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Bitter Times… July 29, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Iraq, Israel, Middle East, Palestine.


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As we move into the third week of the Israeli-Hizbullah, or should that be Israeli-Lebanon conflict, for those who consider themselves sympathetic to Israel and to a viable two-state solution for Israel/Palestine it has to be admitted that the current events are massively disappointing. In fact the past six years or so have been massively disappointing. I’ve avoided posting about this up until now because to be honest there is a sort of tragic futility to the entire situation.

But a number of thoughts strike me about the events there. Firstly there is the issue of sovereignty. Then there is the issue of proportionality. Thirdly there is the issue of outcomes. Finally there is the issue of intervention.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Sovereignty, which in some respects is also synonymous with security. Israel asserts it’s right to maintain the integrity of it’s sovereignty from Hezbullah attack. That’s seems entirely reasonable. Lebanon, clearly has an equal sovereign right, although the argument appears to be that this is diluted because a) It is unable to impose it’s will upon Hezbullah militarily and b) it allows Hezbullah representatives to sit within government. That seems tricky. Bringing extenuating circumstances to the debate is always dubious, but one has to note that Lebanon has had a dismal history and due to the sectarian nature of the state (I mean that in a descriptive rather than a perjorative sense) there has been a necessity to establish power-sharing government. This is before we even get to the nature of Hizbullah which while it clearly operates as a terrorist group in some respects also has features of a standing army. So we have competing rights. The right of Israel to safeguard her territory, and the equal right of the Lebanon to safeguard her territory. Israel believes it’s right to self-defence trumps the Lebanese argument to self-defense which is to some degree questionable.

Proportionality, which develops from sovereignty. The trigger event for the crisis was the attack on an Israeli unit which left five soldiers dead and two kidnapped and taken, presumably, to the Lebanon. What was the most obvious response to such an outrage? Well, a number of scenarios suggest themselves. The targeting of Hezbullah units on the border. The targetting of Hezbullah camps elsewhere. These would be reasonably proportionate, in the sense that they would send a clear message and the weight of the response would be greater than the initial event. Instead we have seen a wildly disproportionate response where the IDF and IAF has attacked far beyond Hezbullah controlled areas and attacked Lebanese infrastructure, which has taken a remarkable degree of skill on the part of Israeli government and military spokespeople to paint as legitimate military targets. Again this feeds into the sense that the Israeli, and US, concept of proportionality is wildly different from that of most other nations. The attack on a UN position is simply inexplicable. Even were one to accept the, frankly self-serving statements from those spokespeople, even any sympathetic observer would question the wisdom of such a wildly unbalanced response and ponder the long-term result of it.

Which leads us to outcomes. Let’s start with the primary incident, the Hezbullah incursion. What was the desired outcome? Obviously to up the ante and/or use the soldiers as a bargaining chip. Perhaps to kick off a shooting war on a large scale. And what did Israel do, it started upping and it didn’t stop. Indeed it’s upping is now off the scale in general terms. The outcomes desired on the Israeli side? Well presumably the return of the two soldiers, yet it’s difficult to believe that the actions of the past two weeks could be anything other than counterproductive on that score. Which is where proportion comes in since arguably after a certain point the likelihood of the two soldiers remaining alive would be low. Although Hezbullah have held soldiers captive for lengthy periods of time. A further outcome would be the – natural – wish to inflict the greatest possible harm on Hizbullah during this period. That’s more achievable. Yet, as with Hamas, Hizbullah (possibly a more intransigient adversary) isn’t a Baader-Meinhof, or even Al-Quaida, groups which have no particularly strong organic linkage to the societies within which they operate and this is where the talk of this being a part of the global ‘war on terror’ break down. Hizbullah is an organisation which has strong organic roots in Lebanese society. But the nature of those roots, and the nature of Lebanese society are such that it is impossible to pull them out without effectively destroying the society. And the current destruction of the infrastructure is an incredibly dangerous, and to my mind essentially immoral, strategy. Again, I’m not saying that the initial event demanded no response. What I’m saying is that Israel had a duty to position that response in a logical and proportionate manner. And of course if we’re talking about Hizbullah we’re talking about Syria and Iran. Syria seems difficult to read. Much of the time it appears to want to be loved by the west, or at least noticed. Iran, by contrast, seems to want respect. Hizbullah as a proxy for the two, which it is and it isn’t insofar as it has it’s own agenda and dynamic, allows them to power project in a way they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Yet neither Syria nor Israel wish to engage in direct confrontation as an interesting report on KCRW’s excellent To the Point podcast 27/07/2006 available [here] indicates.

And so we arrive at intervention. Who would intervene? Why would they intervene? When would they intervene?

