August 13, 2008 | Permalink
I overlooked this yesterday, but David Clark wrote an excellent column in The Guardian about the conflict in Georgia. I agree with it in every respect, and stress this point in particular:
[C]omplexity is no excuse for abdicating moral judgment in situations of this importance. If responsibility for the conflict is not a black and white matter, the picture is not uniformly grey either. By any reasonable measure, the impact of Russian policy has been uniquely destructive in generating instability and political division in the Caucasus. The events of the early 1990s notwithstanding, Georgia's treatment of minorities that have remained under its rule has been generally good. Whatever his faults, Saakashvili is no Milosevic - and wild Russian allegations of genocide have no independent support. Under appropriate international supervision, it would be perfectly possible to turn his offer of autonomy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia into a workable constitutional settlement that guaranteed the security and fundamental rights of people living those territories.
David was adviser to the late Robin Cook at the Foreign Office, and I know was a valuable influence in the British response to Milosevic's aggression in Kosovo. It's worth recalling that Milosevic was opposed not only to independece for Kosovo: he would not countenance autonomy either. There is no analogy here with the separatist enclaves in Georgia.
Here are one or two things I noticed over the weekend.
I'm sorry to say that Barbara Amiel compares the gaoling of her husband, Conrad Black, to the Dreyfus case. I admire Ms Amiel's skills as a columnist, but it's difficult to gainsay what Roy Greenslade says in The Guardian about this preposterous analogy.
In his Times column, Michael Gove comments on literature in translation:
I've always harboured the suspicion that reading great literature in translation involves a loss of nuance, a sacrifice of subtlety, which few will admit to. It is not in the translators' interests to acknowledge what's lost in the process, and neither is it in the authors', if they're still alive and earning. But surely the suppleness of language in the original doesn't come through in the same way as when we're reading our mother tongue.
We all know that the weight, cadence, rhythm, colour, connotations and allusions of Dickens's or Waugh's language must be, to an extent, sacrificed when they're rendered in German. So what am I losing when I pick up Thomas Mann? And if I am losing something is it better to revel in the work of a second division Brit (James Hogg, George Meredith) than persevere with a foreign classic knowing you're not getting the best out of it? Can readers help? Are there some foreign works that lose nothing in translation? And if so, why?
Michael is one of the best-read and most cultured men I know, and I hesitate to reach for the nearest brickbat. But it is, at best, a category mistake to talk about what is "lost" in a translated work of literature. A translated work of literature, done well, is a work of literature in its own right. I can certainly think of great writers - indeed, the very greatest writers - of whom this is true. You can't reasonably talk of "sacrifice" in the the Scott Moncrieff translation of Proust into English, and the Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare into German.
Here's a thoughtful review by Max Hastings of a new book on the Korean War. Hastings writes:
Those such as the British reporter James Cameron, who denounced Rhee's regime and UN support for it back in 1950, were wrong. Everything is relative. Rhee's rule was fractionally less ghastly than that of Kim Il Sung. Vindication for what the West did in that barren peninsula almost 60 years ago is to be found in the two Koreas today: one a thriving democracy and economic tiger; the other, one of the most wretched tyrannies on earth. Unlike most conflicts, the Korean war was worth fighting.I'm certain this is right. Korea was a terribly unpopular war with immense humanitarian costs - 54,000 American lives, a million Chinese lives and 3.5 million Korea lives. And it was strictly necessary, to defeat a direct case of Communist aggression.
The main story of the past few days is of course the recrudescence of Russian aggression. I would direct you first to the wise comments by Bernard Kouchner. No European statesman knows more about the recent consequences in European of allowing ugly nationalisms to run unchecked, and Kouchner's allusion to the catastrophes wreaked in Bosnia and Kosovo by that type of regime is apt.
I don't defend Georgia's initial, unjustified and violent incursion into South Ossetia. But Russian policy is a brutal amalgam of realpolitik, consistent ethnocentrism, and an uncomplicated desire to undermine Western diplomacy. The Caucasus has been the victim, under leaders who've been responsible as well as others who've been disreputable. Of the latter kind, the extreme nationalist Zviad Gamasakhurdia, Georgia's first President after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was almost certainly overthrown with Russian support. A far better leader, President Abulfaz Elchibey of Azerbaijan, was subjected to Russian initimidation and economic pressure merely for seeking to negotiate an oil contract with a Western consortium. He was deposed in a Russian-backed coup. And so the story continues.
