Thursday 31 May 2012

Holy Willie's Prayer

MacKaskill, the Law's Ass

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only man ever convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, one of the worst acts of mass murder in British history, died earlier this month at his home in Tripoli.  He died a free man.  He died three years after Kenny MacAskill, the wholly ridiculous Scottish Justice Secretary, announced to the world that he was to be released on 'compassionate' grounds, having only three months to live.

It was a decision taken, I understand, on the 'best medical advice' available at the time.  This goes to prove one thing: the Libyan medical service is clearly ten times better than that of Scotland, a point made by Douglas Murray in the latest issue of magazine Prospect.  So, if you are unfortunate enough to take ill on your travels just hope that you end up in North Africa rather than North Britain!

Who could possibly forget MacAskill's mawkish and lachrymose words when he announced his intention to release Megrahi? Apparently he does not believe in God but that did nothing to stop him descending into a symphony of metaphysical hogwash;

Mr Al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die. 

Yes, said God, you are all going to die, but I’ll show you Mr MacAskill – the end is not yet!  It was three years of embarrassment for Alex Salmond's Scottish National Party administration until Megrahi finally did the decent thing and shuffled off this mortal coil.  There is a legacy here that has made the Scots’ legal system look more than usually ridiculous, though the SNP has suffered no adverse electoral consequences.  

MacAskill and Salmond, after the decision was taken to release a man responsible for the deaths of no fewer than 270 people, the majority of them American, went on to lecture the world on humanity and compassion, seemingly the 'defining characteristic' of the Scottish people.  Personally I can only take cant in very small doses, though the Scots seem to swallow it in abundance, along with whisky.  

There is something else.  The release was granted on condition that al-Megrahi drop a pending appeal, though why the two should have been married, knowing nothing of Scots law, I don’t quite understand.  Is it perhaps that there was a greater danger here, that the thinness of the evidence on which Megrahi was convicted would have held up the Scottish system of justice to even greater ridicule? 

I think it will take years for all the issues here to come to light, indeed if they ever do. They may very well be submerged forever in a newly independent Scotland, secure in its self-righteous and hypocritical 'humanity.' When the news of Megrahi's death was released Salmond said that the first thing we should remember is the victims of Lockerbie. The victims here include the American families who lost their relatives, portrayed at the time when Scotland was wallowing in its unique sense of ‘humanity’ as unreflective and vengeful.  Yes, vengeful, simply because they wanted justice; they spoke for the dead when nobody else would, certainly not those hypocritical humanists MacAskill and Salmond.

I know Americans are found of Scotland; I know many Americans, including some close personal friends of mine, are of Scots-Irish ancestry, but this should not blind people to the fact that Lockerbie victims were victims twice - first of Megrahi and the Libyan security service, and second of the government of Alex Salmond.  Now he remembers the dead whereas previously he has used them for petty nationalist ends.  

Like Douglas Murray, I sincerely hope that Americans will not forget this.  If you want an insight into the conceited, self-regard of people like MacAskill and Salmond and their ‘unique values’ I would suggest that you could do no better than turn to the poetry of Robert Burns.  I'm thinking specifically of a few lines from Holy Willie's Prayer;

Lord, bless Your chosen in this place,
For here You have a chosen race!
But God confound their stubborn face
And blast their name,
Who bring Your elders to disgrace
And open shame!

Wednesday 30 May 2012

The Hammer of Prejudice

I’ve cobbled together some thoughts on the Malleus Maleficarum – literally the Hammerer of the Witches - , one of the most infamous texts ever written on the subject of witchcraft. What follows is entirely impressionistic rather than a detailed exposition or a review as such; so please do bear that in mind. Besides, I’m not quite sure that a review of a primary text like this is in any way meaningful.

I’m assuming, though, that most of the people who glance at this article have never actually read this notorious book. So, if there is anything that is not clear, or if you would like to know any more, I will do my best to tackle any questions that you might have.

The book, of course, was originally published in Latin, translated twice into English; first by Montague Summers in 1928, and more recently - and accurately - by P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. The text I am referring to here is the latter, published in paperback by Manchester University Press in 2007.

Anyway, the Malleus first appeared in 1487 under the name of two Dominican inquisitors: Heinrich Kramer, usually known by his Latin name of Institoris, and Jacob Sprenger, though it is generally thought that Kramer was the sole author.

Those of you who know little of the nature of the great European Witch Hunt may be surprised to learn that the Catholic Church was originally highly sceptical about the whole phenomenon of witchcraft, a position reflected in canon law. The Malleus was composed specifically because Kramer had been frustrated by the failure of the prosecution of a group of alleged witches in Innsbruck, a process in which he had been personally involved. The task of his manual - that is how it is best conceived - was both to provide a scholarly defence of the heresy of witchcraft - it is important to understand that is how Kramer conceived the practice - and to provide guidance for inquisitors and legal professionals in the pursuit and prosecution of witches.

I would like to say that the book stands in relation to the Witch Holocaust as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion does to that of the Jews.  Yes, I would like to say it but I know, contrary to a more general prejudice, that this is a gross exaggeration; for it was only one of a number of similar texts, and by no means the most popular. It did, however, have a percolating effect, steadily influencing a large section of scholarly opinion on the matter, both before and after the Reformation.

So far as Kramer was concerned witchcraft was a huge diabolic conspiracy against Christendom, a terrorist threat, if you will, with Satan in the role of Osama Bin Laden and the witches as his agents. Witches were not ignorant of the faith, like Muslims. Rather they had chosen the deliberate path of apostasy and heresy, all the more dangerous for this. The diffuse nature of the practice - also like contemporary terrorism - made it a particular and pervasive threat.

The Malleus itself is by no means an original work, rather bringing together in one place a whole series of past opinions and judgements on the nature of malificiendum or harmful magic. Kramer’s unique contribution was to identify this principally with women, for the simple reason that witchcraft for him was a crime founded on carnal lust, and women, in his view, were more susceptible to this than men. For Kramer the most powerful class of witches, whose crimes included the killing and eating of their own children, all practiced “copulation with devils.”

It would be wrong to assume, as often is, that the work is specifically misogynist; it does little more than reflect many of the prejudices of the day. Rather it was the carnal susceptibilities of women, their weakness in the face of temptation, which made them the Achilles Heel of the Faith. Kramer even argues, on the basis of a bogus etymology, that ‘femina’ comes from the root ‘fe’ and ‘minus’, meaning less of faith. It was this that made many females, those who chose the perverse path, to be liable to demonic seduction. In short it was the infidelity of women that could and did, in his mind, lead to perfidia, a betrayal of the Faith. This was not inevitable, but women needed all the help they could get to keep the dangers posed by their carnality under control.

The ideas presented in the Malleus gradually seeped downwards, linking witchcraft with diabolism in the popular mind, thus divorcing the practice from an older and less malign root. In this in made an important contribution to the forms of hysteria that formed such an important part of the psychology of the Burning Times.

So, this is what I would like you to hold in mind: that for Kramer and many of his contemporaries, witchcraft, linked with the Devil, was a malevolent form of supernatural terrorism. This was the essential fuel of the witch-hunt, then and in all subsequent times.

