Monday, December 13, 2010

My Two Cents on the WikiLeaks Controversy

As you can see from - the - past - few - posts, I’ve been trying to quote and link to other people whose opinion reflects my own rather than write a huge long manifesto. (I’ve got a thesis I’m dreadfully behind on. But I won’t bore you with my problems.)

However, as the issue doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, I’ve decided maybe it would be better for me to just write my piece and get it off my chest. (Not that I’m under the illusion that this blog attracts enough readers to influence the public debate, but it will help me sleep better at night knowing I’ve said what I wanted to say.)

There are of course a lot of terrible things happening in the world everyday (famine, poverty, wars, etc), but this issue in particular seems to stand at a crossroads in history. From here we either go forward into a world where governments are more accountable and information is more accessible. Or we turn the corner into where it becomes illegal to publish any information that your government doesn’t like. And any student of history can tell you that once society gives up a right, it is very very difficult to get it back again.
(Anyone who has read “1984”, a novel in which information is meticulous controlled and manipulated by the government, can have little doubt where George Orwell’s opinions would be on this subject were he still alive.)

The attempts to shut down WikiLeaks by governments ought to alarm everyone. It is also scary the way the corporations (Amazon, PayPal, Visa, Mastercard) have fallen into line to deny WikiLeaks service.

All of this of course has coincidentally happened at the same time Julian Assange has been arrested on a rape charge, which admittedly muddies the water a bit. Although I’m still waiting to see how these rape charges play out in court, if Julian Assange is guilty of rape, he should go to prison for it. That in no way however means the United States government is justified in attempting to shut down his website.

On a personal level, Julian Assange may be less than likeable. He comes off as arrogant and eccentric in many of his interviews. The authoritarian style with which he runs WikiLeaks has reportedly alienated much of WiliLeaks volunteer staff. And then there’s the rape charges again. But this should not be about Assange’s cult of personality. This is about the structures and laws that govern who controls information.

It’s also about freedom and the republic.

Although I’m not a lawyer, it is more than possible that Julian Assange may have broken some laws. However one can only talk so far about the laws as they are currently written. Rather one must argue for the laws as they should be written, as when William Pitt argued against Slavery in the British Parliament, or Thomas Paine argued for freedom of speech in British courts, or Martin Luther King argued on the steps of Washington for an end to discrimination.

Because governments make the laws, it is not surprising that governments would make laws to protect itself against its people. Thus we have walking around in Washington, in perfect freedom, respected statesmen who organized illegal wars, bombed rice farming villages back into the stone age, planned coups, and assassinations in Latin America, mined harbors, dropped cluster bombs on civilian populations, massacred villages, used depleted uranium missiles and funded money to terrorists in Nicaragua. None of this is thought by our government to be worthy of punishment. But publishing information about this government, or exposing the government, is a crime. Therefore we see the absurdity of what happens when governments create laws. (In fact, some members of the government even have the audacity to call WikiLeaks a terrorist organization.)

If our republic were functioning the way it should, the idea of government secrecy should be an oxymoron. A republic means res publica—literally a public thing. A republican government is not some sort of private club for the elites, a republican government is our institution. We own it, we pay for it, we should control it and operate it, we should vote for our representatives based on informed decisions about what these leaders are actually doing, and we should be informed about how well they are representing our interests.

We have the right to keep secrets from the government. The government does not have the right to keep secrets from us.

The degree of freedom in a society can be measured to the extent that government is held responsible to the people, not to which people are held responsible to their government.

The higher up in government you are, the less right to privacy you should have. (At least as far as your government job goes. Your sex life you should be able to keep to yourself.) The lower your power, the more right to privacy you should have.

At least that’s the way it should be if this was actually a functioning republic.

Instead, over the past few years especially we’ve seen this principle put on its head. With all the counter-terrorism and surveillance legislation passed in the last 10 years, we now have a government which has lots of information on us, but we actually have very little information about our own government.

We are also in danger of creating a system in which the average citizen is forbidden from participating in democracy in any meaningful way other than to tick a box once every 4 years. And furthermore they are supposed to tick that box based only on the information that the government thinks it is appropriate for them to have. All other important decisions are then left to the government elites, based on information the rest of us just can not handle.

Politicians talk occasionally about creating government transparency, but left to themselves politicians will only be transparent as far as it is convenient for them to be transparent. And it is precisely at the times when it is inconvenient for them to be transparent that transparency is actually needed.
Obama was elected on a platform of creating more government transparency, but we’re still waiting to see this campaign promise actually fulfilled. WikiLeaks (and the whistle blowers who have contributed to it) have created much more transparency in the past few months than Obama has in his entire presidency to date.

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Addendum 1:
Part of what Wikileaks revealed was that the Australian member of the Labour Party, Arbib, has been passing on information about the inner workings of the Labour Party to the US embassy.
I don’t know if this made the papers back home, but it was definitely big news here.
Someone in the local paper made an excellent point the other day about the hypocrisy of this. The US government collects leaks from all sorts of informants around the world. This they consider perfectly okay. Arbib leaking to the US about the Labour Party is considered perfectly legal. But when someone else leaks information about the US government to the public, this is supposed to be illegal?

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Addendum #2
Governments are of course constantly telling us that they need secrecy to operate in, and that all of our lives would immediately be in danger if that cloak of government secrecy were to drop for one moment.
It should not of course surprise us that governments would tell us this. To create a culture in which everyone believes this means it’s very easy for government to operate the way they want to.
The fact that we’ve all been so easily brainwashed into believing it is however a bit surprising.

Personally I’m skeptical. If our government operated in complete transparency--if all the cabinet meetings, Oval Office chats, and members of the energy task force--were completely out in the open, I don't think the sky would collapse and we would all die.

Of course politicians would drastically have to change the way they do things. They wouldn't able to do back room deals, or plan coups in South America, but that's not the end of world.

I also think counter-terrorism could operate just as well out in the open as it could behind closed doors.
Recall for instance that September 11th happened not because there wasn’t enough government secrecy, but because there was too much. The CIA was watching the suspicious Saudi Arabian men who were taking flight lesson, but didn’t share this information with anyone else. So much information was labeled secret that the various law enforcement agencies were unable to work together.
Now imagine what would have happened if all of this information had been open and freely available to everyone.

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Addendum #3
Every high school sophomore knows the old adage that you don’t have the freedom of speech to yell fire in a crowded theater. Very few people know where the quote actually came from.

During World War I a group of Quaker Pacifists were trying to encourage young men not to join the army. The Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that this was illegal, and that this action wasn’t covered under their first amendment rights because, “you don’t have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater.” And thus a cliché was born.

The irony is of course that the Quakers were trying to save the men, and it was their own government which was hurling young men into the fire which was the European front in the biggest, bloodiest, and most pointless wars ever fought.
It’s worth remembering this little bit of historical context whenever someone tells you “you don’t have the right to yell fire in a crowded theater.”

It also established a pattern that holds true for just about any war ever fought. Governments send their young men and women into danger, and then when their citizens speak out against the war, governments accuse these citizens of putting the soldiers in danger.
When the government accuses WikiLeaks of putting US soldiers in danger, they are using the oldest trick in the censorship handbook. They’re also being incredibly hypocritical. If they really cared about the safety of the troops, they wouldn’t have sent them into the war.

I am very much concerned about the lives of the brave men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which is why I want them placed out of harms way and brought home immediately.

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One last note:

In private conversation the past few weeks, I had actually been trying to defend the Tea Party Movement to some of my friends.
Sure, I had said, the Tea Partiers allow themselves to be manipulated by wealthy tax cut advocates business and health insurance companies. But even though they’re a bit paranoid, Tea Partiers are aware that human society has only recently emerged from tyranny and feudalism, and that this freedom was the result of years of struggle, and they have a healthy desire to try and protect the gains we’ve made.

Sigh. You know every time I try and give the right-wing the benefit of the doubt, I just end up regretting it.

Maybe there are Conservative voices I’m not hearing over here. But based on the news coverage I’ve been getting, it seems like Sarah Palin, Mike Hukabee, and the right wing radio nuts have all been calling for Assange’s head.

These from the people who’ve been telling us for months you can’t trust the government to manage your health care or your tax dollars.