The answers are precious few, there are no good reasons (from the point of view of states being asked to), and they won’t for as long as they can afford not to. It pains me to say this, but as an example of the bankruptcy of current US foreign policy in the region and beyond this could hardly be more stark. The current government of the Lebanon was one of the few bright spots in the Middle East, and was in some respects sponsored by the US. The US is being asked by Israel to provide troops, but one wonders whether the Pentagon feels it necessary to place yet more soldiers in the line of fire of Islamists, particularly Islamists with short to medium range surface to surface rockets. The current noises from the US and the UK calling for an intervention force prior to a ceasefire strikes me as a bizarre message to send out to the world and Blairs role in this is worse again and entirely contradictory to his approach to other conflict resolution issues.

Let’s talk a little bit more about Israel. Many years ago I was in Israel and I was impressed by the place and the people(s). I was also very impressed by how small it is as a geographic entity. The concept of it being ‘pushed into the sea’ was not without foundation in the past. Even today one suspects that a strong enough conventional force might well do the job. On the other hand, and particularly since it acquired nuclear weapons it is difficult to see what circumstances would lead to such an outcome.

What disturbs me about Israel at the moment is the way in which it appears wedded to massive retaliations. Therefore operations aren’t simply organised to a specific military goal, but rather to have an exemplar effect. We’ve seen this in Gaza, we’ve seen it in the West Bank and now we’re seeing this in Lebanon.

And it doesn’t work. On the micro level the inability of technological armies to easily counter low level guerilla warfare, as demonstrated in Iraq, is being played out again in Southern Lebanon. There is an unhinged quality to this, in so far as it is clear no existential threat exists to the state of Israel – not in a world where even EU criticism of the current events is muted and US support is steadfast. But that’s the trap. US support is steadfast now because the US suffered 9/11 and therefore itself began to push back the boundaries of what was acceptable in international relations. This has given Israel an example it has been, unfortunately, all too willing to emulate. I don’t want to slide into anti-US rhetoric, I largely supported the overthrow of Saddam, but it’s difficult to see that as anything approaching a good in the current situation. The reports from Iraq are appalling, US prestige has taken a body-blow, their resources are woefully overstretched. The situation is near disastrous.

I think it is a dreadful error on the part of Israel to align itself too closely to the US either in word or deed. Bush will be gone within two years. it is difficult to see the US military remaining in any serious form in Iraq after that. Short of a further successful Al-Quada attack on the US it is unlikely that there will be an appetite for further adventurism on the part of the political elites in Washington. In the world which may exist in five, ten or twenty years the level of support Israel currently enjoys from Washington may be a thing of the past.

That’s why I think it’s vital that those who do care about the continued existence of Israel as an even nominally liberal and democratic state have a duty to express just why the current strategies employed by that state are appallingly counterproductive for it and for the security of the region. Inevitably, sooner or later Israel will have to come to terms with those around it and those closest to it. The events of the last two and half weeks have not brought that prospect any closer.

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Cradle Will Rock July 28, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Film and Television.
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Following in the tradition of extremely last minute recommendations, I’ve noticed that Tim Robbins’ film Cradle Will Rock is being shown tonight on RTE1 at 12.20am – all good pinkos take note (if you see it in time!).

This underrated and virtually unknown film (I remember it was shown at the Dublin Film Festival several years ago, but I don’t know if it ever received a general release here) is one of the few films of this scale to come out of the U.S. in the 1990s and actually engage with politics, or political ideas.

A huge, sprawling, Altman-esque mess of a film, it tells the story of the production of Marc Blitztein’s Brechtian musical ‘Cradle Will Rock’ in 1936.  The show was directed by Orson Welles and supported by the Works Programme Administration’s Federal Theatre Project (one of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ schemes introduced during the Depression) but was forced to close following ideologically-motivated cuts in the Project’s budget.

The play itself, however, forms only the core of the story, which juggles a number of different subplots dealing broadly with the relationship between art and politics, or political commitment, with appearances by various notable historical figures including William Randolph Hearst, Welles himself and his colleague John Houseman (of The Paper Chase fame), Nelson Rockefeller and Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.  Indeed, the film also tells the infamous story of Rockefeller’s commissioning and destruction of Rivera’s mural ‘Man at the Crossroads’ for his centre in Manhattan.

For a film so unknown, it contains a pretty illustrious cast – a virtual ‘Who’s Who’ of pinko lefty Hollywood – the kind of people who formed the butt of the jokes in Team America: World Police.  Among others, it features John and Joan Cusak, Susan Sarandon, Hank Azaria, Jamey Sheridan, John Turturro, Emily Watson and Vanessa Redgrave (if you can stomach her overplayed gurning), among others.

The outstanding performance of the entire film, however, comes from Bill Murray, playing a cynical anti-leftist ventriloquist reluctantly teaches his skills to a couple of incompetent apprentices as part of the Works Project.  It’s arguably in this film that he first showed his true versatility as an actor, coming as it did between his early Stripes/Ghostbusters films and his later triumphs in the likes of Rushmore or Lost in Translation.