Any rating here, like a rating of a work like Mein Kampf, also seems gratuitously unnecessary, serving almost like a papal imprimatur!  I can assure you that I do not approve of the contents of this book.  But I will rate it at four stars simply because it’s a work that really should be consulted by those who have any interest at all in witchcraft, past prejudice and a darkly important phase in European history.  My rating, however, is more a reflection of the package offered by Maxwell-Stuart.  Not only is it a vast improvement on past translations but it comes with a superb introductory essay. I think it only fair to add that if you are looking for something, lurid, dark and racy the Malleus is bound to disappoint.  It is crushingly dull!  Or is that just witchy prejudice?  :-)
Now she rests!  

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Deeper Still and Deeper

As the euro crisis moves downward in ever tighter circles I recall a piece I wrote a year and a half ago for the Daily Telegraph readers’ blog site.  Reading reports in the Sunday press I thought I would have another look at it.  It’s astonishing how little has changed; astonishing that grown-up people with grown-up minds could ever have embraced this madness in the first place.  How ill-led we are, how deceived; how unworthy are those in positions of power, who have neither prescience nor judgement. 

Anyway, judge the relevance for yourself.  The original article was headed Moussaka Money, published on 16 February, 2011. 

The Greek crisis is a superb demonstration of the intellectual absurdity and institutional vanity at the core of the whole European maze.  The important thing here is that we are dealing with a political as much as an economic crisis, perhaps more of a political crisis. We are dealing more specifically with blindness, blindness and hubris caused by a combination of self-delusion and self-interest.

The euro itself, the single European currency zone, was always about prestige, a desire for the grand gesture.  Looking at it in hard economic terms who would ever have agreed to allow the Greeks, or the Spanish, or the Irish to join the club? All it would take is for these fragile economies to come under sustained pressure for questions to be asked about the operation of a whole euro zone, combining rich and poor and supposedly treating them as equal partners.  

The Greeks, the poor cousins, were effectively given a Euro credit card, and they used it, without caution or reservation.  The Germans were paying, yes, but they also benefited with a massive trade surplus, another source of imbalance.  Angela is resisting a bail-out; she has to, if only for the sake of form and political credibility.  Sarko does want a bail out, but that comes at a price; there has be convergence across Europe. Athens, as I said previously, is facing a new Macedonian hegemony, a new dependency in all but name. 

The Germans in particular are heading for the perfect storm; they have too much of their economic self-interest invested in the euro-zone to allow it to collapse altogether, but they are horrified of the consequences of countries like Greece riding on the prosperity of the old D-mark, abandoned with considerable reluctance.

We know the Eurocrats are not fond of votes.  After all, they have a tendency to go the wrong way.  But the Germans are least fond of a particular kind of vote than any other European nation, so much so that referendums are actually banned by law because of the use they were put to by the nasty Nazis.  Just as well for the Eurocrats, I suppose, because the Germans would never have abandoned the D-mark if they had been given a choice on the matter eleven years ago.  

At the time the opponents of the euro ran a campaign warning of the dangers of being linked up with the ‘spaghetti money’ of southern Europe.  So, poor old Angela finds herself in an impossible position.  Pressures at home force her to talk tough.  Auntie Angela does not come to the Greeks bearing gifts, no, she waves her Aryan finger and talks austerity.  But this is tomorrow and now we know just how much the Greeks have been spending, as if there was, well, no tomorrow.  

Yes, what a mess this is.  If the Greeks get a handout - as they almost certainly will - the markets will turn on the next most vulnerable, the other partners in the union of the Piigs (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain).  The contradictions, there from the outset, are being revealed one by one.  

Angela is a high-wire artist, a gambler as much as those who speculate on the currency markets, who speculate against the euro.  She is playing for time, her fingers crossed behind her back, hoping that austerity in Athens is enough.  And if it is not? Well, then we will perhaps be talking about moussaka money. 

Monday 28 May 2012

Somewhere East of Eden

Are we free or are we simply the playthings of fate?  Can we ever be free or does or life follow a predetermined pattern?  Are we cause or are we effect?  The supposed conflict between free will and fate is a problem as old as philosophy itself.  It’s a problem that has engaged so many minds, those far greater than my own.  It’s a problem, it would be wise to conclude, that has no solution and will never have a solution, a sort of dialectical chicken and egg. 

But there is a third way of looking at the issue.  It seems to me that the age old problem of fate and free will is based on a wholly false dichotomy.  Free will is what we have in the immediacy of our circumstances; we have choices to make for good or ill which, in turn, impact on fate. 

Fate or karma, if you prefer, consists of the wider variables, the things that we cannot control, those things determined by the actions of God, of history and of other people.  But we are not marionettes; we do not perform an invariable dance.  Life, rather, is an unscripted play.  You and I and everyone else has a part, though it is not predetermined.  You are only a puppet if you think you are a puppet. 

Take the example of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, a brilliant dissertation on the interplay of fate and freewill.  Hamlet’s father has been murdered.  He has been chosen, by fate and by circumstances, as the instrument of vengeance.  But the whole tragedy then focuses on the tension between this fate and Hamlet’s doubts and uncertainties.  He fights against fate “O, cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.”  He even considers suicide as a way of avoiding fate – “To be or not to be.”  Contrast him with his erstwhile friend Laertes, a pure instrument of fate.  It is he who, in the end, propels Hamlet into action, a fusion of free will and fate in a given set of circumstances. 

Shakespeare is good on these issues but John Milton in some ways is even better.  There is God in Paradise Lost contemplating the fall of man, a perfect illustration of the clash between fate and freedom, and, it might be said, the limits of divine power;

So will fall
He and his faithless progeny. Whose fault?
Whose but his own? Ingrate! He had of Me
All he could have; I made him just and right,
Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.

There is God, angry at his own creation, angry that freedom means freedom, contemplating a Fall that has yet to happen!  Ah, free will, where would God be without it?  After all; it serves as a perfect alibi.  Yes we are free, free to struggle with fate, free to struggle with an allotted role, free to travel to the Land of Nod, somewhere east of Eden. It’s a perfect definition of the human condition itself.  I for one cannot think of any better.  

Sunday 27 May 2012

A King for All Seasons

Writing in the present edition of the Spectator William Cook says the Germany is rediscovering a once taboo part of its heritage (From Prussia with Love, 26 May).  It’s reflection on a new exhibition being held in the Neues Palace in Potsdam.  Under the title of Friederisiko, this celebrates the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Frederick the Great, Prussia’s greatest and most delightfully paradoxical monarch. 

The suggestion is that that the rebirth, and rebranding, of Frederick is somehow a recent phenomena.  It’s actually nothing of the kind.  In an article I wrote last year (Praising Prussia, 9 March) I touched on the fact even in the old communist German Democratic Republic Frederick was resurrected from the crypt in its twilight years.  It was all part of an attempt to root the decrepit pseudo-state in German history.  An equestrian statue of the king, previously removed from central Berlin in the 1950s, rode right back to prominence in the 1980s.