Look, guys, if you’re going to play the populist card at least be consistent. There’s no right more basic than the freedom of information. If you can’t trust the government to manage our health care, you can’t trust it to control what information we can and can’t receive.

And while I’m complaining about conservatives: guys, how come the people have a right to know under the intimate details of how President Clinton pleasures young interns [in case you forgot, go look up the congressional records from the 90s. The graphic details about the cigar are all in there] but we don’t have a right to know about what our government is actually doing?

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Okay, one last, final thought.

As should be obvious from reading all of the above, I'm not so much interested in debating the technicalities of the law as it is currently written so much as talking about the ideal of open and transparent government.

BUT...if one were inclined to sparse legalities here, an important distinction needs to be made between the people who actually leak the documents, and the media organizations that publish them.
Wikileaks didn't actually leak any of the material. It simply published it. As such, it needs to be considered as any other media organization.

Even assuming you grant a secret government, where all sorts of files are marked "top secret" and hidden in vaults behind security clearances and firewalls-- once something is leaked, it's leaked.

As a federal judge reportedly told the Nixon administration regarding the Pentagon Papers, once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't get it back inside again.

Once a secret document leaves the government's firewall and goes out into the public arena, the government can not silence the media from reporting on it. To grant the government this power is to go down a road we do not want to go down.

The media is under no obligation to suppress news stories that inconvenience or embarrass the government once it gets its hands on leaked documents.

Government secrecy is the government's priority. It is not, and should not be, the media's priority.

Link of the Day
Hopes and Prospects for Activism: "We Can Achieve a Lot"

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quotes, Quotes, Quotes

[I've been enjoying reading the letters' page of the newspaper here (The Age, in Melbourne). Many of the comments on this WikiLeaks saga I thought really hit the nail on the head, and deserved a larger audience. So over the past week or so
I've been copying down all the best ones. Enjoy
]


It’s a shame they don’t go after sites hosting child pornography with the same vigour they’ve been going after wikileaks.
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Bush and Cheney start a war based on lies, and Wikileaks is supposed to be illegal for telling the truth?
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Only a politician would call the truth irresponsible
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The Swiss have no scruples hiding the blood money of the worst criminals in the world, yet they froze the account of Julian Assange. Who put the frighteners on them?
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Mike Huckabee says “anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.” There is a word for those who advocate the execution of people who have committed no crime. Terrorist.
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Julian Assange is living proof that the nation that touts free speech so much, the USA, only allows it when it does not tell inconvenient and embarrassing truths about it.
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau said in his book “On the Social Contract,” that “The people of England thinks itself free; but it is free only during the parliamentary elections.” Afterwards, they lived under an elected dictatorship.
The Julian Assange affair shows that this remains the case today. Politicians have poured bile over the whistleblower. In the US, elements of the Republican Party have demanded that he be put to death. Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric verges on the hysterical. Our Prime Minister and Attorney-General have mouthed the same hypocritical cliches as their US masters.
As in Rousseau’s day, politicians’ promises of transparency and accountability are soon forgotten; hidden behind thickets of “cabinet secrecy”, “commercial-in-confidence” and raison d’etat. They have mutated from servants of the people to masters over them.
Yet, there is an antidote to their machinations, which is why they are so furious over Wikileaks. As Oliver Wendell Holmes snr said in 1852: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty—power is ever stealing from the many to the few. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only by uninterrupted agitation can a people be kept sufficiently aware to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.

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It’s easy to dismiss the extremist mullah s in Pakistan baying for the blood of a “blasphemer” as products of a cruel, primitive and bigoted fundamentalism. Apart from the absurdity of the “crime”—one that belongs in the Middle Ages—it highlights the problematic nature of an Islamic society, and we should all take note.
But where does this place the senior Republicans and radio hosts in the United States baying for the blood of Julian Assange? They are clearly on the same moral level as their pronounced enemies. In any civilized society, these individuals would be charged with incitement to violence. So where is that civilized society now?

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The most revealing aspect of the Wikileaks drama has been that no one has come out and denied the veracity of the leaked diplomatic cables. Kevin Rudd has tried to laugh them off as inconsequential. But no one has said these revelations are a pack of lies. So when has speaking the truth become a crime? And if it is, how do we explain it to our kids?
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I for one find it refreshing to hear the truth about the lies and misrepresentations peddled by politicians of all persuasions.

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There are times when an event occurs that provides an opportunity to test the bona fides of those who participate in the political debates that are part of a thriving democracy. The WikiLeaks affair is one such event.
Political populism in the US is keen to paint government and its instruments as essentially working against the best interests and rights of its citizens.
The healthcare reform debate used the dearly held right to free speech as a means to attack the proposed reforms in ways that left many in Australia finding new respect for our own less than perfect political (and for that matter, healthcare) system.
Yet when WikiLeaks exposed some of the inner workings of the US and other governments, the same political populists suddenly lose their interest in the rights of individuals and start defending governments.
It is worth noting that the strident calls for violence and suppression against those who published the documents are the stuff of totalitarian regimes.

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If Wikileaks had been operation 10 years ago, the illegal and immoral wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which were based on the lies and greed of the US and its allies, would not have started. The lives of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians would have been saved. It would certainly have saved the US economy from inching towards the present chaos as a result of the burden of financing these wars.
Assange has given true democracy a new lease of life when it has been dying around the world in the hands of unscrupulous politicians, corporations, and political donors. He deserves the support of all Australians.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on American Foreign Policy and US Politics

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Another Quote of the Day

“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
--Thomas Jefferson

(Taken from this article here. Actually the whole article is well worth reading.)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Quote of the Day

(I'm Stealing this from the Daily Kos)

It's alarming to watch the reaction from some in the USA to Assange and Wikileaks. It's similar to how China responds to Tibet activists, or Nobel prize winners.

In case you think I'm being "rhetorical"... read on.

He has come under growing pressure after WikiLeaks started publishing excerpts from a cache of 250,000 secret messages. In the US, the level of political vituperation has become more vengeful. The former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has described Assange as "an anti-American operative with blood on his hands". The senior Republican Mike Huckabee said that "anything less than execution is too kind a penalty".


If this is the land of the free and home of the brave and freedom of the press yada yada yada, then wikileaks is holding up a mirror to our supposed values and beliefs, and what it's showing ain't pretty. It's crazed. I hear everyday people condemn Assange without even knowing the good that was intended AND accomplished.

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Also this article is quite good too:
WikiLeaks: power's legitimacy directly proportionate to its transparency

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Google Search Game

A friend and I were messing around with Google the other night, and we ended up creating what I think is a really fun game. In fact we had so much fun doing it, I thought it would be selfish just to keep this game to ourselves, and that I had a duty to share it with the world.

So here it is:
Write an unfinished sentence. (We were using “Jamie is a(an)—“, but you can write anything you like.) People then take turns completing the sentence with different endings, and then googling it, in quotation marks, to see if that exact phrase is somewhere on the web. (You could also complete the beginning of sentences, like “— is a dangerous activity” or something.)

The goal is to get as few results as possible without actually getting zero. If you get zero results, the game is over and you lose. Otherwise, you write down the number of the results as your score for that round. (You’ll probably need pen and paper to keep score.)
You play for a pre-determined number of rounds. (We found 5 rounds worked nice with just two people.) If no-one actually goes bust (gets zero results) before the end of the game, then the person with the lowest score wins.

The game actually finishes pretty quickly, especially if someone gets zero results early on. So just to keep playing we started doing things like best 3 games out of 5, or best 5 games out of 7.
Initially we had the loser of one game go first for the next game, but if someone is having particularly bad luck this could cause them to have a run of several zero results right in a row. So the winner of each game goes first on the next game.

You could maybe also fool around with having the winner pick a new phrase for each game to keep things fresh. (Obviously it has to be something you can potentially put different endings on.) Although we were having pretty good results for our phrase, so we just stuck with the same phrase all the way through.

Also we were just playing with two people, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t expand this game to a bigger group. You may want to adjust the number of rounds depending on the size of the group.
With more than two people, if someone goes bust you can have a loser, but no clear winners. But that’s okay, there are other games that work like that (Jenga, for example). You could make it more interesting by having some sort of punishment for the loser.
Or you could just total up all the scores at the time someone goes bust, and have the lowest score at the time be the winner.

