Monday, April 30, 2007

Not understanding nationalism

Via Hak there's a wonderful exchange between Tommy Sheridan and Gordon Brewer on Newsnight Scotland where Sheridan patiently explains why his support for Scottish independence doesn't mean he's a nationalist:
Brewer: Why are you a Scottish nationalist?

Why am I a Scottish nationalist?

Brewer: Yes.

Sheridan: I wasn't aware I was a Scottish nationalist...

Brewer: Well, you're calling for independence.

Sheridan: Yeah, em, a number of people are calling for independence - that doesn't make them Scottish nationalists.
He then goes on to describe his position - which is nationalist by most people's definition - then reiterates that it would be quite wrong to conclude that any of this makes him a nationalist. "You accused me of being a nationalist", he says to Gordon Brewer. He actually appeared to be mildly wounded by the suggestion.

Confused? Not as much as you're going to be if you watch the rest.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Governors vs Senators

From the Guardian:
"Hillary Clinton emerged as the clear winner from the first debate between the Democratic candidates in the 2008 presidential race - ahead of her main rival Barack Obama - according to those present in the audience.

She appeared to be the most comfortable of the eight runners in the 90-minute televised debate from the South Carolina university campus as she dealt with a series of questions ranging from how she would handle another terrorist attack on the US to her vote in 2002 backing the invasion of Iraq."
I didn't see the debate and I dare say Mrs Clinton did a fine job but I doubt she'll ever have to deal with a terrorist attack because I don't think she'll become President of the United States.

It's not just that Clinton is a divisive figure. Even without this, she has the same disadvantage as her rival Barack Obama: they're both Senators - and Senators have a terrible record in Presidential elections.

In my life-time, the only Senator who has then gone on to successfully win the race for the White House was Richard Nixon. Governors, in contrast, have been much more successful. Post-Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush Jnr were all elected as Governors prior to becoming President.

It's no coincidence. Regardless of the reality - being one where Bill Clinton was the first President since the war to not have come from a wealthy family - American Presidential elections are characterised by what Christopher Hitchens called 'plebian elitism': the prospective presidential candidate, regardless of how blue-blooded their background, is obliged to present himself as an ordinary joe who is outside the 'Washington machine' to the electorate. To do otherwise would be electoral suicide.

The disadvantage Senators have here is obvious. It's difficult to imagine any figure more entwined in the Washington machine than the average Senator - and while the plebian claims of someone like GW Bush were and are obviously absurd, it is still an act that is more convincing coming from a Governor than a Senator. The question is, then, why do the Democrats keep picking them as candidates?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fascist America?

Did anyone read this in today's G2?

I did - then wished I hadn't bothered.

Credit where credit's due - this response is (largely) very good.

For representative democracy

Representative democracy is over-sold. I know this because I work in a school part of the ideological state apparatus.

A number of the reasons given by the average modies teacher as to why the little darlings we have seated in front of us should trot out to vote when they are of age don't make a lot of sense.

Like, "You should vote because people died to give you this right."

The latter is true but just because some else thought something was worth dying for does not oblige us to feel the same. Otherwise we'd all be obliged to follow the religions of those who were martyred for their confession of faith.

Or, "You can change things - make your voice heard."

Individually you can't change a damn thing. Not by voting. Unless the situation arises where you're the marginal voter in a marginal constituency that swings the election one way or another. And to say the chances of this happening are slim involves no exaggeration.

Or, "You've no right to complain about what the government does if you don't vote".

As if there were no other grounds on which you could complain about the government presenting a Slaughter of the Firstborn Miscellaneous Provisions Bill before Parliament.

I was reminded of all this whilst reading Chris Dillow's objection to Libby Purves' injunction that it is, "One of the sternest responsibilities in a democracy is to vote..."

We expect too much of representative democracy - we are taught to do so; a lot of the reasons given for our participation are bullshit, so we become cynical about the whole affair.

Let's have a more limited defence that has to do with what we already know.

Historically we know that there have been a few other ways of achieving a change of government, something which surely no sane person can believe is never unnecessary?

You can wait for the monarch to die, and see their firstborn take over in hope they will be better, more benign, more gracious, more competent than the last.

Or if you are impatient, you can wish for - and if it happens, participate - in a revolution.

There can, and have been, coup d'etat as an alternative form of 'regime-change'.

These two can often follow, or pre-empt, defeat in war.