On Western diplomacy, I recommend an astute commentary by my colleague Bronwen Maddox.
Of course, many Nato members will consider how, had Georgia already been a member, they would have had to defend it. Germany will win more support for its argument, which dominated the Nato summit in April, that it would be wrong to offer membership for fear of provoking Russia and while its territory remains in dispute. Alarm at this near-war on Europe’s borders will easily persuade more governments of the need for caution.
That would be wrong. It would tell Russia that it had an effective veto over who joined Nato. It would discourage the pro-American and pro-European spirit of President Saakashvili, elected in 2004 partly for those sentiments. It might even make it harder to agree the deployment of international peacemakers in South Ossetia by showing that the US and Europe were indifferent to Georgia’s case.
This is a desperately important point. The value of Nato is not only in providing for our collective security. The alliance is also a way of cementing liberal tendencies in emerging states and regions. (Likewise, the European Union, which is the single most important reason - far more than any economic grounds - for my support for wider European integration.) It would be wrong for Western governments to infer from Russian aggression that they should be cautious about expanding Nato membership.
UPDATE: Denis MacShane makes an important point in The Telegraph: "The idea of a common foreign policy and the means to implement it in the Lisbon Treaty are anathema to Eurosceptics; but a disunited EU will be easy meat for Russia and leave America without a partner of weight to face down Russian bullying."
Amid the voluminous abusive and xenophobic reader comments posted underneath the article, this one stands out:
Only THREE words to Say To Bush and Brown
IRAQ AFGHANISTAN HYPOCRACY.
August 11, 2008 | Permalink
Last week I considered one or two examples, from the right-wing commentator Peter Hitchens, of Great Historical Questions to Which the Answer is No. From today's Telegraph comes a variant on this theme: a Great Historical Question to Which the Answer is Yes:
"Within six months of Roswell, the CIA was formed, the National Security Act was passed, Harry Truman launched an official investigation into the UFO phenomenon, and the air force was separated from the army," says Joe Firmage, a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur who has spent millions of dollars on UFO research.
"And then all these technological advances started spilling out of the military-industrial complex - semiconductors, microwaves, lasers, fibre optics, vertical take-off capability. Is that all coincidence?"
The supposed top-secret UFO investigation ordered by Harry Truman, incidentally, is a myth, exposed by the late Philip Klass, a tireless sceptical investigator.
The Telegraph story swallows just a bit too much of this nonsense. Witness its respectful treatment of someone whose memory doesn't merit it, namely "John Mack, a Harvard professor who risked his career to investigate the phenomenon of [alien] abductions...". On this charlatan, I recommend an article by the science writer James Gleick from The New Republic in 1994. Note in particular this apt observation:
Mack is a practicing psychiatrist, and he's toying with real people. There is "Ed," who first got in touch with Mack in 1992 and "recalled" having been abducted, raped (not Mack's word), and lectured to about "the way humans are conducting themselves here in terms of international politics, our environment, our violence to each other, our food, and all that"--all this having supposedly occurred 31 years earlier, in 1961, though Ed didn't begin to recall it until 1989.
In a chilling aside, Mack writes that Ed and his wife, "Lynn," have had "a number of fertility problems, which may or may not be abduction-related, including three or four spontaneous terminations of Lynn's pregnancies." It's a reminder: This man is practicing medicine. He is telling patients that their miscarriages may be due to imaginary aliens. Why do the medical licensing boards permit this?
There is no necessary connection between Mack's scandalous activities in this field and his political views, but there is a nice irony. Mack was a dedicated anti-war and anti-nuclear activist who, in a New York Times op-ed about the Iraq war castigated a "leadership that appears to be singularly lacking in the capacity for doubt, self-questioning, or the acknowledgement of mistakes".
Steve Richards writes in The Independent:
Yesterday morning, Miliband proved he has a ruthless streak, one that can change the political landscape. The article in which he focused on the future of Labour without mentioning Gordon Brown ensured that the noise around the leadership question got a lot louder. More significantly, he would have known that this would be the consequence of his intervention. For the first time, the tumultuous speculation about Labour's future had acquired deadly definition.
