be restored, one supposes, on a wave of popular support, but there has been no wave and there is little prospect now of a restoration. Pepe Lobo has offered him an amnesty and a free passage to the Dominican Republic, no doubt the best solution.

Will he go? It’s difficult to say, as Brazil continues to put pressure on Honduras to accept a unity government including some of Zelaya’s supporters, if not Zelaya himself. The Hondurans, so says a Brazilian diplomat, should also be willing to discuss ‘constitutional reform’, an intolerable condition, one would have thought, to lay down at the door of a sovereign state.

The problem here is that the petty tyrants and demagogues throughout the region are terrified of the Honduran example, calling to mind an unhappy past. But as I have said in previous blogs on Honduras the June action was taken in defence of the constitution, which Zelaya was attempting to undermine to perpetuate his power.

I’m already considering the prospect of my summer vacation. Two years ago I visited the magnificent Mayan remains at Tikal in Guatemala, though all too briefly. I thought I might go back for a more detailed look. If I do I will be certain to go to Honduras, to Copan Ruinas, another important Mayan site. Beyond that it would be a small gesture of solidarity with Uncle Porfirio. It’s the least I can do. :-)

France-Revolutions Never Glorious

The problem for France was that the Revolution of 1789 had taken history at a rapid trot through several stages, effectively creating some serious fault lines in civil society, the underlying structures of law, culture, society and political tradition that help sustain more stable forms of constitutional development. Put this another way: in the brief period from 1789 to 1791, France covered the kind of political ground that had taken close on a hundred years in England.

Thereafter, the Revolution went into overdrive, pushing matters to an extreme undreamt of by even the most radical of the English Whigs. One by one, as Edmund Burke had predicted in Reflections on the Revolution in France, civic and political institutions were knocked flat, until only the army remained; and with the army came Napoleon; and with Napoleon came dictatorship. Napoleon overcame the weakness and the fractures of civil society by force and by force alone.

A return to more traditional forms of rule would demand high degrees of political awareness and sensitivity. Above all it would require an understanding that politics in France had undergone a fundamental change, that there could be no return to the older forms of absolutism. Progress would therefore require the kind of partnership between the crown and the dominant sections of the civil community, in essence the solution of the Glorious Revolution.

But the Bourbons came back in the person of Louis XVIII and, more particularly, in the person of Charles X, having learned nothing and forgotten everything. Tensions built, only to be released not in a mature parliamentary system, but by the valve of revolution. It might even be said that in the period from 1815 to 1870, French history played out many of the events of the Great Revolution in a kind of slow motion.

The monarchical solution failed in all of its forms, Bourbon, Orleanist and Napoleonic because it was too narrowly conceived; because it lacked firm foundations, party foundations, in society; because it lacked a clear sense of direction and commonly accepted goals; because it failed to heal the fractures of the past. In the end only the Republic would do, the form of government that divided the French the least; tolerated not for what it was but for what it was not.

The Holy Fool

In the week that Super Obama delivered his State of the Union address I thought I'd say a word or two about his foreign policy.

For America to appear weak is a genuine danger to us all, a danger to the free world. Under the guidance of Obama and Hilary Clinton, his Secretary of State, America appears not just as weak but weak and indecisive to the point of absurdity. I sincerely hope that no challenge to the Monroe Doctrine emerges under the present administration. The Emperor Maximilian, sadly for him, was obviously born at the wrong time in history!

Take the case of China. Obama went there last year almost as a supplicant, not daring to raise the issue of Tibet, not even daring to meet the Dali Lama beforehand in case he ‘offended’ his hosts. All he could do was to make some vacuous noises about internet censorship before a hand-picked audience of communist cadres. One thing is sure, nobody is ever going to compose an opera to mark this less than historic occasion; perhaps a ditty or two might serve.