There are one or two others, which essentially involve modifications of the above and which often, although not always, include violence - which brings us to the secret of representative democracy: it is a system that allows for a change of government without the resort to blood-letting that most of the other options have historically entailed. It is a secret perhaps because it is felt this is too modest an ambition for a polity.

But it shouldn't be, at least not for anyone acquainted with human history and the human condition. For it is the glory and wisdom of representative democracy to have turned something once thought of as treason into a legitimate activity - indeed in some sense even our duty. I'm taking, of course, about opposition. Our system pays politicians to oppose whatever government happens to be in power. A facade to some; genius, if you ask me.

I prefer this world to the one I don't know, and can't know. The world of direct democracy and 'demand-revealing referenda'. Would it be a richer place? We have no way of knowing but they aren't selling it to me at all. For one thing it sounds an altogether more puritan place than the one we live in now - and whatever else I might be, I am no puritan. Chris Dillow writes:
"Isn't it irresponsible to legitimize a system which thinks "democracy" consists in no more than a choice between very similar managerialists?"
No - no it isn't. For history teaches us that we are indeed fortune to be confronted with such a choice of grey managerialists in our elections. Apart from anything else we have alternative choices. In Scotland, for example, you could always vote for the Judean People's Front. Or there's always the People's Front of Judea. Neither, of course, has any chance of winning in May, what with the 'peepul', in that enduringly frustrating way to Trots everywhere, generally preferring not to vote for those who shout loudest that they speak on their behalf. But hey, that's democracy. Churchill said it was the worst form of government, except for all the rest. One cliche I feel happy to repeat in the classroom - on account of the fact that it happens to be the truth.

World government

George Monbiot advocates a world parliament. As an idea it's a soft, fuzzy thing - bit like Monbiot himself. Whip out the accountability word and who could disagree? It would like disagreeing with motherhood, or apple pie. Or 'choice'. Which everyone knows is a Good Thing.

But having a world bureaucracy, or army, or executive, or police-force are ideas that are - to me, anyway - ones that sound distinctly less cuddly. And without them, a world parliament would just be like the European one, only bigger, even more remote and even less effectual.

In fact it would probably be like that anyway even with a one world bureaucracy.

Which is why it's a crap idea.

Boris Johnson dies

Oh, it was Boris Yeltsin - easy mistake to make.

This article from the Scotsman reminds us that the best thing a politician can do for their reputation is to snuff it. It describes him as a 'defender of deomocracy'. Suppose you could argue he was - compared to the lot he replaced.

But there was the whole shelling the Russian Parliament thing - generally not the sort of behaviour that is considered normal democratic protocol.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Dodgy historical analogy watch

Not the title of some new blog I'm starting because, as I've said before, if you have 'watch' in the title of your site, you really should give some serious thought to the possibility that you've lost your goddam mind.

Rather, it refers to this piece by Henry Porter. He argues against the infantilizing notion that Muslim countries are incapable of incubating any of their own internal problems, along with the idea of the ultra-reactionary 'resistance' currently operating in Iraq as 'freedom fighters' - two negatives I have no problem positively affirming with him. Not sure about the following, though:
"It is as if Protestant and Catholic groups in the French Resistance used the Nazi occupation to blow up each other's churches and market places and slaughter each other's children. Actually, it is weirder in Iraq because the Sunni extremists of al-Qaeda are killing and torturing more Sunnis than Shia, let alone US soldiers."
Try this instead. It's as if, following the collapse of a secular tyranny, groups from Christianity's largest schism - that between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Roman Church - started killing each other. Something like the former Yugoslavia, in other words. Like all historical analogies it doesn't quite fit but it's better than the one he uses and still makes the point that agency has to be attributed to the insurgents, rather than imputing this exclusively to the occupation.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

On liberals, libertines and libertarians

What's a 'libertarian'? I know plenty of liberals, and more than a few libertines, but not anyone who would describe themselves as a 'libertarian', nor indeed anyone who appears to have the accompanying Nozick-esque ideology even if they didn't describe themselves thus. You could retort that this is because I have a narrow circle of friends, which might be fair enough. On the other hand, one of the reasons I haven't come across any libertarians in my community may well be - if what they write is anything to go by - that libertarians don't seem to live in communities of any kind.

Having said that, I suppose the blogosphere is a community of sorts and it's absolutely hoaching with them and I was wondering: how would I recognise one if I saw them in real life? I'm really not sure but if a regular trawl of the Land of Blog is anything to go by, I can guess at a sociological profile: libertarians, as far as one can tell, tend to be male rather than female; more likely to be without dependent children than with; more likely to have studied economics than history (are there any "libertarian historians"? Because history is full of bad news about the human condition); private or grammar educated rather than comp; relatively wealthy rather than relatively poor.