It’s difficult not to admire a monarch who managed successfully to be all things to all people; who could be admired by Adolf Hitler and Erich Honecker; who could be an avatar for the Third Reich and the Communist Reich.  This was a man, moreover, whose sexuality, for all his military militancy, was as ambiguous as that of England’s Edward II. 

It’s not just Frederick who is undergoing a renaissance in the new Germany.  The old state of Prussia, formally abolished by the Allies in 1945, is also being reappraised with fresh enthusiasm.  Of course this is not the militaristic Prussia, the imperial Prussia, the very thing that Frederick would have been most proud of, but a gentle, cultured and artistic Prussia, the antithesis of the commonly accepted stereotype. This is the Prussia of the Piccolo not the Pickelhaube.  This is not the Frederick of the Seven Years War but the amateur musician and composer, the friend of poets and thinkers, Plato’s philosopher king at his finest. 

Friederisiko is scheduled to run until 28 October.  The chief focus, as I say, is not on his martial but his cultural exploits.  After all, here was a king as much at home in the salon as the battlefield; here was a King who could hobnob with men like Goethe and Voltaire.  The exhibition apparently makes much of his tolerance and philo-Semitism. “All religions are equal”, he said, “Everyone must find salvation in their own way.” 

We invariably recreate the past and past heroes in our own image.  The Potsdam Frederick is most certainly not Hitler or Honecker’s Frederick; he is far too laid back and arty for that!  But it’s comforting to note that he has not been completely divested of his Prussian starkness.  He is the Frederick for this season, for Angela Merkel’s season. He has become, as Cook suggests, a symbol for the current campaign to save the euro, a Spartan figure whose grim asceticism fits perfectly with Auntie Angela’s austerity programme. 

The king himself is buried in the grounds of the nearby Sanssouci Palace.  Apparently those who come in tribute place not flowers on his grave but potatoes!  Yes, that’s right, because it was Frederick who brought the spud to Prussia, a functional symbol for a functional king. 

Alles oder nichts – all or nothing – was Old Fritz’s battle cry, even so far as potatoes.  Personally I’m more than happy for Germany to reclaim him as the philosopher king and gentle aesthete.  But so far as the euro is concerned it may be as well to look to the warrior king, and not to the Battle of Rossbach but to Kunersdorf.  The House of Brandenburg may be a miracle, but the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg is one of those things in history that is unlikely to occur twice.  

Thursday 24 May 2012

The Eye of the People

Last week the Chinese National Bureau of Corruption Prevention issued a statement saying that 72.7 per cent of the population was satisfied with progress the government was making on tackling corruption, an endemic problem in the country. It caused a virtual tsunami. People went on line in their thousands, creative in their derision of a figure that doubtless sprung fully armed from the head of some bureaucrat or other. One individual said “Public opinion poll? Did they conduct it inside the Politburo? Poor old public opinion – raped once again.”

I say ‘said’ but the comment was actually tweeted, except it wasn’t tweeted because Twitter isn’t allowed in China! No, but people do have access to a microblogging service called (weibo simply means microblog). It’s hosted by Sina, a state-controlled internet service provider which regularly censors content, but Chinese bloggers are amazingly versatile, getting around restrictions in all sorts of imaginative ways.

In a country where the people have rarely had a voice at all Sina Weibo is a remarkable development. Let a hundred flowers bloom, it might be said, to drag up one ghost from the Chinese past, except that’s a huge underestimate. In all there are some 300million microbloggers in China, people who greet official statements - traditionally received in silence or reverence or else - with cynical derision. When the Beijing Daily recently demanded that Gary Locke, the US ambassador, declare his personal assets, the bloggers responded by saying that the real scrutiny should be on the assets of the country’s own elites.

Chinese officialdom has never been subject to such detailed and critical attention. Traditionally information is power and the flow of information has been tightly controlled. Not any longer. Quoted in the London Times, Zhan Jiang, professor of journalism at the Beijing Foreign Studies Service, said of Weibo that it “Has given a voice to 300 million Chinese and that has never happened before. It has taken on the role of spreading information when news is breaking and that is a big challenge to the government and media.”

It certainly is, when one considers that the most popular bloggers have followings far in excess of even mass circulation newspapers. Attempted cover-ups have been blown wide open by a rapid flow of information. The most recent example of this was a fatal train crash in Wenzhou, news of which officials attempted to bury. Exposure on Weibo forced a change of tactics.

Superficially Weibo is like Twitter. The latter has a 140-letter limit, just as the former has a 140-character limit. Ah, but you see, that makes all the difference in the microblogging world! For in Chinese, as the Times reported, every character is a word. Also in the absence of prepositions users can say much more in a single post than on Twitter. Yu Jianrong, an academic noted for his exposure of child trafficking, has in excess of 1.3million followers. This is one recent communication of his;

On May 16, 1966, the Chinese Communist Party started the Cultural Revolution which caused 10 years’ turmoil. I suggest that we mark the day as a “Day of Reflection”. My reflection is that blind belief in an organisation or leader cannot bring real democracy or the rule of law. Without democracy that people can take part in, everyone may turn violent.

Now, who would ever have believed the expression of such sentiment possible in a land where the repellent Mao Zedong still stares balefully down on Tiananmen Square?

The whole phenomena, this virtual democracy wall, might very well be pulled down, though some believe that things have gone too far for that. Uncomfortable as it is for the communist authorities, it actually provides greater intelligence on the mood around the country than they ever had in the past.

There are forms of censorship, certainly, and clear dangers in modes of expression that become too free. After all, the service only allows real name users, so there is no hiding. But, notwithstanding the risks, the authorities are still subject to forms of scrutiny and ridicule previously unknown.

The Weibo users are also highly creative in getting around official gags. When particular words are blocked by the censors, euphemisms appear within moments. No sooner was an interdict placed on naming premier Wen Jiabao that he reappeared in the far less dignified form as ‘Tellytubbie.’

I do not think that democracy will come to China any time soon. But the old days of silence, deference and intimidation are being overwhelmed by politically meaningful chatter.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Strasbourg Flips the Bird

I flip the bird right back!  

Is the lottery a disappointment to you?  You’ve played for an age, for years, perhaps, and those big bucks are always just beyond your reach.  Ah, but, you see, luck is such a fickle and elusive thing.  Rather than waste your money on its uncertain embrace you might very well be on to a surer bet if you have yourself sent to prison, there to demand the right to vote. 

I know; it’s only a 50-50 chance; a chance that you may end up with a right that you don’t really want, a chance to send powerless placemen to our powerless Parliament.  But, there again, there is always the possibility that the worm will turn; that David Cameron will reject the latest diktat from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and, in accordance with the will of Parliament, refuse to extend the franchise to jail birds.  In that case millions and millions in compensation is in the offing!

Yesterday the ECHR confirmed its earlier ruling that it was a breach of the human rights of paedophiles, arsonists, rapists, murderers and other criminals to deny them the right to vote, this in the face of an overwhelming vote by MPs last year to maintain the 140-year ban. 

Once again this alien court has challenged the sovereignty of Parliament, the sovereignty of this nation. It raises all sorts of issues over the nature of democracy itself, when a decision made by our elected representatives can be dismissed in such a cavalier fashion by unelected judges. 

