"It has been the misfortune of this age, that everything is to be discussed, as if the constitution of our country were to be always a subject rather of altercation than enjoyment." - Edmund Burke anticipates the Neverendum
Friday, January 28, 2005
Confessions of a pro-war skeptic
But there was a more melancholy reason: I didn't want to be involved in a debate that I've found profoundly depressing at times; lots of jeering and sneering and a really quite unpleasant tendency to impute moral and/or intellectual failure to one's opponents. Often, both camps have carried out what could only be described as a sort of intellectual scorched-earth policy towards the middle ground.
However, this neutral pose - I thought - was looking increasingly silly, not least because of the forthcoming elections. Despite a number of very profound misgivings - most of which had to do with the nature of the Bush Administration - I reluctantly supported this war (it might be more accurate to say I found myself unable to oppose it).
On the reasons why, I have no particularly novel insights; they were much the same as those expounded by most of the "pro-war left". The Ba'athist regime in Iraq was, in my view, accurately described as a fascist regime of exceptional depravity and in a country where literally every other mechanism for regime-change had been attempted and failed. I would add, however, that I understood the arguments against the invasion perfectly well; I'd used most of them myself when in 1991, some of my contemporaries argued that the US-led force that expelled Saddam from Kuwait should press on to Baghdad to topple the regime.
However, while having the same reasons as them, I don't know if I could claim to be a member of the pro-war left; I'm of a skeptical disposition and, on the whole, theirs is the politics of faith. I could never agree, for example, with the extraordinary statement by Oliver Kamm of the Times who said, "the supporters of war have a monopoly of morality on the subject. There is no reputable anti-war position." I thought in my simple fashion that those who opposed the war did so for the same reason that I supported it - because they considered it the lesser evil.
I didn't doubt that I'd made the right decision when I saw the mass graves being opened - or when I saw the jubilant crowd celebrating Saddam's capture, but I can't claim that this has been the case when confronted with the mess that is the post-war occupation: the pulverisation of Fallujah; the stand-off in Najav; and the shame and disgrace of Abu Ghraib. Again, to elaborate would only be to repeat what has been ably and amply covered elsewhere, except to add that I consider the dissolution of the army to have been a catastrophic decision, the implications of which have been under-acknowledged by both sides in this debate.
And I've been astonished that up to now, Johann Hari of the Independent has, to my knowledge, been alone (in public, anyway) amongst the pro-war left in candidly acknowledging exactly how disastrous the conduct of the post-war occupation has been.
However, I fundamentally haven't changed my position because it wasn't, at base, a consequentialist one. It is, for example, an unhistorical and pointless question to ask whether the Russian people would have fared better had the Tsarist regime survived. The same with apartheid South Africa: before the collapse of that degraded and corrupt regime, everyone on the centre-left understood that the only position one could take was to desire its overthrow - and nobody would have dreamed of using the subsequent post-regime change difficulties this country undoubtedly had as evidence that the National Party's regime should not, after all, have been opposed.
Also, if I was coming from a consequentialist position, while I'd have no problem admitting I was wrong (I've had plenty of practice) - in the case of Iraq, I think people are being premature. It's probably apocryphal but I like the quote attributed to Mao Zedong: on being asked what he thought about the French Revolution, he was supposed to have replied, "it's too early to tell".
This is why I've been unwilling to give the Stop the War Coalition the benefit of any doubts I may have. One might have expected, for example, that if it were really believed that opposing the war was the lesser evil, those who went marching would have done so with a heavy heart, knowing that the position they'd adopted was a Hobbesian one more severe than anything found on the pages of Leviathan.
I don't think much of this was in evidence on the peace marches. Like the novelist Ian McEwan, I too was troubled by the "sheer level of happiness on the street." Many of the good, well-meaning people probably weren't aware of what they were asking "more time" for - but I do think that there were others who really should have known better and these tend to be the ones who are now suggesting that we back the "resistance". Now, if I thought this would do any good, I would - because I too want the occupation to end. But these are not like the resistance in Vichy France, as the gruesome alliance of Ba'athists and jihadis have been (absurdly) compared to. Historical analogies are always dodgy but to me a better comparison would be with the Afrikaaner AWB in post-apartheid South Africa.
Some members of the anti-war left have argued that, while they don't support the agenda of the opposition, one has to understand that compromises have to be made if the objective of ending the occupation is to be achieved. But that doesn't appear to be the case if the compromise that is made is with the Americans, in which case you find yourself (noisily) put beyond the pale by the likes of George Galloway who disgracefully described those co-operating with the provisional government and the election plans as "quislings". This from a man who has spent most of the 1990s with his lips pressed firmly against Saddam Hussein's ring-piece. Most critics of the war/occupation have avoided being so crass but it's difficult to avoid the impression that those groups in Iraq, such as the IFTU and the ICP, who opposed the invasion but support the moves to democracy, have at best had their voices ignored by a large swathe of the left in Britain and the United States.
