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Interview about the Irish Left Review at Indymedia… March 26, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Pressure of work means I can only refer to this briefly, but there is a good interview at Indymedia about the Irish Left Review conducted by Chekov with the editor of the ILR, Donagh Brennan (also of Dublin Opinion). As you may know there is a contribution from the Cedar Lounge on the ILR which is only recently established.

I think the ILR is a great opportunity to build up a discussion in a perhaps more considered way than general blogging about what it means to be on the Irish Left. This latest iteration of it has an interesting essay by Michael Taft on strategies for the Left coming up to the Local Elections, previously there has been what I’d consider an important article by Alex Klemm on how the left must engage with immigrants during this period too (and interestingly I know for a fact that Fianna Fáil are already producing Polish language electoral leaflets). Stephanie discussed women and their representation and participation in the Irish political system. Conor McCabe wasn’t afraid to talk about class (something far too many people on the social democratic and democratic socialist left appear to be unwilling to do). You get a cinema column written by Seanachie (from France – somewhere cinema still means something) and I even had a piece… So it’s all good.

But Donagh (accompanied by a photograph from the Sunday Tribune – lucky man) made a number of points in the interview that really resonate.

He noted that he started blogging:

…mainly to stop fuming quietly while reading stuff online and to order my thoughts and give them some focus. I also started up a group blog and although it was only mainly me at the beginning, the aim was to have a place where me and some of my mates could sharpen our ideas, and do so in a more elegant and sartorial style than we were capable of down the pub. One friend I hoped to rope in is living in France and a blog seemed like the perfect way to get us all doing something together again.

This sense of powerlessness and the necessity to analyse in a critical fashion is central to these projects. If I recall correctly it was Neil Postman who in Amusing Ourselves to Death (still a good read today although it’s a tad dated being first printed in 1985) suggested that one of the reasons that the middle classes (and for that read a much broader spread than that definition suggests) are such voracious consumers of news media is because although they only rarely have direct links into the process of government or politics believe that by being aware of current events, political and otherwise, it gives them psychological comfort and a sense of control -which is, he points out, entirely illusory. Well, perhaps we’re all part of that shared delusion too, but I think that true or not, one of the defining aspects of this short period of blogging has been the way in which while allowing preposterous claims to be made it has also acted as a means of finessing opinions and beliefs. If nothing else that is of value.

And what is a useful process on the individual level is clearly essential on the level of political formations and structures, particularly those on the left in a context where consumerism, commercialism and individualism of one stripe or another dominate our public discourse.
This is even more true in a society where the left has never, not once, been the leading component in any government. And that means that the left has to work together… a tall order but one worth pursuing. Or as Donagh says:

 The consensual point of view was that Left wing parties (basically Labour, Sinn Fein and the Greens, being the largest Left wing or ‘progressive’ parliamentary parties) should act together and work towards a situation where they are no longer the poor relations of Irish politics, expected only to be the support act in a right-wing lead coalition. The suggestion being that they can work together to become a significant political block in their own right.

That’s something that chimes not merely with the broad approach of the Cedar Lounge but other blogs as well. So the logic, a collective logic, is to work together.

Still, one point that I hadn’t considered was the idea that there are really very very few left wing blogs in Ireland (north and south). That, though, is something for another day’s consideration.

Libertas: the plot thickens. March 25, 2008

Posted by smiffy in European Union, Fine Gael, Lisbon Treaty.
42 comments

If you ever find yourself described by Dick Roche as having plumbed “a new low” in Irish politics, you might afford yourself a wry smile and a roll of your eyes at the irony.  If you find yourself described as such by Dick Roche, and he’s right, then it’s probably time to reconsider what you’re doing with your life.

Today’s story about Libertas’ proposed billboard campaign is, frankly, bizarre.  While to date the organisation has appeared to be little more than a suspicious vehicle for a rather ardent self-promoter with a few quid in his back pocket, this latest development represents their descent into the completely incomprehensible.

Let’s leave aside the hypocrisy of a group which, less than three weeks ago, issues a press release stating:

Libertas will do whatever it takes to defeat this treaty, but we will never lie about its contents, and we will never say that our opponents are a reason not to vote for it.

(hat-tip to ibis on politics.ie for drawing attention to this), and then launches a campaign which has absolutely nothing to do with the contents of the Treaty and is based entirely on who its opponents are. 

Let’s even leave aside the irony that barely two weeks ago, Libertas announced its ‘facts, not politics’.  Let’s assume – crazy assumption though it may be – that Libertas is an entirely unprincipled organisation that will say or do anything in order to try and sway the electorate towards a ‘No’ vote and doesn’t care that it displays a complete lack of integrity in doing so.  Does this campaign even make sense?

One might understand the reasoning behind the “Don’t vote for Mandelson’s Europe” campaign to be run in rural areas (Mandelson being less than flavour of the month with the IFA these days).   Obviously, it’s got nothing to do with the Treaty but we’ve learned that we shouldn’t expect miracles (or relevance) from Libertas.

One can even see why they would use the Ahern/Kenny “Don’t let them sell you a bad deal” poster.  Again totally irrelevant, has nothing to do with the Treaty and is almost beautiful in the purity of its mindless negativity.  However, it does appeal to a certain moronic mentality which somehow feels that the upcoming referendum is a valuable opportunity to register its disapproval with the current government.

What seems utterly bizarre is the Lucinda Creighton campaign that they’re proposing to run in Dublin South-East.

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Now, we know that quote used in the poster dates from 2003, when Creighton wasn’t a T.D., wasn’t even a city councillor and was nothing more than a rather unpleasant member of Young Fine Gael notable for an insatiable ambition and an ego the size of, well, Declan Ganley’s.  It’s obviously somewhat disingenuous for Libertas to exhume the reference, but its lack of respect for context, facts and basic truth has already been established.

A few points strike one about this poster.  Firstly, it’s creditably well known that Creighton enjoys a reasonable level of support in Dublin South-East (the only constituency this poster is being run in).  Next, that constituency is one of the more consistently pro-EU in the country (although that support may not be evenly distributed between the various wards).  Now, it’s probably reasonable to assume that those who supported Lucinda Creighton in the general election are strongly pro-EU and are unlikely to be tempted to vote No on the basis of this poster.  Similarly, those who have a strong aversion to Lucinda Creighton as a politician (and I’d count myself among them) are likely to be those inclined towards a No vote in any event, making this poster entirely superfluous.

So what exactly is Libertas trying to achieve with this?  Despite the relentless self-publicity, Creighton is still a relatively minor figure in the Irish political firmament.  Does Libertas genuinely believe that pointing to the fact that she claims (or claimed) to support a European army (and, of course, we don’t know from the poster what kind of army she was referring to) is going to have their opinion of the Treaty formed on this basis.  Those who know Creighton would hardly be surprised by the statement, and those who don’t know her will likely just shrug theirshoulder in incomprehension.

Indeed, from Creighton’s point of view, this personalised campaign must be seen as something of a boon.  It massively increases her profile and is hardly likely to lose her votes among those anyway likely to support her in the first place.  It’s almost as if Libertas were going out of their way to help her.  A conspiracy theorist might point to the fact that the Libertas spokesperson quoted in the Irish Times article, John McGuirk, is or was quite prominent in Young Fine Gael and, according to his Young Blood profile in the Phoenix last year, worked on Creighton’s campaign in the 2007 general election.  Is the poster intended to give her a sly boost in the constituency or, alternatively, has success caused her to distance herself from her erstwhile ally, like Prince Hal disowning Falstaff, and is the campaign being driven by some personal animus.

