Saturday, December 31, 2005

With no fear of attack

Thanks to Talk Politics, I've recently read - or at least glanced at - some remarks made by Hugo Chavez, Constitutional President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, on Christmas Eve 2005. Here's the passage which has excited most comment (my translation).
I became a rebel and I dedicated myself to the true Christ - and this is the true Christ, I have no doubt about it. He is not that idiotic image with a stupid face that you can see in some churches, as if he were an idiot. No, Christ was and is one of the greatest revolutionaries in history and the first socialist of our era - the first socialist, and for that they crucified him.
There is enough water in the world for all of us to have water; there are enough lands, enough natural riches in the world to produce food for the whole population of the world; there is enough stone in the world and enough building materials to ensure that nobody is without a home. The world has enough for everyone, but now a few minorities, the descendants of the people who crucified Jesus, the descendants of the people who threw Bolivar out of here and crucified him in his turn, in Santa Marta over in Colombia... a minority has taken charge of the riches of the world, a minority has taken charge of the world's gold, silver, minerals, water, good land, oil, all its wealth, and it has concentrated that wealth in a few hands. Less than ten per cent of the world's population has charge of more than half of the wealth of the whole world. More than half of the world's people are poor and every day there are more poor people in the world. We, here, are resolved to change history, and every day we are joined and will be joined by more heads of state, presidents and leaders. Look at how the Bolivian people... Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, one of the poorest countries in the world, that republic founded by Bolivar and Sucre, which took the name of our own Bolivar - Bolivia is very rich: minerals, gold, silver, tin, oil and gas, fertile land, great mountains. It's certainly one of the poorest countries on earth, Bolivia, but the poor are waking up and they've just elected an Indian as President of Bolivia, for the first time in history. A true Indian - I'm half Indian, but Evo Morales is an Indian and a half.
I don't think this is as much of an open-and-shut case as Talk Politics suggests; it may not make much historical sense to blame the Jews for crucifying Jesus, but there are certainly those who do. (Russell Hoban riffs on this in Pilgermann, where his narrator visits an alternative reality in which, in 29 CE, a Roman prophet is executed in one province of a Jewish empire. The Jews still get the blame.) That said, Norm has this flat wrong. This isn't "the socialism of fools" - just socialism.

(But oh, how convenient it would be for some people if Chavez could be labelled as an anti-semite - not only would it divert attention from the substance of his comments, it would delegitimate him for ever after. We may not have heard the last of this.)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A couple of tra-la-las

I quite liked the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, although I have to admit to a certain bias in favour of any film featuring Tilda Swinton - particularly Tilda Swinton riding in a chariot, wearing chain mail and a lion's mane (spoiler, sorry), brandishing two large swords and glaring, always glaring

Sorry, I seem to have drifted off for a moment there. Anyway, it looks like a fair bet that they'll plough on with the rest of the series, and I for one am looking forward to the Last Battle. Who could forget that climactic scene in the Narnia beyond Narnia which was also England beyond England, that land beyond all lands which contained all lands and held within it the bright promise of everything that is true and good in human experience...

"One thing yet puzzleth me but a tad," said Prince Vivien. "In the tales of old we hear of two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve, and yet here you are and there's like three of you total? I mean, hell-o? If ye take my drift, good lords and lady."

Lucy sighed. "Yes, we told Queen Susan that we were going to jump through our magic mirror into the wonderful land of Narnia and have lots of jolly adventures, but she just said something about having a banging headache from last night and could we all go away. Actually, she didn't say 'go away', she said -"

"That's about the size of it," Edmund cut in. "Susan doesn't care about Narnia these days - all she does seem to care about is nylons and lipstick and mascara and eye shadow and foundation and that red powder that you really have to rub in - rouge, that's right - and there's this lip gloss she wears sometimes, you know, and she's got all these different colours of nail polish, there's one that's almost clear but when it catches the light it's got all these sparkly bits... She's a sight too interested in all that nonsense, if you ask me."

Peter nodded. "That, and getting bonked silly by that boyfriend of hers - and no, Lu, I don't think it's fair to say 'which one', she's told me she only ever has one on the go at a time. Still, the fact remains that she's foregone the chance to have lots of jolly adventures in the wonderful land of Narnia in exchange for nothing more than the sordid pleasures of the teenage meat market. She always was a sight too keen on growing up, if you ask me."