The film is no masterpiece, it must be admitted.  It can be pretty heavy-handed in places, and descends into rather syrupy sentimentality at times.  But it’s worth watching for no other reason than to remind ourselves that unapologetic political films can be made on this kind of scale, and encompassing these kind of broad themes, and which aren’t about the Middle East, or the Bush administration or aren’t laden down with rather satirical irony.

And if, like me, you’re probably going to fall asleep before it comes on and aren’t sure about working the timer on the video recorder, it’s released on DVD next week.

Speaking of which, when are we going to see Reds on DVD?

Are you now, or have you ever played, the Dane? July 27, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Uncategorized.
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With the wall-to-wall coverage of the crisis in Lebanon, it would be easy to overlook this obscure little story about the US Army discharge of a sergeant under the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ rule.

The soldier, who goes by the bizarre name of Bleu Copas, was forced to leave after an eight-month investigation prompted by anonymous e-mails to his superiors alleging that he was gay and demanding that action be taken against him.

Leaving aside the absurdity of the anti-gay position of the military to begin with, an important fact to note in this particular case is that Copas was a specialist in Arabic, a skill which the US military and intelligence services are crying out for. And it’s not just Copas; according to the AP article, over 800 servicemen and women with what are termed ‘critical abilities’ have been dismissed under this rule in the last ten years or so, with a replacement cost of $369 million. The fact that someone’s sexuality can be considered so abhorrent that the effectiveness of the forces is less important than the need for their removal suggests, at best, a rather warped set of priorities.

The best bit of the article, though, is the description of the questions put to Copas to ascertain whether he was gay or not:

On December 2, investigators formally interviewed Copas and asked if he understood the military’s policy on homosexuals, if he had any close acquaintances who were gay, and if he was involved in community theater. He answered affirmatively.

“Community theater”? It’s nice to know that old stereotypes die hard, and that apparently Captain Over from Airplane now works for the US military. Perhaps the next question put was “Do you like films about Gladiators, Bleu”?

US and them…Stem Cell Research on both sides of the Atlantic and why we might be a little more similar than we think. July 25, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, European Politics, Frozen embryos, Irish Politics, Medical Issues, Uncategorized.

I’ve been reading in the Irish Times and the Guardian about the stem cell controversy [subscription required], and what is striking is how in the US the approach taken by Bush, where he has vetoed state funding for such research despite overwhelming Congressional support, is trumpeted as an example of the backwardness of his government, whereas to date there has been hardly a peep about the attitude of our colleagues in Europe. Until this week, that is.
Let’s consider the way the issue stacks up on this side of the Atlantic. The basic outlines of it are as follows. The EU also voted on a €50 billion science investment programme. So far so non-contentious. The problem being that as part of the programme there is explicit funding provided for embryonic stem-cell research. Generally this sort of research is limited in Europe as the IT notes ‘under strict conditions on surplus embryos created as part of the in-vitro fertilisation process’.

The Irish position, as articulated by Micheál Martin was that ‘ethical subsidiarity’ should be maintained, which means effectively that while such research would not be permitted here and no funding would go to it, it would be allowed and funded within European states which allow such research to be conducted. One aspect of government thinking according to the IT report is ‘that it is concerned that a protracted disagreement or the emergence of a group of states holding a blocking veto could result in the entire science investment package being stalled”. And the investment isn’t inconsiderable. Irish researchers received €200 million from the last investment package – they’re hoping for more this time.

So how does the rest of Europe see it? Well, the lines were fairly clearly drawn between two camps. On the pro-embryonic stem cell research side we had the UK, Scandinavia, Spain and Portugal. On the opposing side we had Germany, Poland, Austria and Malta (Slovenia defected to the other side). I find this latter camp very interesting. Germany has some of the most restrictive IVF laws in Europe, to the extent that German nationals (as quoted in the Sunday Business Post at the weekend [here]) are voting with their feet in order to avail of more liberal services abroad. Indeed it’s entire approach to such issues appears cautious in the extreme – yet it is a relatively liberal society. Nor is this some sort of Catholic/Protestant or more likely Catholic/non-Religious divide. Spain was, last time I looked, at least nominally Catholic.

Anyhow, to assuage German feeling, a fudge was done and the EU Commission stated that EU money won’t be used to fund any research that destroys human embryo’s Individual countries would retain their right to ban or permit such research according to their own preference, and it was decided that new “EU rules mean that this part of the process will have to be funded from outside the EU budget”. [here]

Germany gets a stronger restatement of already existing EU rules, but everyone is allowed to go their own way. Which curiously is not that different to the US position – although the financial slack will be made up from private, rather than national funding in the US.