All of this may be a) inaccurate, b) unfair, but I'm afraid without any corporeal contact of my own to counter this, at present my mental image of the average keyboard libertarian is of someone - the gorgeous Chris Dillow excepted - who is essentially a Tory who has extended the Thatcherite logic of free-markets beyond the shop-keeper and is up for an occasional line of coke and some free love, if only they could find themselves someone to have it with.

As well as a) and b) this all might be c) irrelevant since were talking about differences in ideology here - the truth or otherwise of which is not dependent on the sociological profile of those who espouse it. So is a libertarian really just a liberal, only more so; merely a step further along a scale which takes as its starting point the idea that the sphere in which individuals should be able to make decisions without state interference should be as large as possible? Is it really just a difference in tone - or is there something more substantial?

I'm not sure but I've a couple of thoughts. Karl Popper wrote that "the paradox of liberty is that it has to be limited in order to be enjoyed". Implicit in this - in Popper's whole thesis, I think - is a liberalism that accepts the need for the state as given. One, moreover, that extends beyond the narrow Nozickian property-rights preserving state. Liberals like this - like me - think that history shows Hobbes had something more than resembling a point when he talked about man in a "state of nature" - it's just that he failed to extend the logic of a need for restraint on government, as well as the governed.

Libertarians don't come from this starting point, I don't think. Rather, they give the impression - to me, anyway - of people who have surrendered the anarchist position very grudgingly and whose default position with regards to the state is that the validity of its very existence is something that requires continual justification.

Further, the broad church of liberalism has historically allowed for the possibility - indeed the certitude - that there are occasions where we can achieve more collectively than we could as individuals. Libertarians, in contrast, are at their most generous when they treat this idea with extreme scepticism.

This can be seen, I think, in their approach to education - as can be witnessed in this frankly appalling piece about the lessons that can be drawn about compulsory education from the recent university massacre in Virginia. There's something absolutist about all this. It is impossible for the libertarian to concede that the problem may have arisen due to lack of compulsion - i.e. the failure of the American republic to compel its citizens to disarm - so instead the narrative becomes one of the problems of compulsion, in this case with regards to schooling.

School for these is somewhere where you are oppressed, denied your individuality, and indoctrinated. These things, of course, can and do happen in our school system. But their analysis is for me so heart-breakingly monist. Apparently missing for them (maybe not, perhaps they've just forgotten) is the experience of a place where you might have been bored most of the time, you might have resented your teachers and the uniform they made you wear - but it was still a place where you learned stuff, waded through tedious lessons in order to get the qualifications to do what you really wanted to do, had a laugh, made friends you've kept until this day - the sort of people you got drunk with for the first time, maybe took some drugs, maybe even met a future partner - or if not perhaps someone you lost your virginity to? The kind of experiences, in other words, that are the stuff of communities - the sort of communities that the average libertarian gives the impression of having never lived in.

All this may well be either inaccurately or unjustifiably personal, for all I know - but what prompted these thoughts was this: Chris Dillow, in this post, made a reference to an "area where libertarianism meets Marxism." He was talking about education but I went off in a tangent. I'm not sure the area where Marxism meets libertarianism is a particularly large one, or a particularly comfortable one. Marx wrote that it is man's social being that forms his consciousness. It's obviously not what he was talking about but I was wondering: would libertarians who favour, for example, privatizing the health service have a slightly different take - a different consciousness, you could say - if they'd had the experience of someone they loved being saved from disease, disfigurement or death because of the existence of this 'Stalinist' NHS? Perhaps they've had such an experience and confirm that they would not - but I doubt it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Brawling Buddhists

These guys are pure hard-core:
"Rival groups of Buddhist monks brawled in the streets of the Cambodian capital yesterday during a protest march.

The clashes came as about 50 monks demonstrated in Phnom Penh against religious restrictions on colleagues across the border in southern Vietnam.

The marchers, who said that they were from southern Vietnam, were confronted by another band of six monks outside a Buddhist temple. The groups clashed in a fist fight and some of the protesters tossed water bottles at their opponents. One monk was injured in the brawl."
Cambodia should be proud of them, in my view. They put the tepid, lentil-munching variety we produce in this country to shame.