Ah, cavalier; now there’s word, recalling past battles over parliamentary sovereignty. Charles I once entered the chamber of the House of Commons, a breach of all established protocol, in an attempt to arrest some of his most trenchant critics.  But all his birds, as he observed at the time, had flown.  Now this rabble of Strasburg judges has, in a similar sense, shown their contempt for Parliament, entering the chamber metaphorically speaking, only to give the honourable members the bird. 

In remarking on the latest development, Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, once a member of our benighted coalition’s own human rights commission, said that 'The principal issue is not whether prisoners are allowed to vote but whether the rules are set by a directly elected parliament or a group of European judges.”

David Cameron once said that the very idea of prisoners voting made him ‘physically ill.’  Yes, that’s fine; there are a lot of things that seem to upset the poor man’s constitution, the usual remedy for which is a liberal dose of words and no action.  The Tory back benchers, Cavaliers ironically following the path of the Roundheads in 1642, have made it clear that they will not give up the fight. 

But Cameron is no John Hampden, no John Pym and certainly no Oliver Cromwell.   I don’t even think he is in the mould of Prince Rupert.  Rather, in his present state of Babylonian Coalition captivity, he reminds me of nothing more than a damsel in distress, waving forlornly from the top of the Tower.  Priti Patel, a Tory backbencher, said: “The public will be demanding that the Prime Minister now stands up for British interests and refuses to give convicted prisoners the right to vote.”  Well they might demand but I rather think the poor dear may very well end up drowning, not waving.

Yes, the whole thing appears risible and the temptation is to dismiss the ECHR with amused contempt.  But it's worth stressing the constitutional seriousness of the whole thing, worth stressing the ignorance of these absurd judges, their ignorance of our history, our traditions and our institutions.  Their challenge to parliamentary sovereignty is serious enough to warrant a new Grand Remonstrance.  Charles I was not a quarter so tyrannical or stupid.

In the meantime franchise lottery tickets are selling well, with some 2500 inmates having already lodged claims.  It’s a reasonably safe bet.  I rather think Cameron hath no stomach to this fight.  Let him depart. His passport shall be made, and crowns for convoy put into his purse …and he can take Clegg, Cable, gay marriage, House of Lords reform, windmills and all the rest of the fashionable nonsense with him.  Maybe then we will get a genuine Conservative Prime Minister and not this supine heir to Blair and poodle to Clegg.  

Tuesday 22 May 2012

The Protocols of New Labour

My recent observation that I thought the Labour Party a conspiracy against the people of this country caused a minor ripple on Twitter.  I’m inspired, inspired to make the indictment even heavier by reviving a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. 

What follows is an imaginary document (it is, isn’t it?), an agenda for Britain by the Labour Party, based, of course, on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, another infamous forgery about a supposed conspiracy. The difference is that the elements, the substantive elements, are all drawn from real history, past happenings and, from the date of the document, coming events. What about the conspiracy element? Well, I leave that for you to decide. :-)

Dismantling Britain

London, sometime in the winter of 1996.

Comrades, let me summarise the main points of our discussion and the elements of our agreed strategy. There has to be an election in the coming year, so we must be ready with the most effective programme possible. Also, comrades, none of this will go into our published manifesto. Let me remind you that you are all pledged to absolute secrecy.

Past Achievements

1.1 Ever since it was founded at the beginning of this century our Labour Party has been pledged to the destruction of Britain and the British way of life. We have approached this task in various ways. Before the Second World War our governments were too weak, too dependent on the good will of the then Liberal Party, to do any real damage. Something might possibly have come out from the partial victory of 1929 if it had not been for the treason of Ramsay Macdonald, joining in the National Government with the terrible Tories. For the nation is something we hate. The pacifism we supported certainly went a long way towards ensuring the country was not ready for war in 1939, but not nearly far enough.

1.2 We had a great victory in 1945 and made much of it under the guidance of Comrades Atlee and Bevan. The best way to ensure that the country would be ill-prepared for the future, for competition with the other capitalist states, was to start spending money it did not have on welfare programmes that it could not afford. How stupid our enemies were not to recognise how clever we were in building a Welfare State in a bankrupt country! How much more we could have achieved if Comrade Atlee had not lost his nerve and went for a general election in 1951. The Tories managed to reverse some of our damage, though we still made real gains on the road to ruin, massive public spending based on an economy that depended in a large part on dying and antiquated industries. Our comrades in the Trade Unions offered us valuable support here.

1.3 Our next period in office from 1964 to 1970 also saw positive achievements. Some comrades made useful and lasting contacts with the comrade communists in the Soviet Union as part of our secret foreign policy programme. Information was exchanged and deals done. Comrade Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers Union performed some valuable services here, both as a paid-up agent of the KGB and as a sponsor of new MPs in trade union rotten boroughs. Comrades Blair and Brown were eventually to benefit from this union sponsorship. Comrade Wilson, our Prime Minister, pretended to be renewing the economy and reforming ‘outmoded’ trade union practices; but the economy just got weaker and the unions stronger.

1.4. More good work was done in our next period of government from 1974 to 1979, especially in the creation of ruinous levels of inflation, helped along by deals with the trade union dons. But things were still not moving fast enough; Britain was proving more resilient than we expected. Then came the disaster of 1979; then came Margaret Thatcher, the devil incarnate, who set about ruing all of our best achievements. We came close, but not close enough. We have to try harder, accelerate our programme in such a way that no future Thatcher will be able to reverse our work.

Future Strategy

We are now prepared for government, for victory in the election of 1997. These are the chief elements we must work on.

a. Devolution. Scotland and Wales must be given a parliament, in the case of the former, and an assembly, in the case of the latter. It was a mistake, comrades, to oppose devolution in the past, for this is the best way of beginning the end of Britain and the best way of isolating England. Don’t worry, comrades; in the short term we will still have the support of the bloc Labour vote from Scotland and Wales at Westminster, though English Tories will have no input into the affairs of these nations. A brilliant tactic. In the long term it will not matter what happens in England or what the English think for, you see, there will be no more England, which leads on to the second main feature of our master plan.

b. Europe. We shall accelerate the death of Parliament in England by giving away more and more powers to the European Union. We shall pretend to be opposed to any major political changes in Europe, changes of a constitutional nature, while advancing these as fast as we can. One element here is to pretend to allow the people to have a say in such matters and then, when our goals are within reach, change our minds. This approach might be used just prior to a future election. Westminster shall become increasingly irrelevant in peoples lives; England shall become increasingly irrelevant. Indeed, our third major strategy will make it difficult for people in future even to define Englishness.

c. Mass Immigration. We will open the doors. We will allow everyone in, whether there is economic cause or not, diluting the native English stock in a new multi-cultural utopia. We shall denounce all words of caution as racist, thus silencing debate. When we are finished it will be impossible to reverse the trend. This may very well lead to new forms of extremism in our old heartlands, as voters feel more and more alienated, a danger, yes, but such a process will help us forward by leading to the further fragmentation of England.

d. The Economy. Comrade Brown, whom Comrade Blair intends to appoint as Chancellor of the Exchequer, has excellent plans for laying the foundations of economic ruin by deregulating the banking sector - killing capitalism by its own devices - and by building a credit-fuelled boom, which will take the nation deeper and deeper into unsupportable levels of debt, public debt and private debt.