Then there is Iran, where the democratic opposition to the clerical tyranny cries to the world for some support and assistance, even if that support and assistance is only in the form of moral encouragement. There is no ‘evil empire’ rhetoric from Obama. Instead he holds out his hand to the likes of Ahmadinejad and Khameni, referring to the country as the Islamic Republic of Iran, as if it were the property of the ayatollahs, Nick Cohen rightly observed. And where did this appeasement get him? Nowhere, absolutely nowhere. Add to this his dithering over reinforcements for Afghanistan and the impression of weakness was compounded to a disastrous degree.

You see, this was all part of a bogus international charm offense. This was a president who really did think it was enough not to be George W. Bush; that not being George W. Bush, and mouthing windy platitudes, would be enough to open doors. He was seduced by his own myth, as indeed was the Noble Peace Committee in awarding what really should be rebranded as the Not the George W Bush Prize.

But the world is not made up of simple-minded and idealistic Scandinavians; the world is made up of cynics and realists like Vlad the Impaler Putin. They are well used to village idiots in Russia, a stock figure across so much of the national literature. But who would expect an American coming to offer himself in the part?

I’m mindful of Aneurin Bevan’s warning to the unilateralists in the British Labour Party that to abandon nuclear weapons would be to send a foreign secretary “naked into the conference chamber.” Obama did not even get as far as the conference chamber; he just knocked on Putin’s door, already naked, telling him that he was abandoning Bush’s missile defence programme, hoping that this, and a big smile, would result in something in return. What did he get? Yes, you already know the answer – nothing.

I do so hate repeating myself but it really is true that the world is not Wisconsin, a simple truth that Obama does not understand. The lofty visions and the empty rhetoric do not work on a stage where only realpolitik is effective and only students of Machiavelli know how to play the part. Obama must appear in so many capitals a little like the Holy Fool, as he did in Russia: too good for his own good; to good for the good of America; too good for the good of the free world.

Baldwin the Jacobite

Stanley Baldwin, prime minister of Britain on several occasions in the period between the First and Second World Wars, liked to claim association with the Scottish Jacobite rebels of the eighteenth century. His mother was Louisa Macdonald, descended from the Skye branch of the family, whose forbears settled near Eniskillen in Northern Ireland after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.

On one occasion Baldwin even gave details of his Jacobite ancestry in a speech in the House of Commons;

My mother's family fled from the Highlands after having been out with Prince Charles in 1745. I remember that, in my early days, it was with great difficulty that we could stand up when the band was playing God Save the King, because we had a Hanoverian and not a Jacobite King.

I rather suspect that there was quite a lot of romantic embellishment in the stories related to young Stanley by his mother. What she clearly neglected to tell him was that her branch of the clan, the Macdonalds of Sleat, remained loyal to George II, while the rest of Clan Donald followed Charlie across the heather. Well, never mind; at least he managed to chase one Hanoverian from the throne!

Wednesday 27 January 2010

All Animals are Equal

It’s now clear that Labour is determined on a new class war, their last best hope, a lifebelt to the drowning. Harriet Harman, better known as Mad Hatty Harperson, has taken the tablets handed down by Dismal Gordon, declaring that social disadvantage is the ‘big issue’ in this country, that people only get on if the have ‘connections’ or if ‘their face fits.’

This is just so interesting. Now we have a second admission, following that of John Denholm, the Communities Secretary, that social disadvantage has actually grown, and that is after a dismal thirteen years of Labour government. To cover their incompetence Harperson and Brown have no better strategy than to diss David Cameron for being an old Etonian.

Inverted snobbery and petty spite, is their any better insight into the mentality of this government? What a message to pass on: that disadvantage arises from not having gone to Eton and not being a member of the Bullingdon Club, and this from the Marquise St. Evrémonde, who is herself an Old Paulina. I expect she is where she is because she has ‘connections’ and because her ‘face fits.’

