Saturday, March 08, 2003

A fascinating, in-depth, informative, and deeply, deeply worrying (and very long) article about the prospects of democracy after Saddam, by the ever-admirable George Packer, appeared recently in the NY Times Magazine. From the looks of it, pro-democracy activists have their work cut out for them. One can only hope that they -- we-- are able to institute something like liberal democracy in Iraq, however imperfectly; the odds are against it, but the alternatives are too intolerable to not fight for it.

More good stuff from the NY Times Op-Ed page: Bill Keller takes on the 'it's about Israel' view of the war -- and quashes it like the nasty little bug it is (while also acknowledging that, yes, Israel does have some role in some people's thinking).
What can one say, but, 'amen'? (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Friday, March 07, 2003

Michael Walzer has an alternative plan for war on Iraq -- a 'small war'. What he writes sounds quite sensible to me, though I do have a couple of problems with it: first, I can't help but feel that this 'small war' would get bigger, and would either break out into a larger war, or gradually escalate, a la Vietnam. The other is that even with a small war going on, Saddam and co. could hold on to power for quite some time to come -- which would not be good for the Iraqis. (Notice that Walzer doesn't bring up the idea of forcing Saddam to accept human rights inspectors, although that, too, seems to me to be necessary if the 'small war' is to be effective).
But, none of this matters much, I fear. Bush and co. are determined to give Saddam a big war, while France, Russia, China, Germany and all are determined to do nothing about Saddam. So we're going to be faced with a situation where the best we can hope for is for the US to act responsibly and decently. Alas, hope has seldom made for good policy.

FROM SADDAM'S MOUTH, TO HIS NATION'S EAR: Ah, there are times when I love the NY Times so much! One of my favorite passages of the week, from this otherwise somewhat perplexing article on possible British wobbling:

"We will fight its forces like we fought them in 1991, whether they come alone or under an international cover," Mr. Hussein said.

In 1991, most Iraqi troops surrendered or ran as coalition forces advanced into Iraq.

Beautiful. Let's hope that Saddam is right, and his army repeats their actions of 1991.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Still more about Stalin (hey, he killed more people than just about any other individual in history (Mao excepted, perhaps); I think he deserves some blog-play here ...): there's a powerful, albeit a bit over-heated (but then, in this case, it's justified) account of some of the human costs of Stalinism by the entertainingly-named Vitaly Vitaliev. Meanwhile, Johan Hari laments the continuation of a tendency to ignore, or even defend, Stalin and his regime among Western Leftists. There's a very interesting article on Stalin and the literary intelligentsia, which shows Stalin's rule of the literary world to have been as horrible as one would have guessed, but far more complicated and seemingly inexplicable. Also check out the reading list at the end -- proof that even under the crushing weight of Stalin's rule (indeed, strangely, ESPECIALLY under it), great art can be produced. Anyone who cares about Russian life under Bolshevism -- or about humanity and beauty at all -- has got to read Dr. Zhivago, The Master and Margarita, Akhmatova's poems, and Nadzheda Mandelstam's memoirs. Full stop.
Finally, you go, Anne Applebaum!

Courtesy of Josh Chafetz, a different view of Stalin's death from The Onion.
It's funny, and it's sad, because it's so true.
Note also the story on heavy petting and the spread of Communism. I now understand how I've been able to remain so immune to the lure of Bolshevism all these years ...

And now for something completely different ... the NY Times wine column recently ran a feature on rieslings! While I was deeply saddened to hear that 2001 riesling has been selling like duct tape (sorry), while I haven't been doing anything about it, it's deeply, deeply satisfying to see one of my favorite grapes getting so much well-deserved, and ofte-denied, attention. Let me tell you, if white wine's your thing, and you haven't been hopelessly corrupted by chardonnay (so many are; why?), a good Mosel-Saar-Ruwer riesling kabinett is one of the best things on earth. The panel seemed more inclined towards the sweeter spatleses, which is fine for them, though I wish they hadn't enforced this preference quite so much in their ratings. But I for one am now eager to check out the 2001 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Kabinett. I am surprised, though, that they didn't rate any Bernkastler Doktor kabinetts, or Joh. Jos. Pruhm, on the list.
Now, hopefully they'll run a feature on salice salentinos one of these days ...