Lady Polly frowned. "There's growing up and growing up - look at me, I haven't had a good night out in sixty years, but you don't see me complaining! No, if you ask me Susan's one of these modern girls who just want to get to the silliest, most irresponsible, most frivolous, most sexually active and most pleasurable stage of life as quickly as possible - and stay there as long as possible. Why, at this very moment poor old Susan's probably staggering in after a wild night out, she's probably got roaring drunk and danced till she was ready to drop, and now she's probably going to summon her last dwindling reserves of energy for a wild session with some young stud. And tomorrow night she'll probably do it all over again."

"Poor old Susan," said Lord Digory. "When you think, she could have been here with us. In this... place."

"Is this... is this Heaven?" said Lucy in a small voice.

"Well, we are dead," said Lord Digory, "if that's what you mean."

"I thought so," said Lucy happily.

The silence was broken by a sigh from Prince Vivien.

"Poor old Queen Susan. To think that she's missing out on all this."

"Yes," said Peter. "Poor old Susan."

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Younger than that now

There's some good stuff from Ross McKibbin in the current LRB:
the two major parties fundamentally share the same ideology. Despite assurances that the political elite is interested only in what works, this is the most intensely ideological period of government we have known in more than a hundred years. The model of market-managerialism has largely destroyed all alternatives, traditional and untraditional. Its most powerful weapon has been its vocabulary. We are familiar with the way this language has carried all before it. We must sit on the cusp, hope to be in a centre of excellence, dislike producer-dominated industries, wish for a multiplicity of providers, grovel to our line managers, even more to the senior management team, deliver outcomes downstream, provide choice. Our students are now clients, our patients and passengers customers. It is a language which was first devised in business schools, then broke into government and now infests all institutions.
But this rings oddly false:
there is still a sense in which the Conservative Party is not of the real world. Its infantile reaction (fully shared by Cameron) to possible reductions in the British EU rebate – like its attitude to Europe generally – is not the behaviour of a party which wants to be taken seriously.
I'm enough of a Marxist to get extremely twitchy when I hear the word 'infantile'. Even if we could forget Lenin's infamous use of the term, 'infantile' wouldn't be a term that belongs in serious political discourse. It's not criticism so much as gatekeeping: you and I, responsible adults, have our legitimate disagreements within the spectrum of legitimate and responsible politics, but as for them... dear oh dear, why don't they just grow up?

It was (for obvious reasons) several years ago that Roy Jenkins appeared on Desert Island Discs and nominated a ghastly piece of Stalinist choral kitsch as his first choice ("And every propellor is roaring/Defending the USSR!"). It dated back, he explained, to his undergraduate days, when he indulged in "infantile leftism". Which struck me.
Our Infant
Tell me, Vladimir Ilyich: when you swam
Those bright days, history running fast about you;
When you stood war from the green West, from the frozen sea;
When the paint was flaking, when last month's posters
Flapped torn in the streets; when time resumed
And progress was stemmed; were you the only adult?
Were they children, who in that dawn saw other days,
Who would unwire your fences, lift the webs
Necessity had placed with your hands:
Were these people children, infants to be corrected?

For they died without descendants, these children,
Soon after you died old. The young webs,
The temporary fences lived and flourished
Till a nation's leader walked in the dark West,
Walked among the nations as an equal.
It was a glorious nation in its new,
Iron adulthood: a land of strength,
A young triumph over the old world;
And that great baby there was singing its song.

How young he was then! How childish to suppose
There was ever a young dawn in this dull world,
How rash to support the new ruler over the old!
Now, old in the old West, he looks back
On a life well-aged, on the drift of time
That has borne him into this maturity:
Now no bright dawn, now no land of glory
Singing in his voice; now in adult tones
He walks in adult passages, swaddled
In the soft belief that nothing could be better,
Drinking the sweet medicine of no change.
In most areas McKibbin has a sharp eye for New Labour's 'market-managerialism', but when it comes to the EU he's also drunk his medicine. But in a way that's only to be expected. Hugo Young's 'blessed plot', the entrenchment of unaccountable bureaucratic power at the European level, preceded New Labour - and seems likely to survive it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A herd of independent minds

I read Francis Wheen warily, not knowing from paragraph to paragraph whether I'm going to agree or start swearing. I read young Oliver very warily indeed: most of what he writes is drivel and some of it's repulsive. And I don't read Aaro at all if I can possibly help it.