The simple fact is, as I have said before, that Labour thrives on disadvantage; that it depends not on social mobility but exclusion; it feeds in a parasite-like fashion on urban ghettos where votes are weighed rather than counted, the new rotten boroughs of a complacent administration. It feeds on communities of dependence that allow shabby new aristocrats like Harperson to parade as Minister for Equality over a society that is, by her own admission, anything but equal. It is people like her that bring Orwell’s Animal Farm to mind for me, particularly the conclusion, when the animals in the barnyard catch site of their rulers;

No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

I would far rather Eton, Oxford and the Bullingdon Club than people like this, politically dishonest in every degree. The time comes when the snouts will be pulled from the trough.

That's the way to do it!

It’s interesting to compare the success of the British in handling the communist insurgency in the old Malay States with the failure of the parallel French struggle in Indochina.

On the face of it the French should have had greater success because they deployed much more in the way of force and firepower in Indochina than the British ever did in Malaya. But what one really has to look at here- the key to the whole issue -is the differing political strategies adopted in each case.

The French intention was to restore, in almost all respects, their pre-war colonial authority, paying little attention to the emerging national movement. It was because of this that the Viet-Minh was able to move beyond its Communist ideological confines, becoming a movement of national liberation in the most complete sense.

Now, in strategic and political terms, the British position in 1945 was no better in Malaya than the French in Indochina. The Japanese had been defeated, yes, but the former subjects of the Empire were imbued with a new sense of national consciousness. There was also a vigorous and well-armed Communist guerrilla movement, organised in the Malayan National Liberation Army. But, almost from the beginning, the British adopted a different strategy from the French. Instead of struggling against the tide of Malayan nationalism they worked with it, effectively separating and isolating the Communist Min Yuen from the rest of the national community.

When the British returned the old federated and unfederated Malay States were reorganised into a new Malayan Union. However, because of opposition from Malayan nationalists this was quickly replaced by the Federation of Malaya, returning power to many traditional rulers. The long-term British intention, moreover, was not, as in Indochina, to re-establish colonial authority on the old basis, but to hand over power to a non-Communist native government as soon as this was practicable. During the course of the Emergency, before full independence in 1957, Malayans became an increasingly important part of the bureaucracy, the army and the police. In effect the whole insurgency, it might be said, was being eaten away, from the inside out.

Ethnic divisions between the Muslim Malays and the Communist Chinese served to isolate the guerrilla campaign still further. In his counter-insurgency operations, General Gerald Templer made use of this 'ethnic fragmentation', resettling large numbers of Chinese squatters away from the forest fringes to New Villages, where they could be protected and kept under watch. Deprived of this essential base of logistical support, the number of guerrilla attacks dropped from 6000 in 1951 to 1000 in 1954, just as the strength of the Min Yuen army declined by half. In that same year, while the French were being defeated at Dien Bien Phu, the Malayan Communists were forced to retreat into Thailand. And that was the way to do it!

Schopenhauer and Mysticism

I think it is not all that meaningful to look for separate Buddhist and Hindu influences in the thinking of Arthur Schopenhauer, but to to look at overlapping sources, like the Upanishads, the Vedas and the teachings of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism in particular.

The chief link here, the chief point of contact, is the illusory nature of the world of perception, a world of the ephemeral, contrasting with a more deeply rooted truth. There is a common emphasis in both systems of belief, moreover, on notions of 'release' or 'liberation' from the bonds of the ego, from all material desire. The escape from existence is the escape from suffering. Schopenhauer specifically relates his own doctrine of the denial of the will with the Buddhist notion of Nirvana-"Denial, abolition, turning of the will, is also the abolition and the vanishing of the world, its mirror"; for the world is no more than "the self-knowledge of the will."