It is our earnest hope comrades that we win not just the coming election but the election after that and the election after that. It is our hope that we win and win. After twelve years or so people will no longer recognise this country, recognise it for what it once was. But I repeat, comrades, secrecy must be maintained. Only by that will the Elders of Labour emerge triumphant. Triumphant indeed.

Monday 21 May 2012

A Rattling Good Yarn

It began with a ship wreck.  The year is 1120.  The vessel in question is the White Ship, leaving France for England, setting sail in the dark on a late November night.  All on board were in a party mood, including, according to some accounts, the crew.  The wine and ale has been flowing with liberality.  No sooner had the vessel left harbour than it hit a submerged rock.  All but one of the passengers and crew died.

Norman England might be said to have died that night also; for the drowned included William Adelin.  The grandson of William the Conqueror, he was the only surviving legitimate son and heir of Henry I.  Henry, who was to rule for another fifteen years after the tragedy, had no choice but to leave the throne to his daughter, Matilda, a kind of forlorn hope in a militant male-dominated world.  And so it proved.  No sooner had the king died than the throne was seized by Stephen of Blois, Matilda's cousin, ushering in a long period of civil war, known subsequently as the Anarchy. 

It ushered in much more; it ushered in the devil’s brood.  It ushered in the best of kings and the worst of kings.  It ushered in the Plantagenets.  Reputedly descended from a daughter of Satan, they were set to become England’s longest reigning dynasty.  There is a story worth telling. It’s a story told with enthusiasm, insight and panache by Dan Jones in the recently published The Plantagenets: the Kings Who Made England. 

The sinking of the White Ship is one important marker; the other is Matilda’s marriage in 1128 to one Geoffrey of Anjou. It was a marriage made in hell, or at least Matilda might have thought so.  A widow of twenty six, previously married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, she now found herself bound to a red-headed teenager of fourteen, a marriage arranged by her father for the sake of the peace.  Geoffrey, son of the count of Anjou, had taken to sporting a sprig of yellow broom as his personal emblem- the planta genista in Latin -, hence the name of the ensuing dynasty. 

Matilda and Geoffrey were never to rule England, an honour that fell to their son, who succeeded Stephen in 1154 as Henry II.  Red in hair and red in passion, Henry set the pattern to come.  There was war, bloodshed, brutality and massacre aplenty; but there was also innovation, consolidation and development.  It was under Henry and his successors that England began to take shape as a nation, not a mere appendage of a French-speaking continental power. 

Jones is a story-teller of considerable skill.  In six hundred or so pages he simply carries one along in a strong narrative and chronological vessel, the sort of thing that was once dismissed as, well, just a tad passé by the high priests of the historical profession. 

The focus is very much on the politics and the personalities of power. When his kings are good they are very, very good and when they are bad they…have red hot pokers thrust into their bowels.  Actually, the supposed gruesome death of Edward II is one of the myths that the author hits on the head with a hammer that might very well have been borrowed from Edward I, hitherto busy hammering the Scots. 

The measure of ‘good’ here really needs to be refined.  Good means effective.  It does not mean as in good as in good; anything but, if you take my meaning.  For Jones the effective include Henry II, Richard I, Edward I and Edward III.  The bad, or rather the ineffectual, are King John (isn’t he on every list of great historical baddies?), Henry III, Edward II and Richard II. 

The former – the good -were to stamp their mark on England, through war, law making and administration.  The latter – the bad - also stamped their mark, possibly in some even more lasting ways.  John, by being bad, brought about some good, albeit unwillingly, some lasting innovations in the common law of the land, including the provisions of Magna Carta, the most important of all. 

Indeed it might also be said that it was his incompetence as a soldier that began the process of making England England, rather than greater Normandy or the jewel in the crown of the Angevin Empire.  It was thanks to John that the Channel began to serve in the office of a wall, or as a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands.

King John was not a good man, and no good friends had he.  He stayed in every afternoon…but no one came to tea.  Dan Jones certainly did not.  He serves him up as he has been traditionally served up - an all round rotter.  This personally is where I take my leave, seeing John more as the victim of monkish chroniclers.  He was a man who could certainly sin with the best of the Plantagenets, but whose reign saw some important innovations in administration and government.  In this regard I’m a revisionist, not a traditionalist like Jones, who draws up a heavy charge sheet spread over some sixty pages, a catalogue of crime and personal failure that Matthew Paris, the medieval chronicler and character assassin, would doubtless applaud. 

As for the effective ones, John’s grandson Edward I, in his restless imperial ambitions, was to poison relations between England and Scotland for centuries.  Before that we have the example of Richard I, who cared little for England, other than as a mortgageable asset, to be used in financing the pursuit of a crusading chimera. 

The author and I can at least agree on one thing: we both admire Edward III, whom I described in a recent English Standard article as the real father of the English nation.  Although his ambitions in France were fruitless his time saw great innovations in both military and parliamentary affairs.  It was a time that saw the beginning of the end of the old England of humble peasants and hungry barons, never the twain to meet. 

It’s in his account of the ‘black’ fourteenth century that Jones is at his best, in his treatment of the highs of Edward III and the lows of Richard II, his grandson.  His handling of the reign of the latter, the first gentleman of England, is particularly good, hardly surprising in that he previously published a commendable account of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. 

Some might think – I did think – that his tale ends rather abruptly in 1399 with the deposition of Richard II. After all, in the Lancaster and York phases, the story of the Plantagenets continues down to the death of Richard III at Bosworth in 1485.  But I suppose this, a period that covers the final dramatic stages of the Hundred Years War and the ensuing Wars of the Roses, would be a mighty postscript in an already lengthy book.  It’s aimed at the popular market and the popular market might baulk at a work heading fast towards a thousand pages or more! 

The publishers have managed to stamp the book with the imprimatur of some impressive heavyweights, including David Starkey and Simon Sebag-Montefiore. These things always seem slightly over the top to me - clearly solicited in advance rather than drawn from a published review - , almost hysterical in their approbation.  The latter, for example, describes The Plantagenets as ‘outstanding’, a judgement echoed by Helen Castor, the best-selling author of She Wolves.  (It must be so: it says so on the cover!) 

It’s good, yes; it’s thrilling, yes; it’s a bit of a royal roller-coaster, yes.  But, really, is it ‘outstanding’?  Well, possibly, in some regards, but are we not suffering from a tendency to exaggeration and hyperbole here?  When every other new publication is described as ‘outstanding’ it tends to jade things somewhat.  Besides, does the book really need this kind of scaffolding?  I don’t think so, not when it serves its purpose, a sprightly filly galloping along nicely in a rattling good yarn.  

Sunday 20 May 2012

Polly of the Manor; a tale of Modern Labour

The Lady of the Socialist Manor

I’ve been catching up with Dominic Sandbrook’s three-part telly series on Britain in the mid1970s on iPlayer.  It’s a visual accompaniment to his recently published Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, which I acquired fairly recently, opened, skimmed but yet to read properly. 