I do think the critics of the occupation have been right to say that the Bremner administration have been far too slow in a process that should have begun during the first year of the occupation - and I suspect the key reason for this was the fear of a pro-Iranian, Shia theocracy - the main reason why Bush Snr left the Shias and the Kurds to twist in the wind after the first Gulf War.
But the elections represent a hope, not that a fully functioning democracy will suddenly appear, but the more circumspect prospect that, in the short run, mechanisms and institutions will be established that allow future successions to take place without resort to military coups, wars, assassinations, and outside interferrence.
As for the long-term, one would hope that the occupation will end as soon as possible and some kind of real democracy will eventually emerge; this would have a significance for the region, which I think tends to be under-estimated even by a number of supporters of this war. I'm not overly optimistic but I'll dispense with my customary agnosticism and pray to god that on Sunday, more goes right with this election than not. After all - this was done in my name.
Thursday, January 27, 2005
Make History Compulsory
The analysis is perfectly sound: it is true that all our European partners take the business of teaching history much more seriously than in Britain - and any history teacher will tell you that the general level of awareness amongst pupils of their own country's history is absolutely shocking.
Now, I've only ever met one history teacher who admits to having voted Tory - and in his case, this was only a hangover from the days when the Tories picked up some unionist votes in Scotland. But given that most of us would agree with this analysis - and that making it compulsory would be an employment boost for history graduates, you'd think we would welcome this.
You'd be wrong: it's the sort of thing we like - as a concept; the reality is quite different. Apart from anything else, we've seen teachers in other subjects suffer because someone in the Scottish Office, latterly the Executive, has decided to make a subject compulsory because It's Important.
Modern Languages is probably the best example: Scottish pupils are now required to take a European language to Standard Grade. At the time, many Language teachers thought it a sound idea. After all, we Brits are woefully lacking in this department, with the Scandinavians, the Germans, the Dutch and even the linguistically proud French putting us to shame- and it also meant the expansion of Languages departments across Scotland.
But the reality has been quite different. The school I teach in is by no means the worst in Glasgow. When I joined the school, I had a class situated across the corridor from the Principal Teacher. She was, and is, a live-wire who brings a great deal of panache to her teaching but I'm afraid her heroic efforts to introduce the track-suited fraternity to the joy and beauty of the French language hasn't always met with an appreciative audience, to say the least. (A typical outburst would be, "Why the f**k do I have to learn French anyway? I'm never going to go to France". Lucky for France; not so for the rest of us.) Now, I think, probably most Language teachers have been relieved to learn that the Scottish Executive have decided to scrap the whole experiment.
History's like that. Of course it's important. It should be a core subject but I've spent too many dispiriting periods trying to explain the causes of the Great War to pupils who would rather attempt to staple various parts of their anatomy to the desks to wish more of the same. Any history teacher with whom I've ever discussed this with feels similarly. Compulsory history: nice idea - shame about the reality.
Tuesday, January 25, 2005
New Scottish Blog
Friday, January 21, 2005
(Concillatory) Thought for Today
However, economic history often told a different story: far from representing a weakness in organised labour, that a plethora of unions could survive was often a sign of their relative strength and has been a feature of labour history when the economy has been buoyant and skills bottlenecks have increased the bargaining power of workers. And the amalgamation of unions - although not without obvious benefits - has tended to occur when they are weaker, due to stagnant growth and higher unemployment.
Very imperfect analogy of course (historical ones always are) but could it not be argued contra-Hitchens and Cohen that, far from representing its demise, the fact that the left feels it can afford the luxury of dividing itself into pro-war and anti-war factions is a sign that it might not be so weak after all?
Just a thought...
Thursday, January 20, 2005
However, I have - as a somewhat skeptical pro-European (hope you don't think that's a contradiction in terms) - been dismayed by the statements coming from those politicians and journalists who are strongly pro-European. People like Polly Toynbee for example, often talk as if it's only xenophobic little Englanders who have any misgivings over the European project (although many "Euro-skeptics" are this, of course). I'm afraid to say I think people like her - along with Roy Hattersley and almost all of the Liberal Democrats (not to mention Ted Heath) etc. are part of the problem, because they have been rather loftily morally superior and haven't, as a consequence, felt the need to push a populist pro-European campaign. The idea, for example, that everyone who has doubts about a single currency is suffering from nationalist chauvinism is really so absurd that I'm not going to dignify it with a rational response (or maybe I'm just too lazy to type in the arguments, you decide).