Philosophy has reached its limits and nothing but mysticism remains.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

One Cheer for Democracy

Those who have studied the history of Europe between the First and Second World Wars will be aware that the intention to make the world safe for democracy, the hope of 1919, was effectively dead by 1939; democracy itself was almost dead, clinging on to the western fringe of Europe. Today, across the world, a similar pattern is at work, with a steady retreat of liberty and notions of liberal democracy. Woodrow Wilson’s vision, revived and strengthened, it might be said, by the collapse of the old Soviet Bloc and the apartheid state of South Africa, is once again blurring by degrees.

The objection here is that I am being far too alarmist. Not so; at least not according Freedom House, a lobby group based in Washington. Their report headed Freedom in the World 2010: the Global Erosion of Freedom details the decline in liberty in some forty countries across the world; in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East and in some of the countries of the old Soviet Union.

History, it would seem, has not ended, in defiance of Francis Fukuyama’s absurd post-mortem of twenty years ago. That partnership between economic freedom and political freedom, expressed with such confidence, was never more than a pious and sentimental hope. In China as economic freedom advances political freedom declines. In Russia the Kremlin, in pursuit of an increasingly authoritarian line, looks with interest on the Chinese example. In Latin America the upsurge of left-wing demagogues like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez represents a threat of a different kind in a continent that looked for a time to be turning away from an authoritarian past.

It is wrong to take comfort, however small, that this trend, this retreat from the model of the liberal state, is only evident in far away countries among people of whom we know nothing. It is not; it’s happening here also, though in a different way and by different means. The sovereign liberal state itself is being eaten from the inside.

How absurd, how ridiculous it is, to see the West attempt to ‘build democracy’ in impossible places like Iraq and Afghanistan, when democracy in Europe is threatened by the growing cancer of bureaucratic indifference; threatened, not strengthened, by distant and unrepresentative institutions. Oh, we can vote in the European Soviet Union (ESU) but to what end; what difference does it make? Voting, in a sense, is becoming ever more pointless when the outcome can be predetermined, rather like the plebiscites of the Third Reich. Voting is the opium of the European people.

It is perhaps a sign of our new times that democracy as an intellectual concept is also in retreat, a point made in a report earlier this year in The Economist. There are those who argue that elections do more harm than good when there is nothing in the way of tradition, law or civic culture to support the outcome, again the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Russia. This new mood of realism, or practical cynicism, if you prefer, is well reflected in the title of a book by Humphrey Hawksley-Democracy Kills: What’s so Good About the Vote?

I should say that Hawksley, despite the title of the book, offers a vigorous defence of democracy. I would certainly offer a vigorous defence of democracy; but, goodness, how we have traduced it by, first, making it a foreign policy aim- by bringing democracy at the barrel of a gun - and, second, by failing to understand the growing weakness of our own representative institutions. Two cheers for democracy, E. M Foster said. Is it possible, I wonder, now to even pass one?

Gorgeous Glass

I read in one of my history journals that five hand-painted stained glass masterpieces from sixteenth century Germany have been discovered in South Wales. The pieces in question were removed from Steinfeld Abbey near Cologne in 1803 during the French occupation of the district

The glass, which had previously been put into storage by the monks, was sold to a local dealer when the Abbey was secularised. From there it was sold to an expatriate German business man by the name of John Christopher Hamp, who was based in Norwich. Hamp sold them on to various wealthy clients, who either installed them in their own houses or donated them to local churches.

During the last century scholars discovered various panels in houses, chapels and churches in Hertfordshire, Cheshire, Norfolk and Bristol. In 1928 the Hertfordshire panels were bought by Ernest Cook, the grandson of the travel agent, who donated them to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they remain to the present day.

The Welsh panels are the first fresh discoveries in twenty years. Although gratifying it still represents only a tiny fraction of the collection that is still missing, possibly broken up, or possibly close to where you live, somewhere in the manor houses and churches of England and Wales. Who knows what you are looking through? :-)

Hegel and History

I think the Hegelian system, the philosophy propounded by Georg Friedrich Hegel, is positively malign. Why? Well, here we go!