I admire Sandbrook as a social historian; I have ever since I read State of Emergency-the Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974, which I reviewed here some time ago (A Tale Unfolds, 21 October, 2010).  He has a nice relaxed style, a wonderful attention to detail and a witty and perceptive way of looking at the issues of the day, be it political, artistic, sporting or cultural.  There was something he said in the final episode of his present series, something touching on the Labour Party, that immediately set a train of thought in motion, ending in an amusing – and frustrating - terminus.

Actually, it wasn’t really about the Labour Party at all; it was about Margaret Thatcher.  It was simply that she wasn’t such a great innovator but she had a unique quality in a politician – she had the ability to listen.  More than that she translated what she heard into policy. 

The big issue here concerns the sale of state-owned council housing, generally believed to be one of the great flag ship policies of the first Thatcher administration.  But this was nothing new; senior figures in the Labour Party had even flirted with such a move after it became evident, from doorstep canvassing, that it would be enormously popular with ordinary working-class voters, many of whom were anxious to join the property owning democracy. 

But it never went beyond an idea, because it was generally understood that such heresy would be blocked by the left, who believe in managed people and managed lives.  Thus it was, according to Sandbrook, that the ideological high priests of Labour effectively handed victory to Thatcher in 1979, pledged to set the people free from council serfdom.  Irony of ironies: Thatcherism was a new Peasants’ Revolt! 

I’ve just come up with the serfdom analogy as I was writing.  My original focus was on nineteenth century novels which touch on issues of class, specifically those which deal with forms of noblesse oblige.  I’m thinking specifically of the work of Jane Austen, where one of the chief pastimes of gentlewomen is to deliver baskets to the parish poor; mercy, charity and condescension all rolled up in one!

That’s it; that’s the modern Labour Party, condescending and patronising in its attitude to the ‘deserving’ poor.  The Islington socialite socialists are the contemporary version of the likes of Emma Wodehouse.  Here the awful Polly Toynbee must stand as an avatar, walking around the homes of the lower orders, wearing her bonnet of self-righteousness and carrying her basket of doles, a perfect fright of snobbish condescension.  

It’s all a huge joke, of course, though like all good jokes it carries a hard core of truth.  Quite frankly I think the Labour Party is a criminal conspiracy against the people of this country.  The last government did untold damage, what with its aggressive wars abroad and its profligacy at home.  We will be paying for its incompetence for generations to come.

But the people who will pay most are this movement’s ‘natural’ constituency, the working class serfs living in council ghettos.  Gordon Brown, the previous Prime Minister, preached to them about ‘British jobs for British workers’, a sound bite of stunning stupidity, even for that charmless Presbyterian ogre.  The truth is he headed a government, as did Blair before him, that guaranteed a bonanza for foreign workers at the expense of the native British.

 I could take my historical parallels still further. I see a new form of the late Roman Empire.  All the work is done by a class of foreign helots, while the plebs are kept alive by bread, circuses, pot noodles, daytime telly and Simon Cowell.  Oh, yes, and there is the occasional basket of cant from the Polly of the Manor.  Why people vote for the Labour Party, why the non-labouring poor vote for it when they are treated with such condescension and contempt, is utterly beyond my comprehension. 

Thursday 17 May 2012

A Frightful Fiend

Look at this picture. Can you guess who or what it is? No? Well I’ll tell you – it’s the new face of Greek democracy! His name is George Germenis, a black metal rocker, although he uses the stage name ‘Kaiadas’, after the chasm where Spartans threw deformed babies.

Germenis or Kaiadas – whose next album, incidentally, is called Long Live Death – was thrown into another chasm - the Greek parliament. He is there along with another twenty members of Golden Dawn, an extreme nationalist movement entering the assembly for the first time ever. It won seven percent of the poll in the election held a week last Sunday, that’s well over 400,000 votes. It’s a remarkable achievement considering that Golden Dawn was long in the murky twilight of Greek politics, securing less than one percent of the vote the last time round.

Kaiadas and Golden Dawn is a sign of the times, said the mayor of Salonika. They certainly are; a sign of the European times, a sign of Greek anger at the austerity programme imposed at the diktat of the European Union, a sign of the madness that has arisen from monetary union. It’s a consequence of the arrogance of the politicians and bureaucrats who govern the destiny of Europe, who believed that national electorates could be ignored and sidestepped with impunity.

Greece, sinking ever deeper into recession, wanted to make a gesture, and it has. In making the gesture, in retreating from the mainstream into the fringe, people were clear what they were voting against; it’s just that they seemed to have no clear idea what they were voting for. Since the election many have said that they were shocked over what they subsequently learned about Golden Dawn.

What have they learned? Why, that it’s racist, violently so, and reactionary, rejecting, in the words of its own manifesto, “the so-called Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.” It is also irredentist, rejecting Greece’s present borders. We are, in short, dealing with a Nazi-style party which has a Nazi-style logo, though it rejects the label, saying that they are inspired by the regime of Ioannis Metaxas. He was dictator of Greece on the threshold of the Second World War, himself inspired by – can you guess? – the Nazis. They had their Third Reich; he had his Third Hellenic Civilization. In time to come – who knows? -there may be a Fourth Hellenic Civilization.

Golden Dawn is led Nikolaos Michaloliakos, once jailed for the possession of explosives. In the best non-fascist style the party’s charter places him in total control. In the best non-fascist style the charter also authorises the straight armed Roman salute, or is that Greek salute? The leader, though, has eschewed such gestures when his people march into parliament. His people, incidentally, include one who was facing trial for allegedly allowing his car to be used for an assault on a left-wing university lecturer. I say ‘was’ because he will be facing trial no longer; he now enjoys parliamentary immunity.

The ascent of Golden Dawn should not be seen in isolation. The door was already held open, ironically, by the socialist Pasok party and New Democracy, the respectable face of Greek politics. In forcing through the austerity package insisted on by the European Central Bank and the IMF, they formed a less than respectable coalition with the Popular Orthodox Rally, another movement on the extremist fringe, closely allied with Golden Dawn. In other words, Greece’s political class, dancing to a tune played from Brussels, effectively made right-wing extremism a respectable choice.

"May God help us. I dread to think that they got in," said Maria Savelona, a 51-year-old widow, who claims not to have voted for the Golden boys. "People voted in anger, without thinking. When they realize what they did, they'll be afraid." They should be. It isn’t just Germenis, his heavy metal makeup, his knives and his fake blood. No; since the election people have been shown images of his party comrades smiling next to an Auschwitz crematorium.

Michaloliakos, in his first public appearance after the election, said that getting into parliament would not turn his "brave boys in black" into moderates. He warned those who "betrayed the motherland" to run scared, banging his clenched fist on the podium, a bodyguard on each side: "We are coming!" They certainly are.

Like one who, on a lonely road, Doth walk in fear and dread, And, having once turned round, walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Love Lost and Won – an American Destiny

Westward Ho!