The point being that there are within Europe, as within the US, genuine and significant differences of opinion. The Irish view, weirdly seems to me to almost ‘federalist’ in the US sense of the word, and none the worse for that. In a context where interstate travel is relatively easy I don’t think that it’s a bad idea for different European states to have different approaches to ethical issues as determined by their populations. Is that mealy-mouthed? Is Martin, and indeed myself, attempting to make a virtue of necessity? Perhaps, but we know to our cost how destructive protracted arguments about such issues can be. A plurality along the lines suggested in the terms ‘ethical subsidiarity’ is realistic.

I wonder, though on a different level, if any of this means anything or is it just gesture politics writ large. In the US although federal funds won’t be available, private funding is available. Those supporting such research include such luminaries as Nancy Reagan amongst others. When issues cut across parties in that way you can be certain that there will be further fudges so that everyone walks away with something.

Above and beyond that one doesn’t have to believe in the onset of some sort of genetic Singularity to see that biology is going to be a major area of change over the course of this century. What interests me is, that rather like fusion, the introduction of new techniques and processes in this field is taking much longer than was originally thought. That may well change.

In the long run…and after all, there’s always a long run, I imagine that such research within strict guidelines will become normalised. How do I feel about that? I honestly don’t know. The old arguments about maximisation of good seem to me to be fairly strong in this instance. I don’t personally buy into the idea that the embryo per se is necessarily the absolute defining point at which life starts. The body itself in it’s almost profligate shedding of embryo’s (six to eight out of every ten never implant under ‘natural’ conditions) seems to me to indicate that more is required if we are to have a meaningful definition. But that’s just me, and I’m open to alternative interpretations.

Even when it was the bears, I knew it was the Stoppers … July 23, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Middle East, Palestine.

It was almost too good to be true: Nick Cohen, writing in today’s Observer, with a straightforward column making a reasonable point (in this case pointing to the contrast between pro-interventionist sentiment in the Balkans in the 1990s and the current reluctance to intervene in the crisis in Lebanon) that wasn’t just another rehash of his ‘aren’t the anti-war left so terribly terrible’ fixation.

Oh dear – let’s not celebrate just yet. The old Nick Cohen hasn’t returned.  Apparently the hesitation of Blair and others about calling for intervention is, once again, all the fault of ‘the left’. Cohen writes:

Iraq has had a further consequence that I hear echoed in every discussion about war and genocide but find harder to pin down. George W Bush so enraged mainstream opinion that liberal-minded people trashed their principles and cut the ground from under their own feet. The legacy of their failure to support Iraqi democrats is a growth of conspiracy theory and a furious indifference to the suffering of others. Intervention in Lebanon, the Sudan or anywhere else would be ‘all about oil’, an ‘illegal’ war or a neoconservative plot. However just the cause or pressing the crisis, there are plenty who are primed now to shout that most solipsistic slogan of consumerist politics: ‘Not in my name.’

It’s odd, to say the least, that Blair is in such thrall to the ‘not in my name’ lobby now, when he didn’t seem all that concerned about them three years ago when a million people marched through London. It’s even stranger when one bears in mind he’s not even reacting to anti-war sentiment (I certainly haven’t heard a non-intervention argument coming from Cohen’s old enemies) – he’s apparently afraid of the potential ‘it’s all about oil’ slogans he might face.

Cohen, once again, is completely missing the point.  The reason there isn’t any appetite for military intervention in the Lebanon is exactly the same as the reason why Western powers used military force in the Balkans, Iraq and elsewhere: not because Nick Cohen wanted them to, or even because it was the right thing to do, but because it was in their interest, or perceived interests to do so.

Unfortunately Cohen is still rather slavishly following the Paul Berman line (his references to Bernard Kouchner and the Islamist ‘love of death’ are giveaways, lifted straight from Power and the Idealists and Terror and Liberalism respectively).  Berman, like Cohen, is loathe to examine to reasons why a military action might be carried out, if he supports that action in the first place.  At the risk of sad, self-promotion, I’ve made this point about Berman before, and won’t repeat myself.  Most simply, though, Berman and Cohen fail to distinguish between the benefits of a particular action and the motivations of the actors (to be fair, this is something many opponents of the invasion of Iraq, for example, also refuse to recognise).

It takes a particularly blinkered worldview to argued that the responsibility for the current inaction in Lebanon can be laid at the door of the ‘anti-war’ movement, yet fail to mention that the United States (one of the possible agents of intervention Cohen suggests) are actually opposed to a ceasefire and support the actions of Israel (at least for the moment).  Isn’t it possible that the stated policy of the US might, at least, have as much bearing on their position as their fear of being accused of imperialism?

It’s also unclear what kind of intervention Cohen is talking about.  At one point he cites the UN forces currently stationed in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor (reminding us that any states which involves its troops in a humanitarian expedition to Lebanon should be prepared to stay there for the long haul).  What he doesn’t point out, though, is that those UN troops are in place to maintain an already agreed settlement, not to impose such a settlement in the first place.  There’s no point even thinking about such a solution in Lebanon for the moment – the ceasefire and agreement would have to come first.