Anyway, I wish more anti and pro-Europeans could have heard what the representatives of the ten new member states had to say at a conference organised by Prof George Blazyca of the University of Paisley at the time of the accession. There was none of this "you have to accept everything or nothing of the EU" nonsense: a number, for instance, felt that no further integration was either feasible or desirable until the present EU institutions had time to "bed-down". The representative of the Czech Republic illustrated this by pointing out that after the Velvet Revolution, while Czechoslovakia was well-served in the secret police station department, it had no tax office at all.
The idea that this made them anti-European is patently ridiculous. The eastern European delegates in particular were strongly pro-EU and with an agenda that makes concerns over straight bananas - or, I could say, those who back the EU to show how cosmopolitan they are - look even more pathetic than usual. Having emerged from the bankruptcy of Soviet rule, all of them were in no doubt what the EU represented: the re-unification of Europe, an opportunity to cement their fledgling democratic institutions and to contain Germany, whilst keeping Russia firmly at bay. The Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian delegates expressed this most strongly, for fairly obvious historical reasons.
It's in this context that the Atlanticism of these countries should be understood. If you're Polish, for example, are you likely to say to yourself, "if the Russians ever give us trouble, we have the Germans to help us and if they can't be trusted, you can always rely on the French to come out shooting"?
Tuesday, January 18, 2005
Britons: the future's Scotland-shaped (unfortunately)
Is there any reason to think that the Tories won't continue to slide to the electoral position that they now enjoy in Scotland? So dismal was their position after the 1997 General Election, where they won no seats at all, it took the Scottish Parliament's PR voting system - which the Tories opposed - to revive their fortunes.
I'm a PR pragmatist in that I don't buy all this Lib Dem nonsense about "fair votes"; as Prof. Bill Miller of Glasgow University used to say, what voting system you choose depends on what you want it to do. I supported it in the case of Holyrood because I hoped it might get across to the Labour Party that they don't have a divine right to rule Scotland. It did this to a certain extent; watching Labour politicians coming to terms with the fact that they had to govern in a coalition was quite amusing at the time.
But it hasn't really broken Labour hegemony and the reason is the same as in the country as a whole, with regional variations. The key problem is the weakness of the main opposition party - in Scotland's case, the SNP. Different, in that they oppose Labour from the left but the same in that I think a lot of people now ask, what is the SNP for? Nationalism is weak at the moment in Scotland- a good thing, as far as I'm concerned - but it leaves the Labour/Lib Dem coalition without any serious opposition.
True, the SNP aren't in the same state as the Tories but bad leadership and incoherent policies have damaged the party's position. Add to this the problem that many voters, although perhaps preferring the nationalists' slightly more leftist agenda, wouldn't support them because they don't want a divorce from the UK. Given the at times sometimes astonishingly inept performance of the Executive (I'm thinking in particular of Malcolm Chisholm's impressive feat of making increased health spending look like cuts, with the centralisation of clinical services), I think any nationalist party is going to have a job persuading voters that what they need is more of the same. Also, apart from the Tories (also deeply weakened from association with Thatcherism and the fact that they opposed devolution outright - as did the SNP) - all the other parties are nationalist too. When you add to that, the recent fratricide in the SSP, it's not looking good.
Labour has been the party of the establishment in the old Tory sense in Scotland for many years now. As anyone who lives in the West of Scotland could tell you, their network of patronage in local government and in quango-land, and now through the Executive, is far-reaching and very entrenched (nowhere more so than education?) and the interesting feature from a pol sci point of view is the way that they have displayed that traditional Tory habit of preferring established institutions and traditions instead of principles.
The worrying thing for Scotland - and now for the rest of the country too - is that both Parliaments are bound to fail, for the foreseeable future, to facilitate what should be one of their primary functions in a democracy - to produce a change of government from time to time.
Monday, January 17, 2005
Do we trust our educational leaders?
"I am (intolerant) of the efforts of leadership "gurus" - those who claim to be able to transform the lives of individuals and the culture of organisations by a few days intensive course...they do not begin to address the underlying systematic problems facing many parts of the educational system".