He's right, of course. There is little purpose in Gordon Brown's lieutenants complaining of disloyalty to the leader. Nor is there much credibility in it, when you consider Brown's conduct towards Tony Blair from 1994 to 2007. David Miliband's bid for the leadership is a rational course, from his own point of view and that of the party.
It might have been prudent for Miliband to appear less jaunty in his response to press questions yesterday, but he is responding to a risk of unprecedented electoral defeat. Labour has suffered electoral meltdown before - in 1931 and 1983 - but has recovered to win landslide victories (coincidentally, 14 years later in each case). Labour faces heavy defeat again, and on a scale that might precipitate a decline like that of the French Communists - once the dominant force on the French Left, now a rump. In previous landslide defeats, Labour has at least been able to hold on to its regional redoubts. Even in 1983, the party still retained more than 200 seats. The party is now in uncharted territory. There is literally not a seat in the country that it could confidently expect to retain in a by-election. Scotland and Wales are no longer Labour strongholds. The party has lost the mayoralty of London to a Tory candidate who was widely (and clearly mistakenly) regarded as a joke when he launched his campaign.
(Incidentally, and on a point of autobiographical interest to me though no interest to anyone else, the reason I never supported the SDP in the 1980s - unlike many of my friends of similar political outlook - was a straight assessment that there could be no successful left-of-centre party independent of Labour. I don't claim this was a principled way of reasoning, and I don't think in retrospect that it was legitimate for an Atlanticist to vote Labour in the 1983 election, as I did, even knowing that the party had no chance of victory. But it was how I thought at the time about Labour's purported programme for government - alternately incredible and disgraceful. I do not think the same calculation would necessarily hold now.)
On Miliband's political draw, I recommend a column by my colleague Camilla Cavendish in The Times today. She writes:
The hole that Labour is in goes deeper than the economy. So it is important to understand what “platform for change” Mr Miliband is proposing. His pitch is that a refreshed Labour Party must combine “government action and personal freedom”. But he is shy about saying where the balance should be struck. To be fair, he has been saying for two years that people want more control over their lives, and that Labour must devolve more power to people. He said it again yesterday - but without a whit of detail. The only policies that he mentioned sounded strangely like a manifesto for more government - windfall taxes on utilities, family-friendly employment laws, state-funded childcare, and “more protection from a downturn made in Wall Street”. (By which he emphatically did not mean letting taxpayers keep more of their own money - one of his aides laughed when I made that suggestion.)
This is an acute observation. I do not perceive in David Miliband the Blairite impulse. In my view, Tony Blair was so keen to reconcile Labour to a market economy that he even went too far in consulting with corporate interests (which is not at all the same thing, business being merely one lobby among many). But it was a mistake in an understandable direction. I assume that, as Miliband does not mean an easing of the tax burden, he must mean some sort of regulatory change that would make the economy less vulnerable to ructions in the financial sector.
Heaven knows, I'm aghast at what's happened in the financial system. Unserviceable mortgages in the US were sold on to investors in various forms of asset-backed securities. The world's credit and monetary system has now seized up, with costs felt by ordinary consumers. But I wonder how far Miliband has thought through his proposed remedies, if indeed he has any. I don't mean that disparagingly. It's just that regulation in response to a financial crisis has a habit of not working as it's intended, while imposing unnecessary costs. On this and much else, Miliband's political instincts are not clear from the leadership pitch he's making. Labour's position is far too weak for such studied ambiguity.
Lord Varley, former Energy Secretary and Industry Secretary in the Wilson and Callaghan Governments, died yesterday. The Guardian carries an interesting obituary by Geoffrey Goodman. I half-agree with Goodman's assessment:
It would be grossly unfair to describe Eric Varley, who has died aged 75 of cancer, as a premature Blairite: yet that is how some of his few surviving ministerial colleagues from the Wilson-Callaghan era might well perceive him as they reflect back across more than 30 years. Unfair perhaps, but, alas, unfairness is a timeless professional hazard of all political life.
To describe someone as a premature Blairite is, in my opinion but clearly not in Goodman's, the highest praise you could give to a politician. But I can think of literally none to whom it would apply. Blair is a politician sui generis; there is no one else like him in Labour's history. Varley was a capable minister within the constraints that he faced. But to recall the decisions and debates in which Varley was involved is to recall a different age in economic management.