If, on the other hand, he’s talking about an immediate military intervention then perhaps the analogy with the Kosovo action (which he and Berman seem to see as a high point of ethical foreign policy) is a interesting one.  There, as in the current situation, a large military offensive was launched in the face of provocation from a smaller, guerrilla/’terrorist’ group in a neighbouring region, bringing about a massive humanitarian crisis.

The analogy shouldn’t be pushed too far.  Israel, for all its flaws, is not Serbia and the actions of the IDF in Lebanon are not comparable to the actions of the Serb military in Kosovo (although they shouldn’t be minimised with the ‘they don’t directly target civilians’ point).  What should be recalled is what military intervention in Kosovo actually involved.  Is Cohen suggesting that NATO or other Western forces target IDF troops and military installations? Or that British missiles should be launched at Tel Aviv until the IDF offensive is called off? Surely this would be the consequence of any policy which tried to impose a solution on an unwilling Israeli government?

Cohen seems to have painted himself into a corner.  He’s spent so long defending Western governments in military interventions he supports against sections of the Left he so clearly despises that he can’t seem to bring himself to criticise those governments when they are genuinely at fault.  Ironically, he’s fallen into the old fallacy of thinking that my enemy’s enemy is automatically my friend – which is just what he accuses the likes of RESPECT and the rest of the Stoppers of doing.

No greater joy in heaven than when a sinner repenteth… July 21, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Environmentalism, Greens, Libertarianism, Uncategorized.
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Reading the latest issue of Scientific American I was drawn to the monthly column by Michael Shermer [here] where he describes ‘how the evidence for anthropogenic global warming has converged to cause this environmental skeptic to make a cognitive flip’…

Now there’s a change of heart.

Shermer is a colourful character and always writes compelling material [wiki bio]. He is a former right-libertarian and Ayn Rand follower (and author of an entertaining ‘from the inside’ critique of Objectivism [here]), and almost incredibly, was a born-again Christian during his high-school and early college years.

What’s interesting, perhaps even important, about Shermer changing his mind, is not so much the way the evidence has convincingly stacked up over the past fifteen or twenty years in favour of human exacerbated global warming, but that he, a skeptical rationalist has come so late to the party, and the reasons for his change of heart. Indeed it dovetails nicely with the points smiffy raises about relativism in Cultural Suicide – not always painless.
He notes that in 2001 he organised a debate with Bjorn Lomborg, of the Skeptical Environmentalist fame, and talking to environmentalist organisations was told none wished to participate. He went ahead with the debate and clearly remained within the Lomberg camp.

Yet what is most pertinent is the way in which stereotypical views of environmental activism prevented the data from trumping the politics, as it were, for Shermer for so long. He cites ‘activists who vandalise Hummer dealerships and destroy logging equipment’. And fair enough, I’ll always buy into a proper state led strategy to tackle environmental damage head-on over often futile gestural activism. But even so, there’s something disproportionate about citing such petty instances in the overall context of the problem of global warming.

In any case, by 2001 pretty much the entire scientific world was convinced of the data. And while it is good that a sceptic would remain sceptical of everything, there is a certain perversity to aligning with views which the best contemporaneous science had fairly comprehensively demolished. Even Lomborg, acknowledges that climate change exists to some degree, but posits that it’s only one of an array of problems and that there are better ways of spending our money, which is a clever way to intellectually evade the issue.

But, in fairness, prejudice is a thin wall to construct in the face of climatology and as Shermer notes, ‘nevertheless, data trump politics’. The intervention of the Evangelical Climate Initiative (backed by 86 leading US evangelicals) calling for carbon emission reductions, was one event that caught his attention. But it was the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference in Monterey where he saw Al Gores ‘[deliver] the finest summation of the evidence for global warming I have ever heard’. The before and after photographs of shrinking glaciers also managed to help him on his damascene conversion.

Shermer isn’t hugely confident about the future. He notes that global temperatures are likely, even in the event of reduced emission, to rise by up to 9 degrees by 2100 – a scenario that could result in the demise of the Greenland ice sheet and the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet. Now if that happens we’re in for a really rough ride and perhaps the Dáil Commission will be proven correct [here], because likely sea level rises would be up to 10 metres.

As he says, ‘Because of the complexity of the problem, environmental skepticism was once tenable. No longer, it is time to flip from skepticism to activism’.

For all his quirks, or perhaps because of them, Shermer is an interesting and thoughtful correspondant placed well within the scientific camp. His former scepticism may well be of use in pursuading those who can make policy of the necessity to do so. It will be interesting to see what he proposes by way of such activism.