We've all been to that in-service, eh? Think it'll be good to get a track-suit free day or two, until you get about an hour into it and you feel the life-force ebbing from you as you listen to repeated crimes against the English language being committed by someone who has clearly had the inside of a school described to them. Professor Hume then goes on to argue that this is essentially a "diversionary tactic":
"It involves passing on responsibility but not power...Attention is thus shifted from the people whose leadership underpins the whole edifice and determines the environment in which teachers work: politicians, inspectors, directors of education, chief officers in educational quangos".You know - them that talketh copious pants, yet get paid more than us, and lord it over us. Why doth the Lord not hear our cries and smite the pants-talkers?
"Teachers are not unaware of this but feel too powerless to do much about it, often because they are too busy getting on with the job of promoting learning".Or in my case, farting about with this blog when I should really get on with my prelim marking...
"If an independent survey of teachers was carried out, asking them what they really think of the leadership offered by (educational leaders), the result would reveal a profound cynicism".He's not wrong - and, if any such survey had a wee box for any comments, they'd all say things like, "You're only a leader if someone's following you, shit-for-brains". But it's a couple of lines in the last section that are so true, it makes me wanna cry:
"The leaders of teachers' organisations like to think of themselves as radical but are generally deeply conservative in their professional attitudes".The frequently used oxymoron "trendy teacher" always makes me laugh; delete "in their professional attitudes" from that last sentence. One Heedie that spoke to a group of us when we were students actually used this sentence: "Just to put you in the picture guys - I'm a socialist; I'm a member of the Labour Party". No irony intended, I can assure you. Now, the really painfully sad thing was that I think he said this so that we would think he was cool (I swear I'm cringing with the memory of it as I write). For non-teacher readers of this blog, the international pecking order in the "most conservative force on the face of the planet" competition goes something like this:
1) House of SaudI hope you don't think I'm making a sectarian point if I point out that 2 and 3 are in many places virtually indistinguishable. I've been accused of this before but my position's FTP and FTQ, know what I mean? (Don't make me spell it out).
2) Catholic Church
3) Scottish Teachers
Not sure about the next bit about Scottish teachers recapturing their "reforming zeal" if that means a return to innovations like the open-plan school (on a par with the chocolate frying-pan in the good ideas department) but if that means confronting these leaders and saying, "get thee behind me, semi-literate ruiner of education - after the revolution ye shall be tried for crimes against the English language and for being too stupid to live", then I'm up for it. Professor Humes advocates teachers asking "searching questions at school and at local authority level":
"That will require courage because the techniques of marginalising dissent are well developed in Scottish education"That bit is so cool, I need to repeat the phrase:"the techniques of marginalising dissent are well developed in Scottish education". Is that elegant understatement or what? And it's so true, I'm wincing right now; non-teachers will have to re-read Kafka's The Trial or something to get a flavour of it, I'm not kidding. But courage? Nah - just a ready acceptance that you'll never be promoted, that's all.
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Blair and Brown: neighbours from hell
"We can clearly forget those fuddy-duddy textbook checks on the executive: Her Majesty's Opposition, the Conservative Party and House of Commons Question Time. With Whitehall inhabited by neighbours from hell, there is no need of a balancing power. 'Friends' will do the job. The first rough draft of history lies with such blood-spattered gentlemen-at-arms as Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell on one side and Ed Balls and Sue Nye on the other. "
Jenkins thinks that part of the reason for the "personal immaturity" of these two men lies in the fact that neither of them has ever run anything. Now, this could be dismissed as the usual Tory prejudice in favour of "natural rulers" drawn from business - and Jenkins has a touch of this about him without a doubt - but he does have a broader point: the British ruling class, whether Tory or Labour, traditionally would be drawn from landed interests, business, and the trade union movement. The representation of trade unionists - as anyone who has studied the make-up of the New Labour creature will tell you - is today dismally low, with a career in law probably the most common precursor to entry into politics. This can make for able debaters who can think on their feet, avoiding the toe-curling embarrassment of someone like Bush, or before him Reagan - but Jenkins makes the point that this is of little use when things go awry - as they clearly have here:
"Political leadership in Britain now expects of its claimants the talents of a president without any relevant qualification. To lead America, or Germany, or France requires one to have been a minister, a governor or a mayor. Mr Blair and Mr Brown were none of these. They were lucky in taking power when economic and electoral good fortune masked what memoirs now reveal as a divided and shambolic administration. The past week's fiascos over tsunami relief and a leaky book reveal deplorable management by both men, poor delegation, rotten discipline and a failure to suppress personal ambition for the wider good. Nobody has a clue how to keep a secret."
The key problem, as Jenkins points out, is that - in the absence of any proper functioning administration - the absolute nature of the disagreement between these two men remains unresolved. (The disagreement is over, of course, who should have the top job).
