Crisis in Georgia: Call Kevin Rudd

August 11, 2008

Georgian ProtestorsMy first introduction to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia took place in a Moscow restaurant in 1994. I, along with a group of students, were taken there by our hosts to experience the delights of Georgian cuisine and wine. The alcohol flowed freely, course after course was brought to the table. Georgian music played in the background; as it so happened, our table was on the other side of the room from a Georgian wedding reception. The bride and groom began to dance as the tempo increased, and then the entire wedding party joined in. My memory is slightly hazy, but I do seem to recollect getting up and then being exhausted as I collapsed into my hotel bed.

A pleasant evening, albeit mostly spent unconscious, is not an altogether atypical way for a love affair to begin. Georgia is one of those places I wished to visit; Tbilisi is supposed to be very charming, and steeped in history.

That dream, however, is more distant now than ever. The weekend’s news brought images of horror from South Ossetia, Gori, and Abkhazia; hitherto, Georgia’s history has been as tragic as it has been rich, and it appears that this long road is stretching onward.

There can be no doubt that Russia is in the wrong in this instance. Georgia did try to assault the separatists in South Ossetia, and this was a terrible error. If Russia had merely sent their troops in to the war zone, and secured it from further Georgian incursions, then there would be little to talk about. However, the Russians have significantly widened the conflict by bombing civilian areas in Gori, which is not within the combat zone, and also by opening a new front in the other separatist area, Abkhazia. Additionally, the Russian navy has attacked Georgian ships in the Black Sea.

Georgia has since proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire and begged for the conflict to stop, but Russia has refused to halt their incursions. Russia has made it clear that nothing less than the removal of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili will do, even though he was democratically elected.

This move not only threatens Georgia’s life as an independent nation; an important oil pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Europe goes through Georgia. It’s the only significant pipeline from the East that bypasses Russia. If this falls under Russian control, then Putin will have sufficient leverage to blackmail Europe. Furthermore, other nations which have shown an independent streak, such as Ukraine, cannot help but wonder if they are next.

The West is in no position to help. If this incident proves anything, it shows once and for all that the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes is an absolute failure. America has so many resources pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan that the idea of offering military assistance to Georgia is laughable at best; furthermore, Bush’s profligacy also means America is broke, and thus has no economic leverage. Dick Cheney and George Bush thundering darkly about severe consequences is the tantrum of the impotent, a flaccidity made all the more acute by the imminent replacement of the American administration.

Europe cannot help either; while the efforts of the French diplomatic corps have been outstanding, their exertions are taking place in a context where the the European Union has a variety of opinions on how to deal with this. No doubt the Poles, Hungarians and Czechs are looking worriedly at Russia’s new assertiveness and want to stand firm. The Germans obviously want to try and lessen the tension. Overall, however, Russia’s control over energy supplies makes Europe a client rather than a creditor.

There is only one nation that can possibly make Russia stop with a single phone call: China. The Chinese have so far not played a role in this crisis; however, it could very well be that they are annoyed that their Olympic “coming out party” has been darkened by this conflict. This irritation, and the opportunity for further gains in prestige could make them act positively.

To achieve this, however, the West will need an emissary. There is only one choice that springs to mind: Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia.

Prime Minister Rudd has been one of the quiet success stories of 2008; if power stems from legitimacy and intelligence, then he is stronger than many of his counterparts in charge of larger nations. He has a sizeable majority in Parliament, his popularity ratings, although they’ve taken a knock in recent months, are still high. Furthermore, he was elected in December 2007: he is at the very start of his term, not lingering in twilight. Additionally, unlike President Bush, who has managed to offend the Chinese every single time he mentions human rights, Rudd has skillfully framed the debate in terms the Chinese appreciate: having a degree in Chinese literature, history and language helps. Rudd is fluent in Mandarin (he even has a Chinese nickname, “Lu Kewen”), is well acquainted with Confucius, and once served as a diplomat in Beijing. Thus he was able to give a tough human rights speech at Beijing University without suffering damage in the eyes of the Chinese leadership; rather, Australia appears to be well regarded by Beijing. Australia also has some actual leverage: they are one of China’s largest suppliers of raw materials.

This combination of power, knowledge and understanding simply does not exist elsewhere in the West: Rudd is definitely the man to send to President Hu Jintao to ask for his intervention. That said, Rudd will need to offer an incentive. As unpalatable as it may seem, the West will likely have to suggest that peace talks take place in Beijing under Chinese mediation. This would be a powerful symbol of China’s increasing importance and the West’s increasing impotence: in other words, it’s an acknowledgment of present realities. This would be deeply unpleasant for the United States and the European Union. However, sometimes saving lives matters more than pride; and perhaps “Lu Kewen” could convince the Chinese that the partnership of one western state (probably Australia) would help any negotiated settlement to stick.

The alternative to diplomacy is grisly; the Chechens provided a model for how a small nation can wage a bloody guerilla war against Russia, and it is entirely possible the Georgians could resort to the same tactics. No one wants to see Tbilisi shot through like Groznii; no one wants to see another incident in which Russian schoolchildren are murdered as they were in Beslan. This fate can be avoided, but only if the crisis is approached with imagination, compassion, tolerance and yes, humility. One can only hope there are enough of these qualities left in West…and in the East.

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Review: “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” starring Brendon Fraser

August 10, 2008

Dragon EmperorSome movies are not intended to be high art. Before the invention of television, this was often the case: the thirties, forties and fifties were littered with throwaway films with forgettable characters and laughable story lines. The most extreme examples were the movies that were made to work with the traditional red lens / blue lens 3-D glasses. Usually these “high tech” films were much of a muchness, involving weird creatures reaching out for the audience.