Probably a lot of other details and variations you can work out by yourself. Feel free to use this, run with it, and just change it up as you like. If you stumble upon any great improvements, let me know in the comments sections. But probably to a large extent the simplicity of this game is its beauty.

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To the best of my knowledge, this is a completely original idea. But it does almost seem a little bit too obvious. Odds are probably somebody out there thought of this before me. Has anyone else ever done something like this, or heard of something like this before?

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Forgotten History

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Name Change

You may have noticed I've changed the name heading on this blog.

The url address is still the same, so no need to update your list of links. Just the name on the banner is different.

I've changed names on this blog once before, so it's not completely without precedent. Perhaps every 3 years or so I just get the urge.

In this case, since I'm retiring my "Better Know a City" project, I now envision this blog as being exclusively for book reviews and movie reviews, (with occassionally other opinions on political, religious, or social issues thrown in as the muse strikes me). And so I thought if I had a title that reflected the purpose, it would be less confusing to readers.

As for the old heading and description:
I think most of you have figured it out by now, but just in case anyone was still scratching their heads,
The old title was just my name written out in Japanese katakana (W).

The old description:
それは善きジョエルでもあれば、悪しきジョエルでもあった。知恵のジョエルであるとともに、愚痴のジョエルでもあった。信念のジョエルでもあれば、不信のジョエルでもあった。光明のジョエルでもあれば、暗黒のジョエルでもあった。希望のジョエルでもあれば、絶望のジョエルでもあった。 ~『二都物語』より~
was the introduction to "A Tale of Two Cities" in Japanese, with my name inserted into it in place of "times."
"It was the best of Joel, it was the worst of Joel, it was the Joel of wisdom, it was the Joel of foolishness, it was the Joel of belief, it was the Joel of incredulity, it was the Joel of Light, it was the Joel of Darkness, it was the Joel of hope, it was the Joel of despair."

In retrospect, maybe I was trying to get away with being too cute with a description like that.
However the idea was that most of the stuff in this blog is either just off the cuff, or still in rough draft form. (If I had any shame, I'd probably go through and delete half the stuff I've written for stylistic reasons alone.) And yet every once in a while, I have a post that I'm pretty proud of, if the reader is willing to wade through all the bad stuff to get to it. Thus "the best" and "the worst" of my writing both being showcased here on this blog. A trend that will continue, I'm sure, even if the name changes

Link of the Day
noam chomsky on the war on terrorism

Friday, October 15, 2010

Obligatory Pre-Election Post and Thoughts on the Tea Party

I really should be studying right now, but as always I've got the need to chime in with my two cents, and I want to do this sometime before the fall election.

And if the covers of major news magazines are anything to go by the past few months, it looks like the tea party is going to play a big role in this next election.

However, after reading the recent "Tea and Crackers" article by Matt Taibbi (link here) I decided there was no need to re-write what he had already said so well. So instead of reading my post, just go over and read his article. It's worth your time, trust me.

As for my own personal two cents:

I'm sympathetic to some of the concerns the tea party has about the huge deficit. What makes me cynical is that for the tea partiers, this appeared to only become an issue the moment Obama became president. This makes me think they're only playing politics with the issue.

Where were these people during the Bush years, when we went from Clinton era government surpluses to record high levels of debt?
(And just to prove that I myself am no Johnny-come-lately on the deficit issue, if you search the archives of this blog you can find a lot of fretting about government deficits and irresponsible spending going all the way back to 2004. (See here, here, here, here here , here, here, here, here and here for example).)

But there's an even more important point that almost always gets overlooked in the mainstream media--higher taxes always have been, and always will be, linked to wars. You can see this very clearly looking at history. Go and read some of it for yourself. Every time the taxes were raised it was to fund foreign wars. Every time the peasants complained about the tax burden (or rebelled against taxes), it was because the king needed the money for wars.
The high taxes that caused the English Civil Wars, for example, were caused because King Charles needed the money for his war with Spain.
Even the hated income tax is meant to supply money for the military. (The first income tax in history was introduced because Pitt the Younger needed a way to fund the British wars with Napoleon.)
I could list list examples here all day.

The perception that high taxes are linked to social spending (single black mothers on welfare, illegal immigrants on medicare, et cetera) is perhaps the most successful bait and switch misinformation campaign ever perpetrated. It's been so successful that it affects the thinking of liberals as well as conservatives.
(As a young liberal, I used to argue with my conservative friends that I didn't mind paying tax money to the government because I felt the money was going to people who needed it more than I did.)

Of course the role of government has expanded since the old days, and so the political picture is more complex. But it would be extremely naive to think that America can have the largest military in the world and not have to pay for it.

Usually military spending isn't questioned because we're constantly being told that the military is necessary to protect our democracy, and to protect the freedom of someone like me to speak out against it.

But the US has military bases in 63 different countries around the world. No other government in the world finds it necessary to have military bases in so many different countries to protect its citizens. This isn't "defense spending", this is empire, and empires cost a lot of money. And you and I are the ones expected to pay for it.

And that's without even getting into the massive pork barrel waste to well connected defense contractors.

It's estimated that every year about half of the income tax goes to military spending. War Resisters League releases figures annually (figures for 2010 and the data backing them up can be found at this link here).

This is where we should focus our attention if we're truly worried about government debt.

Some of the right wing realize this--the libertarians who run the website antiwar.com, for example. [See for example their article "Tea Party vs. War Party" (link here) for the type of dialogue I wish was happening more in the tea party ranks.] But the vast majority of the Tea Partiers seem to be a victim of the same old bait-and-switch campaign on government spending.

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Second brief observation:
There's been a lot in the news about race since Obama's election.

As someone who's been involved - in - protest - politics - myself, I'm somewhat sympathetic to the fact that the Tea Party can't always control what nut-cases show up to their events. So it would probably be unfair of me to paint them all as racists just because some of them are.

However there's another equally dangerous fallacy. A number of media commentators have been implying (or straight out said) that since white America has elected a black president we now live in a post-racial society, and any discussion of racism in America is now taboo.

However the pendulum of history can always swing back unless we stay vigilant.

For example, when Benjamin Disraeli became the first Jewish prime minister of Great Britain in 1868, it did not mean the end of antisemitism in Europe. Or even the end of antisemitism in Great Britain itself.

For a time in 1919, Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Liebknecht and other Jewish intellectuals were among the most powerful people in Germany. But this did not mark the inevitable decline of antisemitism in Germany.

Link of the Day
Last word on the Subject goes to Noam Chomsky:
Chomsky: We Shouldn't Ridicule Tea Party Protesters
Instead, those on the Left are to blame for letting right-wing ideologues organize and manipulate them

Friday, October 01, 2010

Defending the Iliad

Phil's weblog (link here) has been more active than usual the past couple weeks, and I've been enjoying reading it.

[By the way, I miss the days when everyone I know was blogging. Most of the gang now uses facebook instead, but I can never get absorbed into a facebook update the way I used to enjoy a good blog entry.--But that's another subject. Phil and a few others are holding out on blog form at least.]

Phil's got a nice smooth writing style that's really a joy to read. And when I'm just waking up in the morning, there's nothing I like more to sit down with a cup of coffee and read his latest musings. It's a great way to start my brain working.

Recently Phil had a post asking the question: What's so great about Homer?

Now, as an adolescent, I had been in love with the Iliad and - the - whole - Trojan - War - saga. Like many young boys before and after me, I found the Trojan War (and most of classical mythology) appealing because it was so bloody and action packed. How could you not like it?

[I also had the benefit of modern translations of the Iliad that were designed to read like a novel. And I was born far too late to be of the generation of schoolboys who were tormented by being forced to read through the whole thing in the original Greek.]

However when Phil raised the question point blank: "Really, what's so great about Homer's books that they've become the pillars of Western literary tradition?", I had difficulty answering it.

I read his post, I paused, I pondered, and then I typed down the first few things that came to my head. In doing so, I reached for perhaps the laziest comparison of an ancient work of similar age (The Old Testament, just because I couldn't think of anything else.) And from there, I got carried into comparing Classical Greek literature in general against Christian literature.
Most of what I wrote can be classified as thinking out loud. (Or "thinking while typing" in this case.)
However once I engaged on the subject, I started to become more and more interested in where this line of thought might take me if I developed it farther.