However, his solution isn't very convincing: "If I were Mr Blair, I would do what I suggested he do after Mr Brown's challenge at the 2003 Labour Party conference. He should sack him and damn the consequences". Unconvincing because the likely consequences would be a complete meltdown in the Labour regime and I think both Blair and Brown, in their better moments, understand this perfectly well. Jenkins cites examples of other premiers who were at loggerheads with their Chancellors - but he skates over the Thatcher example: "Margaret Thatcher had an aversion to half her Cabinet". Certainly true but lacking detail; the reality was that Thatcher was ultimately destroyed because of her aversion to "half her cabinet" and more specifically, she did not survive falling out with two Chancellors, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe. Rather than following Jenkins' advice, Blair would do well to remember that it was the latter of these two former Chancellors that wielded the assassin's blade.
Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Contra my previous post: come back Richard Dawkins - all is forgiven. I'd rather neither but if forced to choose, I'd prefer a secular jihadi any day!
Friday, January 07, 2005
Tsunami, Richard Dawkins and the theodicy problem
I don't have anything much to add to this; rather, I found my thoughts at the time and now turning to the subject of religion. Richard Dawkins uses the disaster to question the validity of religious thinking in this context:
"The Bishop of Lincoln (Letters, December 29) asks to be preserved from religious people who try to explain the tsunami disaster. As well he might. Religious explanations for such tragedies range from loopy (it's payback for original sin) through vicious (disasters are sent to try our faith) to violent (after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, heretics were hanged for provoking God's wrath). But I'd rather be preserved from religious people who give up on trying to explain, yet remain religious.
In the same batch of letters, Dan Rickman says "science provides an explanation of the mechanism of the tsunami but it cannot say why this occurred any more than religion can". There, in one sentence, we have the religious mind displayed before us in all its absurdity. In what sense of the word "why", does plate tectonics not provide the answer?
Not only does science know why the tsunami happened, it can give precious hours of warning. If a small fraction of the tax breaks handed out to churches, mosques and synagogues had been diverted into an early warning system, tens of thousands of people, now dead, would have been moved to safety.
Let's get up off our knees, stop cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers, face reality, and help science to do something constructive about human suffering."
Dawkins isn't exactly subtle (am I alone in thinking that, while I'm sure he's a good scientist, his forays into the subjects of religion and politics haven't been entirely successful?) but he gives voice to what undoubtedly many people have been thinking: how does Tsunami square with a supposedly omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity?
Theologians and philosophers of religion have attempted to overcome this theodicy problem in a number of ways. Mainstream Christianity, having largely wimped out of the divine retribution explanation alluded to in Dawkins' first paragraph, have tended to rely on a free-will theodicy. Whether this is a philosophically satisfactory explanation for the existence of evil is questionable and it is precisely this type of catastrophe that highlights its weakness, given that the movement of tectonic plates doesn't originate in any human's will.
Those who, unlike the Bishop of Lincoln, do attempt to reach some sort of religious understanding would, I presume, reach for some kind of soul-making theodicy. (This is what Dawkins alludes to with his testing of faith remark). Now, I can't say I've ever come to a successful resolution to the theodicy problem - which is why I'm agnostic but Dawkins and others like him, I think, fail to understand the paradox of religion, which can be found right in the heart of this question: what is considered an insurmountable philosophical weakness (the existence of suffering and evil) is precisely where the religious often find their faith gives them the most strength - in giving meaning to suffering.
I can't say I find any explanation - the world as a vale of tears, or a vale of soul-making - any more philosophically satisfying than Dawkins but I'm disinclined to sneer, given that I haven't suffered anything like the hardship of many who retain their faith - and I doubt whether Mr. Dawkins has either. I am, in short, wholeheartedly in favour of what some conservatives dismissively call the "privitisation of religion"...
Wednesday, January 05, 2005
Happy New Year
Like many of you, no doubt, I enter 2005 several pounds heavier and several hundred pounds lighter: the latter due largely to reckless breeding by myself and other family members; the former due to the normal seasonal excess. My mind still agrees with JS Mill in saying that "pagan self-assertion is as good as Christian self-denial" - but my body, as it groans in anticipation of the coming track-suited onslaught, says he's talking mince. Anyway, Happy New Year to one and all - normal service will be resumed as soon as possible...
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- Make History Compulsory
- New Scottish Blog
- (Concillatory) Thought for Today
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- Britons: the future's Scotland-shaped (unfortunately)
- Do we trust our educational leaders?
- Blair and Brown: neighbours from hell
- Tsunami redux
- Tsunami, Richard Dawkins and the theodicy problem
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