And you thought all that stuff about Stalin was merely historical! Not so; it contains a craftily hidden political message. This becomes clear with this article from the Guardian; guess whose favourite author and all-round role-model Stalin is? (Hint: as Tom Friedman might say, it ain't the premier of Norway)

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

There's an interesting, pro-American, pro-war editorial in the Telegraph (registration required, but painless). It seems sanguine, to say the least, in its estimation of the Bush administration's motives and the likely impact of the war; but its basic point in favour of war -- that it would be a humanitarian war to establish democracy and defend human rights -- is admirable.
Still, in the process, the author -- Janet Daley -- makes some claims about international law. In the course of which, she says there are two ways of conceiving of international law: either that which is agreed to by all people -- which is ludicrous -- or as founded on natural law (which she takes to mean the natural rights of individuals, a la the Declaration of Independence -- even though there are, of course, less liberal interpretations of natural law).
Now, this is all very well and good, but it doesn't cover all that international law can be -- nor do the enactments of the UN, which Daley derides (presumably she'd be less dismissive of things like, say, the UN's Charter, or Convention on Human Rights, etc.) There's also the issue of customary law -- those principles which have become enshrined by practice over time, and which have been agreed to as conventions governing the behavior of international actors. Some of these conventions have been codified, in the Geneva Convention for instance; others remain purely customary.
Now, one of the most basic of these is the law of war. I'm not going to get into the full story of the laws of war and just war theory, about which I am either rusty, or ignorant, or both. But one of the basic, agreed-upon principles is that one doesn't start a war unless one is provoked into doing so -- which usually means being attacked, or there being a clear and imminent danger of attack. Both of these are lacking with Iraq, which is why so many opponents of the war point out that Saddam hasn't actually made any moves to attack anyone. The Bush administration, of course, has announced its new 'Bush Doctrine' of 'pre-emptive' war, which would simply overturn this convention, saying that the US can attack anyone they regard as posing a danger to them at some point down the line. Now, I regard this as a very dangerous idea. It would give the US carte blanche to start wars whenver it wanted to, so long as it could make a compelling case -- to itself -- that it was responding to some future danger. This would mean essentially turning the US's ability to fight whomever it chooses to into a doctrine -- seeking to give might the mantle of right. This is why, when people fret over the possibility of American imperium, even if I distrust their motives or ideology, I can't dismiss their concerns. Because they are right, and Bush is wrong, and dangerously so.
Now, the other principle on which to justify war is to say that Saddam is in violation of international law -- both that of human rights, and UN Resolution 1441 -- and it is just to punish him for these violations. Now, the factual claim, that Saddam is in violation of international law, is plainly true. The claim that this justifies the use of force is more arguable, but I'm inclined to support it. However, now we encounter a problem: on what authority does the US enforce international law? If, as seems increasingly likely, a second UN resolution permitting the use of force is defeated, and the US goes ahead with war anyway, the US would be taking upon itself the power to enforce the will of the UN -- against the will of the UN. Or, the US could make the claim that it can simply interpret international law on its own, without reference to the UN at all. Either way, we have the idea that countries can act in the name of international law, without being authorized or empowered to do so by any international body. And this, too, seems to me a dangerous idea (think about what would happen if other countries adopted this principle, and decided that the US was in violation of international law ...)
Does this mean the US shouldn't go to war if it fails to get a 2nd UN resolution passed? Well, maybe. From the perspective of international law, it's a lose-lose situation. Because, well, the US is right, and its opponents are wrong: Iraq is in violation of a whole bunch of international laws, to the extent that, under 1441, force is justified. On the other hand, if the US goes ahead and enforces international law, against the will of the international community, which is refusing to enforce international law, they will be imperilling the very project of international law. However, if no-one seeks to enforce international law, that'll also be imperiling the very project of international law.
Which is why I'm really, really pissed off at France, Russia, and Germany right now ... (and also at Bush and co. for propounding this idiotic pre-emptive war doctrine, fears of which I think are motivating a lot of the opposition to the war)