For a couple days I even toyed with writing a blog post that reworked all my half baked ideas into a coherent argument.
...And then reality set in, and I realized I had way too much on my plate right now to justify doing something like that. (Even though sometimes the more you have to do, the more you look for avenues to procrastinate--perhaps part of the reason I wrote so much in Phil's comment box to begin with.)

In the end, I decided to just post my comments on my own blog, and make blog entry out of that. (Begging Phil's indulgences of course.)
Maybe it's possible to see here the outlines of thoughts that would have been interesting if I took the time to develop them. And for now I'll just leave it at that.
I'm posting only my half of the conversation here. If you want to read Phil's original post and his follow up comments follow this link here.

[One last sidenote: It's been about 15 years plus since I read either the Iliad or the Old Testament cover to cover. (And yes, I did read the Bible cover to cover at one point. I took up one of those reading devotional challenges in middle school where you read a certain amount of the bible every night, and eventually get through the whole thing.) Both books have stuck in my memory fairly well, or at least their broad outlines, but I wonder if a fresher reading would have brought new perspectives?]


1st Comment
Yeah, I don’t know. As a kid, didn’t you ever just think the Iliad was cool because of all the really awesome fight scenes?

I first feel in love with the Iliad around 7th grade. Of course I had one of those translations that was meant to read more like a novel than a poem, so I neither was exposed to nor cared about the meter.
But I thought the story was really awesome. I mean the whole “Deeds of Diamedes” chapters, where he goes up against two different gods, and actually defeats one of them. And the part where the Greek ships almost got burnt down and all the Greek heroes were almost defeated really had me on the edge of my seat as well.

I always suspected that this was the biggest reason for the Iliad’s popularity. I mean when they say Alexander the Great brought the Iliad with him on his campaigns and slept with it under his pillow, I don’t think it was for it’s poetry. I just think he thought it was a really great war story.

Granted the ruthlessness of these characters alienates the modern reader a bit. But as a youngster I was somewhat trouble by it, but not overly troubled by it. I mean if you’re brought up on the old testament , the characters in the Iliad are not any more bloodthirsty than the old Israelites. In fact the Iliad as a whole is even less bloodthirsty than the old testament, because at least in the Iliad Homer encourages you to take a step back and be somewhat appalled by what these characters are doing. And encourages you to feel for the side of the Trojans, and see them as human beings. (Something the Old Testament never did for the Canaanites or the Philistines).

The whole reason for the Trojan War seems very stupid, but the more I read history the more it actually doesn’t seem that unlikely. After all, wasn’t all of World War I fought for reasons that made even less sense? If the Greeks wanted to do in a rival trading competitor anyway, I’m sure any excuse for war would have been good.

As for the Odyssey question, my understanding is that the ancient Greeks were familiar with the story anyway, so there was never any question of creating suspense.

That goes for the Iliad as well I think. Homer’s Iliad actually covers only a small portion of the Trojan War saga. (Of course if anyone knows that I’m sure you do, as a fellow nerd.) If you already read about these characters from other stories, you perhaps take more of an interest in the Iliad. I know I did. It helps to read a couple general Trojan War books before you get into the Iliad.

I don’t know, I’m rambling here, so I guess I’ll sign off and hope I’ve made some semblance of a point.


2nd Comment
Hey, thanks for engaging my thoughts.
I guess I’ve been somewhat thinking outloud as I defend the Iliad (no one’s ever asked me to defend one of the pillars of Western Literary tradition before.)

I do think that if women had run society, the Iliad probably wouldn’t have achieved it’s lasting fame. It is a distinctively martial book that perhaps appeals to the baser instincts in us men. (But then isn’t almost all of the literary canon based of sex and violence at some measure?)

That being said, I think it does what it does well. Given how boring most of classical literature is…
(maybe you’d disagree with that as an English major, but I sure felt it)
…the Iliad is one of the few books where you get right into the middle of the battlefield and feel every blow. As I said before, as a youngster some of those battle scenes described I thought were amazing. I still do upon re-reading actually.

It’s hard to defend the Iliad in modern terms, which is why I reached for the easiest example of another text of a comparable age–The Old Testament. (I don’t know if you can think of others?)
As literature, I think the Iliad is superior. You get more detailed accounts, you get to know the characters in depth, you get exposed to their feelings and conflicts, et cetera.

Of course that’s an unfair comparison, because the Old Testament (or at least the history books I’m thinking of) were meant to record a history. Homer was riffing off an already established tradition (albeit an oral tradition) so he was free to try and make literature, not just try and record everything as efficiently as possible for future generations.

Perhaps a fairer comparison would be to compare the old Testament against Herodotus, and compare Homer against the Medieval Christain literary traditions.

But even here a few thoughts emerge: There is nothing in the Christian tradition…
(to the best of my knowledge–maybe you could correct me)
…equivalent to “The Trojan Women”.
(I know this is broadening the scope briefly from Homer’s own work.)

In “The Trojan Woman” (and other similar works) the Greeks attempt to sympathize with and humanize the people they have conquered.
There is no attempt either in the Bible or in subsequent Christian literature to humanize the philistines, Canaanites, or other enemies of Israel. In fact it’s almost a taboo subject. Christian theology almost begins to fall apart the moment we try and pity these people or humanize them in anyway, because these are people whose extermination God specifically ordered.

Going back to the Iliad–the interesting thing about the Iliad is that we as readers know it’s a pointless war, and the characters themselves also know it’s a pointless war. There are several passages where the Greeks ask themselves why they’ve spent 10 years fighting just for one woman, and the Trojans ask why they’ve risked so much for one woman. There’s even an attempt to call the war off and just make it a duel between two people, but of course the gods foil this.
There is certainly no such self-reflection in the Old Testament. Fighting against the enemies of Israel is always justified. And (again, correct me if I’m wrong) during the whole Christain period up until the modern era there are no stories that question the whole purpose of any historical wars. Whatever God or the king ordered was considered right. The only stories that depicted characters trapped in pointless wars were the ones that riffed off Homer (like Trolius and Cressida).

This brings me to the central flaw within the Iliad. On one hand, we’re supposed to be appalled by the pointless war and loss of life. On the other hand, we’re supposed to glorify in the martial virtues and bravery of the characters. As a youngster, I appreciated the awesome battle scenes, but I could never quite square the conflicting messages of the book. I’d be interested to know what you’re research into Homeric criticism has turned up. Maybe it’s just a contradiction we have to accept.

There are perhaps modern parallels though. Some American movies, for example, will essentially say to the viewer, “Look, we know this whole war was pointless, but forget about the broader political picture for a moment and just watch this story about brave young men doing brave young things.”

The Vietnam story, “When we were soldiers” comes to mind. (Although in the interest of full disclosure I haven’t actually watched that movie, just read critical reviews of it–but there are many more examples.)

Of course in Homer, you can’t forget that the war is pointless, because Homer himself is constantly reminding you that the war is pointless. But you can at least forget about it for chapters at a time while you watch Diomedes go up against Ares, or something.

Also, Homer does kind of dodge the whole question of the larger war by setting up the conflict within the Greek camp, and letting the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles provide the central tension. Regardless of what you think of the whole war, you can still have feelings about Agamemnon’s arrogance or Achilles’s selfishness.
(Parallels to the movie “Platoon” come to mind.)

But all this being said I don’t think Homer ever completely makes sense of the contradictions in his book. For me as a reader at least. So there are limits as to how much I can defend it, but (as mentioned above) it is interesting to compare it with other works.

The Old Testament (or the Bible as a whole, since you’re now including Jesus) is so full of self-contradictions it’s difficult to make sense of. Even just within the Old Testament prophet sections there are prophets who speak against war, but also ones who gleefully anticipate the destruction of all of Israel’s neighbors. If we assume it’s all the inspired work of God with a consistent message going through it, I think we’re setting ourselves up for a huge headache. Of course volumes of books and mass mental energy has been spent doing just that. But of course it’s important to remember that each book of the bible originated as a separate book and then they were later all canonized into one tradition.