ESR still at it July 19, 2006

Posted by joemomma in Iraq, Middle East.

smiffy’s latest post reminded me of a classic “Suicide of the West” rant by Eric S. Raymond, who is best known for inspiring the open source software movement with his essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar. In “Suicidalism“, Raymond argues that not only is there a decadent strand of defeatism running through western society, but that this strand was in fact deliberately put there by the KGB during the Cold War. I don’t have much to add to my previous discussion of that post on politics.ie, but I did revisit ESR’s site today to see where he’s at at present.

Delightfully, his latest post is based around a quote from Caligula, “Let them hate, so long as they fear“. He has seized on the fact that a Palestinian group released a hostage when they discovered him to be American as proof that such people are now reluctant to mess with the US lest they end up like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

…having even bush-league terrorists fear harming Americans is a good start, and as neat a vindication of George Bush’s foreign policy and the war in Iraq as anyone could ask for. The war is not, after all, breeding terrorists; it’s killing the leaders and frightening the small fry into letting go their victims.

It’s a bit of flimsy vindication at best, but sadly for ESR, it turns out that the reason this particular hostage was released is that the hostage-takers were looking for an Israeli hostage to swap for Palestinian prisoners. As the gunmen were from the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade associated with Fatah, they are not particularly motivated to seek a confrontation with the US, on whose support they will certainly rely in the future. If anything, the episode demonstrates that those groups with whom you have an open dialogue are less likely to target your citizens than those you are simply bombing from a great height.

It feels a little unworthy to engage with a crazy like ESR, as I’m not aware of anyone who takes him seriously in this context. However I find his output compelling in a train crash sort of way. Also, I will use any excuse to quote the below comment from somebody called Adrian which was appended to his “Suicidalism” post. The quote from ESR in italics is supposed to be characteristic of the decadent western intelligentsia:

There are no objective standards by which we may judge one culture to be better than another. Anyone who claims that there are such standards is an evil oppressor.

There’s an oversimplification. Western culture (which you will doubtless wish to separate into decaying European and vital American branches so you can continue to relish the thought of France being laid waste by rioting groups of unemployed Algerians) is unquestionably more comfortable than the Afghan alternative – but excessive comfort *has* been known to breed decadence in one or two empires in the past which might have lessons for the attentive today.

One standard which could be used to judge cultures is whether they’re sustainable, and there are a few people around who suspect that Western culture isn’t, simply on the grounds of the energy it uses. Now I know you’re going to say that that’s pessimistic and defeatist, and if we’d just become cheerleaders for funky stuff like pebble bed reactors and solar power satellites and abiotic oil and accept that The Market Will Provide Everything If Only You Just Believe then there will be plenty of energy for the whole Third World to consume at First World standards and we can keep expanding our GNP until we’ve eaten the local group of galaxies and anyone who disagrees with you is stupid and precognitive and duped by Stalinists and lower than vole scrota and ought to be shot for objectively supporting our enemies etc. etc. etc. But really – the Caliphate is a hopeless fantasy of dreaming nutbars, unless you want to delineate how it comes about as I suggested earlier. Your heavily-armed ass is safe from shar’ia no matter how many latte-sipping quiche eaters in your suburb think Osama may have had a point about something or other. Whether it’s safe from Peak Oil is another matter, though hopefully that will turn out to be a fantasy as well, eh?

OTOH, everyone needs a hobby.

Lovely stuff, I hope you’ll agree.

Cultural Suicide – not always painless July 18, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Books, The Left.

There are few pleasures in life as cruelly enjoyable as reading a truly vicious book review. Not the kind of formulaic contrarianism of someone like Dale Peck, or the semi-regular Eileen Battersby attack on Salman Rushdie (or whoever this year’s ‘New Salman Rushdie’ happens to be). No, the best ones are those where you genuinely get the impression that the critic was actually angered by what he had to read, and went to the typewriter as much for revenge as for whatever the rate-per-word is.

Fans of this kind of bloodsport should look up Terry Eagleton’s review of Suicide of the West, by Richard Koch and former New Labour Arts Minister Chris Smith. Eagleton seems to have disliked this book, rather a lot, and it makes for a pretty entertaining read.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read Suicide of the West and so cannot judge whether it is, in Eagleton’s words an ‘odiously superior little book’, whether passages in it are ‘morally grubby’ and if Koch and Smith are, in fact, ‘men with a penchant for cracker-barrel philosophizing and hastily packaged two-paragraph caricatures of complex history’.

It’s all good fun, of course, but if Eagleton’s review and others like it are anything to go by, this book seems to be presenting an increasingly common but somewhat disturbing (not to say actually dishonest) argument – that the values of ‘the West’ are being undermined by the insidious forces of ‘multiculturalism’ (an ideology far more denounced than defined), cultural relativism and a kind of moral nihilism which argues that there are no absolute values and that, therefore, we can’t make moral judgements about anyone else. Oh, and let’s not forget the old bugbear of ‘Political Correctness’ (most frequently found in its ‘GONE MAD’ form).