I will try to make this as simple as I can without, I hope, losing sight the intellectual dynamics involved, not easy, I assure you! Hegel perceives history as a quest for self-realisation, a move from the less complete to the more complete forms of an existence; of an unfolding of freedom.

The evolution of the Idea in history was akin to the voyage of Odysseus, an analogy that he uses himself. His dialectic is one where the human spirit first become alienated from itself, and then through a growing awareness of the forms of alienation becomes capable freeing its potential and achieving liberation through self-awareness. Paradise Lost is Paradise Regained. History, in other words, was a tragedy with a happy ending.

In practical terms this means that the individual life, the individual destiny, if you like, is meaningful only insofar as it gives shape and purpose to the Spirit moving through history. Napoleon made use of the moment to create his own fate but history made use of him by the 'cunning of reason' to shape events to its own purpose and ends. His actions brought freedom to Prussia and Germany from the old forms of historical identity, and even his downfall did not bring the downfall of freedom. Napoleon lived; the Spirit moved; the world has been permanently changed.

As the Spirit continually moves forward to higher forms of expression, it breaks free from all encumbering institutions. As Hegel expresses it, this is the 'negation of all that is.' In Hegel's system of things the relation between Spirit and matter is likened to the relationship between slave and master. It is the process of emancipation, in other words, that gives shape to the history of the world. In the Philosophy of History he expresses it thus, "The History of the World is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom...the Eastern nations know only that one is free; the Greek and Roman world only that some are free, while we know that all men absolutely (man to man) are free."

So, each new revelation destroyed the world to which it came. The Spirit, at war with itself, as truth gave way to truth; at war with matter and the institutions in which truth had been enslaved. The Spirit in seeking objective realisation of itself is always moving beyond. For a Roman to hold on to Paganism and resist the advance of Christianity was effectively to embrace the dead, a shell without habitation.

For Hegel history "aims at the conviction that what was intended by eternal wisdom was actually accomplished." There is no failure in history, for "God governs the world: the actual working of his government-the carrying out of his plan is the history of the world." All has its purpose and there is nothing to regret-even injustice has its place. Conflict was resolved by transition to a higher phase of being, no matter how many victims are left along the way. For, after all, "the particular is for the most part, of too trifling value compared with the general for which individuals are sacrificed and abandoned."

There you have it, and I am sure you can detect the elements that would lead to Marxism and other historical absolutes - to teleologies of all kinds, of the left or of the right. It's seductive, it's persuasive, it's comprehensive and it’s monstrous.

Monday 25 January 2010

Guilty Men

If the intention of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War is to pin Blair like a butterfly in a case it’s not going to happen. Far less stupid that Alistair Campbell, his dog, I can predict exactly how he will perform: there will general expressions of contrition over dodgy dossiers and post-war Iraq, followed by a rapid occupation of the moral high ground- yes, removing Saddam was the ‘right thing’ to do, the sort of strategy that he pursued at the 2004 Labour Party Conference.

But we have another target that makes the exercise a little less threadbare. We have the Prime Minister, Dismal Gordon himself, who is scheduled to appear – joy of joys – before the General Election. It’s not Blair anymore; for me Brown is the real target. He is only appearing because he was taunted by Nick Clegg that he had something to hide. But now, anxious to prove the contrary, we will all be able to see - potential Labour voters will be able to see - that he does indeed have something to hide – himself.

We know from the evidence given by Campbell that Brown was closely involved in the decision to go to war, though this is a matter that he has never been confronted with in public. Jack Straw, in his shifty and self-regarding way, told the Inquiry that he could have ‘stopped the war’ by resigning as foreign secretary. It that was true of him then it was even truer of Brown, as Andrew Rawnsley said in The Observer. But he did something at the time that is entirely typical of his character and style of leadership: as a member of the cabinet he supported the war while having it put about by his toadies that he had ‘reservations.’ The key to this man, the key to our dear leader’s character is simple enough: when things get tough he gets lost.