In this respect, I agree, Joshua and Judges are the bloodiest. The books of Kings and Chronicles are kind of mixed, because in some cases God encourages them to show mercy to their enemies (the soldiers who are all fed and sent back home instead of being killed, for example), in some cases God encourages them to slaughter their enemies. The prophets taken as a whole are a mixed bag.
Much is appealing about Jesus, of course, except for the hellfire and damnation aspect.

If we look at books like Joshua and Judges as stand alone works, the Iliad is much superior in it’s vision of a morally complex world.

But yes, the message of the gospels is much more appealing than the ethos of the Iliad. But then, the Iliad is a work of literature, not a moral code. As readers we’re supposed to be appalled by what much of the characters in the Iliad do.
For that matter, the Iliad is a world in which we’re supposed to be appalled by what much of the gods do. Theologically this may be unsettling, but as literature it’s almost refreshing to have a world in which you’re allowed to second guess the decisions of the gods.

But again, of course, I’m comparing apples and oranges. Homer was intending to write literature, much of the bible was intended to read more as history.
Well, I’m starting to write in circles, so this is probably as good a time as any to just call it good and hit the post button.


Link of the Day
Chomsky on the imperialists mindset

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Butterfly in Amber by Kate Forsyth

(Book Review)

After spending several months deprived of new audio books, I've finally discovered the audio book section in my University.

Because I'm such a slow reader, and because reading is a bit of an effort for me, I'm very picky about which books I chose to spend my time on.

But audio books are a completely different story. I don't lose anytime listening to them (they're great to have on while walking or exercising) and there's no effort required. So if an audio book looks even vaguely interesting, I snatch it up.

And so, when I saw this one on the shelves, my thought process went something like this. "Looks like a fantasy story. I like fantasy. The cover looks like it has a bit of an air of mystery to it. So far so good. It's a children's book, but no shame in that. The pink colours look slightly girly, but let's keep reading..."

Skimming the back cover, I noticed that Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans played a big part in the story. And then I was hooked.
I've not yet gotten around to reading a lot about Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil Wars (other than what I've learned from "Monarchy" and the BBC radio program "This Sceptred Isle"), but I consider the period to be among my historical interests.

So I checked out the book.

Once I got it home, I tried to look online to find out more about it. But there's surprisingly little information about this book on the internet.

In this day and age when information about everything is on the internet, it's unusual to find a gap like this. Especially for a recently published book (2007) by a major publisher (Pan MacMillan Australia). And especially considering someone found this book worthy enough to make into an audio book.
(And the voice actor they got to do the reading on this book is really reading her little heart out with all sorts of different voices for every character. It almost seems a shame all her effort went unnoticed.)

It's not a complete blank of course--there are various websites which list this book among their merchandise. But nowhere is their any information that's not on the book's back cover. The Amazon page doesn't even contain any reviews for this book (as of this writing).

It could be that this book was only distributed in Australia? I don't know.

From what little I can piece together, it looks like this book is the 6th part of a larger series, called "The Chain of Charms" series.

(This goes to prove my theory that it's impossible to find a fantasy book these days that doesn't commit you to reading a whole series.)

But "series" is almost the wrong word for it. "Harry Potter" or the "Chronicles of Narnia" are series, but each book in those series also stands alone as its own independent story.

This is one long story that has been chopped up and sold as six different books.

Which personally I think is indefensible.

When you buy a book (or check one out of the library) the least you expect is to have a self-contained story.
Now, if you want to follow the same characters on for other adventures (as I have been doing with the Flashman series, for example) by all means make a series out of it. But don't split one story into several different books. It's just makes it a pain for the reader who has to track down all those different books.

I'm willing to make exceptions for stories that are just too long to physically fit in one binding (such as "Ilium" and "Olympus".) But this book is only 4 CDs long on audio book. (And if you listen to a lot of audio books, you know that's nothing.) According to amazon, the printed page is only 288 pages long. All six books could easily have been put into one binding.

(I know it's a kids book, but kids like long epic stories just as much as the rest of us. Look at how long some of these Harry Potter books are.)

I know the publishers were hoping I would run and immediately buy the other 5 books in this series, but really how much trouble do they expect me to go through? The University library doesn't even contain the whole set of books. It's out of print so I can't go to my local bookstore. Amazon doesn't even look like it has copies in stock. Even if I was absolutely blown away by this story (which I wasn't) I wouldn't have the energy to spend my afternoons searching through used bookstores.

I realize that now that the book is out of print, and the profits have already been made, publishers no longer care how easy it is to track down the whole series. But as long as these books adorn library shelves and used book store racks, they will represent a frustration to readers. It would have been much better to publish this as a single volume.

That's my biggest complaint about this book. And admittedly it's an editorial one. (Maybe the publisher's decision instead of the author's.) But it still irks me.

Other than that, the book was pleasant enough. Nothing great, but a nice little read.

This is the 6th and last book of the series (if you're only going to read part of the series, you might as well just read the end) and it was easy enough to catch the plot even coming into the middle of the book. (Although the last fourth of the book was all about the emotional re-union with characters from the previous books. Since these characters meant nothing to me, the last part of the book was pretty boring.)

The plot involves two gypsy children who are trying to rescue their family (who have been imprisoned by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans). In order to do this, they first need to search and find all the lucky charms of their family.

(All the talk about finding my lucky charms and loosing my lucky charms sometimes made me feel like I was listening to a breakfast cereal commercial (W).)

The children get into several tight spots in this book, from which they all escape due to miraculous coincidences or acts of nature. Most of this is attributed to the lucky charms.
Which is, unfortunately, one of the problems with stories about luck and magic. As a reader I wanted to see the children struggle out of the tight spots on their own, using their own wit, strength, quickness or whatever else. I didn't want them to be miraculously delivered every time by some deus ex machina. But at the very least I guess this story is upfront about what it is doing.

Oliver Cromwell never actually appears in the story itself, but all the characters are always talking about his illness and impending death.

The children appear to be on the side of the royalist cause. (And references are often made to the Duke of Ormand, who apparently befriended them in a previous book.)

My own sympathies are decidedly anti-royalist. Oliver Cromwell himself is of course very difficult to defend. Cromwell may have been nothing but a dictator and a tyrant, but at the very least I'm very sympathetic to the anti-royalist side of the English Civil War. I particularly like the radical republican groups of the time (such as the Levellers, the Diggers). But I'm also more sympathetic to the Roundheads and the Puritans than I am to the Royalists, and I don't view the Restoration of the monarchy as a positive step forward historically.

This book portrays the Puritans as religious zealots and extremely...well, Puritanical for lack of a better word. And I guess they were religious zealots. But in this case my dislike of monarchy trumps my dislike of religion.

[Also, in the afterward to the book, the author claims that Charles II worked with Parliament and had much less powers than Oliver Cromwell ever did. It is true that Charles II never had the absolute power the Cromwell did, but it wasn't because of any virtue of his own character, just a result of historical circumstance. Furthermore in the last years of his reign Charles II dissolved parliament and ruled without a parliament.]

So I had to swallow my own historical prejudices a little bit as I read this book, but it was nothing I couldn't handle.

The book is a nice mix of historical fiction with an element of fantasy. One element of fantasy is all the tame animals that accompany the children--a dog, a monkey, and a bear. And a horse shows up at the end of the book. It's slightly silly, but it's good fun.

The children also mix with historical characters such as the countess of Dysart.

At the end of the book, there's a brief afterwards where the author explores the question of whether or not Cromwell was poisoned, and also gives an interesting recounting of what happened to Cromwell's mummified head (W) after he died.

****************************************************************

Further thoughts:
Despite there being some problems in the execution, I really like the idea of this story. I think it's a cool idea to mix historical fiction with fantasy.

I think the fantasy genre is appealing to people because it touches on the subconscious idea that there must have been a mythic period in the past. And some of the greatest fantasy literature is successful because it mixes myth and history together. Think about The Trojan War, early Roman history, the King Arthur cycle, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Old Testament (if you want to open that can of worms) et cetera.

Tolkien of course was one of the first people who took the fantasy genre into a completely made up world. And he was very good at what he did (and yes, I know he was influenced by Norse Mythology). But all the imitators of Tolkien in the past 60 years have kept returning to this made up land.

Perhaps it's time for the pendulum to swing back the other way. I'd like to see a lot more books that retold traditional history but added in fantastic elements to it.