Monks from the Don't Fuck With Me Order. If Phnom Penh doesn't appreciate them, I think they should be made honorary Glaswegians and given the freedom of the city.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Complusion in religion

Brett quotes approvingly Sheikh Mohammed Kazem al-Khaqani who said (pdf), "Religious belief is a choice... People should be free to choose the political system that they desire to live under." I agree with the latter statement, obviously, but I'm not sure about the former.

Ian McEwan in his novel Saturday referred to the 'accidental nature' of the views we hold. How much more so when it comes to religion, or the lack of it, when people's identities are inextricably bound up with a belief system? The position I take, for example, surely owes no small part to the fact that I was raised by two strongly secular socialists.

This is not to suggest that there is no element of choice but the will is much more likely to be active when a man or a woman breaks from the faith of their parents and their community.

However, where there is, I think, clear choice is with regards to this whole issue of compulsion, which is to say theocracy. I really don't know what to make of this oft-repeated saying attributed to Mohammed that "there is no compulsion in religion" because historically compulsion has formed a large part of salvation religions, in Islam at least as much as the rest.

But Sheikh Mohammed Kazem al-Khaqani draws our attention to another tradition where religion is expressed either in monastic separation from the world or by ascetic engagement with it - two modes of piety that don't really have significant political implications.

That present-day jihadis, along with politicized Christian fundamentalist, have broken with this tradition, is the matter we should engage with, rather than with religious affiliation per se. For in this world the scope for a person to choose their identity is not non-existent but is nevertheless circumscribed by accidents of birth. But given the breadth and depth of religious traditions, their heterogeneity and their intrinsic capacity to be non-political, attempts to impose these identities on others - which is to say attempts to use political power in order to make others replicas of oneself - are unquestionably social and political choices, modern ones at that, and should therefore be resisted to the uttermost.

David Cameron in talking sense shock

From the Scotsman:
""Labour's approach is backward-looking, rather negative - saying, 'If you leave, it will be a disaster.'

"It's the wrong approach. You can't get someone to stay in a marriage by scaring them; you have to persuade them to stay," he said. "I don't want to save the Union for the past, I want to save it for the future."
This is surely right? I don't know how many people will take Labour's apocalyptic warnings about the effects of the dissolution of the Union but they don't deserve to be taken seriously. The idea of Scottish independence isn't 'crazy', as Blair would have it; would it kill them to simply say that they think, as I do, that it is undesirable? Because as it is, one is left wondering if there's anyone in this Labour cabinet that has anything positive to say about the Union.

Meanwhile, Alex Salmond in an interview with the Times demonstrates his poor grasp of electoral politics:
"There seems to be a rumour abroad that somehow you are going to have, if the SNP emerged as the largest party in this campaign, a sort of rainbow alliance of Unionism constructed to frustrate and deflect and stop the SNP as the leading party. I cannot think of anything more likely to incite the wrath of the people of Scotland: the idea that you can have an election and then attempt to snooker the result."
But if the election result is as predicted - with the SNP as the largest party but with no majority in Holyrood - it is not possible to talk of the 'people of Scotland' having one view on this matter, by definition. Furthermore, if it turns out to be arithmetically possible for the pro-Union parties to thwart the nationalist parties' desire for a referendum, it would be reasonable to conclude, using the conventional myth of the 'mandate' which politicians continually invoke, that the 'people of Scotland' - or at least a majority of them - are not really fussed about having a plebiscite on independence.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

That bloggers' code of conduct

The details of which can be found here.

I'm drafting a letter, which I trust won't be considered too impolite:
Dear Mr O'Reilly,

Having read your proposals it is my considered opinion that the best course of action for you would be to take your bloggers' code of conduct and insert it into your rectum.

Respectfully yours,

Shuggy McGlumpher,


Friday, April 13, 2007

Friday the 13th

Back from hols to discover half of my pay hadn't been paid into my account. If I were of a superstitious disposition I'd attribute this to the date but easily the more rational explanation is that I work for Glasgow City Council.

Anyway - holiday reading: Slow Man. Best way I can think of to explain how good Coetzee writes is with a guitar-playing analogy. A lot of guitar-players never seem to get over the fact that they can play a million notes in fast succession on the higher frets of the guitar and those who don't know any better mistake this technical skill for musical talent.

Some writers are like this: Coetzee is Peter Green and he makes many of the rest look like Eddie Van Halen.

For those unfamiliar, here's Peter Green...

And here's Eddie Van Halen...

And if you've ever picked up a guitar but still prefer Eddie Van Halen to Peter Green, I suggest you kill yourself as a matter of urgency.

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