The raison d’etre behind these movies, (and for the sake of argument, let’s call them “Saturday Matinees”), was that they would entertain for a couple of hours and leave the audience feeling as if they got their money’s worth. Mostly these films are now remembered by a few enthusiasts, many of whom are merely reliving their childhoods.

In this sense, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is part of a long tradition. It is a silly, ridiculous “Saturday Matinee”, but if one can park one’s intellect at the cinema door, it is reasonably entertaining.

The film begins with a tale of how China became a unified country under the leadership of a ferocious Emperor (portrayed by Jet Li). Fearing that he would not live long enough to do what he set out to do, he calls upon a sorceress to make him immortal. She then falls in love with the leading general of the Empire; the Emperor kills the general, and in revenge, she turns him into a clay figurine, and his army into the famous “Terracotta Warriors”. Obviously, anyone with a respect for history will be left weeping if they take this portion at all to heart. While it is true that the first ruler of a United China was ruthless and did want to become immortal, he tried to achieve this by drinking mercury rather utilising black magic; the parable of his rule ending earlier than it should have due to the pursuit of eternal life is worth putting into a much grander movie.

After the phony history, the film changes to a scene in Oxfordshire in 1946, some years after the last in the Mummy series finished. Rick O’Connell (played by Brendan Fraser) an American adventurer and gunfighter, is in retirement along with his wife Evelyn. She, apparently, has given up archaeology in favour of writing Mummy-based pulp fiction. I appreciated this plot point, as it was a symbol that the film wasn’t taking itself too seriously.

Sadly, however, Rachel Weisz, who had played Evelyn in the previous films, is gone, replaced by Maria Bello. Ms. Bello does her very best to fill Ms. Weisz’s shoes, but she lacks the vulnerable, hesitant quality that Ms. Weisz brought to the role, which in turn made her so compelling.

It is quickly established that both O’Connell and Evelyn are bored with retirement and long for adventure. It is also made clear that they are estranged from their grown son, who is shown working on an archaeological dig in China and who, predictably, finds the tomb of the First Emperor. It is somewhat difficult to ignore the motifs borrowed from other films: the father / son estrangement echoes Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the adventurer bored in retirement scenario has been used so often that it is almost a cliche. Furthermore, Fraser and Bello do not look nearly old enough to play the parents of their on-screen son Alex (played by Australian newcomer Luke Ford); neither “father” nor “mother” has a single grey hair.

Thanks to an immortality potion contained within a diamond vessel, a ruthless general (who bears a passing resemblance to Chiang Kai Shek, the ruler of Nationalist China) manages to wake the Emperor, who begins tearing up Shanghai in a long chase involving bronze horses, and a truck full of fireworks.

At this point the film gives up any pretence of seriousness, and the brave band, joined by Evelyn’s feckless brother (played by John Hannah) and guided by the mysterious Lin (played by Isabella Leong) wanders into the mountains to prevent the Emperor from finding the “Pool of Immortality” in Shangri La. Predictably, Alex and Lin have a stormy relationship, however the squalls are unrealistically brief and Lin bursts out telling him, “I love you completely!”. The sorry bunch then have a gunfight with the Emperor and the evil general at a tower which points the way to Shangri La. As an added treat, the film throws in the least convincing computer generated creatures (ostensibly they’re Yetis), that I have ever seen. Rick O’Connell is hurt in the fighting, with a blade through the back, and he must be taken to Shangri La and healed with the “Waters of Immortality”, a direct rip off of the healing properties of the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade”.

Needless to say the Emperor gets his hands on those same waters, he becomes whole again, and he revives the Terracotta Army, who will become also immortal if they cross the Great Wall; we’re never told why this is the case. But again, there is more fighting, more gunplay, more people sliced open, stabbed, crushed and sliced to pieces. John Hannah gets the hell out of Dodge and decides to go to Peru as there are, in his words, “no mummies there”. As he’s sadly mistaken, we, the audience, have the last laugh as the lights go up.

I must admit that I was chuckling as I left the theatre. After all, the film’s take on Chinese history was so daft, I wondered how they managed to convince Mr. Li, Ms. Leong and Michelle Yeoh to appear in it. I was also curious as to how the producers managed to avoid the ire of the Chinese authorities given the ridiculous portrayal of post war Shanghai. It’s shown as a town full of bright lights and swinging bands, when it should be an unhappy, torn up city that is dealing with the aftermath of Japanese occupation and the dread of civil war. We get no inclination of the real life conflict between the Nationalist (Kuomintang) and the Red forces; the modern forces we do see are presented as a “paramilitary” group.

But obviously this film was not intended to educate or to enlighten; it was there to pass the time in a pleasant way, just like the Saturday Matinees of previous eras. Yes, its based upon a lot of recycled themes. Yes, its very silly and over the top. Yes, the actors could have sleepwalked through their scenes and it wouldn’t have made any difference, but if one needs a movie loaded with mindless, colourful entertainment, this fits the bill.

This statement, however, comes with a caveat. It was a motif of the Mummy films of the past that the creature was impossible to kill, and thus a sequel was always in the offing. In this case, lest ridiculousness becomes a burden, it is perhaps best to let this series rest in peace.

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So, Beijing

August 7, 2008

Beijing Olympics SymbolThe Beijing Olympics begin tomorrow, and I can’t help but feel a surge of anticipation. I have religiously watched every Olympic Games – both Summer and Winter – for as long as I can remember. Perhaps it’s because there is something compelling about witnessing people giving their absolute all, not holding back any reserves and pushing themselves to their utmost because there may never be another chance to shine so brightly. Perhaps it’s because it represents a chance to discover more about countries which are rarely in the news; for example, few people in Britain or America spared a thought for the South American nation of Surinam until Anthony Nesty won the gold in the 100m butterfly in 1988. And who can forget “Eric the Eel”, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who competed, albeit thoroughly unsuccessfully, in 2004?