And that this is, very much, a BAD THING.

The approach isn’t new; it’s been around for thirty-odd years or ever since people in some university departments started considering the possibility that perhaps not everything of value was the product of the efforts of rich, white men and, indeed, that maybe the legacy of the infamously titled Dead White European Males, isn’t an unreservedly positive one. The conservative response to this broadening the field of academic enquiry to encompass the concerns and experiences of some minority groups and to question the framework of academic debate was predictably hysterical, decrying the changes as decadent nihilism and the end of civilization as we (or, at least, they) know it. From the tone of the attack one might be forgiven for thinking that looking at the issue of imperialism in ‘The Tempest’ or taking Toni Morrison as seriously as Henry James was the first step on the inevitable road to a society which endorses eating babies and having sex with dogs (or vice versa).

What is new, however, is the way we can see arguments of this type increasingly being made from a leftist perspective and particularly by those who assert the need to preserve ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Western values’ as this was self-evident, without looking critically at their initial premises.

This kind of argument (or non-argument) has become fairly common currency among a certain breed of self-proclaimed ‘muscular liberal’ of the Harry’s Place/Christopher Hitchens-fan school (and don’t get me wrong – I pop in to it on occasion) – the kind of person who shakes their head sadly at how ‘the Left’ has been taken over by cultural relativism with all the bitterness of a jilted ex-lover.

There are a number of problems with this approach. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it sets up a completely false premise. It simply isn’t the case that ‘Sceptics about science and truth, anti-realists, postmodernists, gender and identity epistemologists and enemies of the Enlightenment project’ (to quote Benson and Stangoom’s interesting but ultimately rather confused Why Truth Matters) represent a threat to anyone or anything or have any real influence outside academia.

Apart from poor, old Madeline Bunting, I’ve never come across anyone that you can’t condemn any action if it’s part of the cultural practice of another group of people. I’ve certainly never seen anyone try to condone female genital mutilation or honour killings from a multiculturalist/left-wing perspective, although some would have you believe that the ‘PC elite’ consider any criticism of these practices to be inherently racist. I must say, for an elite they don’t seem to be particularly influential.

In fact, the only people who do seem to condone these actions are those who actually carry them out, and they don’t tend to come from a postmodernist philosophical background.

[An interesting little aside about the Benson/Stangoom book is that at one point, towards the end, they criticise writer Judith Butler for suggesting that, at the time of his death, Jacques Derrida may have been ‘the most internationally renowned European intellectual’ and claiming that this is ‘a slightly pathetic reflection of the parochialism of Theory’. Butler’s claim doesn’t seem all that outlandish to me, although I wouldn’t like to have to stand over it. Benson/Stangoom, however, fail to answer the blindingly obvious question they raise which is ‘If not Derrida, then who’, reminding me of the episode of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ where Alan Partridge, having scoffed at the claim that Derrida was the most famous living philosopher, suggested an alternative – Peter Ustinov.]

What I have seen, and broadly agree with, is the argument that you shouldn’t condemn or make judgments about entire cultures as a ‘culture’ is something far too broad and nebulous to make it even possible to have a narrow good/bad view of. In particular, it’s very tempting when comparing cultures to be rather selective about which bits you choose to be representative. While someone could argue that ‘Western culture’ equals ‘Freedom of Speech’ and ‘Islamic culture’ equals ‘repression of women’, one might equally replace the terms used with ‘atomisation of society’ and ‘altruism and enthusiasm for charitable giving’. And they’d still both be wrong.

Secondly, the ‘pro-Enlightenment’ argument is far too free and easy with the use of the term ‘relativism’. Relativism is not the same thing as drawing a moral equivalence or moral comparison between two or more actions, as some would suggest. To raise the issue of US foreign policy after 9/11 isn’t relativism; neither is talking about the invasion of Iraq as a contributing factor to the London bombings last year. Indeed, most critics of the invasion would base their opposition on fundamental moral grounds – they don’t believe the invasion was right, they don’t think you should bomb civilians, you shouldn’t support anything the United States does full stop. Now these arguments may be valid or not. In the case of some, like George Galloway, they may be utterly hypocritical, but they’re based on a belief that you can make moral judgements, rather than being Lyotardian expressions of the death of the Grand Narrative.

Finally, it’s far too lazy to simply assert that we must defend ‘Enlightenment values’ without looking at what those values are. Freedom of speech and protection human rights are valuable, from a leftist perspective, because they’re fundamentally important tools in allowing everyone to reach their full potential and live enjoyable, satisfied lives, not because they were dreamed up by some French or Scottish thinkers in the Eighteenth Century, or because they’re part of the cultural legacy of ‘the West’.