Tom Friedman has a good column in the NY Times today, which articulates the way I'm coming to feel about the looming war in Iraq (so, let's see, now I find myself favourably disposed to Tom Friedman, Tony Blair, the Iraqi Communist Party, and somewhat less so to Christopher Hitchens, and still less so but more than I'm comfortable with to the Bush Administration. What's happened to my world?) Of course, Tom being Tom, he does become a bit of a smarty-pants at times (On Iraq: 'This isn't Norway'. Really? No foolin'!) Still, it seems a sensible, realistic view of things -- and is, of course, thus rather depressing.

Christopher Hill Update: Today's Times (London) contains a not entirely surprising, yet still shocking, revelation: that Christopher Hill, the master historian and sometime Master of Balliol who died last week, may have been a Communist mole during WWII. Hill, who didn't think to mention that he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain at the time, served in British intelligence and as an official at the Foreign Office's Russia Desk. Among his more harmless, but still rather appalling, acts was to try to get the British government to dismiss all White Russian emigres working for them with Russian-speakers sympathetic to the USSR. This, happily and sensibly, didn't go anywhere. More sinister was the fact that one Soviet diplomat who divulged part of Stalin's plans for Eastern Europe after the war to the FO -- and whose indiscretion would therefore have been known to Hill -- was recalled suddenly to Moscow, and never heard from again. Hill may or may not have had the man's blood on his hands, and he may or may not have had other blood on his hands; we may never know. None of this, of course, changes or detracts from Hill's accomplishment as a historian; but it does call for a re-evaluation of his personality.

The Big Lie: To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death (Stalin is one of those historical figures whose death one celebrates, and whose birth one mourns), the Guardian has published a piece by Robert Conquest. This is in itself somewhat remarkable, given Conquest's ideological associations. It's also, I'm afraid, not the best article in the world. But it is well worth reading for at least one reason: it pinpoints one of the worst and most essential facets of Stalin's rule, and legacy: the lies. Leaving aside the obvious -- though still, obviously, centrally important -- fact of the sheer brutality and destruction of human life of Stalin's regime, perhaps the greatest crime -- the greatest sin -- that the 'man of steel' perpetrated was the perversion of a nation's soul through constant, cynical, bald-faced lies -- a barrage of them, backed up with the gun and the knout. That was a large part of what made Stalinism so infernal, so unbearable to all decent and sensitive people who came into contact with it -- and what continues, I fear, to infect so much of Russian life.
Earlier this year I was talking with a woman whose husband had been a schoolteacher in Russia under Stalin, before managing to make it to the UK. She recalled his memories of having to get up in front of his clas, and teach them lies -- knowingly, unwillingly. Being forced to live in a web of lies, knowing that they are lies, but having to treat them as the truth -- that was the nightmare of life under Stalin, even for those who escaped his (often random and unpredictable and arbitrary -- and thus all the more terrifying) brutality.