Over time, I’ve learned that each Olympic Games can be summarised in a single word. The word for Barcelona’s games in 1992 was “hot”; I don’t believe I spotted a single athlete that didn’t look like they were struggling with the heat. Atlanta 1996 can be summarised as “tacky”: from the awful Smurf-blue “Whatizzit” mascot to the prevalence of corporate sponsorship, it was the epitome of bad taste. Sydney 2000, my favourite Games so far, was “fun”; the Australians are a bright and enthusiastic people, and this spirit was abundantly in evidence. Athens 2004 was “traditional”; after all, the Games had returned “home”.

It may be a bit early, but it appears Beijing 2008 already has found its moniker: “paranoid”. I am not referring solely to their concerns about terrorism and heavy handed police presence, though that certainly is a factor. Nor am I speaking just about how they treat pro-Tibet protesters, though that is a major issue; the Chinese attempts to confine protest to a small “complaints” hut have been laughable. No, the label extends from their apparent terror of embarrassment, driven by a need to be “seen as perfect”. China wants these Games to be its “coming out” party, whereby it proves that it is more organised, efficient, modern and civilised than any other nation.

A good example of this paranoia at work is how the Chinese are addressing concerns about pollution. According to the Guardian newspaper, pollution levels in Beijing yesterday were at twice the level recommended by the World Health Organisation. However, officials said it was not smog, merely a “mist”. This act isn’t fooling anyone; one of the greatest marathon runners of all time, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, will not be participating in the event at Beijing because of its pollution levels. Furthermore, the Chinese are making strenuous efforts to get rid of the “mist”; it was reported yesterday in the London Evening Standard that they are firing “anti-smog pellets” into the air.

The problem was also in evidence, albeit differently, at the sailing venue; in late June, it was noticed that blue-green algae were growing rampantly in the waters near Qingdao. The government mobilised the public and the army to physically remove the persistent plants, whose growth had been spurred by the waste toxins pumped out by Chinese industry. I must admit that this is the first time I’ve seen preparations for an Olympic games which involved soldiers wading into stagnant pools and lifting out armloads of rotting vegetation.

Another symptom of Chinese anxiety is visible in their latter day attempts at what can generously be called “urban planning”. In order to ensure that Beijing was looking at its best, shops and “slums” have been demolished. Migrants and the homeless have been similarly “moved on”. The BBC recently showed the hapless owner of a small corrugated iron sweetshop who had been summarily told that her business was an “eyesore” and was to be demolished. The Chinese government says that those who have been “inconvenienced” have been compensated or moved to better surroundings, but this claim deserves to be treated with the same skepticism that accompanies their claims to respect the Tibetians or Uighurs culture and religion.

A further indication of Beijing’s apprehension can be discerned in the behaviour of foreign leaders. President Bush has denounced the Chinese record on human rights, but he did it in Thailand, and said that any change in China would be in accordance with their “traditions”. It is mildly laughable that President Bush, the “founding father” of Guantanamo, would feel morally capable of lecturing the Chinese on the basis of ethics; that said, it is a symptom of both weakness and duress that Bush felt that he couldn’t voice his hypocritical concerns directly. China, after all, is one of the biggest purchasers of American debt; Bush’s deficits are being run up on a Chinese credit card. Similar pressure has likely been applied to Gordon Brown, President Sarkozy and others: as a result, no world leader is boycotting the Games due to human rights concerns. None of them have forcefully mentioned the plight of the Uighur minority, for example: it is a nation that was independent twice, only to have that independence twice ripped from them, and is now being slowly strangled by government repression and by Han Chinese immigration. No doubt that a message has been sent to the chancelleries and departments of state around the world, which simply says, “shut up”.

Finally, we have evidence from one of the oldest crutches of authoritarian rule: overpowering architecture. The chairman of London’s Olympic committee, Paul Deighton, summarised the scale of this endeavour best: “I think the Beijing Games could end up being unique – I’m not sure how many other countries would have either the resources or the control of the resources to be able to put them behind an event like this.” Among the venues that the Chinese have constructed is the giant “bird’s nest” National Stadium, a swimming venue called the “Water Cube”, which looks like a huge box of soap bubbles, and the Beijing University of Technology Stadium, which possesses the “world’s largest pre-stressed dome”.

All the madness, all the hauteur, all the puffing up and thrusting forward will serve something of a purpose: no doubt the Chinese are going out of their way to try and make matters convenient for the athletes and guests. However, it is rather like trying to have fun as organised by a German drill sergeant: there is an air of “you will enjoy yourself now!” which implies that the charm of previous Games may elude it. One can only hope that this Olympics, like others provided by questionable regimes, will perform its old magic trick of rising above the constraints of its surroundings: after all, even the dreadful Olympics of 1936 was susceptible to being elevated in tone and majesty thanks to Jesse Owens. I will be tuning in, crossing my fingers, continuing in my efforts to purchase a “Free East Turkestan” (home of the Uighurs) t-shirt and hoping for the best.

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Barack the Conservative

August 6, 2008

The fuss made over Barack Obama’s suggestion that drivers should regularly check their tire pressure has been one of the 2008 campaign’s most amusing spectacles. After all, he’s not alone in saying this: the British government has given similar advice to motorists for years. However, this commonsensical idea is being portrayed as simple-minded: the answer to America’s energy shortages, says his opposition, is to “drill, drill, drill”. Worry more about getting more, rather than be concerned about being cautious and frugal.