I know some of these books are out there already, and it's just a matter of tracking them down. (Such as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke--another example of a book which failed a bit in the execution, but nonetheless had a really cool idea to retell the Napoleonic Wars with feuding magicians.) If you know of any cool history fantasy books, feel free to recommend them to me.

*******************************************************:
One last thought:
In writing historical fantasy you'd have to make certain compromise of course. You couldn't have armies of dwarves or elves running around anymore (unless you went really far off the historical rails). But in the traditional stories dwarves and elves were never meant to be assembled into huge armies anyways. They were meant to be hiding out in the forest or deep in the mountains.

This book takes the Gypsies as it's magical element, which is a bit sticky because you're dealing with an actual real life ethnic group.

It's a very sympathetic portrayal of the Gypsies. And in fact it highlights the persecution they suffered under the religious zealots (like the Puritans) in old England.
Nevertheless, it does portray them all as dealing in magic and fortune telling. It's not a bad thing per se, but it does reinforce stereo types.

But I'm a little hesitant to stick my nose into the fire by declaring an opinion on it either way. I'd like to see what the Gypsies themselves think of the book first.

Link of the Day
NOAM CHOMSKY More rights than people (THE CORPORATION)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

(Movie Review)

In the early 1960s Vietnam War had high levels of public support. The American public trusted their government, and they believed the war was a noble cause to protect freedom and democracy.
However as the years went on, lots of new information about the came to light.
Journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens asked question about the war, and people began to realize their government had misled them.
Once the true nature of the war became known, the public started to turn against it.
(I know that's oversimplifying the decade a lot, but I think it still works as a broad narrative.)

What frustrates me, as someone who went through school in the 90s, is that my generation didn't get any of the benefit of all these later revelations.

I was taught in school the "official" version of the Vietnam War. (And what I absorbed from the media of the time also reinforced this.)
In the version of the war I learned about, democratic South Vietnam was invaded by the North. America got involved in the war to protect the South Vietnamese people from this unjust aggression, and also to protect freedom and democracy.

The war was, in retrospect, a strategic failure perhaps, a quagmire, possibly not worth the American lives it costs, et cetera. But the American government had nothing but good intentions and high idealism.

This was the version of the war me and my classmates were taught, and this is what we believed.

In fact among my high school memories, I remember a special assembly at Grand Rapids Christian High School in which a speaker came to talk to us.
(I don't remember his exact topic. It was part of the spiritual assembly series we had every so often, so it was mostly a testimonial about his relationship with God. I remember he also touched on the importance of not having sex before marriage. We had several of these type of assemblies throughout the year.)
What I do remember clearly is that he talked about his service in Vietnam, and bragged that he had served in the war despite the fact that it was an unpopular war. "I love freedom and democracy more than I hate war. Now what do you think of that?" he asked.
The entire student body broke into loud applause, myself included. We didn't know any better.

It wasn't until I took a few courses at college, and began to read widely on my own, that I learned everything I had been taught about the Vietnam War was a lie.
Far from protecting democracy in Vietnam, the United States had actually stopped free elections in 1956 because they knew Ho Chi Minh would win. They then set up a series of dictators in South Vietnam, and helped keep these dictators in power against their own people.
The South Vietnamese never had freedom of speech or freedom of expression.

[The same was true about South Korea, which was a dictatorship during the Korean War and up until the 1980s, despite the fact that the Korean War was also supposedly fought to protect democracy. But that's another story.]

The Viet Cong was not an invading army from the North, but was mostly indigenous South Vietnamese fighting in their own country.

In my high school and middle school classes, we learned about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, but the teachers never told us it had been falsified.

And although we had learned about the 50,000 Americans killed in the war, and the suffering of American soldiers, no one had talked about estimated 4 million Vietnamese killed.
Nor did we learn about the massive bombing campaign, during which the War the US dropped more bombs on Vietnam than all the bombs dropped during World War II by all countries combined.

As I began to read outside of the official history textbooks, I began to be more and more shocked about the difference between what I had learned, and what had actually happened.

And the thing is, none of this should have been new information. This wasn't newly uncovered data that I was just discovering. Much of this information had been in the public discussion about the war in the late 60s and 70s. But it had all been swept under the rug in the years since then.

Because the history of the Vietnam War has been quietly re-written, I think documentaries like this are very important.
The Pentagon Paper are among the many things I wish I had been taught about in school. And despite being headline news everyday for two weeks, it has been quietly left out of the history books since then. So much so that, as I mentioned in this post here, people of my generation and younger--history nerds and politicos aside--have never even heard of them before.

Given the revelations in these documents, it says a lot that they have been successfully airbrushed out of history. For example the Pentagon Papers very clearly state that all the reasons given for the war were completely false, and that the United States couldn't care less about democracy in Vietnam.

And perhaps, had the Pentagon Papers had been remembered, the public would have been less likely to trust the word of the President in the build-up to the Iraq War.
That decision, unfortunately, is already in the past. But perhaps the legacy of the Pentagon Papers can help people to be skeptical when politicians give them the usual reasons for continuing to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To the extent that this documentary (released just last year in 2009) helps to push these papers back into the public consciousness, it's doing a valuable service.
I somewhat wish they had focused more on the content of the papers instead of just the biography of Daniel Ellsberg. (At one point in the documentary Howard Zinn says that the media circus around these papers caused quite a stir, but the content of the papers was never fully absorbed by the American public. It's a comment that I wish the film makers had taken to heart more in their production.)

But they say the first rule of film reviewing is to review the film you are watching, not the film you wish you were watching. This film was meant to be primarily a biography of Daniel Ellsberg, and follows him on his journey from hawk to dove on the Vietnam War. It also seeks to explain the risks he took, and why he took them. And as such, it is a great piece of story telling.

I learned a lot of interesting things from this film. For example, Daniel Ellsberg hung out with Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky (even before he became a media sensation by releasing the papers.) And the three of them even formed an affinity group at the 1971 May Day anti-War protest in Washington. (Imagine all 3 of those guys hanging out together. That's got to be some pretty interesting conversation.)

I though the film also did a good job of including some choice clips from the Nixon tapes.
For example when talking to Kissinger about the bombings, Nixon angrily exclaims, "You're so goddamned concerned about civilians and I don't give a damn. I don't care."
Kissinger then replies that is only concerned about the civilians because of world opinion.
(It's nice that we have these tapes of private conversations so we can hear what the politicians really think. It's a pity they stopped tapping themselves after Watergate, but I wouldn't be surprised if these same kind of conversations still go on behind closed doors, regardless of what they tell us in public about their concern for the Iraqi and Afghanistan civilians.)

And then there's this gem the film makers also included:
Nixon: And, I still think we ought to take the dikes out now. Will that drown people?
Kissinger: About two hundred thousand people.
President: No, no, no, I'd rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that, Henry?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
President: The nuclear bomb, does that bother you?...I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christsakes.


(Although to Nixon's credit, he does have a way with words. This is more apparent if you actually hear the audio. I particularly like his use of "sonofabitching" as an attributive adjective--as in "that sonofabitching thief" and "sonofabitching domestic council." It has a certain ring to it, no? I think I'm going to start using that one myself. "Hey, Tom, how's that sonofabitching coffee?")

All in all, a very interesting film, and well worth checking out. I'm glad the film makers made it, and I hope lots of people will see it. You can't emphasize these parts of history too much.

***************************************************

Update: I was just listening to an Audio CD of Noam Chomsky (Media Control--highly recommended if you can get your hands on it.) He talks about the Vietnam War and its place in history. Since this is what I was just talking about in this post, and because it resonates with my own experience, I thought I'd go through the trouble of quoting him here. The lecture is from the first Gulf War, and Chomsky is talking about the Vietnam syndrome, which a Reagan intellectual had defined as "the sickly inhibition against using military force."
This is from a lecture, so it loses something when you just see it printed on the page (the intonation and sarcastic tone at certain points, for example) but you get the idea.