This kind of speculation, while enjoyable to a point, is actually a side-issue to the most objectionable aspect of the Libertas strategy: its utter contempt for the Irish electorate.  Libertas complains that the voters aren’t being provided with information on the Treaty, then runs a campaign like this.  The implication is that people aren’t capable of an informed debate about the content of the Treaty, although the truth is that the real incapacity lies with Libertas.  It’s also a style of campaigning which panders to the lowest common denominator, and is similar in that sense to the infamous “Hello divorce, bye bye Daddy” poster in the divorce referendum.

If Republican Sinn Féin can be described as a cargo cult version of republican politics, Libertas seems to be the cargo cult version of Fine Gael.  While Fine Gael’s 2007 poster campaign smacked of the result of a few young bulls on Mount Street who’d watched a little too much West Wing, it at least had a purpose in its ultimate goal of maximising the party’s support in the electorate.  The sheer incoherence, contradiction and ignorance of the Libertas output, however, reminds one of the Fine Gael campaign, but without the electoral ambitions.  It’s a mess of half-thought out slogans and empty posturing but seemingly devoid of any ultimate purpose other than publicity for publicity’s sake.

What Ganley’s real motivation for presiding over this Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is remains an open question; no doubt it’s one we’ll return to before June.

The Left Archive: Brendan Corish and “The New Republic” from the Irish Labour Party, 1968 March 25, 2008

Posted by guestposter in Irish Left Online Document Archive.
55 comments

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A guest post by Michael Taft from Notes on the Front about a key moment in Labour Party history dating from 1968 (a party that we have had remarkably little material on the Left Archive – however I’m glad to say that there has been an infusion of LP related leaflets and newspapers, you’ll see them soon). A small point on design. Note that the blue Starry Plough flag is safely embedded within a green field.


When Brendan Corish, TD stepped up to the podium on that Saturday evening in October, he probably didn’t think that, for many, he would be inaugurating a brief ‘golden age’ – a period where Labour dared to believe it could become a major political force. But he also knew it would be no ordinary speech. For he was going to launch Labour on a new project – the New Republic – a project controversial both in the party and in the wider society. Its success and failure still have the ability to instruct us today.

When Mr. Corish became leader at the relatively young age of 41, there was nothing to suggest he was a radical. He certainly was well-regarded in the party, highly experienced (a Government minister, party whip and parliamentary secretary), and if some of his early comments on social issues seem conservative to our modern ears, that was the mainstream discourse.

But anyone who took over as leader of the Labour Party in the aftermath of the disastrous 1954-57 coalition knew they had to do something different. Since rejoining Fine Gael in Government was simply not on offer, Corish looked to modernising and revitalising the Party – in both its organisation and policies. Throughout his early years the Party experienced a kind of slow burn – developing into a more modern-looking, modern-acting, mainstream European socialist party.

After the 1965 general election, there was no disputing Mr. Corish’s success. Between 1957 and 1965, Labour’s vote increased from 9.1% to 15.4% – a two-thirds jump. More dramatically, Labour nearly doubled their Dail representation – from 12 to 22 seats. Hard to argue with that – and no one did, not openly anyway, whether they were from the Left or Right of the party, the urban or rural wings, the trade unionists or the new professional membership.

It was from this platform that Corish moved to provide Labour with a new narrative – an encapsulation of what the Labour party was, a new definition, a set of principles upon which its policy and strategy could be grounded. The scene was set for the 1967 conference. And when Corish rose to give his Party Leader’s address he was to make the finest speech any Labour leader had ever delivered. But it was so much than just another Leader’s address. Indeed, it hard to disagree with Niamh Purseil’s observation:

‘To describe this as a “speech” would be a misnomer: it was really a sermon.’

Corish started with an electrifying declaration:

‘The seventies will be socialist. At the next general election Labour must . . . make a major breakthrough in seats and votes. It must demonstrate convincingly that it has the capacity to become the Government of this country. Our present position is a mere transition phase on the road to securing the support of the majority of our people. At the next general election (we) must face the electorate with a clear-cut alternative to the conservatism of the past and present; and emerge . . . . as the Party which will shape the seventies. What I offer now is the outline of a new society, a New Republic.

Let’s step back and admire the audacity of those opening lines. Here is confidence on a scale unmatched by anything before. No incrementalism, no half-party, no minority role; rather, an overwhelming ambition for power, pure and simple – to win a majority, to become the government, to shape the next decade, to redefine society. And just in case delegates were late getting into their seats and missed the opening lines, Corish went on:

‘Our party must prove to the public that it is in no way involved in supporting the status quo. It must stand aside from the other two parties, which compete only to see who will get the chance to keep things as they are. It must give a socialist alternative. . . Only then can our people decide, only then can the electorate make up its mind for the first time. Even if it rejects our proposals, at least a genuine choice will have been made. It can never be said that all the parties were alike and it made no difference whom one voted for.’

No obfuscation, no mixing of ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ and ‘tactics’ into an insipid cocktail, no caveats; it is, as Ms. Purseil states, a sermon, with all the absolute conviction that comes from believing in a promised land, even when that journey will entail setback and defeat along the way.

Corish’s definition of socialism has been criticised as vague and hazy. True, Corish didn’t produce a dictionary abstraction but rather addressed the issue in a roundabout, somewhat humorous way:

In saying that the New Republic must be socialist, Labour is not merely invoking a magic word that will dispel all evil simply by being uttered. Labour believes, with Connolly, that socialism is not a set of doctrines to be applied dogmatically to every situation . . . No rigid definition can be applied to socialism . . . There are differences within our own Party as to what socialism means. I suppose that it is a common enough experience to find that no matter how far left you stand in a Labour Party you will always find yourself to the right of somebody.

If it is a bit vague, then that’s because, for Corish, ever the pragmatist, the real definition is in the proverbial pudding, not some recipe book. And that’s what he did when he came to the core of his speech – the contemporary economic issues. What is striking is that, regardless of how we have progressed from those days, many of the issues remain remarkably the same:

Ordinary people have suffered while the gombeen man has flourished. Speculative office blocks have risen almost overnight while the housing lists have swollen. There is money to be made if you know the right people and if you can hit on the right gimmick. . . Meanwhile, the economy has floundered and social welfare has been run on shillings and pence.

Property market speculation? Infrastructural weakness? Anaemic welfare state? Plus ca change . . and all that.

But it is when Corish identifies the cause of a structurally weak economy and the institutional reforms necessary that there is something that he can teach us today. At that time, Lemass was attempting to industrialise the country through the use of foreign capital. Joe Lee puts that attempt in historical context:

‘But Lemass did not solve the problem that had baffled him since 1932 – how to create a viable Irish industry. By the mid-sixties, the continuing failure of Irish-owned industry on the export front, despite all the incentives, was becoming grimly clear. Only the success of foreign investment was now energising the export drive. The hope that foreign example would inspire native emulation was proving vain. . . . The subsidies seem to have been largely squandered. At least, they did not achieve the objective of making Irish industry competitive. The bulk of Irish business men showed little interest in management education.’