This is, quite frankly, insane. There has never been a period in human history in which being wasteful was a good idea. Profligate governments find themselves swimming in debt, like Henry VIII’s England, and there isn’t always a Good Queen Bess to rescue them afterwards. Profligate peoples find that their civilisations run out of steam: perhaps one of the causes of the fall of Ancient Egypt was the concentration on extravagance for the dead rather than providing for the living. Nature itself abhors waste: the decay and effluent of one organism often provides fertiliser for another and the cycle of life ensures that “refuse” does not exist in the natural world. Indeed, even carbon dioxide is necessary for plants to achieve photosynthesis. Pure “rubbish” is most assuredly a man-made product. To argue against thrift as a priority, therefore, goes against the grain of Creation itself.

Furthermore, Obama’s suggestion is quite correct: according to the US Department of Energy, maintaining good tire pressure improves mileage by 3.3 percent. This is equivalent to a price drop of 12 cents in a gallon of gas: not bad, and certainly a saving that would have a positive ripple effect on the wider economy, if everyone did as the government suggests. The other tips from the Department are similarly maintenance focused: they state that regularly changing the air filter could improve mileage by 10 percent. Making sure the car is well tuned would add a further 4 percent. In short, it was sound advice: save money, help save the planet, take care of your things. Yet, to some, this is “dumb”; as Rush Limbaugh stated on his radio programme, “”My friends, this is laughable of course, but it’s stupid! It is stupid!”

This situation leads us to an interesting paradox: if “conserve” is the root word at the basis of “conservatism”, then who is the more “conservative”, Barack or Limbaugh? It is Limbaugh, after all, the self-described “conservative”, that is deriding the cautious use of resources; he has constantly stated his preference for oil drilling, which is the logical equivalent of trying to solve a drought by carrying more water from a diminishing well in leaky buckets, rather than plugging the leaks in the first instance. Barack, on the other hand, is on the side of economy. Yet, it is Obama who is being described as the “dangerous liberal” and seen as “profligate”, particularly with other people’s money.

We should not be surprised by this, however. “Conservatism” is a label for an ideology that has no accurate moniker, which theoretically lumps together people as ideologically dissimilar as Pat Buchanan and Andrew Sullivan. The name has been traditionally used to imply a philosophy that is opposed to radical change: however, the hallmark of the Bush administration has been a great deal of turbulence, even stretching to governments beyond its borders, and closer to home, to undermining the aged and basic protections enshrined in the Constitution. Barack’s call for “change” under these circumstances looks more like a restoration, a step back from the violence and mismanagement that have plagued the United States for the past eight years.

If it cannot be defined in reference to stability, perhaps conservatism can then be defined by its adherence to religion; certainly, President Bush is an overtly “God-fearing” man, who cites Jesus Christ as a favourite philosopher. However there is a case to be made to suggest that Barack has taken on the meaning of faith even more deeply than the President: it merely depends on where one’s emphasis lies, and what one perceives as the greater sin. “Evangelicals” appear to abhor the sin of lust above all others; but which is worse, lust or avarice? So much is spoken of the former that attack on the latter by the “Christian leadership” is a rare happenstance. That said, there is no denying that unbridled lust creates problems: for example, no one desires an increase in teenage pregnancy or venereal disease. However, if ambition is not shackled to responsibility, the consequence is to create a fractured culture in which people perceive themselves to be islands unto themselves. So long as their individual portions of territory is prosperous, they see no problem if the others fail; this is a recipe for eventual anarchy as well as widespread misery.

If a religious context is inadequate, then, perhaps conservatism can be defined in terms of the role of government; theoretically, there is trust in the freedom of the individual to manage their own affairs, and to rise or fall by their own merits. However, this assumption has been blown to pieces by the recent credit crisis: where was this red blooded philosophy when it came to the titans of Wall Street? Surely, if self-reliance is to be the key to virtue, then the likes of Bear Stearns should have been told, bluntly, “you’re on your own”, rather than be a cause of any concern for the state. Obama’s line in so far as it pertains to these large institutions has broadly been that they should be wealthy enough to sort themselves out; his focus has remained on providing tax relief to those at the bottom end of the scale, so they can better steer the waters of economic turmoil.

As the label’s meaning apparently is murky at best, it is perhaps best to say that the conservatism of “conservatives” is a brand, a matter of presentation rather than a coherent set of philosophical tenets. The moniker implies an extrovert, if not aggressive belief in God, family, home and hearth and a hidden license to unbridled consumption. It’s more about portraying Barack as some silly, out of touch elitist than rather examining the practical impact of his proposals and holding to some unrivaled claim to intellectual integrity. It’s more about trying to cast aspersions on Obama’s education and erudition as a distancing factor from the life of most Americans, rather than actually thinking through what he has to say. Smoke and mirrors, shapes and shadows, bread and circuses, we’ve always been at war with Eurasia, the whole show could roll on only so long as the practical limits of consumption didn’t kick in: these are coming to the fore in 2008.

To be completely fair, some conservatives do mean what they say. Mostly these individuals are to be found outside the United States; for example, as Andrew Marr stated in “The History of Modern Britain”, Mrs. Thatcher genuinely thought that opening markets and deregulation would somehow create a culture in which people were actually less extravagant and wasteful, not more. It was a bad line to hear while I was drinking a sip of water; I briefly did a passable impersonation of the Trevi Fountain. In her case, to put it mildly, the idea didn’t work out. It hasn’t worked out, overall. Perhaps it’s time to give the Obama variant of “conservatism” a try.

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Remembering Solzhenitsyn

August 5, 2008

The Soviet Union is back in fashion. A recent book, entitled “Hammer and Tickle”, gave us an insight into how Communism was full of jokes, mostly based around the difficult living conditions and absurd politics. Another timely tome, called “Cars for Comrades”, showed how the Soviet auto industry was also full of unintentional humour (the Volga sedan was so poorly built that petrol fumes routinely entered the passenger compartment – get it?).

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But perhaps the most obvious sign of the Soviet Union’s resurgence as a style icon was a t-shirt that one of my younger work colleagues recently wore: he probably wasn’t aware of its significance, but at the centre of its design was a hammer and sickle. Truly, we are in the process of forgetting what the Soviet Union was; it’s now more silly or chic than sinister.