There is one invariable symptom of a nation entering into senescence and decline: it begins to place a negative value on the past.  Things that were once noble and good are re-examined and reappraised in the light of contemporary concerns.  Old certainties vanish as history is reinterpreted through the perspective of minorities, outsiders and victims; the losers are now the winners and the winners cover themselves in shame for past wrongs.  

With the almost complete dominance of Marxist and liberal thought through much of western academia, the process has advanced rapidly since the end of the Second World War.  Who would dare write poetry in praise of the British Empire; who would now write in the style of Rudyard Kipling, now that we are one with Nineveh and Tyre?  Lest we forget; at last we forget.

I do have a case in mind, not from British history, not from the history of the British Empire, but from the history of America.  If one were to ask what is it that defines modern America I'm sure people would answer in various ways.  For some it would be the principles of freedom and rugged self-determination dating from the Revolutionary War; for others it would be the Civil War, a cathartic moment that established a new birth of freedom; for still others it might be a more recent birth of freedom, following the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.  

For me there is only one answer - Manifest Destiny, the history of the expansion into the West; the West itself, those plains, valleys and mountains where a new spirit was carved by courageous pioneers.  Here the old freedom was cast anew in determination, in suffering, in courage and in intrepid self-reliance.  One's destiny was in one's own hands.  There was no fallback. The price of failure was high; the price of success even higher.

But even here that process of guilt and re-evaluation has long been at work.  The history of the West began to be the history of the victims. For some those pioneers were no longer part of a great and noble enterprise but destroyers of an indigenous Eden. They came into the Red Garden; they made a desert and called it progress.

The expression of guilt took many forms, in printed and visual media.  In books we have Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a classic of re-evaluation, and 500 Nations.  In films we have Dances with Wolves.  In documentaries we have How the West was Lost and The Way West.  Stephen Aron, writing a paper for the American Historical Association, said that in scholarly circles, "the West as America" quickly became synonymous with a "new western history"; detractors claimed this history had rewritten the past as a course in "failure studies." They were quite right of course.  A new mythology was created of the noble savage and the rapacious white man. Just remember those troglodytes in uniforms at the end of Costner's epic myth-making.  

But there have been some who have made a valiant attempt to redress the balance.  I had occasion recently to recall the work of Ken Burns, the documentary film maker, whose visual history of the Civil War achieved viewing figures undreamed of for this kind of show.  He also made The West, a series in eight parts covering various aspects of a compelling story.  The task he set himself was straightforward: "For too long we celebrated a lily-white version of the West: sturdy pioneers fighting savage Native Americans," but of late "we have subscribed to a history in which the European contribution was entirely bankrupt and everything Native Americans did was perfect."

The West was broadcast here when I was in high school.  I loved it; I simply loved it. The whole thing was absolutely fascinating. How I identified with those pioneers and trail blazers, the men and women who opened up the West under the most trying conditions imaginable.  

What I loved most of all was Love!  It was touched on in episode eight, and became a leitmotiv for the whole series; it was the story of one John Love, a pioneer of Scottish descent, who, along with Ethel Waxham, his wife, established a ranch in a remote Wyoming valley. The drama of this couple’s lives was told, and movingly told, by actors reading from their correspondence.

It's heart-breaking and exhilarating at one and the same time.  They faced adversity hard upon adversity.  On one occasion a flood ruined all the improvements they had made on their Wyoming ranch.  With natural disaster came a human one, with the bank foreclosing on a loan that they had taken out to raise sheep.  Nothing daunted, John simply wrote in wry humour that it was a case of Love's labour lost, an allusion to Shakespeare’s play of the same name.  

But they rebuilt, time and time and time again, against all adversity.  Neither of them lost the taste for what Ethel called the "ranchiest of ranchy life."  It was a tale, their son later said, of all the "survivors" who stuck it out. It was a theme Burns picked up on, as Aron said in review, serving the Loves as a tribute to the grit of westerners, to the persevering spirit that allowed so many, if not to triumph over adversity, then at least to battle it to a stalemate.

That for me is the spirit of America. Life is struggle and the most important thing is to not necessarily to triumph but just to fight, fight and fight again. No state, no welfare, no handouts, just a spirit of marvellous and wonderful independence. John Love and Ethel Waxham stand for me as symbols of all that is noble in the American past, all that is noble in the frontier spirit, all that is noble in those pathfinders and trail blazers.  Their destiny was manifest; their destiny was their own.  It is an American destiny.  

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Laughing in the Face of Absurdity

Burn the Witch!

I hugely admire Nick Cohen, a journalist and author of fearless integrity.  He is one of those people almost impossible to classify politically.  On the face of it he belongs to the left, but that has not stopped him from voicing the most trenchant criticism of his fellow travellers.  His book What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way is a brilliant polemic, exposing the shallow opportunism, intellectual barrenness and moral vacuity of so much contemporary ‘progressive’ opinion.  He might be said to occupy the same position once held by George Orwell, for whom honesty came well before party loyalty.

A recent blog of his drew my attention to a scandalous episode of heresy hunting that might even have shocked the witch hunters of Salem.  It concerns the illiberalism of liberal academics in the States.  It concerns a hysterical onslaught against one Naomi Schafer Riley, an education correspondent for The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Rather she was a correspondent for this publication.  She was fired for daring to question an unquestionable orthodoxy. 

What was her offence?  She raised doubts over – horror of horrors – the academic rigour of black studies departments in US colleges.  She wrote a response to a laudatory piece previously published by the Chronicle.  Going to source, she examined a number of graduate dissertations, concluding that they were, to use her words, “purveyors of left-wing victimisation claptrap”.  Her punches were not spared:

Topping the list in terms of sheer political partisanship and liberal hackery is La TaSha B. Levy. According to the Chronicle, “Ms. Levy is interested in examining the long tradition of black Republicanism, especially the rightward ideological shift it took in the 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan. Ms. Levy’s dissertation argues that conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Clarence Thomas, John McWhorter, and others have ‘played one of the most-significant roles in the assault on the civil-rights legacy that benefited them.’” The assault on civil rights? Because they don’t favor affirmative action they are assaulting civil rights? Because they believe there are some fundamental problems in black culture that cannot be blamed on white people they are assaulting civil rights?’

All at once the thunder rolled – racist! racist!, racist!, burn the witch.  What price freedom of speech in the land of the free?  Very little, it would seem, when it challenges the shibboleths of the academic left.  They demanded a sacrifice.  The editor of the Chronicle tried to make it an issue of free debate.  But that was not enough.  Shamefully 6500 people, mostly academics, signed a petition demanding that Riley be sacked.  Shamefully the editor gave way to the pressure. 

Cohen’s observation is telling;

Now suppose that the US government said that universities should fire academics who excused the Iranian regime. Or right-wing Christians demanded that the Chronicle fire a writer who insulted teachers at theological colleges. Or universities had acted on Riley’s argument that black studies departments were a waste of space and closed them. Cries of ‘McCarthyism’ would rend the air. Earnest professors would remind us that academic tenure was an essential protection of free inquiry. 