Wheen, Kamm, Aaronovitch: it's an unpromising troika. They've come together to launch an attack on the Guardian over Emma Brockes' silly and slapdash interview with Noam Chomsky (which has been taken down from the Guardian Web site but can still be read at Chomsky's own site, apparently). More specifically, the trio object to the Guardian's apology for the interview; they argue that the apology goes too far in correcting the misleading impression given by the interview, painting Chomsky - and, incidentally, Diana Johnstone - in an unwarrantedly favourable light. They have argued this case in a letter of around 4,500 words to the Guardian's Reader's Editor, who has - understandably - concluded that it raises issues outside his competence.

I haven't seen the letter, but I believe I've read enough about this somewhat quixotic endeavour - primarily on Kamm's blog - to form a judgment on it. My judgment is that it's a really positive initiative, which I support wholeheartedly. Chomsky is a tendentious and untrustworthy polemicist, whose partisans react with outrage (and in numbers) to criticism of his arguments - and whose rhetorical skills make it extraordinarily difficult to construct a cogent critique. (For illustration, wade through this page, recommended recently by a Chomsky partisan.) On both counts, it is very much to the credit of Kamm & co that they are making the effort; it's a lot more than I'd care to do just now.

A little background from 1995:
Milan Rai, Chomsky's politics (Verso, £10.95)

Review printed in New Statesman and Society, 18/8/1995

Since 1969 Noam Chomsky has been one of the foremost radical critics of US foreign policy. Chomsky assiduously documents both the promotion of US interests around the world and the biases and omissions in subsequent media coverage. The resultant portrait of power, corruption and lies is presented as a rational deduction from objective study: the implication is that the government's apologists cannot plead either difference of opinion or ignorance, but stand self-convicted of lying in the service of power. This is a serious matter: the mendacity of the "intelligentsia" entrenches the limitations of US political culture, foreclosing the prospects for any kind of political reform. Chomsky himself, by contrast, shoulders the responsibility of intellectuals, which is "to speak the truth and to expose lies".

Milan Rai's presentation of Chomsky's politics is detailed, comprehensive and uncritical. Rai has even emulated Chomsky's habitual contemptuous dismissals of his opponents: Auberon Waugh is characterised, not very accurately, as a "brainwashed intellectual". (A larger problem is Rai's treatment of French classicist Pierre Vidal-Naquet's writings on Chomsky, who had - for reasons which remain obscure - written a relatively friendly preface to a work by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson; Rai dismisses Vidal-Naquet's criticisms undiscussed as "falsehoods"). This book is thus a missed opportunity. Notwithstanding the enormous value of Chomsky's work in setting the record of US foreign policy straight, his political assumptions deserve a more thorough and more critical examination.

US society, for Chomsky, is dominated by the "elites": a term which refers variously to the state apparatus, big business, journalists and academics. The relationship of the elites to the US population is that of an occupying power to a subject territory: the choice is between resistance to elite power and collaboration. Similar considerations apply to the US elites' relationship with the rest of the world. Indeed, Chomsky denies any significance to the internal politics of nations affected by US foreign policy: "It's just the same things in Washington playing themselves out in different parts of the world". Prior to 1989 arguments of this sort even led Chomsky to disparage criticism of the Soviet Union: "the moral value of this work is at best very slight".

Elite rule is sustained by the "propaganda system", whereby intellectuals abjure their truth-telling responsibility in favour of manufacturing consent to the status quo. A nuanced analysis shows the "propaganda model" to be multi-faceted: conformity is produced by the economic interests of media businesses, government requirements, cultural resistance to unorthodox analyses and reluctance to put in the necessary work, as well as - what is more commonly cited in practice - the moral turpitude of journalists. (A more accurate term than "propaganda" might have been "received ideas within the capitalist media"). Chomsky even acknowledges the existence of journalists who "use whatever leeway they have", without thereby modifying his judgment on the class as a whole. Given this level of over-determination and defence against counter-examples, Chomsky's finding that the model is "one of the best-confirmed theories in the social sciences" is to be expected.

Unsurprisingly, Chomsky's arguments are at their weakest with respect to the question of what is to be done. On one hand, intellectual self-defence against elite lies is easy (it only requires "ordinary common sense"); on the other, "it does require a degree of fanaticism", which explains why so few have followed Chomsky's lead. Chomsky approves non-participation in US presidential elections ("people are intelligent enough to understand that ... they are voting for Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola"); he also advocates voting: "you've got to multiply those little differences in policy by the power of the United States." Tactical considerations are a moral necessity ("if you write, you have a moral responsibility to consider the consequences of what you write"); then again, "you should do what you think is right and not what's going to be tactically useful".