A feeding frenzy -- on young flesh -- and OxBlog is there!!! The paedophilia-obsessed British press has, of course, been going on about the Russian Lolita-pop duo T.A.T.U. And now the NY Times has taken the opportunity to run an article on the duo ('Russia's biggest musical export since Shostakovich'! Oy ...) including a couple of photos of Yulia and Elena, well, doing what they do (singing in skimpy school-girl garments, and gazing rapturously into one anothers' eyes and preparing to snog in the same). Ok, fair enough. Then our friends at OxBlog decide to make this into a big deal: first, Josh Chafetz devoted a paragraph to complaining about the Times' use of the word 'despite,' which seems a tad pedantic (I've come to expect Josh to at least be pedantic about actually important things). One does have to wonder if Josh decided to make a to-do about the Times' coverage of TATU so that he'd have a reason to reproduce one of the photos from the Times story -- thus managing to castigate the Times for its prurient senstationalism, AND waggishly join in (also on OxBlog, David gets excited about the presence of potty-mouth publisher Al Goldstein at Yale. Come on, guys! I know what it's like to be on your own in cold, dreary Oxford [oh boy, do I!], but let's have some decorum here!)
And now I, of course, have joined in. Except there'll be no pictures of the Russian nymphette-sirens here. No, I respect Elena and Yulia as musicians too much for that.
Indeed, after not only the Times, but OxBlog, jumped on the TATU bandwagon (or is that a paddy wagon?), I finally caved and checked out their music. It's actually not that bad -- a damn sight better than Britney, Christina et al. from what I've heard. One British journalist described their sound as like The Smith's 'How Soon is Now', only chirpy -- which would be good enough for me! In fact, that's being a bit generous; but even if it's no 'How Soon is Now?' (but then, what is, these days?), 'Ya Soshla S Uma' (better known in the Anglosphere as 'All the Things She Said' -- I prefer the Russian version, though. The lyrics sound less banal when they're in a pretty language one can't understand) is a fine example of echoing, somewhat over-produced (did they HAVE to run one of the voices through a synth at some point to make it sound even more juvenile and whiny? NO.), intricate, and on occasion joyfully tuneful and giddy light-as-air bubblegum pop, with just enough darkness to balance out the saccharine. Even if the video does freak me out. I mean, why ruin a great teeny-pop song with all of these troubling shots of young women dressed as schoolgirls making out in the rain and behind what appear to be alternately bars and a chain-metal fence? I haven't had such an appalled, love-hate relationship (love the song, hate the video) with a video since Buzzcock's 'Thunder of Hearts' (a terrific song, a good sight better than TATU -- sorry girls, you still have a lot to learn both about music AND chirpiness from Pete Shelly -- but a freaky, freaky video) (On forcing myself to re-watch the video, I've decided I was a bit too hard on it the first time -- prudish anglo that I am. I mean, yes, it's exploitative garbage on one level; I'd have been far more comfortable with it if their skirts had been longer and they hadn't been drenched in rain. But, well, it's actually kind of touching, in a true-love coming up against the disapproval of society and the 'tyranny of the majority' (hey, if Sham Adrangi can misuse Mill in support of anti-semitism, I can invoke him in defense of this video), star-crossed lovers sort of way. I mean, how many videos allow you to be appalled at your own susceptibility to sentimental trash AS WELL AS to exploitative sleaze?)
Ok, I think I've done that topic to death. To conclude, then: TATU isn't at all bad musically by today's pop standards (that's sort of like saying that Tiberius wasn't bad by the standards of teh early Caesars after Augustus), and it's both sad, and alarming, and off-putting, that they've been marketed as they have been. Sadder still that it's worked; I mean, how many other Russian pop acts have you heard of?
UPDATE (a posting on TATU requires an update? Oh, the humanity!) I apparently misread the review which I thought likened TATU's music to 'How Soon is Now?' In fact, TATU's album has a cover of the song on it. Some critics have hailed TATU's version as better than the original. These people are, of course, tasteless fools. Yulia and Elena may not be the worst singers out there, but Morrissey they ain't; and even Trevor Horn (of 'Video Killed the Radio Star' fame) can't reproduce the wonder of Johnny Marr's reverberating guitar work. Pretty painful, really.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Human shields: I couldn't have said it better than Josh Chafetz, so I won't try. However, Josh does miss another, earlier article in the Telegraph about the human shields' lives in Baghdad before many of them decided to pack up and leave (note that it's the Brits who are reported as leaving. Ah, I love this country!) A shame, because Josh could've had so much fun with this: human shields sleeping in a room adorned with images of the butcher of Baghdad (ah, Stalinist chic never dies!), in a building emblazoned with a banner glorifying the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; human shields saying that the British and American governments are responsible for more deaths than the Iraqi regime. Right, Blair and Bush just MADE Saddam torture and execute all those people. Really, the sheer RACISM of these people is shocking -- they seem incapable of allowing non-Westerners any moral agency. No, non-whites must be 'misled' or tricked into acting by those all-powerful Western leaders. Borders, too, are the creations of Westerners, which Arabs -- noble savages that they are -- just don't understand, but which have been imposed on them. All this comes out in the interview with Godfrey Meynell -- a Church and Queen Tory who fancies a spot of fox-hunting -- who won an MBE for ordering air strikes on rebels in Aden. Says Meynell now: "It was a great mistake to give them their independence," he said. "I think that was a just war." Well, at least he's consistent: he favoured -- and helped -- fight a war to keep non-whites subjugated in the '60s, and he opposes a war to free non-whites from subjugation now. Ah, the sun never sets on British imperial attitudes! (Of course, Meynell has now decided to leave Iraq. Not so much fun when you're on the other side of the air strikes, is it, squire?)