The attempt to create a competitive indigenous enterprise sector is still going on, with as much or as little success as Lemmas had. Corish attacked Fianna Fail – not for opening up the economy to foreign capital (in this, Corish rejected the nationalist fantasies of protectionism), but for failing to marshal the resources necessary in a coherent and rational way:

‘We have the amazing situation in which a chronically under-developed country has freely allowed its capital to be exported to the biggest money market in the world. This is a policy entirely unfavourable to home industries struggling to establish themselves. But the interest of the private investor was safeguarded even if it means that six hundred million pounds would be invested abroad and even if it meant that a million emigrants would be discarded as surplus labour in a land starved of employment.’

Though we don’t have the spectre of unemployment and emigration which haunted that period, the flood of capital streaming out of the country is a concern being constantly raised by Michael Hennigan over at Finfacts.com – the preference for property speculation – here and abroad – at a time when we need investment for our own social and economic modernisation.

What Corish said next was a brilliant political definition of Labour’s new agenda:

‘The dynamic of the Irish economy has yet to be released. Enterprise is the secret ingredient in economic growth. There is no mystery to it, no hidden formula. It is people who produce growth, and lack of resources was never a hindrance to an industrial people determined to advance in the face of any setback. Enterprise is simply a mixture of self-confidence, knowledge and a supreme conviction of success, no matter what the risks. We have never had this spirit of tackling our economy problems. Instead, we have suffered so much from the opposite that we have invited every nationality but our own to come in and do the job for us. Are we not doing just that today?’

Well, how about that? Labour, socialists, the Left – the party of the entrepreneur, of the can-do enterprise spirit. Long before the PDs and their ilk used ‘enterprise’ as a rhetorical veil to disguise their programme of subsidising the privileged, Corish was capturing the ground of market expansion, innovation, hard work and economic success.

He outlined his recipe to make this ‘enterprise’ work for the Irish people and in this he was, again, showing a vision ahead of his time. Yes, the state would play a crucial role, especially in the area of investment which an agriculture-based economy has difficulty in generating. But he didn’t talk the language of ‘nationalisation’ or ‘five year plans’ or ‘a command economy.’

‘The State must extend the range of its activities, by setting up new industries, by co-operating with the existing pattern of agriculture and industry. . . . It goes without question that planning would be democratic, dependent upon the participation of the whole community. We share our problems in common. We can solve them together by using our collective intelligence, by deciding what the most important things are and by giving them priority treatment. We are democrats, not bureaucrats.’

And just to reinforce that last point:

‘Planning will demand efficiency and a Labour Government will see to it that the public service will itself be efficient. Unless the role of Government is seen in the first place as being that of stimulating growth, every attempt at innovation will be resisted.’

In short, Corish was prefiguring social partnership, but a more sustained democratic one than we have at the moment – the co-operation, the wider participation, and, most of all, the efficiency.

These points – the development of enterprise, the new institutions of partnership, the extension of democracy and efficient public services – they formed the very heart of the New Republic. Yes, Corish castigated the Government and the Right (it is interesting that he criticised Fine Gael as well as Fianna Fail – knowing that they were common and co-equal enemies of Labour’s project) for the failures of the welfare state. He contrasted a ‘paper equality’ with a real one:

‘A paper constitutional equality can mask the starkest inequalities, whether in getting a house, going to university, earning a living, treating a sick child or spending the last years one’s life in country. Labour sees in modern Ireland a society in which these things happen every day . . . We know that one percent of the population owns more than half the wealth in most competitive economies. Is that equality? It is ludicrous to think that a man with wealth is the equal of a man without . . .. ‘

Corish didn’t engage in a populist ‘Robin Hood’ economics. He knew that if you were to double taxation on the relatively few wealthy people, it wouldn’t add much to the total wealth of the nation. He knew – as did all the delegates at the conference whether they stood to the right or the left of his shoulder – that what was needed was a profound and systemic approach to wealth generation. He put it this way:

‘Growth is not an end in itself, but must be used to raise the welfare of the whole community. All our policies on health, education, housing, social welfare are based on the idea of community, another of the basic socialist principles. Selfish speculation has no place in this idea . . . What are we to do with increased wealth? How are we to share it within society? Are we to leave things as they are or are we going to root out social injustice wherever it appears?’

The growth of social wealth is co-incident with the growth of economic wealth, according to Corish. Here he is only stating a truism – but one that is often missed: what are the most egalitarian societies? The ones that are the wealthiest and have the highest level of state intervention, both in the generation and distribution of wealth. This is not a zero-sum game. This is win-win – but only in the context of a progressive, rather than speculative, framework.

What is most refreshing is that Corish spent most of his time (a) discussing the economy and (b) discussing Labour’s own policies. This marks quite a change from the normal opposition party leader’s address of late, which views the economy as a done deal and merely deals in ‘managerial’ issues – if it is dealt with at all. And Corish wasn’t content just to bash the Government of the day with a ‘something must be done’ cudgel. Of course, he took swipes, but the criticism was integrated into a positive elaboration of an alternative programme. For Corish, his mantra was ‘wealth generation, wealth generation, wealth generation’ – and he was damned if he was going to let the Right off the hook.

Corish concluded his speech with humility and a defence of party democracy that was revitalising:

All of us know that Irish Labour has disappointed even its most fervent supporters . . the trade unions up to now have not played the role they should have in projecting socialist policies, the role that Connolly and Larkin advocated. In rural areas, our supporters have tended to be too easily satisfied with partial success. The young radicals in our cities, until recently, have criticised from outside our ranks.

Strong criticism is good for this party. It is right that we should be reminded of our faults and shortcomings. Some of us may disagree. We have every right to do so; this is a party of dissent and the debate should reach out to every issue which affects our community. Harsh words will be said and accepted . . . Constructive and realistic alternatives to the present conservative policies are essential.

Interestingly, this came only a couple of years after the most successful election Labour ever fought. That Corish felt the need to engage in a mea culpa is a sharp contrast to comments made following the last three general elections defeats – especially the last one when ‘lack of brand’, ‘the trade union link’ and an inability to ‘appeal to millionaires’ were trotted out to explain defeat. And what did he propose to rectify this disappointment? Debate, engagement, criticism, ‘hard’ criticism even, and most of all, the need to explore alternatives to past failures.

So where did it all go wrong? Corish identified the right economic issues, weaving a political narrative that was relevant to a nation, with a party that acknowledged its past mistakes and welcomed debate and criticism and members from even the most radical circles. So why was Labour undone in 1969?

There are any number of reasons: a still largely rural, confessional electorate; internal opposition from a largely conservative party, the urban-rural divide, Fianna Fail’s disgraceful ‘red scare’ tactics, disastrous candidate selection tactics – all these supply some of the answers. But I’ll venture one more – one that Labour and the wider Left still suffers from today: an absence of strategy.

It was as though party members believed that, within a short period, a party that received only 15% of the vote could significantly close a 50 seat gap with Fianna Fail and achieve an outright majority in the Dail. To suggest that this was naïve is not to take away from the project, only to state that it was not properly considered. In Dublin, Fianna Fail lost nearly 10% of its vote to Labour, which drew even with Fine Gael at 28%. Therefore, if Labour had been as successful outside of Dublin as it was in Dublin, it would have been immediately evident that Irish politics would enter into a new and uneasy period where no party could obtain a majority. The age of coalitions for all parties – including Fianna Fail – would have come much earlier.