This analysis is conducted, despite Chomsky's stress on objectivity and rationality, in highly polemical terms. Fascism, Stalinism, terrorism are constant reference points: the US intelligentsia inhabits an "intellectual culture dedicated to terrorist values and policies"; "Fascism is deeply rooted in everyone's mind in the United States". While assertions like these are invariably backed up by meticulously syllogistic arguments, the terminology seems designed to raise the rhetorical stakes: analysis turns into name-calling.

These paradoxes rest on the two convictions which underpin Chomsky's politics. There is a quasi-anarchist stress on the primacy of power relations: capitalism, Communism and fascism all hinge on the control of society by a bureaucratic or managerial elite ("Bolshevism and American liberalism are basically manifestations of the same thing"). This is a powerful vision which illuminates many real continuities; however, it needs to be qualified in the light of history if it is not to turn into a theory of the uniform and interchangeable evil of the elites. This kind of qualification can seem to elude Chomsky, who has argued that the Nazis were among the true victors of the Second World War.

Equally significant is the view - stated by Rai as an ethical truism - that "we must take responsibility for what our society does". This stress on duty explains the persistent tone of outrage in Chomsky's work: as a responsible US citizen and intellectual, Chomsky weighs the actions of the US government and the intellectual class and finds them wanting. If, as the "elite" model dictates, the US government is quasi-fascist and the intellectual class composed of power-worshippers, this only rouses Chomsky to greater moral indignation. The classical radical analysis of the state - as an illegitimate imposition on society for which nobody is responsible but the bastards themselves - is foreign to him.

The final paradox of Chomsky's work is that, however ill-founded his convictions may be, his Herculean labours "to speak the truth and to expose lies" are inconceivable without them. Chomsky is perhaps best seen as a figure like Orwell or Ruskin, his virtues inseparable from his faults. Like those predecessors, when Chomsky goes wrong, he goes seriously wrong; but when he's right he's unsurpassable.

The conclusion is kinder than I'd be now, obviously.

PS No, I know he didn't write it as a preface. He wrote a statement solicited by Serge Thion, a (left-wing) associate of Faurisson, and gave it to Thion with instructions to use it as he saw fit. When he heard that Thion planned to use it as a preface to Faurisson's work he objected, but too late to prevent it appearing; however, he has subsequently repented the objection. In short, he wrote "a relatively friendly [statement which appears as] a preface to a work by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson [with Chomsky's consent, despite initial objections]".

PPS On Chomsky, Johnstone and Srebrenica, see Lee Bryant's comments here and this from Attila Hoare. (Personal to JM - I don't know why Attila's writing for them either. Because they asked him, probably.)

Friday, December 09, 2005

I wouldn't pay him any mind


Nobody I know ever buys a volume of poetry.

Me. I bought two volumes of poetry just the other week - Getting the hang of it and Singing the city, both by Colin Watts (who brought them along to a reading I attended). I can recommend both of them, despite the unfortunate fact that the city in question is Liverpool (is there any city in Britain less in need of celebration?)

Modern poets aren’t saying anything anyone wants to read. Pop music has pushed poetry into obscurity. The only people who buy poetry are students, forced to do so for their courses, Eng Lit graduates, and people who themselves write poetry.

Well, all right - Ellis isn't actually wrong as such. (I'm a folk singer and, in a small way, a performance poet; I'd gone along that night primarily to do one of my own pieces, and was pleasantly surprised that Colin's work was actually worth listening to and reading.) But isn't this a bit like saying 'the only people who read blogs are people who themselves write blogs'? In other words, even if it's true, is it a problem?

I used to take poetry very seriously indeed; I used to aspire to be another Browning - or Tennyson at a pinch - with my poems appearing in the broadsheets and my collections selling the way celebrity biographies do now. Perhaps needless to say, I used to look on the poets who actually achieved success and gained a wide audience - from Pam Ayres right up to John Cooper Clarke - with the grestest of disdain: performance poetry? what would that be? It came as a disappointment to realise that, by and large, poetry was read by people who read poetry magazines: the conversation that was conducted in poems was no longer happening in the mainstream press, and the sheer brute genius of my poetry wasn't going to make it happen there. But the point is - the point always is - to find where there's a conversation happening and see if you can contribute to it. If you want poetic conversations, you can find them; they may not look like you expect them to, though.