If you opposed the war, then Brown is the man who wrote enough cheques that allowed it to happen. If you supported the war, but despaired of the aftermath, he was the man who did not write enough cheques; he was the man responsible for the fact that our army was under-resourced, not properly equipped for the task, the impossible task, which it faced. He is doubly culpable, therefore, an indictment that surely extends also to Afghanistan. Iraq may have been Blair’s War but it was Brown’s Disaster.

In the early years of the Second World War a book was published entitled Guilty Men under the pseudonym of ‘Cato.’ I’m sure some people will be familiar with this famous text but for those who are not it was an indictment of the policy of appeasement in which fifteen individuals are censured, from Neville Chamberlain downwards. It was a devastatingly effective polemic. We now have enough solid material for a new Guilty Men. Now, there’s a thought. :-))


The notion of the 'savage in all of us' is an ancient one, finding a place in European thought all the way from Plato to Conrad and beyond. Consider Montaigne's essay on cannibals, in which he says that the civilized Frenchmen of his generation during the Wars of Religion are more savage and more cannibal than all the warrior tribes of Brazil:

I think there is more barbarity in eating a man alive than in eating him dead; and in tearing by tortures and the rack a body still full of feeling, in roasting a man bit by bit, in having him bitten and mangled by dogs and swine...than in roasting and eating him after he is dead.

As for the dangers and paradoxes in the mission of imperial civilization one could do no better than heed the words of the eponymous hero of "Gulliver's Travels";

A crew of pirates are driven by a storm they know not wither; at length a boy discovers land from the top-mast; they go on shore to rob and plunder; they see a harmless people, they are entertained with kindness, they give the country a new name, they take formal possession of it for the king, they set up a rotten plank or a stone for a memorial, they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more by force for a sample, return home, and get their pardon. Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a title of Divine Right. Ships are sent out at the first opportunity; the natives driven out and destroyed, their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free licence given to all acts of inhumanity and lust; the Earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: And this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people.

Who exactly, one has to ask, are the Yahoos and who are the Houyhnhnms? And is the savage no more than a response to savagery? Yes, the Yahoos are Swift's satire on a depraved humanity. But what of the Houyhnhmns who, in the midst of their wisdom and cultivation, discuss the possibility that the Yahoos should 'be exterminated from the face of the Earth’?

Yes, there are lots of questions and no easy answers.

Loving Montaigne

I love the work of Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, one of my favourite literary forms; a man who wrote in a beautiful, self-effacing, humorous and precise fashion, expressing in limpid prose some simple and universal truths. Here is my favourite passage on memory and its defects;

Memory is the receptacle and case of science: and therefore mine being so treacherous, if I know little, I cannot much complain. I know, in general, the names of the arts, and of what they treat, but nothing more. I turn over books; I do not study them. What I retain I no longer recognize as another's; 'tis only what my judgment has made its advantage of, the discourses and imaginations in which it has been instructed: the author, place, words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.

I am so excellent at forgetting, that I no less forget my own writings and compositions than the rest. I am very often quoted to myself and am not aware of it. Whoever should inquire of me where I had the verses and examples that I have here huddled together, would puzzle me to tell him, and yet I have not borrowed them but from famous and known authors, not contenting myself that they were rich, if I, moreover, had them not from rich and honorable hands, where there is a concurrence of authority with reason. It is no great wonder if my book run the same fortune that other books do, and if my memory lose what I have written as well as what I have read, and what I give as well as what I receive.

You will find this in the Penguin edition of his Essays in the section On Presumption.

Now Sarah Bakewell has written a biography of the great master, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, a wonderfully whimsical title that I feel sure he would have appreciated. I haven’t read it so I can’t offer a review, but the reviews I have read are all very positive. So, acting on their recommendations, I have now added this to my ever growing ‘to buy’ list. Once acquired – and consumed – I shall add my own assessment.