Yet Labour didn’t recognise this. They kept talking about ‘single party government’ – for themselves – and winning the support of the majority of people. They were fighting tomorrow’s battles with yesterday’s weapons and concepts. They had a vision of a promised land but no road-map to get there.

Therefore, Labour never considered how it could lead a coalition government and who the minority party would be and how they would prepare people for this oncoming political upheaval with well thought-out medium targets as part of a transition phase. It was a maximalist all-or-nothing approach, with a hope that Fianna Fail would collapse and Fine Gael disappear. No matter how good the project, hope and inflated expectations are no substitute for analysis and strategy. The tragedy of 1969 was not so much that Labour never thought about defeat (which it didn’t) but that it never thought about what would happen if they succeeded. So when the disappointing result came, Labour responded in the only way it knew how – by first walking, and then running, back into the comforting embrace of Fine Gael.

Today is little different. In response to the 1997 defeat when it was allied with Fine Gael, Labour pursued an ‘all-options-open’ strategy, willing to deal with either of the two larger parties. In response to the 2002 defeat it adopted a pre-election pact with Fine Gael. In response to the 2007 defeat it is in danger of returning back to the ‘all-options-open’ strategy. Labour is on a merry-go-around and can’t seem to get itself off. Well, here’s one way.

Go back and analyse Labour in the 1960s. Take on board the ambition which Labour possessed, the determination to take on the Right and end its half-party status. Study the economic and social strategies that Corish outlined in the New Republic, his focus on enterprise, wealth generation and economic efficiency. Have the confidence to welcome and encourage debate. And learn from the defeat; namely, to carefully examine all the options that can lead Labour out of its half-party wilderness, to face up to the difficult questions, to face down the fears of the new and not be seduced by ‘business-as-usual’.

If it were to do that, it might find that it can succeed where Labour failed in the 1960s. And we will have the example of Brendan Corish and the New Republic to thank for that.

Next Left Archive: out tomorrow… March 24, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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It being a holiday the Left Archive post which would usually be out today will be posted tomorrow with a guest contribution from Michael Taft of Notes on the Front discussing… well, you’ll see yourself… let’s just say it was a key document in the political life of our leading left formation…

The Vatican and cinema… a catholic taste in film (ahem)… or surprisingly good as it happens. March 23, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Religion.
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Continuing the slightly religious theme of the weekend, while looking up 2001: A Space Odyssey I was intrigued by the following link which led to a list (available on the U.S. Catholic Conference website)of the 45 best movies selected by the Vatican in 1995. And interesting reading it makes not least for the way in which they are divided by Religion, Values and Art.

So, what do we get? There’s a distinctly Italian tilt to the films chosen. No harm one guesses. And under Religion it will come as little surprise that we get Ben-Hur, and The Flowers of St. Francis (Italy, 1950), Francesco (Italy, 1989), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Italy, 1966), Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev about a 15th century monk (USCC description: ‘…who perseveres in painting icons and other religious art despite the civil disruptions and cruel turmoil of his times. Director Andrei Tarkovsky visualizes brilliantly the story of a devout man seeking through his art to find the transcendent in the savagery of the Tartar invasions and the unfeeling brutality of Russian nobles’), La Passion de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ (France, 1905), The Mission, Babette’s Feast, Monsieur Vincent (France, 1947) about St. Vincent de Paul, Nazarin (directed by Bunuel in the late 1950s) about an idealistic priest in Mexico, Ordet (Denmark, 1954), The Passion of Joan of Arc (France, 1928), The Sacrifice by Tarkovsky made in 1986 which is a religious allegory about nuclear war and after and Therese (France, 1986) about the life of St. Therese de Lisieux…

So far, so religious. But few enough on the list I wouldn’t actually want to see (although hey, where is Powell and Pressburgers Black Narcissus?).

Values… ah, a tricky one. Still, we start with Au Revoir les Enfants (France, 1988) about a Catholic priest who hides Jewish boys from the Gestapo and is later sent to a concentration camp. Then there is The Bicycle Thief. Good stuff. The Burmese Harp (Japan, 1956), which has a Japanese soldier ‘nursed back to health by a Buddhist monk, who then devotes himself to searching the jungle battlefields for the abandoned remains of dead soldiers to give them a decent burial’. Chariots of Fire. Decalogue (Polish, 1988) which ‘explores the meaning of the Ten Commandments as seen in the lives of various residents of a drab Warsa apartment complex’. Dersu Uzala (Russia, 1978) where Kuroswa considers ‘the friendship that grows between a turn-of-the-century explorer in Siberia and his guide, an aging Tungus hunter’. Gandhi. Intolerance (the D.W. Griffiths film from 1916). It’s a Wonderful Life (it has angels!). On the Waterfront (it has a priest!). Open City (Italian, 1945), a bit of a classic actually about Nazi-occupied Rome which doesn’t end well as I recall. Schindler’s List. The Seventh Seal. The Tree of Wooden Clogs (Italian, 1978) dealing with the life of peasant families. And finally, Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. All about aging.

Again, hardly one which I wouldn’t watch, or in some instances watch again.

And then… there is Art.

Citizen Kane makes the cut. Fellini’s 8 1/2. Fantasia. Grand Illusion by Jean Renoir from 1937 which details life in a WW1 prison camp. Fellini’s La Strada starring Anthony Quinn. The Lavender Hill Mob. The Leopard (Italian, 1963) directed by Luchino Visconti which deals with social change in 1860s Sicily as best it can with Burt Lancaster as the lead and Alain Delon in a supporting role. Little Women (US, 1933) the George Cukor version. Metropolis. Modern Times (hmmm… wasn’t Chaplin a communist? Mind you, presumably Tarkovsky was at one point as well). Napolean (1927). Nosferatu. Stagecoach. The Wizard of Oz. And last, but by no means least 2001: A Space Odyssey (which the additional description from the USCC tells us that ‘The central narrative follows the struggle of two astronauts (Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood) to wrest control of their spacecraft from HAL, a talking computer (voice of Douglas Rain), on a half-billion-mile trip to Jupiter and the unknown’ – it may just be me but I think there’s a bit more to it that that).

So all told quite a creditable selection. One might enquire as to where entertainment sits in all this, but perhaps that’s not important. One might also wonder were these selected, and I don’t mean to be unkind, because these are the sort of broadly mainstream/slightly arthouse movies that mainly Italian priests of a certain age might manage to get along to see. As it happens Tarkovsky directed my favourite film, Stalker, and it does make me also wonder in passing, seeing two of his films on the list, about the function of science fiction or fantasy to operate as a substitute for some of us for religious transcendence. After all look at the choices. 2001, Nosferatu, Modern Times, Metropolis, and so on. Were one to break it down by genre SF does surprisingly well. On the other hand one might point to narratives always incorporating that function, one way or another. It’s confusing. Although mind you, I saw the Russian film Day Watch last night… now what would they make of that?
Well, I haven’t found their thoughts yet, but here is an earlier review from the Catholic News Service on Night Watch, the precursor in the trilogy.