One of the funniest things I've seen on the web in a while. (Click on the link under 'So In Love' for the file.) Good ol' Andrew Sullivan.
(Ok, so, admittedly, I do have a strange fondness for humour involving the idea of Tony Blair in homo-erotic, starry-eyed romantic duets with his political allies -- of which there are a strangely large number, actually.)

Ok, before I say anything in praise of it, the stupidest portion of this article:

'the split between the research and practice wings of psychology has grown so wide that many psychologists now speak glumly of the "scientist-practitioner gap," although that is like saying there is an "Arab-Israeli gap" in the Middle East. It is a war, involving deeply held beliefs, political passions, views of human nature and the nature of knowledge, and -- as all wars ultimately do -- money and livelihoods.'

Yup, life among the psychologists is really a lot like the situation in Israel-Palestine. I remember my father (a social psychologist who trains 'scientist-practitioners') coming home from work every day describing having to pass through the checkpoints between the clinical program in the School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers and the research-oriented Psych Department. And that time a grad student tried to explode himself in the parking lot -- that sort of stuff is really scary to a kid, you know. The thing that bothers me, is I could never figure out whether the researchers corresponded to the Israelis and the clinicians to the Palestinians, or vice versa. And I could never figure out who was right. There just seemed to be so much hatred, so much rage on both sides -- and they both seemed to deserve their own state -- and the violence never got anyone anywhere -- and why didn't Jordan accept any of them? I am pretty sure, though, that my father was in the Psych-war equivalent of Peace Now (or was he the Psych-war equivalent of Sari Nusseibeh?). Though I'm not sure if he would have been willing to give up Jerusalem ...
Ok, sorry. Couldn't resist. I mean, likening the battles between different schools of psychology and the Middle East conflict really is monumentally bathetic (as someone who grew up hearing stories about both conflicts, I think I can judge their similitude).
That aside, the article does address a fascinating (to me at least) and important topic -- although the author does at times write like she's actually on one of the sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and with about as much even-handedness. Yes, there are a lot of quack psychotherapeutical ideas out there -- but seeming to equate all practitioners with the people who believe in 'rebirthing' and 'restraint therapy' is rather unfair. However, the article's main point -- that an awful lot of those who are licensed to practice psychology don't know diddly about the science of psychology, receive no proper scientific training, and subscribe to and perpetuate fallacious misinformation and misunderstanding about human psychological problems and how to treat them.

A Nobel Peace-Prize Winner -- for War (sort of). Ramos-Horta, East Timor's Foreign Minister, is an impressive guy, and he makes a good case (and manages to say nice things about both Bush AND Kofi Annan AND the anti-war demonstrators -- wow, he really DOES deserve a Peace Prize!) I do wish he had spent a bit more time explaining why it would be good for the US to wait -- yes, the US has time; but do the people of Iraq? Still, Ramos-Horta knows far better than I what it's like to have to wait for liberation, so far be it for me to object.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

Isaiah Berlin speaks from beyond the grave on -- Iraq? Berlin, from Two Concepts of Liberty (the draft version apparently used as the basis for his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford in 1958, rather than the later published version): 'when men are totured or murdered indiscriminately by the arbitrary will of a despit; when children are compelled to denounce their parents, or men to betray one another, or minorities are massacred merely for being minorities ... Such acts, even if they are legalized by the sovereign .. cause horror even in these hardened days, and this springs from the recognition of the moral validity, irrespective of the laws, of some absolute barriers to the imposition of one man's will on another.'

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