It is fitting, then, that we should get a sharp reminder from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His death, of course, is a great loss, but at the same time it is an antidote to amnesia.

The Soviet Union began with a lot of noble ideals about equality, prosperity and brotherhood; there was a belief that underpinned the average Bolsheviks’ hopes that they were building a better future for humanity by their example. It didn’t take long for their hopes to be crushed by ambitions at the top, and by Stalin’s dictatorial aspirations in particular. Communism quickly became an economic, social and environmental disaster. Millions were killed in the gulag, others had their lives ruined because they fit into the wrong social class (e.g. kulaks or “rich peasant”) or merely because they had been accused of being one of the vragi naroda (“enemies of the people”) or in connection with some arcane (and fictional) plot to kill Leningrad Party Boss, Sergei Kirov in 1934.

The famine in the Ukraine, created by forced collectivisation of agriculture, killed millions more. While the more brutal aspects of the regime faded after Stalin’s death in 1953, it destroyed much of the land through its botched economic planning: ridiculous targets for cotton production, for example, left much of Uzbekistan’s land poisoned from over-use of nitrates. Safety standards were ignored in the dash for nuclear power: Chernobyl is now a synonym for disaster, and the consequences of that meltdown in 1986 are still being felt today. According to Greenpeace, between 1990 and 2004, there were 200,000 additional deaths in Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia due to cancers and other diseases directly attributable to the debacle.

Social consequences are more difficult to measure, but if there was one theme that unifies the Soviet experience, it was the distance between rhetoric and reality. This has distorted Russian culture in such a way that, for example, the Russian government may say it is committed to joint ventures with foreigners, but in practice, it kicks the chairman of an Anglo-Russian joint venture out of the country. Putin may say that he is committed to human rights and democracy, however, he has managed to continue his rule with only a figleaf of democratic propriety in place.

Yet, we’re laughing about the USSR, wearing its symbols, and forgetting these obvious lessons. Even the British government is guilty of post-Soviet amnesia: constant surveillance didn’t make the Soviet Union a happier place, yet there are more CCTV cameras here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Targets in industry didn’t make anyone want to buy Soviet-made products, yet the British government fixes “production goals” in medicine and education which are every bit as aggressive and insensitive.

Solzhenitsyn, a grumpy, cumudgeonly writer, had memory at the core of his life’s work. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is an eternal memorial to the suffering of prisoners in the Gulag. “The Gulag Archipelago” is an astonishingly accurate portrait of the system, how it functioned, and how it utilised slave labour to push the Soviet economy on, albeit to no particular good end. His life, and his expulsion by the Brezhnev regime and into an uneasy exile in the United States (he denounced its extravagance and consumerism), was a testament to the inhumanity at the base of the Communist system. If he had one lesson to teach us, albeit imperfectly, it was as follows: any system that truly advances humanity, has to have human rights at its core. This is not only the right to free speech, but also the right not to be robbed, raped or brutalised by one’s own state.

It is fashionable for progressives to speak of the Soviet Union as a “failed experiment”. This does not nearly go far enough: if we adhere to the idea that human rights have to be at the core of human progress, then Stalinist Communism should be denounced as the brutal, repressive failure that it was. This principle applies also to current regimes which are looked on kindly by some progressives: we may laud Chavez’s assistance to the poor, but his moves to squelch democracy in Venezuela should offend, and the repudiation of those moves by the Venezuelan people should be cause for celebration.

Furthermore, there should be no “romance” about what has happened and is happening in Cuba. Because of Che Guevara’s appeal as a symbol of revolution, and Fidel Castro’s willingness to poke a certain Texan President in the eye, there is often a detectable, if grudging admiration for the regime in Havana. Yet, this is the same regime that in the 1960’s sent homosexuals to re-education camps, and in the 1980’s tried to quarantine those infected with AIDS. The regime still does not recognise the right to freedom of speech or assembly, nor does it hold free elections.

There is a tendency to believe the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”; many Americans certainly believed that about militant Islam in Afghanistan during the late 70’s and 80’s, when the enemy was the Soviet Union. The consequence of this policy was the rise of the Taliban. Backing regimes that do things which are morally repugnant, merely because they oppose the bugbear of the day has the same suicidal consequence for the credibility of the progressive argument, in particular for its stated care for the rights of the individual. Solzhenitsyn has long been required reading on the Right; he should be required reading for everyone.

No doubt the brief reminders provided by the obituary columns will fade away. Putin described Solzhenitsyn’s death as a “great loss”, as he was obliged to do. This doesn’t mean he will be backtracking on his efforts at a Soviet revival: he has recently brought back Red Army celebrations, and even resurrected the use of the Soviet national anthem, albeit with different lyrics. The best tribute to Solzhenitsyn’s life and work is to be disturbed by this, to continue to blow on the embers of memory, and to hope that the flickering glow continues on to those that follow.

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Coming Soon…Dubya the Movie

August 5, 2008

As the trailer indicates, this bio-pic going to be as scary as hell:

Tell me again, how did this man become President?

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Review: “The Dark Knight” starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger

July 28, 2008

The JokerAt the time of writing, it is highly likely that the new Batman film, entitled “The Dark Knight” is on its way to being the largest money-grossing film of all time. It certainly is exploiting the merchandising possibilities as well: it’s difficult to escape mentions of “The Dark Knight” these days, there is even a “dark hamburger” which is a unusual attempt at “marketing to the gut instincts”.

Thus, it’s with some trepidation that any impartial reviewer looks at this film. A movie that is as “commercial” as this rarely qualifies as high art; more often than not, it doesn’t qualify as entertaining. Generally, any cinema drenched in hype usually turns into two pointless hours in the dark with semi-stale popcorn and a ludicrously priced bottle of diet soda.