Though decidedly gloomy, “Night Watch” is escapist entertainment which allegorically explores questions of good and evil and the nature of free will. (“Others” must freely choose which side to join.) From a Catholic perspective, however, the film’s dualistic worldview of good and evil — competing but coequal — is incompatible with the foundational Christian truth of God’s supreme goodness and sovereignty.

And while its gore is troubling, and its jumbled plot may confuse some, the seemingly downbeat ending — the hordes of hell have the upper hand — propels viewers toward part two with the hope that light will ultimately triumph over darkness. During the climax, Anton must face his past sins in a confrontation suffused with pro-life undertones. A surprisingly moral message amid such mayhem.

And here are the thoughts of the Catholic New Service on films from 2007. Hmmm… quite a few I’ve seen and liked too…

A horror of facing March 22, 2008

Posted by smiffy in Decent Left, Iraq.
19 comments

Hitchens_Shower

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?  – J.M. Keynes

There are times when brute stubbornness, an unwillingness to concede defeat and to plough on regardless, can be a virtue: attempting to give up smoking, completing a particularly interminable Resident Evil game or arguing with racists over on politics.ie.  On most occasions, though, it’s a character flaw, demonstrating a lack of self-confidence and an inability to look at oneself critically.  We see this ably demonstrated in Christopher Hitchens’ piece in today’s Irish Times entitled ‘Invading Iraq was a just cause, and much good has come of it’.  The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

The article is a reprint of Hitchens’ contribution to the ongoing series in Slate various pro-invasion writers reflect on the Iraq war five years on entitled ‘How did I get Iraq wrong’ (Hitchens’ response is the wonderfully blunt ‘I didn’t’).  It’s, in many ways, a rehash of many of the arguments he made in the run-up to the invasion and in the early stages of the occupation that can be found in his (in retrospect, rather unfortunately named) collection A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq.

While he goes some way to acknowledging the already well-documented incompetence, arrogance and short-sightedness that typified the occupation, he still makes the case that, on balance, the decision to invade was the correct one.  He writes:

 A much-wanted war criminal was put on public trial. The Kurdish and Shiite majority was rescued from the ever-present threat of a renewed genocide. A huge, hideous military and party apparatus, directed at internal repression and external aggression was (perhaps overhastily) dismantled. The largest wetlands in the region, habitat of the historic Marsh Arabs, have been largely recuperated. Huge fresh oilfields have been found, including in formerly oil free Sunni provinces, and some important initial investment in them made. Elections have been held, and the outline of a federal system has been proposed as the only alternative to a) a sectarian despotism and b) a sectarian partition and fragmentation. Not unimportantly, a battlefield defeat has been inflicted on al-Qaida and its surrogates, who (not without some Baathist collaboration) had hoped to constitute the successor regime in a failed state and an imploded society.

Some of these are obviously true, others are far more arguable.  More complicated though is the question he poses in asking “What would post-Saddam Iraq have looked like without a coalition presence?”, a question well worth the asking.  Where his argument is most seriously flawed is in his failure to seriously address it, or to look in any detail at the negative consequences of the occupation, other than to say:

None of these positive developments took place without a good deal of bungling and cruelty and unintended consequences of their own. I don’t know of a satisfactory way of evaluating one against the other any more than I quite know how to balance the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, say, against the digging up of Saddam’s immense network of mass graves.

One could be generous and assume that Hitchens is using the Abu Ghraib abuses as a metaphor for the wider failure of the occupation forces rather than just the scandal itself.  Even then, however, there’s no acknowledgement of the full scale of the disaster that has befallen the Iraqi people, no indication that Hitchens fully appreciates the full extent of the tragedy.  Perhaps most damningly, there’s not a single direct reference to the Iraqis who have been killed since the invasion, even leaving aside the question of whether the invasion caused those deaths.  Instead, reference is made to a more vague “chaos, misery and fragmentation”.

Fragmentation is a term that might well be used to describe the current state of the so-called ‘Cruise Missile Left’.  The pre-invasion consensus in support of the war has been shattered.  Some, like Nick Cohen and (as splintered aptly calls him) Oliver Kampf are at one with Hitchens in sticking to their guns.  Others, like Norman Geras or the Traitor Hari have, to greater or lesser extents, repudiated their previous positions.  Even those who now view their initial support for the war as misguided tend to remain convinced that their moral judgement was correct, and that their primary mistake was in misreading how badly the coalition forces would handle the occupation (a judgement which, by its very nature, can ony rendered in hindsight).  None, to the best of my knowledge, has ever seriously tackled the question of whether a pro-invasion position was the correct moral one at the time.  Certainly no one has addressed this point as Andrew Sullivan (not even a leftist) in his own piece of self-criticism from the same ‘How did I get Iraq wrong?’ Slate series.  Sullivan writes:

I recall very clearly one night before the war began. I made myself write down the reasons for and against the war and realized that if there were question marks on both sides (the one point in favor I did not put a question mark over was the existence of stockpiles of WMD!), the deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. I became enamored of my own morality and the righteousness of this single moral act. And he was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn’t really engaged in a truly serious moral argument. I saw war’s unknowable consequences far too glibly.

This is the kind of clear-thinking and honest assessment that one would like to be able to associate with Hitchens, who remains a far better writer than any of the others listed above.  Unfortunately, Hitchens doesn’t appear to be able – or, more likely, willing – to honestly ask himself the same kinds of questions.  It may well be that he’s just too arrogant and egotistical to do so, and refuses to admit where he’s wrong.  It’s also possible – on a more generous reading – that he feels that it’s precisely because of the disastrousness of consequences of the invasion that he feels the need to continue to justify his original position.  If Hitchens was wrong in the first place, then all the lives lost since 2003 have been completely wasted.  If, however, overthrowing Saddam remains the right thing to have done, then they can be seen to have been sacrificed in the name of a higher good.

One event, in particular, may be key to this.  The most affecting thing Hitchens’ has written on the invasion is this piece in Vanity Fair, where he describes his discovery that a young U.S. soldier killed in Iraq was heavily influenced by Hitchens’ writing to enlist and serve.  It’s the only piece by Hitchens on this subject that I’m aware of that shows a genuine humanity and something approaching an emotional honesty (although one notes, of course, that again there’s no acknowledgement of the suffering of Iraqis – the only victims of the war in this are American).  Just as Gore Vidal has stated that, in his view, the Second World War wasn’t worth the life of Jimmie Trimble, his boyhood love, could it be that Hitchens somehow has to believe that the Iraq War must be worth the life of Mark Daily?

In the introduction to his short book on George Orwell, Hitchens writes:

‘I knew,’ said Orwell in 1946 about his early youth, ‘that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.’  Not the ability to face them, you notice, but ‘a power of facing’.  It’s oddly well put.  A commissar who realizes that his five-year plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact.  So, for that matter, may a priest with ‘doubts’.  The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the ‘power of facing’.  Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of an evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoublying of efforts to overcome the obvious.  The ‘unpleasant facts’ that Orwell faced were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.

If this is the test of the great writer, it’s one that Hitchens in this case unfortunately fails.  While he undoubtedly retains his facility with words, it’s his horror of facing the unpleasant facts about his support for the invasion which continues to undermine his credibility.  One can only hope that this is something he might overcome as he completes the memoirs he is apparently working on at present.