Eagleton puts it very well in his review:

Koch and Smith are bigoted and obtuse to believe that other civilisations have not produced values quite as precious as ours; but they are right that western culture has bred ideals of immense richness. The left, on the whole, has not denied the fact. It has not challenged the ideals of freedom, self-determination, justice, equality and the like with some fancy set of values of its own. Instead, it has posed one one resounding, persistent, faux-naive question: how come these ideals so rarely work in practice? By what systematic mechanisms does freedom for some come to mean oppression for others? Why does formal equality tend to end up as actual inequality? Is this because in human affairs the shadow always falls between idea and execution, or for rather more tangible reasons peculiar to the system under which we live?

It is not, then, the political left that has subverted these visionary notions. The devastating irony is that it is the very system the authors celebrate that does so. It was capitalist secularisation that helped to see off religious faith, just as it was imperialist world war that dealt a death blow to optimism. The finest values of liberalism and individualism are constantly under threat from the faceless, corporate, exploitative form of life to which they give birth. Koch and Smith, who praise individualism on one page but mourn the decline of community on another, simply fail to grasp this logic.

This is something those who believe that the most important part of Liberty is ‘the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear’, rather than the ability to listen to something you mightn’t have heard before, would do well to remember.

What do they know that we don’t? July 17, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Ireland, Irish Politics, Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

For those of us with a gloomy turn of mind the latest minutes of the Commission of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) give a certain pause for thought (If your browser doesn’t open PDFs automatically perhaps best not to click here).

After the usual house-keeping minutia they take a somewhat unexpected turn of direction. Note item 4:

4. Emergency Accommodation Plan for Sittings of the Houses of the Oireachtas
The Commission had before it a report [6-2-06] recommending Dublin Castle as the preferred location for the recovery of accommodation and services of the Houses in the event of one or more of the plenary and Committee Chambers becoming unavailable, due to fire, flooding, severe weather damage or any other reason.
The Commission approved the recommendation.

Now, I live in an area of Dublin subject to at least one of the above so perhaps I’m more than usually sensitive to such things, but for any of us who have driven or cycled up Kildare Street past the Dáil it’s evident that it’s built on a rising incline (or side of a hill if one prefers).

So I’m wondering just what sort of report the Commission received and what sort of conditions it expects from ‘severe weather damage’ to ‘any other reason’.

Global warming? The melting of the icecaps? Superstorms? Cometary impacts?

Still, beyond the comic or ironic potential of this subject, it’s interesting that such contingencies are being seriously planned for. Is it sufficient? One doesn’t have to think too long to conjure up any number of difficult scenarios that might effectively knock out the ability of government to administer on this island temporarily or permanently. From biological and radiological threats to earthquake generated tsunami we are vulnerable to a broad range of technological and natural catastrophic events. In terms of probability some are unlikely, others are likely and others are…overdue. Of course for many at the more disturbing end of the scale should they happen they would apply on a global basis, I’m thinking in particular of large scale impacts by meteors, but others could be quite localised, say for example an earthquake generated tsunami on the east or west coasts. For a bigger version of same consider for a moment the potential of the volcano in the Canaries which some say if it blows we can expect a mega-tsunami racing up and across the Atlantic, although not everyone buys into that…[catastrophe postponed]

In the past we didn’t have the knowledge of our vulnerability, nor the resources to do very much about it – and on the latter point to some degree we still don’t. Large scale catastrophic events tend to require a sort of triage where small groups are protected and – as with the iodine tablets issued some years ago – the majority must take their chances. So on one level it’s heartening that the Commission is taking this issue seriously, and on another it points up just how little can be done.

But I’d still like to know what the Commission has heard that we haven’t…

Sport – we don’t do sport round here – most of the time anyway… July 16, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Ireland, Sport, Uncategorized.

We’re not that sporty around the Cedar Lounge Revolution, as some of you may have gathered – well most of us, although mbari is I understand something of a soccer fan. smiffy has already written eloquently about the World Cup, I watched the final, but not a whole lot else the matches being on various televisions in the background where I was…

However, I had the pleasure of being at Croke Park today to watch the Dublin Offaly game in the Leinster SFC. A superb game with Dublin convincingly annihilating Offaly 1-15 to 0-09.

A leaden first half performance by Dublin (yep, I’m slightly partisan) was succeeded by a sparkling, even, – dare I say – mercurial second half with Dublin actually scoring an almost perfect goal. in fact for the first half I actually thought Offaly had the edge. For those of you interested in the details they’re [here].
The crowd invasion of the pitch from Hill 16 at the end actually occurred three or four minutes before the final whistle… leading to the brilliant PA announcement “Gardai and Stewards, Plan B, Plan B…”. Hmmm, a little late perhaps.

Whisper it quietly but after three or four years where Dublin has clearly failed to deliver this year is the first where I’ve thought they might have a convincing shot at the All-Ireland. And the portents are reasonably good, the last team to win the Leinster was Dublin eleven years ago. Who also went on to win the All-Ireland…

I’m waiting and seeing…

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