Sunday 24 January 2010

The Limits of Philanthropy

A great natural catastrophe inevitably induces feelings of sympathy and solidarity. The world rushed to aid the people of Haiti, or at least promised to do so. The newspapers and magazines I read have been replete with ads from charities, asking for contributions to disaster funds.

Perhaps in the first rush of sympathy you contributed; I know I did. But now another story unfolds, highlighted in the leader in this week’s Spectator. It seems to have made no difference if you, or I or anyone else contributed one pound or a million pounds – nothing seems to be getting through, nothing that is making any difference to most of the desperate people of that benighted country.

It’s clearly not a lack of will by individuals or by nations. But Haiti is a country, a system of government, that never was. Even the basic infrastructure that would allow aid to be delivered on the scale that is needed is lacking. Badly and indifferently ruled in the best time- and that is a term that has to be used advisedly in relation to Haiti – it has now descended into chaos and anarchy. There are strong historical factors here, but there is more. For you see, Haiti, so far as aid is concerned, truly is a black hole. Over the past twenty years, the Spectator says, $7 billion of aid has been spent, a flow of largesse that has got quicker over the years. In 2008 alone some $873 million in aid was poured into the country, a tenth of the national GDP.

Where did it go; what was it spent on? Shanty towns and tin huts, perhaps? Port-au-Prince, the capital, turned out to be little more than a vast shanty town. The truth is that most of the aid money has only served to fuel corruption, the one great growth industry in the place. An IMF assessment of 2004 concluded that 30 per cent of Haitian civil servants were phantoms – zombies, perhaps? – who existed only for the purpose of extracting salaries from the government.

Yes, this is bad, but what is worse is that this kind of international ‘welfarism’ only serves to suck whatever life remains in the local economy. It’s an invidious situation that our politicians, too blinded by notions of doing 'the right thing', are unable to challenge; even the Tories have declared the intention to ‘ring fence’ the international aid budget, which for this country alone amounts to £7.8 billion.

Once the Haitian emergency is over some hard questions really will have to be answered. So much development aid, it seems to me, is little better than a salve to conscience, a kind of post-imperial hangover.

The Power of the Craft

The Craft, directed by Andrew Fleming, starring Robin Tunney, Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell and Rachel True as a group of teenage witches, is one of my all-time favourite movies. I first saw it when I was about twelve and have watched it several times since. I was already interested in witchcraft at that stage of my life – as well as full of my own vengeful teenage thoughts! – but the movie gave direction and focus to my thinking; it began to give it a coherent shape, if you like.

It’s not a great movie by any means but the message, that of self-empowerment, excited me, made me begin to look into witchcraft as a serious magical practice. Yes, I too, was carried along by the fashion, as the movie achieved a kind of cult-status among other girls of my age; but as most of them dropped away I remained, absorbed and as preoccupied as ever.

It’s the kind of movie that tends to unsettle tree-hugging Wiccans, who see it as ‘untrue’ to witchcraft, as if they alone understood what witchcraft was or should be. There is no real message here; it’s simple entertainment. Or if there is a massage it centres on the dangers of misusing magick and on the dangers of hubris.

The girls in the coven are shown using witchcraft for healing purposes and protection but they also use it to get back at enemies in a way that I personally found highly gratifying. In the end the coven is destroyed when Nancy, wonderfully played by Fairuza Balk, assumes too much power to herself, forcing Sarah, the ‘good’ witch, played by Robin Tunney, to leave. The break-up was the part that upset me most. I so wanted them to stay together, to magnify their power still further.

Did I identify with any of the girls? I suppose Fleming’s intention was to get us all to identify with Sarah, both good and powerful, who only really becomes a witch because of, well, boyfriend troubles, but it was Nancy who excited me most, dark, dangerous and gothic Nancy. As far as I am concerned power is just that, power. It is neither good nor bad; it’s thrilling, exciting and transforming.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.