Pope condemns IVF and all that stuff… just like that! March 22, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Frozen embryos, Religion.
13 comments

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With the weekend that is in it let us turn to a religious themed story. Because as fairly recently reported

Addressing a plenary session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith this morning [at the Vatican in late January], Pope Benedict XVI asked the Congregation to focus on “the difficult and complex problems of bioethics”.

In his remarks he explained the Church’s prohibition on artificial procreation.

Do go on…

Artificial procreation, such as in vitro fertilization, he said, has given rise to “new problems,” such as “the freezing of human embryos, embryonal reduction, pre-implantation diagnosis, stem cell research and attempts at human cloning”. All these, he said, “clearly show how, with artificial insemination outside the body, the barrier protecting human dignity has been broken.”

Now here he loses me. Even if one were to agree with the debatable notion that all these other issues are ‘problematic’ in any other sense than being relatively ‘new’, and let’s be serious these technologies have been around for a while now, what precisely is the issue with freezing of human embryo’s? Simply because it involves artificial insemination outside the body (at this point, who knows what the future will bring) doesn’t really cut it as a criticism. Still, let’s consider further.

The Pope added: “When human beings in the weakest and most defenceless stage of their existence are selected, abandoned, killed or used as pure ‘biological matter’, how can it be denied that they are no longer being treated as ‘someone’ but as ‘something’, thus placing the very concept of human dignity in doubt”.

Again, cloning, embryo freezing, pre-implantation diagnosis (which incidentally is generally acknowledged to be of varying utility) don’t per se involve the destruction of embryo’s, although the latter might lead to same.

Judie Brown, President of American Life League points out in her new book – Saving Those Damned Catholics – that while it is official Church teaching, most Catholics in North America have no clue that artificial procreation is immoral. Brown commented to LifeSiteNews.com on the Holy Father’s statements, saying, “As elated as I am about Pope Benedict’s comments this morning once again repeating the Church’s condemnation of the practice of in vitro fertilization, I am saddened by the realization that the American Catholic bishops refuse to even take up an explanation of what the Church teaches let alone condemn the evil practice of in vitro fertilization.”

Hmmm… these might though be those same US Catholics who are aware of the Church teachings on contraception and tend to ignore them as well. Indeed there can’t be that many abroad who aren’t aware the that Church generally regards IVF and Assisted Reproductive Technologies with some disdain.

In his remarks the Pope stressed that the Church “cannot and should not intervene on every scientific innovation.” However, he said, “it has the task of reiterating the great values at stake, and providing the faithful, and all men and women of good will, with ethical-moral principals and guidelines for these new and important questions.”

The problem is, as I suspect he knows, that while it is generally easier by far to put in blanket prohibitions on various things, these tend to simplify enormously complex issues to absurd levels leaving vast holes through which people can drive their own moral viewpoints. Nor are these ‘new’ questions.

“The two fundamental criteria for moral discernment in this field”, he said, “are: unconditional respect for the human being as a person, from conception to natural death; and respect for the origin of the transmission of human life through the acts of the spouses”.

I don’t want this to descend into a ‘let’s take out the sharp pointy wooden pointing stick and give the Pope a few jabs with it’ sort of post. He strikes me as humane a person as one might expect to head up the Catholic Church. He is consistent with his own belief systems and that is to be applauded. One might reasonably ask, how could he say otherwise? But, it all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? A nice reductionist argument which seems to cut out everything that deviates from supposed ‘norms’. Because, and it’s odd – I’ve been wondering about this in other contexts, every supposedly cut and dried issue is open to interpretation, gray areas, uncertainty and so on. Every concept used in the above sentence of the Pope is nowhere near beyond discussion, debate and disagreement from the definition of conception, to that of ‘natural’ and ‘acts of … spouses’. His certainty is matched only by the uncertainty or active indifference of his flock. And the thing with technology is that it proliferates. Every day more and more people know someone or another, entirely ordinary people, who have had to resort to these technologies, not for pernicious or malign reasons but … and this is important… for very human reasons. And those people know other people and what a decade and a half ago was exotic is now, if not quite mainstreamed, certainly far from unusual. And just as Catholics will disagree with the pronouncements on contraception, so they too will at least dispute the approach on ART.

I also think that on a conceptual level the Church and its outriders in Pro-Life groups face a problem. Abortion appeals to the ‘yuch factor’, one of the reasons for the concentration by some campaigns on what is termed partial birth abortion, and one should never underestimate that as a dynamic within human behaviour. But IVF involves an opposite dynamic, one where life is enabled and therefore locks into a very much more contradictory narrative from the point of view of the Church. Selling that as a negative is a big sell. Which is why there seems to be such a concentration on the extremes – such as cloning, or as the news yesterday reported:

The Welsh secretary, Paul Murphy, is one of several Catholic senior government figures pressing the prime minister to allow all MPs a free vote on the human embryology and fertilisation bill later this spring. Des Browne, the defence secretary, and Ruth Kelly, the transport secretary, have indicated privately that they want to vote against the proposals and will at the very least abstain.

The cabinet revolt comes as one of Britain’s most senior Catholics accuses Brown of plotting a “monstrous” attack on human life by pressing ahead with the bill. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the leader of the Scottish Catholic church, says the legislation would allow “grotesque” and “hideous” procedures to create hybrid embryos for experimentation – measures other European countries had outlawed. In his Easter homily in Edinburgh tomorrow, O’Brien will claim that the human fertilisation and embryology bill attacks human rights, human dignity and human life.

It is because, in part, hybrid embryo’s also have something of a ‘yuch’ factor, that we see them pushed into the centre of the debate – just as we saw recently the use of hyperbole and exaggeration in a connected debate. I can’t help but feel that by doing so they discredit their own stance, or as also reported:

Leading scientists accused the Catholic church of “scaremongering” over research which had the potential to save many lives. “This is yet another example where it is clear that the Catholic church is misrepresenting science because it doesn’t understand the basic facts,” said Dr Stephen Minger, director of the stem cell biology laboratory at King’s College London.

Benedict, and the good Cardinal no doubt see themselves as holding a line and perhaps even potentially able to push back some of what has already gone before. There is a debate to be had, but to my mind it may be more a case of regulation than prohibition. They appear optimistic that it may be otherwise.

In that I fear they are in for further disappointment.

The trouble with bicycles… and David Cameron March 21, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
12 comments

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It’s a small thing in the greater scheme, isn’t it? But I can’t help feeling that the reports about David Cameron evoke a sense of schadenfreude:

Conservative leader David Cameron has apologised after being photographed ignoring red lights and cycling the wrong way up a one-way street. Pictures in the Daily Mirror newspaper showed the politician breaching traffic rules as he cycled to work.

“I know it is important to obey traffic laws – but I have obviously made mistakes on this occasion and I am sorry,” Mr Cameron said in a statement.

Campaigners criticised him though some blamed poor regulation and signage.

Also got to love the idea of Map of Mr Cameron’s bicycle route from the piece. Helping us to avoid Cameron – eh? Thoughtful.

The piece continues with the following:

But the pictures merely highlighted the difficulties the average London cyclist faced, said cycling campaign group CTC.

“It shows what an ass cycling regulation [and] traffic management is in this country at the moment… we campaign in CTC for things like opening up one-way streets, which are allowed all over Europe,” said director Kevin Mayne.

