Monday, March 27, 2006


Jafar Panahi's “Offside” is 'an engagingly subversive film about six female football fans who are arrested after smuggling themselves, dressed as men, into the all-male environment of Tehran's Azadi stadium' (for the match where Iran beat Bahrain to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany).
How “Offside” was made is almost as absorbing as the film itself. [...] Mr Panahi explains that, having in effect been banned from working by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, he applied for permission to shoot the film using a dummy director and a scam synopsis. “Five days before the end of shooting”, he goes on, “they got wind of the fact that I was making the film and that the synopsis was a fake. We shot the final scenes on the road to Qom, outside the jurisdiction of the Tehran police.” Mr Panahi has not been prosecuted, so far.
From The Economist,  Mar 9th 2006.


The burden of guilt

Our reluctance to use moral language has its ultimate source not in any philosophical doctrine but in the dark cloud of guilt hanging over the west ever since 1918. "Value-neutralism" dignifies what is, in effect, a crisis of confidence. Having once been wrong, we doubt our right to call anyone else wrong; condemning ourselves, we hesitate to condemn others. Neoconservatism repudiates this psychic burden. It offers us what Douglas Murray calls "moral clarity"—the exhilarating certainty that there is good and evil, and that we are on the side of good. It is no coincidence that many of its most forceful advocates have been Jews, a people who, at least until recently, have had uniquely little to feel guilty about.

But the neoconservative cure is, alas, worse than the disease. For the sad fact is that historical guilt is now all that remains of the political conscience of the west. In unburdening ourselves of it, we are in danger of unburdening ourselves of any inhibition whatsoever.
Edward Skidelsky on neoconservatism, in Prospect, March 2006.

Friday, March 24, 2006

30 Years on...

Thousands of people gathered today in Buenos Aires to mark the 30th anniversary of the military coup.
It was just after 3 a.m. on March 24, 1976, that coup leaders announced they had toppled the government of Maria Estela Martinez de Peron, widow of the former strongman Juan Domingo Peron. She was flown away by helicopter from the pink Government House, steps from where the rally was held Friday on the Plaza de Mayo.
Associated Press ...

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Euskadi Ta Azkatasuna  announced a "permanent ceasefire" yesterday.

I suppose we should all be grateful to them for killing Franco's anointed successor, Luis Carrero Blanco, in 1973.

When democracy returned, they were offered an amnesty in 1977, but many of the group opted to continue with violent methods.

From BBC Radio 4: 0755 A historian, Francis Fukuyama is one of the growing American opponents against the war in Iraq. Listen.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Unsuspected competence

I have been revisiting Noam Chomsky's essay, 'Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship' (*), which largely deals with the Spanish Civil War. It reaches broadly the same conclusions as, say, Orwell in his 1942 essay, 'Looking Back on the Spanish War' or Anthony Beevor in his 1982 book. In fact, despite Chomsky's complaint about "the elitist bias that dominates the writing of history", it is not unfair to describe this as a new "accepted wisdom", as a review of 8 Mar 2006 in the Morning Star does.

The specific context for Chomsky's essay is the publication of Gabriel Jackson's The Spanish Republic and the Civil War: 1931-1939 (Princeton, 1965), from which Chomsky quotes (p89):
"the revolutionary tide began to ebb in Catalonia" after "accumulating food and supply problems, and the experience of administering villages, frontier posts, and public utilities, had rapidly shown the anarchists the unsuspected complexity of modern society" (pp. 313-14).
Chomsky picks up this idea of "unsuspected complexity", chasing the hapless phrase down the pages, twisting the knife and culminating with 
So far as the frontier posts are concerned, the situation, as Jackson elsewhere describes it (p. 368), was basically as follows: "In Catalonia the anarchists had, ever since July 18, controlled the customs stations at the French border. On April 17, 1937, the reorganized carabineros, acting on orders of the Finance Minister, Juan Negrin, began to reoccupy the frontier. At least eight anarchists were killed in clashes with the carabineros." Apart from this difficulty, admittedly serious, there seems little reason to suppose that the problem of manning frontier posts contributed to the ebbing of the revolutionary tide. The available records do not indicate that the problems of administering villages or public utilities were either "unsuspected" or too complex for the Catalonian workers— a remarkable and unsuspected development, but one which nevertheless appears to be borne out by the evidence available to us. [p97]
At his best, Chomsky is quite good, which makes it all the more annoying when most of the time he is such a transparent fabricator.