"....It's also necessary to completely falsify history. That's another way to overcome these sickly inhibitions. To make it look as if when we attack and destroy somebody we're really protecting ourselves and defending ourselves against major aggressors and, you know, monsters and so on. There's been a huge effort since the Vietnam War to reconstruct the history of that. Too many people got to understand what was really going on and that was bad. Including plenty of soldiers and a lot of young people who were involved in the peace movement and many others. And it was necessary to re-arrange those bad thoughts and to restore some form of sanity, namely a recognition that whatever we do is noble and right, and if we're bombing South Vietnam that's because we're defending South Vietnam against somebody, namely the South Vietnamese, because nobody else was there. It's what the Kennedy intellectuals called, "Defense against internal aggression in South Vietnam"-- that was the phrase that Adlai Stevenson used. It's necessary to make that the official picture and the well understood picture. And that's worked pretty well actually. When you have total control over the media and the educational system and scholarship is conformist and so on you can get that across. One indication of it was actually revealed in a study that was done at the University of Massachusetts on attitudes towards the current Gulf crisis. A study of beliefs and attitudes and television watching. One of the questions that was asked in that study, people were asked: how many Vietnamese casualties would you estimate that there were during the Vietnam War? The average response on the part of Americans today is about 100,000. Now the official figure is about 2 million. The actual figure is probably 3 to 4 million or something like that. The people who conducted this study raised the appropriate question. They asked the question: what would we think about German political culture if when you asked people today how many Jews died in the holocaust they estimated about 300,000. What would that tell us about German political culture? Well, they leave the question unanswered but you can pursue it. What does that tell us about our culture? It tells us quite a bit. That's necessary to overcome the sickly inhibitions against the use of military force and other democratic deviations. And the same is true on every topic. Pick the topic you like: the Middle East, international terrorism, Central America, whatever it is, the picture of the world that's presented to the public has only the remotest relation to reality. The truth of the matter is buried under edifice and edifice of lies..."

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Drug War

Also--I'm about a month late linking to this, but I thought Roger Ebert's thoughts on the Mosque controversy were really good. Number 10 especially is worth reading, when he details what is going to be built at ground zero, and contrasts it with what could have been.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Flashman at the Charge by George Macdonald Fraser

(Book Review)

After reading:

Tom Brown's Schooldays,
Flashman,
Royal Flash, and
Flash for Freedom,

I now come to the 4th book in the Flashman series.

The reason I got into these Flashman books in the first place (as I mentioned in my review of the first Flashman) is because I was interested in "The Great Game" and the 19th Century rivalry between Britain and Russia over Afghanistan and Central Asia.

This book returns to that theme, although like the previous books it has Flashman rushing from one danger spot into another, so that it manages to cover a lot of diverse ground. The first third of the book deals with the Crimean War (in which the cold war between Russia and Britain momentarily turned hot), the middle of the book deals with Russia and the serf problem, and then the last 3rd goes South to Central Asia and back into Afghanistan.

As always, Flashman manages to be present at all the great historical battles. And as always, he's present against his will.

The first third of the book, dealing with the Crimean War, is very well researched, very well written, and brings to life many of the historical characters involved in the conflict, from William Howard Russell (the times correspondent, who Flashman finds slightly annoying) to Frances Duberly (who Flashman is always trying to bed.)

The Crimean War is, viewed through the hindsight of history, a pointless war. (As almost all wars are viewed through hindsight.) Two empires were battling each other for strategic positioning in the East, and for this thousands of men on both sides were asked to throw their lives away.
(Of course that's not how the war was sold to the British public at the time--they were told they were fighting for freedom, and protecting Turkey against unfair aggression.)

Flashman, although a bully and a coward and thoroughly lacking in any redeeming virtues, is oddly enough the perfect narrator to see right through the Victorian hypocrisy. He realizes that, even though he's only ever cared for himself, he has never been guilty of sending off thousands of men to their deaths. In his own way, he figures he is actually less harmful than the army generals obsessed with honour and duty to country.
And the scary thing is that he's right.

The mismanagement which permeated the whole Crimean War has always been symbolically represented in the Charge of the Light Brigade (W) which Flashman manages to find himself dragged into (against his will.)

Like most Americans, I grew up having no idea what "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was, other than it had some connection to some famous poem or something. (My school education had been very American-centric.It could be that my ignorance is unique, but I suspect most other Americans out there are equally clueless.)

A few years ago I came across a BBC radio program explaining the whole thing, which I found quite interesting. (Link here--if you've got a few free minutes you can fill in the gap in your knowledge.)
After listening to that program, I had a basic idea of what had happened, but I still got a bit confused on the finer details of who ordered what when.

This book walks you through the whole disastrous chain of events step by step. And the beauty of a historical novel is that it's much easier to follow the action when it becomes a story. The faceless historical names become characters with personalities.
Fraser faithfully reproduces much of the petty squabbling and personality conflicts that took place among the British officers, and inserts Flashman into the historical narrative very cleverly.
Flashman has a strong dislike of Lord Cardigan, who actually led the charge, partly because of events carried over from the first novel (in which Lord Cardigan had a bit part) and partly because of what happens at the beginning of this one.

After the battle, Flashman is taken into Russia, where among other things he records his observations about how horribly the serfs are treated.

Again, much of this was absent from my historical education. (In traditional history telling, it is perhaps common to over-emphasize the sufferings of sovereigns like Louis XVI and Czar Nicholas II, but gloss over the horrors that these old regimes inflicted.)

At times I suspected Fraser was exaggerating how terribly the Russian serfs were treated, but every time I began to question an anecdote, there was a footnote backing up the story with reference to historical sources.

One of Lenin's ancestors appears later in the story agitating on the serf's behalf.
(I'm not sure how much Fraser intended the appearance of Lenin's ancestor to symbolically represent Lenin himself. But the loud, boisterous, rabble-rousing nature of the character seems at odds with my image of Lenin as the careful planner and schemer. I had a similar reaction to Fraser's portrayal of Karl Marx in "Royal Flash." But that's really my only historical criticism of these Flashman books.)

But Fraser does at times seem to be drawing a line between the horrific conditions of the Serfs, and the 1917 revolution. Since the serfs were all freed well in advance of this revolution, it may not be completely fair.

Still, as I read the book I couldn't help but remember Dicken's prophecy from "A Tale of Two Cities" :

Crush humanity out of shape once more . . . and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of . . . oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

Dickens had published these words back in 1859. If the Russian government had only paid more attention to this warning, perhaps history would be a lot different.

Also while in Russia, Flashman runs into Harry "Scud" East from "Tom Brown's Schooldays." Having slogged my way through the original source material, it was nice to be rewarded by seeing another character from that book brought into the Flashman world.
In "Tom Brown's Schooldays", East had been Tom Brown's best friend, and the major supporting character in the book after Tom Brown himself. At the end of "Tom Brown's Schooldays," we learn that he is serving in India.
(There is apparently a sequel, "Tom Brown at Oxford," which fleshes out East's career in India more thoroughly, and which Fraser references in his footnotes. However having found the original "Tom Brown's Schooldays" a bit of a chore to get through, I won't be reading the second book anytime soon.)

The Scud East in the first part of "Tom Brown's Schooldays" is someone with an honest heart and noble heart, but has trouble resisting the urge to get into mischief. It might have been more interesting to have this Scud East appear, but Fraser chose instead to portray Scud East the Christian moralist, which is perhaps a bit of a missed opportunity. (We had hints that Scud East and Tom Brown were turning out this way towards the end of the first book, but in my opinion the transformation wasn't completed yet. I don't know what happens in "Tom Brown at Oxford.")

Nevertheless, East's strong sense of duty and self-sacrifice in this book contrast sharply with Flashman, who is only concerned about his own skin, making them the perfect Victorian foils against each other.

When East suggests they risk their lives to save the British Empire, Flashman narrates, "D'you know, when a man talks like that to me, I feel downright insulted. Why other, unnamed lives, or the East India Company's dividend, or the credit of Lord Aberdeen, or the honour of British arms, should be held by me to be of greater consequence than my own shrinking skin, I've always been at a loss to understand."

Flashman and East stumble onto a Russian plan to invade Afghanistan and India and take them from the British.
Once again, this sounds like pure fantasy, but Fraser backs it all up with footnotes, indicating that there really were such plans put forth to the Tsar, and that these proposals really were considered seriously by the Russian government.