“[Mr Cameron] is a yard in front of the white line in front of the Houses of Parliament – frankly, that’s where I’d go to get away from the cars, he was hardly jumping the light,” he said.

He added that the story had also highlighted how difficult signage was for cyclists in London.

On a serious level I have to disagree. I cycle every day, in and out of work and elsewhere, and the truth is that there is some terrible, and occasionally stupid, cycling out there. It’s rife and part of the problem is that cyclists seem to think that the moral authority of not utilising hydro-carbons is sufficient to inure them from all criticism. Indeed I agree entirely with the following…

Kevin Clinton, head of road safety for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, criticised Mr Cameron.

“It is essential that all road users, including cyclists, obey traffic laws. The laws are there for everybody’s safety and, as always, it is disappointing when someone in the public eye sets a bad example,” he said.

Road safety charity Brake stressed that all road users, including cyclists, needed to observe traffic rules.

“People are dying on the roads every day and we can’t afford to become complacent,” a spokeswoman said.

“As a role model, Mr Cameron must be aware that if he does break [the rules], it is going to send out the wrong message to those he hopes to inspire.”

Obama, and the trouble with race as an element of the campaign. March 21, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
21 comments

Not a great week for Obama to judge from the latest polling data. According to Gallup Clinton has moved into a ‘significant’ lead over Obama.

The March 14-18 national survey of 1,209 Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters gave Clinton, a New York senator, a 49 percent to 42 percent edge over Obama, an Illinois senator. The poll has an error margin of 3 percentage points.

And on the national?

Gallup said polling data also showed McCain leading Obama 47 percent to 43 percent in 4,367 registered voters’ preferences for the general election. The general election survey has an error margin of 2 percentage points.

The Arizona senator also edged Clinton 48 percent to 45 percent but Gallup said the lead was not statistically significant.

Now all of this comes with major caveats. There is no election until much later in the year, and plenty of runway between now and then. Other polls show Clinton or Obama in the lead, as with the CBS and CNN polls from earlier in the week. So the major concern that the Republicans are in a stronger position than the Democrats is as yet unrealised. Still, is a tough campaign of the sort we’re experiencing good or bad for the nominees when they finally meet McCain. At least they’ll be tested one might suggest.

And yet, not an awful week either. Bill Richardson is said to have endorsed Obama according to reuters.com. Good for Obama because as noted by reuters:

Richardson’s endorsement has been fiercely sought by both Obama and his rival Sen. Hillary Clinton in part because as a Hispanic he is seen as influential within the Latino community, which could be a key voting bloc in the November presidential election.

Hispanics, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate, largely backed Clinton in nominating contests on “Super Tuesday,” with exit polls showing her winning two-thirds of the Latino vote in several states.

Meanwhile there is the bizarre, but not entirely unexpected story about how contract workers (yeah, sure) at the State Department ‘improperly’ looked at Obama’s passport records three times.

The State Department said its initial assessment was that three workers in separate offices looked at the records out of “imprudent curiosity” rather than any political motivation but that it had requested an investigation into the matter.

The incidents, which occurred on January 9, February 21 and March 14, were quickly reported to lower-level State Department officials but only came to the notice of its senior management when a reporter e-mailed spokesman Sean McCormack on Thursday.

Two of the three contract workers were fired as soon as the unauthorized viewing of Obama’s files was discovered, while the third has been disciplined but still works for a contractor who has business with the State Department.

That they were in a position to do so is disquieting. That these are regarded as firing offences is not so much. Problem is it seems to me – from the Obama campaign point of view – it plays into a narrative that seems to be developing of Obama as ‘other’.

Forcing him back onto the terrain of ‘race’ where the more lofty rhetoric warps in the face of embedded prejudices and fears has left him a more defensive figure than previously. Still, I can’t help but feel that it was inevitable. At some point or another either with a rival Democratic candidate or with McCain this would have to be dealt with. His “A More Perfect Union” speech of the 18th of March may have gone some way to assisting in that endeavour.

For someone who is more than comfortable with rhetoric it was pretty direct. And it’s admirable to see a candidate who understand the difference between disagreeing with and disowning another.

I can no more disown him [Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe

The cynic in me wonders if we’re looking at a near Clintonesque example of triangulation. Still. Maybe not.

On the other hand the controversy over Reverend Wright and his comments has been enormously problematic. That some leading Republicans have had no great problem embracing and being embraced by pastors and religious figures with often scarifying socio-political programmes and pronouncements is of little comfort in the immediate hurly burly of a campaign. And for those of us who tot up such things consider this on Salon which makes some pertinent comparisons between others who have been intemperate or worse in their language and their relationship and acceptance by Republican candidates. Or indeed – and let me indulge in a carnival of whataboutery here – this? Certainly if this becomes the defining aspect of the Obama campaign it will be difficult not to regard it as a submerged racial attack of sorts.

How this debate is impacting on the polls for better or worse is an important, but so far unanswerable, question. The Gallup poll couldn’t register an – if any – effect. A Rasmussen poll held on 16-19th of March had Obama and Clinton on 42% and 41% respectively but with McCain on 49% and 51% to the other two. The trend is evident. Obama continues to slide. Clinton continues to consolidate and McCain is there or thereabouts. Do speeches staunch political wounds?
We’ll see.

Sliding from crisis to crisis… Kosovo March 20, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in European Politics, European Union.
37 comments

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Having mentioned the crisis that is emerging in Serbia the week before last I was actually slightly surprised at the speed with which events have moved over the intervening time.

Only yesterday it was announced that:

NATO PLACED the Kosovan town of Mitrovica under de facto military law yesterday after riots by a Serb population hostile to independence killed one UN policeman and forced the pull-out of UN personnel.

The Nato-led peacekeeping force K-For and the United Nations mission ordered all local Kosovo Serb police officers to park their patrol cars and suspend normal duties.

With UN police already withdrawn, the order left French, Belgian and Spanish troops in sole control of law and order in the northern slice of Kosovo, where Serbs opposed to its February 17th secession from Serbia dominate the population.

“We have not organised martial law,” K-For commander Gen Xavier Bout de Marnhac told a news conference in the capital, Pristina. “There is no intent as far as I know for installing it for the time being.” He said Monday’s riots had “crossed a red line with the deliberate intent to kill people, you know Molotov cocktails, fragmentation grenades and direct fire” aimed at UN and K-For personnel.

But this is nowhere near a surprise for a week or so ago we learned that:

SERB PRESIDENT Boris Tadic is poised to call a snap general election after a government comprising his allies and those of nationalist prime minister Vojislav Kostunica collapsed due to disputes over Kosovo and ties with the European Union.

Mr Kostunica refuses to deal with Brussels until it denounces Kosovo’s recent declaration of independence, while the more moderate Mr Tadic says Serbia must not let its opposition to the region’s sovereignty derail its own bid for EU membership.

This is bad bad news. As already noted the Radical Party is waiting in the wings, and the possibility of a link up between an even stronger RP – energised by these events – and Kostinuca’s Democratic Party is not beyond question. I don’t think, again as previously noted, that that would necessarily mean a slide towards catastrophe (indeed, hey, one of the best ways of showing up the shallowness of any nationalist programme is to get a self-avowed nationalist party into power – but generally that works in more stable democracies. Not an experiment I’d have any enthusiasm for in a Serbia bowed and bloody after a decade and half of various pressures), but it could be, at the very least a hairy time ahead. All the more so because their room for movement on Kosovo, etc is so limited. And the idea of a festering Serbia is not good.