“The Dark Knight” fortunately, is not like this. It may be advertised like a commercial blockbuster, but it is so saturated with darkness and insanity that it cannot be considered to be part of mainstream genre.

The film begins where the last, “Batman Begins”, left off. Gotham looks better; the ramshackle nature of the city is less seen. Criminals are more afraid; a dishevelled looking Scarecrow is captured relatively easily. The underworld is in retreat, with the exception of a new villain, the Joker, expertly played by the late Heath Ledger. Apparently Ledger went out of his way to bring a new interpretation to the role, going so far as to isolate himself in order to create an atmosphere of total immersion into the character. These efforts succeeded. This Joker is semi-suicidal, not interested in power or domination, but rather is a force of nature, hell bent on destruction, murder and chaos (as such, I strongly discourage allowing small children to view this film). Ledger adds to the effect by making the traditional Joker cackling rare: this version is more subdued than any we’ve seen previously. He speaks in softer tones, is more unkempt than outrageous: even the purple and green clothing he wears stands out less than one might anticipate. He is cold blooded and toys with people psychologically, for example, he rigs two ferry boats to explode, and places the detonators with the passengers. The passengers are then forced to choose to either blow up each other’s boats, or to be blown up by the Joker. It is difficult to imagine Nicholson’s Joker, for example, being that drawn out or twisted.

Indeed, the entire plot can be said to be an extended chess game in which the Joker is the grand master. Batman, the new District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon are all unwitting pawns moving as the Joker predicts. For example, the Joker senses that Batman is fond of Bruce Wayne’s childhood sweetheart (and Harvey Dent’s girlfriend), Rachel Dawes, and sets a trap whereby Batman cannot save both Harvey and Rachel. Additionally, the Joker uses his knowledge of Gordon’s precinct to engineer a plan to be captured and then escape. The only method by which Joker can be prevented from achieving his ultimate aim of breaking the city’s spirit – mainly by causing the downfall into madness of Harvey Dent, the city’s hero – is for Batman to take the blame for acts of vigilante violence for which Harvey is responsible. Batman’s “victory” in other words, is not much of a win.

Batman himself is far less interesting than the Joker. Christian Bale has tamed the angst-ridden Bruce Wayne; the billionaire’s main drama lies in wishing for an end to his role as the Caped Crusader so that he can take up with Rachel. This, however, is a half-hearted wish: for instance, the Joker wants Batman to take off his mask, but even with the threat of killing innocent people, Bale’s Batman refuses to do it. Whenever Bruce Wayne thinks of walking away, circumstances in which Batman would be useful emerge, and he doesn’t hesitate to don the mask once more. We are presented with a Batman who is locked into his role, not only from which he cannot escape, but one he doesn’t wish to escape. He is therefore more or less a “settled” character. This makes him rather tedious; furthermore, the playboy Bruce Wayne persona is just as dull. A billionaire with three models on his arm is such a cliche that were this film more realistic, those around him would likely question it.

Perhaps the real heroes of this film are the supporting actors: Gary Oldman is outstanding as Commissioner Gordon. I suggest that his performance is as every bit as good as Ledger’s: had not Ledger died, it might very well be Oldman who is being discussed as a potential winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Michael Caine does also well as Alfred, the butler; it is difficult to think of any film in which Caine has not excelled, and this is no exception. Furthermore, Morgan Freeman is a calm, capable and upright Lucius Fox. If they do make another Batman film, I believe it simply would not work without these three.

Other supporting actors fare less well. Maggie Gyllenhaal was presumably picked to play the role of Rachel Dawes because she could carry on where Katie Holmes left off: the two were nearly indistinguishable in being less than sympathetic. Aaron Eckhart, who was an admirable choice for the role of Harvey Dent, simply did not have enough time or lines to develop the character; it would have required a much longer film to show the roots of his madness and make his fall more believable. Eric Roberts is too obvious to play a realistic mob boss; I kept on expecting him to advertise spaghetti or Italian tomato sauce as an offer one couldn’t refuse.

The two and a half hours of this film fly right by; there is a sense that there should be more. It is very likely that this could have been made into two films rather than one. An alternative would have been a sequel that continued with the Joker; it is a pity that the fight between him and Batman will not proceed into the next film. Already rumours are flying that the next confrontation will be between Batman and the Riddler; I don’t envy the actor who gets the role of the cryptically inclined super villain. He has a giant pair of clown shoes to fill.

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The End

July 25, 2008

Gordon BrownWhenever I see an exhibition or documentary about the Roman Empire, a question springs to mind: when it was over, did the people of Rome know it? After all, “the end” in their case didn’t mean the sun didn’t stop rising and setting, nor did it imply the spring would not arrive after winter, indeed, the city of Rome carried on. Yes, the Senate and the Emperor were gone, but perhaps to many Romans this seemed like a temporary inconvenience, a rest stop on an otherwise long, paved highway of history. One wonders when it finally sank in that it was all over; was it when a Barbarian King was crowned? Or was it when the last soldier of Justinian slouched off? When did the Romans realise that the glory days were gone for good, and what did they do?

Perhaps they never accepted that the days of the empire were over; after all, one of Mussolini’s party pieces was to say he was going to revive the “glory of Rome”. If the desire is not completely dead, we can take comfort from the fact that this instinct has obviously evolved into the harmless outlet of a desire to dominate world soccer.

The psychology of endings remains fascinating, however. What do people do when they realise their time has passed, their situation is untenable, and that the world is moving on, more or less happily without them?

The latest case study comes from Glasgow East; this is a place that is largely consumed with endings. It is post-industrial, so it has more than passing acquaintance with economic demise. It is also plagued with unemployment, drugs and low standards of living. The survivors of all sorts of conclusions have landed in that particular place, clinging on to a shoal of existence while the riptides of globalisation, neglect and incompetence continue in their attempts to wash them away.