Finally, Flashman ends up in Central Asia. Here Fraser digs up long forgotten historical characters for Flashman to interact with, such as Yakub Beg and Izzat Kutebar, who led the local indigenous resistance against the Russian drive South in the 19th century. As with everything else, the story is backed up with footnotes describing the ruthless Russian march South, and the local peoples who were brutally subdued in this campaign.

Flashman finds himself joining the local tribes (and their Chinese allies) and helping them fight against the Russians.
"There are obscure works on Central Asia by anonymous surveyors and military writers," Flashman the narrator says, "and I can look in them and find the names and places--Yabub Beg, Izzat Kutebar and Katti Torah; Buzurg Khan and the Seven Khojas, the Great and Middle Hordes of the Black Sands and the Golden Road, the Sky-blue Wolves of the Hungry Steppe, Sahib Khan and the remarkable girl they called the Silk One. You can trace them all, if you are curious, and learn how in those days they fought the Russians inch by inch from Jaxartes to the Oxus, and if it reads like a mixture of Robin Hood and the Arabian Nights--well, I was there for part of it, and even I look back on it as some kind of frightening fairy-tale come true."
A fascinating Victorian era adventure story, with just the right mix of satire, comedy, and travelogue. Definitely worth checking out.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Obama recycles George W. Bushs plans

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Passage to India

(Movie Review)

The reason I ended up watching this movie was somewhat due to the poverty of selection. (As a lot of my movie choices are.)
I was in the University library, looking over their limited movie selection. I knew I would be watching the movie on my small computer screen, so I didn't want anything with spectacular action sequences that would have been wasted on my small monitor. And I didn't want anything that was subtitled, because I didn't want to have to squint to read subtitles on the screen. I just wanted a nice, thoughtful little movie that I could enjoy over a cup of coffee. And hopefully something that would make me think a little bit.

This seemed to fit the bill. The DVD cover box describes it as:
[Enter a world where cultures clash so violently that an entire country could split at any moment. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards and winner of two, A Passage to India is a "wonderfully provocative tale full of vivid characters, all played to perfection" (the New York Times.)]

Well, so far so good. Sounds like an interesting story about culture clashes. I kept reading.

[When liberal-minded English ladies Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested arrive in India, they're shocked by the extreme racial prejudice that exists there. Fortunately, kind Dr. Aziz rises above the intolerance and guides the women on a splendid tour of the mysterious Marabar caves. But the outing turns tragic when Adela suddenly comes running from one of the caves--scratched, bleeding and terribly frightened. News of the incident quickly spreads across the whole of India...igniting a powder keg of tension just waiting to explode. "A rich tapestry woven of the clash between two cultures" (Newsweek), A Passage to India is supreme entertainment and a visual wonder that is truly spellbinding.]

It sounded like "To Kill a Mockingbird" set in colonial India--some good courtroom drama scenes, a bit of political tension--sounded good to me. Plus it had won lots of awards. Plus it was released in 1984, so it was a relatively recent film (by my standards) so it should have a relatively modern sense of pace and timing.

At least that's what I thought before watching it.

Now before I go into the review, I have a small confession to make: I have not read the novel on which this film is based. (Although it is on my list of "books to read someday.")
One of the rules I generally try to follow is to always read the book first before seeing the film (especially with the classics.)
...But, like a lot of rules I set for myself, I break this one all the time. And here is a case in point. I was in the mood to relax with a DVD, and I decided not to get puritanical about the fact that I hadn't read the book.
Besides, I have so many books on my list, and I'm such a slow reader, that it will probably be years before I ever get around to reading the book. By which time I'll have had plenty of time to forget the movie, and the plot can still seem new and fresh to me.

I do feel slightly unqualified to review this movie without having read the book first, but people do say that a good film should be able to stand on its own merits whether you've read the book or not. So I guess that's the criteria I'll have to judge this from. No doubt I would have had a different perspective if I had read the book first, but oh well.

My biggest criticism of this movie is that it takes forever to get to its point. The incident in the caves (the part where the movie actually develops some sort of plot) doesn't take place until 1 hour 25 minutes into the movie.

Up until then, nothing really happens. Characters are introduced, characters meet each other, characters make small talk with each other, characters go on bike rides and look around India, characters go to a tea party, et cetera.
It was kind of interesting for the first half hour. But an hour and a half of this was way too long. By the time the plot actually got started, I had given up on the movie.

Then to make things even worse, the court room drama, the key part of the movie that could have been really interesting, was either very poorly written, or very poorly edited. Most of the trial happened off-screen, and the audience was just brought up to speed by passing references.

For example, much is made of the fact that the political lawyer Amidullah comes to defend the case, but he's given very little screen time and almost no lines when he finally arrives.

In another case, the judge warns the defence team that yesterday's behaviour will not be tolerated again. But the behaviour itself was never shown on screen, we just get the judges reaction to it.

I suspect what happened here is that someone was trying to be too faithful to the structure of the book. The book may have included long passages describing characters and setting the scene before the real plot got underway. And in a well written book, you can get away with that.

But in a movie you need to pack your punches differently. You need to get the story off to a faster start, and then focus on the moments which allow for dramatic tension.

But that's just my opinion. Given how critical acclaimed this movie was (W) and how many awards it was nominated for (W) perhaps I'm just an uncultured philistine. But I felt like it took what could have been a very interesting story, and bored me with it.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Fear of Democracy

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Inception

(Movie Review)

A quick recap of my Chris Nolan viewing history:

I didn't see Memento until a few years after it came out. But I rented it one afternoon, and was absolutely fascinated by it. In fact, I was so fascinated by it, I watched the DVD twice in one sitting. Once the movie finished, I just went back to the menu screen and played it again. (I've never done that before or since.)

Actually the second time I watched it, I noticed the plot wasn't quite as airtight as I had thought the first time. In fact, if you pay close attention there are a number of inconsistencies with the short term memory thing. Still, it was pretty entertaining.

"The Prestige" (which I reviewed on this blog) was a very similar experience. I didn't watch this one twice, but while I was watching it I was too absorbed in the magic of the story to think about the plot holes. Once the film ended, me and my friend started to pick away at bits and pieces of it.

(Nolan also did "The Dark Knight," but that's probably in a separate category as a super-hero movie.)

As for "Inception," I'm not sure if it all made sense or not. My brain was so busy trying to keep track of everything that I wasn't looking out for plot holes. Plus the pace of the movie just keeps you rushing from one scene to the next without really giving you a lot of time to think about what you just saw.

There were one or two scenes however, where I thought maybe the movie was breaking it's own rules. But I wasn't sure. Maybe I just missed something. I'd probably have to watch this movie a couple more times, or talk about it some more with a friend, to fully get my head around it.

So for the moment I'll leave aside the question of consistency, and just say that I thought the movie was very entertaining.

That's really the genius of these Chris Nolan movies. Sure movies like Memento, The Prestige, and Inception have lots of mysteries and plot twists that keep you guessing all the way through. But the movies are more than just their plot twists. They're also well told stories, well directed and expertly paced.

I loved the way the tension in this film kept building so I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Even in the scenes where there's not a lot of action happening on screen, there's always a lot of tension.

And I loved the way the 1930s era pulp fictiony feel of this movie--the way the characters were always walking around with perpetual one day's stubble on their faces, the exotic locations and chase scenes through exotic streets. The protagonists are the standard rogues gallery of crooks who come together for a job, but it's done well: like the forger who is hiding out in Africa, or the chemist who hangs out in an office surrounded by chemicals.

At the beginning of the film you think you're in for an exploration of dream psychology. But after using just enough of this to set the tone, the dream world becomes totally unrealistic.
In fact the dream worlds reminded me a lot more of "The Matrix" world than actual dreams. Which is okay--you just have to accept that this is a Matrix type movie rather than a psychological exploration movie. There are certain alternate realities that the movie creates, and they're governed by certain rules which the movie lays out.

(Whether or not the movie does a good job of sticking to it's own rules is something I really would have to watch a second time to decide.)

The action scenes were for the most part pretty well done, although this movie loses at least one point for all those repetitive scenes in which the bad guys are firing tons of bullets but can't seem to hit anything.
(Yes, this is one of those cliche movies where every shot the bad-guys take is always wide of the mark, even when they're standing right next to their target.) But still a great movie

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - The War Against Terror