“All parties want Serbia to join the EU, but the question is how – with or without Kosovo,” said Mr Kostunica. “There was no united [ cabinet] will to clearly and loudly state that Serbia can continue its path toward the EU only with Kosovo.” The prime minister has tried to portray the president as being too soft on the West and too quick to accept the “loss” of a historically and culturally important part of Serbia.

In the general election, Mr Kostunica’s party is expected to play the patriotic card and depict itself as the true defenders of Serb interests everywhere, including Kosovo; Mr Tadic’s party, on the other hand, is likely to claim that both parties are equally opposed to a sovereign Kosovo, but differ over whether Serbia should now isolate itself from the West.

And note how internal political dynamics reflect external political pressures resulting in even those with more moderate voices tilting towards the extremes.

“Kosovo is of course an integral part of our country,” Mr Tadic said. “I believe the issue is that the Serbian government does not have a united position over European and economic perspectives of Serbia and its citizens.”

Still, again as with these things, let’s not get too idealistic about Serbian nationalism, or indeed the reality of power politics. For note the following.

Mr Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia, along with the Socialists and the Radicals – who are Serbia’s most popular single party – favour a closer relationship with Russia to offset a cooling of relations with Brussels and Washington.

In what was perceived as a “thank you” for Moscow’s support on the issue of Kosovo, Mr Kostunica recently sold most of Serbia’s state oil firm to Kremlin-controlled energy giant Gazprom, for a price that allies of Mr Tadic called a fraction of its real value.

So, beyond talk of ‘imperialism’ let’s just note that all the regional hegemons have an agenda, and that within the Serbian polity there are those who equally comfortable to align with whatever agendas are on offer. And whether those links are borne of cultural and historic precedent they are something that could easily have been predicted as gaining energy in a post-Kosovo secession period.

Meanwhile back at the interface…

Kosovo Serb leaders, who refuse to accept the authority of the fledgling state’s ethnic-Albanian government, bemoaned the infighting in Belgrade.

“This move just shows the irresponsibility of the political elite in Belgrade,” said prominent nationalist Milan Ivanovic.

“Instead of joining ranks toward solving the most important issue – preserving Kosovo within Serbia – they seem to call for anarchy.”

And the trouble on the ground really kicked off over the last week or so.

KOSOVO SERBS attacked United Nations police and Nato troops with guns, grenades and petrol bombs in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica yesterday, in clashes that injured more than 100 people and fuelled fears of further violence.

While the European Union and Nato blamed Serb extremists for the fighting, Belgrade accused international peacekeepers and police of using excessive force in Mitrovica and said it was discussing an appropriate response with its main ally, Russia.

This latest series of events followed on from:

Riots erupted when about 100 police officers stormed and retook a UN courthouse in Mitrovica that had been seized last Friday by Serbs who were angered by Kosovo’s western-backed declaration of independence a month ago.

The police arrested 53 people who were occupying the courthouse, but were set upon by a Serb mob when they drove them away for questioning.

This, almost as if in a mathematical equation led to the events of the last couple of days:

A Ukrainian police officer serving with the United Nations died overnight of injuries sustained in the riots. Polish, French and Ukrainian officers were among 42 UN police and 22 K-For soldiers injured.

The violence was the worst since Kosovo’s Albanian majority declared independence and highlighted the risk of the new state’s partition along ethnic lines.

And while this has been an expression on the ground, politically the rhetoric has ratcheted up as well.

Serbia’s minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, said the “brutal” international forces had broken a pledge not to use force to evict the occupiers of the UN courthouse.

“This is what they have done to us. We’ll pay them back,” he told a crowd in Mitrovica, which is divided between Albanians on the southern side of the Ibar river and Serbs on the northern bank. It has been a regular flashpoint for ethnic violence, most recently during deadly riots that erupted exactly four years ago yesterday.

And this is echoed across a range of people…

Serb prime minister Vojislav Kostunica accused international forces in Kosovo of “implementing a policy of force against Serbia”, and said Belgrade and Russia were discussing how to stop “all forms of violence against Kosovo Serbs”.

Tomislav Nikolic, whose ultra-nationalist Radical Party is Serbia’s most popular, accused UN police and Nato soldiers of “brutal and savage” acts reminiscent of those which “Hitler’s occupying regime carried out against Serbs” during the second World War.

Dangerous talk, and self-serving too, but there is a political end. As Ian Traynor notes in the Guardian…

The riots come as the EU prepares to steer Kosovo to statehood while Serbia gears up for elections after the Kosovo crisis brought down the government in Belgrade. Serbia is planning to extend its national and municipal elections in May to the Serb areas of Kosovo, a move the Albanians and international diplomats see as an attempt to partition Kosovo. Serbia has not staged municipal elections in Kosovo since the UN takeover and to do so would breach the security council resolution mandating the international mission.

“The concern is that the aim is to further Serbia’s links with the Serb-majority areas of Kosovo and set up parallel institutions,” said a European diplomat. “That would seriously undermine Kosovo statehood.”

Surely, but from a Serbian perspective it would retain the all important links into Kosovo. And yet again it points up the bankruptcy of the previous agenda prosecuted by the EU and the US. Because if ever a problem was unamenable to the sort of zero-sum thinking we’ve seen displayed here it is that of Kosovo.

And while it is true that the reality that Mr. Ivanovic must face is that Kosovo is now lost to Serbia (although perhaps there may be some redrawing of maps at the borders) there is a painful corollary that Serbia is – potentially – lost to Europe for some time to come. At least it is in the absence of the EU and the US sitting down and rethinking what has come before.
In recent weeks commentators have been blowing hot about positive outcomes from future elections in Serbia and consider the following quotes:

Slovenian foreign minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the EU’s presidency, said he saw “encouraging signs” that pro-EU parties would win the election.

“To be quite frank, I don’t think there is any other possibility for our Serbian friends than the European Union,” he said. “Where else should they go?”

The EU’s external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said it was time to offer Serbs a sign of Brussels’s commitment to forging closer ties with Belgrade. “What we have to do is to show the Serbian population that we want them in the European Union,” she said of EU proposals for phasing out visas for Serbs travelling to the EU, more scholarships for Serb students and better EU-Serbia transport links.

But this is close to wishful thinking. It might come to pass. But there is no certainty that it will come to pass.

Polls suggest the election will, like several recent presidential and parliamentary ballots, boil down to a close battle between the Democrats and their allies and the Radicals, who are currently the biggest single party in parliament.

Mr Kostunica and the DSS are likely to come third in the election and again be cast in the role of kingmaker, forcing the premier to choose between giving support to extreme nationalists or liberals.

But what if Kostunica does choose the nationalists? Then the point made by the Slovenian foreign minister becomes moot. As already argued here, a sullen Serbian state, disconnected from a Europe that a significant section of its populace considers to have (at the least) assisted in the delivery of an historic defeat is arguably going to be quite content in the short term to remain aloof. It is possible that the Russians can take up some of the slack, although nowhere near enough. And that merely prolongs a dismal situation for the Serbian people.

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