It is perhaps ironic that the Labour Party may have met its end in such a place; theoretically, it is a political movement devoted to those least well off, intended to protect precisely the constituency that Glasgow East represents. The voters, however, reached out above the rushing waters that subsume them, and pulled the Labour Party down into the deep. The Scottish National Party has a newly minted MP, and today’s photos of Gordon Brown indicate he’s looking particularly grey and grim.

I should mention that I don’t have a particular personal interest in this by-election; the Scottish Green candidate only got 232 votes and lost her deposit. I am not surprised. This is a constituency where Labour votes aren’t counted, they’re weighed, and thus the focus was always going to be on Labour and the SNP, their closest opponent. Furthermore, let’s be honest, Green parties in general tend to have a disproportionate number of Phds and MDs in their membership; as if to prove the point, the Green candidate in Glasgow East was Dr. Eileen Duke. The obvious gap in education may have created an automatic divide between the candidate and this constituency’s electorate.

So it is with some distance that I speak of “the end”. The end of Gordon Brown’s career? Yes, certainly. If he has any normal psychological impulses, he must be looking in the rear view mirror of his career rather than looking forward. Had he called an election shortly after his selection as Labour leader, it is likely he would have won, and his position would be far more secure. He may recollect how long he coveted the role of Prime Minister, how long he argued for it, how long he waited. Upon achieving his desire, however, he was left in the unenviable position of a child on Christmas morning who discovers anticipation of a gift was far more satisfying than receiving it.

Perhaps this is also the end of the Labour Party. Few are saying this; at best, we hear whispers of an electoral wipeout on the scale of the Tories’ demolition in 1997, a disaster which David Cameron has proven is redeemable. However, there is a whiff of decay, a hint of rot at the core of the Labour movement, which proceeds from the question, “Whom does Labour represent?”

The original Labour party was created to serve the interests of working people, in particular those who toiled in coal mines and factories for low wages. Their goal was to create a more equitable society in which these individuals received a greater share of the wealth that was generated by their efforts. In an era that not only is becoming post-industrial, but must become even more post-industrial for the sake of the environment, this seems like an anachronism.

To be sure, Labour has tried to adapt. Tony Blair watered down enough of their message to make Labour palatable to the “aspiring classes”, and not to spook those who had “made it”. However, the need to maintain this centrist position meant that Labour stood for nothing much, except a bit more spending, and a different management style. As our present difficulties suggest, this strategy has failed. Ideas do matter; the post-ideological approach of the Labour Party has left it politically bankrupt and bereft.

it is also bankrupt in a literal sense: as the BBC explained last night, in 2004, £4 out of every £10 that Labour received in donations was from the unions. This proportion has more than doubled. The unions may have sufficient leverage to bend Labour to their will; this is not always a good thing, particularly when it comes to forseeable tensions between the desire for economic expansion and the needs of the environment. Furthermore, a thoroughly union controlled Labour Party is an easy target for the revitalised Conservatives, who can frighten the wider public into thinking that the 1970’s have returned with a vengeance.

There is no public indication that Labour understands their present plight. BBC News this morning has brought forth a shabby procession of minor ministers stating that it was the fault of the faltering global economy, and high oil prices: i.e., it’s to do with factors for which they cannot be blamed. No doubt, Gordon Brown will trot out the tired line that he is continuing to make the “right long term decisions for the good of the country”. The optimists, like Roy Hattersley, probably will continue to state that the situation is retrievable. The Romans likely felt the same way when Romulus Augustulus was ushered out of the imperial palace by the Barbarian chieftain Odoacer for the last time. After all, the sun still rises and sets, the trees grow leaves in the spring, the world still turns, and the circular nature of life means that surely their time will come again. Perhaps?

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Out of Tune

July 24, 2008

A British furniture store recently bought the rights to Nickelback’s “Rockstar” in order to provide the theme music for their commercials. Television viewers have been “treated” to the sight of customers of varying types dancing in front of their new sofas and miming the lyrics as the tune blasts on.

However, unless I’ve completely misunderstood the song, it was meant as an attack on excessive materialism, not intended to support it. Here’s the video:

Nickelback: "Rockstar"- Official Video

Note the following segment from the lyrics:

‘Cause we all just wanna be big rockstars
And live in hilltop houses, drivin’ fifteen cars
The girls come easy and the drugs come cheap
We’ll all stay skinny ’cause we just won’t eat

This hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement; in fact the lifestyle that is mentioned sounds particularly empty: for example, “I want a brand new house on an episode of Cribs / And a bathroom I can play baseball in”. Mentions of drug taking also feature.

If the furniture store has misjudged it, they wouldn’t be the first. Remember, Windows 95’s anthem was the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up”:

If you start me up
If you start me up Ill never stop
If you start me up
If you start me up Ill never stop
Ive been running hot
You got me ticking gonna blow my top
If you start me up
If you start me up Ill never stop
You make a grown man cry

This perhaps is some truth in advertising, particularly the bit about making “a grown man cry”.

Hillary Clinton too, was guilty of picking a bad theme tune for her first Senate campaign. Her team thought Billy Joel was appropriate. As he is from Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, this was a reasonable assumption. However, they chose the song “Captain Jack”:

Saturday night, and you’re still hangin’ around.
Tired of living in your one-horse town.
You’d like to find a little hole in the ground,
For awhile.
So you go to the Village in your tie-dyed jeans.
And you stare at the junkies and the closet queens.
It’s like some pornographic magazine,
And you smile.