*  American Power and the New Mandarins, Vintage Books / Random House, 1969. I gave a link to an online version in my previous post. I have no wish to undermine Chomsky's intellectual property, which may be a sort of pension for him, but if you wish to see the footnotes, you may care to try the hint I gave at the end here.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Some French writers...

A group of writers - predominantly from Muslim backgrounds - have made their position on Islamism clear in this new manifesto:
Sadly Harry's Place have closed their comments on this topic. I should respond with the philosophical profundity so beloved of the French, but I couldn't be a**sed. So, instead:
Caroline Fourest - dodgy;
Bernard-Henri Lévy - v. dodgy.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The White Ducks of Basra

For anyone who remembers the Steven Vincent story, BBC World Service's Outlook programme, Monday, had an interview with his widow, Lisa Ramaci. They also talk to the Governor of Basra, Mohammed el-Wahili, and a listener in Iraq who contacted the programme about the 'white ducks'. These are white Toyota cars, driven by gangsters or militiamen, who target anyone who opposes them and gun them down. (The link to the audio was not working when I tried it. This should be OK.)

Lisa relates that another journalist, a Basran-born stringer for The New York Times, Shaikhir (?) Haidar, was killed exactly 6 weeks after Steven.

While we are on the subject, if you have not heard Basra Diary, about the tour of the 'Desert Rats' in Southern Iraq (it was on Radio 4 a few weeks ago and the World Service last week), it is still available on the website.

Update: Steven Vincent's weblog is not quite defunct: a recent entry has a link that allows me to correct the name given above:
[19 Sept] Fakher Haider, a 38-year-old Iraqi working as a reporter for the New York Times was found dead in the southern city of Basra after being kidnapped by masked assailants [P19].

The inevitable war

Jean-François Susbielle, who last month published an essay called Chine-USA, la guerre programmée?, interviewed on France Inter (Question directe and Radio-Com, c'est vous, 2 Mar). The war is inevitable: this is an affirmation, not a question.

It's mainly the fault of those US neoconservatives, of course, using evangelical Christian groups as a tool to penetrate Chinese society, for example. He does state at one point that both the Americans and the Chinese have a very realpolitik vision of international life - that he uses 'realpolitikers' and 'neoconservatives' as interchangeable terms indicates how little he understands the issues.

The US has, apparently, achieved the vassalization of its allies in Western Europe and Asia by means of energy and oil, by exclusive control of the security of the Middle East, recalling that Pearl Harbour was triggered by Cordell Hull turning off the tap of oil supplies in 1941(*). What obedient vassals many of those allies turned out to be over Iraq, say, you might think.

There is nothing that Europe can do about this, since the war has been programmed (by the US) since 1996-7. Here he characterises the Project for the New American Century more accurately than some, who speak of the planning of an attack on Iraq before Bush took power and a new Pearl Harbor being needed for America to dominate the world. PNAC's 'Rebuilding America's Defences' is largely about positioning the US to face any potential threat from China.

However, there is something depressingly familiar about Susbielle's outlook. It could be compared with James Burnham's geopolitical neo-pessimism in the 1940's, as described by George Orwell (check out the recurrence of words like irreversible and irresistible, as well as 'inevitable'). I also came across again RAND  Corporation Memorandum RM-5012-ARPA, January 1967, which I cited previously. Here is Colonel Ishihara in the late 1920's:
The true world war, which would be the last war of human civilization, would be fought with airplanes and would bring about total destruction. This war would be fought when Japan occupied the central position in Asia and the United States the central position in the West, and when airplanes would be able to circle the globe without landing for fuel. Since this war was inevitable, it was imperative that Japan prepare for the event.
The Financial Times, in a leader of 4 Mar (Welcome to the world of block-thy-neighbour), Italy's economy minister, Giulio Tremonti warning about Europe approaching an "August 1914" moment and remarks, 'European states are not going to attack each other, an activity their membership of the European Union has made unthinkable'. True, but at a wider global level, the fatalism expressed by Susbielle, the belief that competition between superpowers inevitably leads to military conflict, is profoundly dangerous.

* Anyone interested in the events of 1941 might care to read the following: The New York Review of Books: Pearl Harbor: An Exchange.