But when the blood hounds start baying there is little room for reason.  The dog who barked loudest was one Stanley Fish, a law professor who writes for the New York Times.  His argument was, as Cohen says, both sinister and clownish.  He told American liberals that it was OK to abandon liberalism.  They must deny conservatives free speech and enforce censorship.  There is no shame here; no, for we are the righteous hypocrites; we demand free speech for ourselves while denying it to all those we disapprove of.    

In defending herself Riley pointed to the black American scholars who have been saying exactly the same thing about black studies department, namely that they reinforce stereotypes and encourage victimhood.  But that’s alright; they are black.  For her to make the same point is akin to a white person using the n word.  You see, by their double standards shall ye know them.

There are no limits to the sea of hypocrisy in which Fish swims.  Oh, but let me be fair: there is no dissimulation here; for he is an honest hypocrite, defending hypocrisy as hypocrisy.  In a recent Times piece he wrote that it was quite in order for liberals to condemn Rush Limburgh for making sexist remarks while excusing Bill Mahler for making equally sexist remarks.  The thing is, you see, the former is one of the good guys while the latter is “on the side of every nefarious force that threatens our democracy”.

One has to wonder about the nature of American democracy, the partial nature that would favour freedom for some and silence for others.  Yes, one does indeed wonder when one reads this piece of idiocy:

I know the objections to what I have said here. It amounts to an apology for identity politics. It elevates tribal obligations over the universal obligations we owe to each other as citizens. It licenses differential and discriminatory treatment on the basis of contested points of view. It substitutes for the rule “don’t do it to them if you don’t want it done to you” the rule “be sure to do it to them first and more effectively.” It implies finally that might makes right. I can live with that.

Such is the degeneracy of liberalism.  People like Fish want to cast democracy in their own image.  This is a pond where the little fishes can be untroubled by countervailing thoughts; where, if they disapprove of what you say they will fight to the death to prevent you saying it.  How Voltaire would have laughed.  That’s all one can do in the face of absurdity – laugh. 

Monday 14 May 2012

An Never Ending Story

Robert Caro, an American author, has not long published The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson.  It’s an exhaustive biography of the former president, but it’s also exhausting; for this is volume four and it’s not finished yet.  It may, in the end, take Caro longer to write the life than Johnson to live it.  For goodness sake, The Passage to Power just takes him over the threshold of the Whitehouse! 

I love biography, the more detailed the better but there seems to be a certain lack of authorial or editorial discipline here.  It’s now ten years since The Master of the Senate, the previous volume, was published and thirty since the project began.  According to an interview I read in Prospect, a political monthly, Caro “writes fast”; it’s the research that takes up the time.  He is to be commended for his thoroughness, but there are limits, even to the most meticulous research.  Is this, I ask myself, the real-life Book of Sand, a candidate for inclusion in Jorge Luis Borges Library of Babel

Writing in Prospect, Sam Tanenhaus says;

Caro is not prolific, but he is prodigious.  The books keep coming, heavy volumes, densely written and meticulously sourced.  The latest, at just over 700 pages, is of medium length for him.  It explores, or excavates, six years in Johnson’s life, 1958-1964 – covering his exit from the Senate, his miserable, deflating years as vice president, and his sudden elevation to the presidency, following the assassination of John F Kennedy.  During five of those years Johnson did, more or less, nothing.

What; does the author take 700 pages to tell us that his subject, more or less, did nothing?!  I’m beginning to feel a little guilty as I write.  I have no desire to talk down this work, a work that I have not read, a work that is unlikely ever to be surpassed, assuming its ever finished (my goodness, Vietnam, the Great Society, race, riots and rebellion are still to come!) but I simply could not resist passing comment on the observation about five years of, more or less, nothing! 

Even Tanenhaus, who clearly admires Caro for his industry, is aware of an inflationary tendency – “Had he written Waiting for Godot it would be longer than Wagner’s Ring, yet with its own idiosyncratic magnificence.”  Just imagine waiting for Godot for hour after hour after hour after hour.  There is only so much the human spirit can stand, even when there is idiosyncratic magnificence! 

Will I ever approach this monument?  Possibly not; there are too many other things to engage me and reading is for life, not life for reading.  Besides, I’m not sure I want to follow the Book of the Life of Johnson, at least in such detail, idiosyncratic magnificence or not.  There is a tragic quality to a man more controlled by events than controlling, a man who inherited a war and lost it; a man who launched massive welfare programmes which had a lasting and negative impact on American society.  But when it comes to tragedy I’m far more intrigued by Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon than Lyndon Johnson, the wheeler, dealer and failure from Texas.  

Sunday 13 May 2012

Old Soldiers Never Die

With voting in the presidential election scheduled to begin on 23 May, Egypt is descending ever deeper into anarchy and faction.  There have been violent clashes recently with protesters in Cairo and Alexandria, during which journalists were attacked by supporters of the military, one allegedly having his ear sliced off. 

Much has changed since the fall of Mubarak.  Hopes, once high, have fallen low.  The generals seem to be playing a close game, both inciting violence and denying any responsibility for the outcome.  They have no interest in who will emerge as president, they say, no desire to cling to power after 30 June, the day they have promised to step down.  Yes, of course they will. 

There is violence, yes, but there is also an element of comic absurdity.  Hazem Abu Ismail is as orthodox as they come.  With his long white beard he was the front runner for the fundamentalist Salafi sect.  His was a populist platform of religion and revolution.  Unfortunately for him he also had an Achilles’ heel – his mother is an American!  That is to say, she took American citizenship before she died, a fact he kept quiet about and then denied altogether.  Au contraire, Mon Frère; out you go, beard and all. 

It’s all a plot, you see, all part of an American scheme to discredit the poor man, so say the Salafists, because of his anti-Western agenda, though it would seem obvious that the ‘plot’, such as it is, originated far closer to home.  To air their disapproval the beards massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where they immediately clashed with Egypt’s dwindling band of liberals.  That’s one thing; clashing with the army quite another. 

The Muslim Brotherhood, the strongest force in the country’s parliament, was there too.  For long they declined to field a candidate for the presidency.  All at once the hive mind was changed.  Khairat al-Shater was put forward as their drone of choice.  All at once the electoral commission, whose edicts are not subject to judicial review, disqualified him.  Why?  Because he had been convicted in the bad old Mubarak days of being a member of a banned organisation that was no longer banned! 

There is a fallback here; there is Aboul Fotouh.  He’s well-known to the Brotherhood; he should be; he was long included in their ranks.  There is only one problem – he was expelled.  Why?  Because, contrary to the former party line, he decided to run for the presidency! 

Worried by its declining influence, the Brotherhood has now put forward Mohammed Morsy, something of a colourless nonentity.  The army, which favours nobody, either favours Amr Moussa, a former veteran of the Mubarak regime, or Ahmed Shafiq, the former commander of the air force and another Mubarak stalwart.  He has let it slip that the army, which favours nobody, actually favours him. 

The real power in the land is Field Marshall Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has governed Egypt since the fall of Mubarak.  Actually it governed Egypt long before that; it has effectively governed Egypt since the days of Nasser.  Whatever the outcome of the election nothing much is likely to change.  The state within a state will continue to govern the state.  Old soldiers never die.  In Egypt they don’t even fade away.