This is followed by:

Your sister’s gone out,she on a date.
You just sit at home and masturbate.
Your phone is gonna ring soon, but you just can’t wait
For that call.
So you stand on the corner in your new English clothes.
And you look so polished, from your hair down to your toes.
Ah but still, your finger’s gonna pick your nose
After all.

Just a recommendation to furniture stores, software manufacturers and indeed Hillary Clinton: try listening to the music before you actually select it!

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The Lingering Ghost of Titus Oates

July 24, 2008

Titus OatesAccording to Pew Research, 12% of the American electorate believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. This is in spite of the fact that every last piece of evidence suggests otherwise: Barack’s father was an athiest, as was his mother. The fact that he went to school in Indonesia with a bunch of Muslims does not constitute proof. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world; as he presumably was not living inside a bubble during his time there, he was bound to be educated alongside Muslims, just like any other expatriate child.

Yet the accusation simply will not go away; Barack has continued to protest that he is a Christian. No sane political strategist would suggest that this not a smart move. But why? Why he is compelled to be so vigorous in denying any connection to the Islamic faith? Why would being Muslim disqualify him? Why does the very name “Muslim” carry such negative connotations?

Sadly, there is a historical precedent. The name “Titus Oates” seldom is spoken in history classes these days. There are reasons for this: he is one of history’s greatest liars, agitators, perjurers and flim flam artists. Thanks to him, men were hung, drawn and quartered. Their crime? They were of the wrong religious persuasion, in this case, Catholic.

Oates came to prominence during the reign of King Charles II. While Charles brought a certain amount of stability after the febrile period of the English Civil War and the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, there was a lingering suspicion of Catholics, a paranoia which made the age far more nervous and violent than it otherwise might have been.

There were some solid reasons for the sentiment; after all, the messianic Catholic King Philip II of Spain sent the Spanish Armada to topple the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in 1588, partially because she was supposedly an “illegitimate Protestant whore”. Catholic plotters, including the infamous Guido Fawkes, tried to blow up Parliament and dispose of King James I in 1605. Catholic and Protestant nations were at each other’s throats during the Thirty Years War, which kicked off in 1618. The continous meddling of the Pope in international affairs indicated that Catholicism was just as much a political doctrine as well as a religious one.

This led to an atmosphere in which uneducated people were tempted to believe that Catholics were behind every ill that befell them, including the Great Fire of London in 1666. Enter Oates, a failed Anglican vicar, who was booted from one of his posts for perjury: he had falsely accused a schoolmaster of committing sodomy. Ironically, Oates lost another job, a chaplaincy on a Royal Navy vessel, for having reportedly engaged in “buggery”.

Oates was not a good, intelligent, or moral man, but he certainly knew how to lie and how to inflame public passions. He recklessly began to accuse Catholics in King Charles’ court of planning to get rid of the Protestant Charles by poisoning, so that his Catholic brother James could assume the throne. Oates made 43 accusations in all, implicating over 500 suspects. Among them was the entirely innocent secretary to the Duchess of York, Edward Colman; thanks to Oates, he was tortured and executed.

It took three years for Oates’ intricate web of lies to unravel: by then, the damage had been done. Bigotry had been enshrined in England’s laws: Catholics were not allowed to take up Parliamentary seats until 1829. The English Bill of Rights, enacted after the Catholic King James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, prevents any Catholic from becoming the reigning monarch: it remains in force.

To a civilised observer in 2008, this series of events seems absurd. At the start, Oates should have been quickly dismissed as a crank and a hysteric. While there was a radical element, the vast majority of Catholics in 17th century England wished to leave peacefully; the Catholics in Charles II’s government, by and large, served the monarch and the nation faithfully.

However, the label “Catholic”, and its popular association with intrigue and murder, meant that many innocent people were regarded as a dangerous element, a fifth column, an enemy within. Catholics were the subject of wild rumour and fantastic tales of torture and debauchery. The Catholics had to be purged, the logic ran, before they stamped the Protestant world out of existence.

If one substitutes the word “Muslim” for “Catholic” in that last paragraph, and the word “Judeo-Christian” for “Protestant”, and then takes a look at the content of today’s newspapers and blogs, we gain an tragic insight. How little the world has changed; fortunately, our punishments are not quite as gruesome as those in the past. However, can it be denied that one of the reasons why the Western public is not as restive as it might be about the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is because those held there are Muslim?

Peter Oborne, the noted journalist, recently proved how casual the public is about anti-Muslim bigotry. He did an experiment in which he took tabloid headlines which reported supposed Muslim “incidents” and substituted words like “blacks” or “Jews” for “Muslims”. He the showed modified texts to members of the public. The public said the altered stories were “racist”, “offensive” and should not be allowed. Yet there have been few, stirrings of protest outside the Muslim community about the originals. When it comes to Islam, we are living in Oates’ world, where suspicion equals fact, and intolerance is a public virtue.

Senator Obama is not in a position to address this issue at the moment; he has an election to win, and the evils of this situation cannot be remedied with a single portion of rhetorical brilliance. The Labour government in Britain says that it is concerned about this issue, but its rhetoric is just as empty as its cache of ideas. We have to content ourselves for the moment with the following thought: unlike in the 17th century, being a bigot now is a source of shame, rather than a form of identification. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that Catholics and Protestants have learned to get along, even in places such as Northern Ireland where they clashed for centuries. The election of a Catholic American President would not now cause a single eyelid to flicker; it is highly unlikely that repeal of the prohibition against a Catholic monarch would stir protest in England. The Pope is now more a celebrity than a bogeyman; he fills stadiums like a rock star. These developments bode well for the future of relations between members of all faiths. The question is how long a road are we going to have to walk to get there. How open are we to viewing each other as individual human beings, as opposed to having our interchange defined by labels? The more we do the latter, the longer the lingering spectre of Oates can continue its nefarious work. The more we do the former, the quicker we will finally consign it to hell.

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Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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