Energy supplies

Another interesting article from February's Prospect - Gazprom and the snarling bear:
Gazprom’s compromise with Ukraine came at the expense of central Asia, whose gas can only reach western Europe through Gazprom’s Russian pipelines. While Russia is no longer subsidising Ukraine, the Turkmens and Kazakhs are. Thanks to its monopoly power, Gazprom was able to reduce the average price of gas supplied to Ukraine to around $95 per thousand cubic metres - nearly double what it paid before, but less than half the $230 it now pays for Russian gas.

This low price is part of the hidden cost of Moscow’s political support for central Asia’s authoritarian regimes and for allowing millions of "gastarbeiter" – mainly Uzbeks—to work on Russian construction sites, farms and factories. They send back remittances which keep their families alive and help dictators like Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov remain in power.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

A country and an ideal

David Clark has a review in February's Prospect of Oliver Kamm's 'Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy' (link here - it should be free to view for another few weeks). It's not as bad as some articles that Clark, a former adviser to Robin Cook, has written for The Guardian and gives some interesting details on the evolution of Blair's foreign policy thinking. Nonetheless, it concluded
Is it possible to be a neoconservative without actually being American? A strong belief in the superiority of your own country is somewhat chauvinistic. But a strong belief in the superiority of another country is positively dotty. The contradictions involved in being a left-wing British neoconservative are too great for the idea to endure. The only way to resolve them will be for Kamm and those who think like him to abandon their flirtation with neoconservatism or take it to its ultimate conclusion by following Christopher Hitchens in adopting US citizenship and backing a Republican for president.
In answer to the question, of course it is, since the belief is in the ideal of democracy, not in the expansion of American power. You do not have do go along with the conservative social agenda: the term neoconservative becomes meaningless then anyway and, as noted in a previous post, linking the two creates its own paradox.  As I understand it, the reason Hitchens backed Bush for president was because he thought Kerry would crumble on Iraq.

Update: Hitchens has commented on the Fukuyama essay. He does not say much about "root causes", in the context of domestic social policy, but he does speak of his 'temporary neocon allies'.

While those who are in ecstasy over Fukuyama´s defection would do well to read his whole piece, Hitchens attacks that same defection and the hankering after ´times that will "restore the authority of foreign policy 'realists' in the tradition of Henry Kissinger" ´. It is clear, though, that Fukuyama is warning against exactly such an over-reaction: 'What American foreign policy needs is not a return to a narrow and cynical realism, but rather the formulation of a "realistic Wilsonianism" that better matches means to ends.'

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Job rights

Anyone who has seen the French media over the last month or so will know that one of the big topics is the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE). This seeks to reduce unemployment of young people by extending the trial period to 2 years, during which they  do not have full job protection (right severance payments and so on.

Le Monde Economie (7 Feb) did a comparison of this trial period in different European countries. In Britain, it used to be 2 years, but was reduced to 1 year, the same as in (the republic of) Ireland, in 2000. (These trial periods are optional and the figure is the maximum allowed.)

Anyway, how many people know that? And why do I have to read the French press to find out?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Civil war?

Gregory Djerejian made the remark, 'never has there been a better timed and more critical curfew' and got the comment  back: 'Can you imagine back in April 2003 that [...] you would be viewing a "curfew" no matter how well timed as a reason for optimism?'

Things look rather differently from Europe, or at least what the media is telling us does. According to Channel 4 News in Britain, Iraq 'is descending into' civil war - cf Bernard Guetta's 'C’est à un début de guerre civile auquel on assiste désormais en Irak (sic)'.

Even the BBC (World Service) initially described the curfew as a panic measure, then, when the violence continued (on Saturday, I think) said, 'If even a curfew can't stop the violence...'

'Civil war', like so many other expressions is a code: it means the Shi'a finally responding to provocation and taking it out on Sunnis, who may well be innocent of any involvement in the insurgency (let's stick with that word for now).

After the bombing of the Askariya shrine, this undoubtedly happened, though al-Qaeda propagandists seem to have exaggerated the scale, for example, from 22 Sunni mosques attacked to 100: according to one US Army source quoted by the BBC, they had reports of mosques being attacked and found that nothing had happened.

Now it seems mostly to have gone back to the pattern that is so familiar from the last two and a half years: attacks that the European media would describe as terrorist if they happened anywhere other than Iraq, targeted mainly at the Shi'a.