As Goodman recalls, Varley swapped jobs in 1975 with Tony Benn, whose move to become Energy Secretary was widely and rightly interpreted as demotion. (The opportunity for his demotion by Harold Wilson, if not the proximate cause of it, was the Yes vote in the European referendum. Benn had been a leading campaigner on the No side, as well as a significant liability for it.) Benn was at this time forming what came to be known as the Alternative Economic Strategy - a programme for a command economy involving greater industrial investment, import controls and compulsory planning "agreements" with large companies.
Labour did not take that route, but an immense amount of money and time was wasted on schemes that were scarcely more credible. Varley did his best to limit the damage, though not always for the right reasons. Goodman puts the background succinctly:
Then as Varley was moving from energy to industry, less than a year before Wilson resigned and Callaghan took over in April 1976, the American-owned Chrysler motor company tossed a massive bombshell at the UK car industry and the government: Chrysler announced a plan to shut down their entire British operation, affecting plants employing some 25,000 jobs divided between Coventry and Linwood in Scotland. Wilson, supported by his cabinet colleague Harold Lever rapidly produced a £200m rescue plan, which Varley opposed in cabinet. He wanted to fight Chrysler's threat, which he saw as economic blackmail. But he was overruled, and had the task of steering the Wilson-Lever rescue scheme through parliament in the face of fierce Tory opposition, alongside Labour critics who wanted the government to take over the Chrysler UK operation in British Leyland-style. For Varley it was a no-win situation.
It was no win for the British economy either. Varley and Edmund Dell argued in Cabinet that it was madness to spend millions on rescuing Chrysler. The arguments that swayed Cabinet, however, were first that employment needed to be safeguarded by public funds; and secondly that Britain was at risk of "de-industrialisation". They were arguments entirely without merit, but they had a perverse political logic to them. Still more disreputable was the diplomatic pressure exerted by the Shah of Iran, and to which the Government acquiesced. Chrysler UK manufactured Hillman Hunter kits that were then assembled in Iran.
This was one of the craziest decisions taken by Labour in the 1970s. The Government spent £162 million to rescue Chrysler UK, and undertook to cover more than £70 million in losses over four years. In return, Chrysler agreed not to shut down its UK operations. It also undertook to take part in a planning "agreement" with the Government - a meaningless gesture that was ever after touted by the Bennites as an example of what industrial planning could achieve.
Varley was right to oppose this. But his principal reason for doing so was that Chrysler was a direct competitor of British Leyland, to which the Government was also committed. In that year, 1978, Varley was pouring public money into the company, in the form of a £450 million aid package to support its corporate restructuring.
The amount of public money that ought to have been committed to British Leyland and in guarantees to Chrysler, either directly or through the misnamed National Enterprise Board, was zero. The principle of the industrial strategy was misconceived. Government was unable to pick industrial winners. All it succeeded in doing was throwing away public money. Varley went part of the way to acknowledging this. He deserves credit as one of the better ministers in a government whose principal achievement was to repair some of the damage that it had earlier inflicted.
Incidentally, the BBC report of Lord Varley's death states: "Among the other Labour Party figures paying tribute was Tony Benn, who succeeded Lord Varley as Energy Secretary in 1975 and also took over from him as Chesterfield MP in 1984 after boundary changes meant Mr Benn lost his Bristol South East constituency."
This is strictly true but misses out information that is worth recalling. Benn's constituency of Bristol South-East was indeed abolished, but Benn then sought the candidature in Bristol South. He failed to secure this against Michael Cocks, the Chief Whip - who was one of the few clear successes of the 1974-79 Government. Benn became instead the candidate for Bristol East. In the 1983 general election he lost that seat; he also, of course, lost the seats of scores of other Labour MPs and then did his level best to compound the damage. No wonder Varley retired from politics the next year. Varley was a minor figure in Labour's pantheon, but an honourable one in difficult times.
Peter Hitchens, writing in the Mail on Sunday, appears to be competing in a contest to see who can cite the most historical questions to which the answer is obviously "no":
What bothers me is the question that never seems to get answered – why Yugoslavia went from being a peaceful holiday destination into a pit of blood in less than five years.
Could it have been connected with the ruthless economic liberalisation forced on it by dogmatic Westerners at the end of the Cold War?
Might it have anything to do with Germany’s revived interest in the Balkans, and the hurried, railroaded EU recognition of Croatia as an independent state that suited German policy so well, but accelerated the bitter break-up of Yugoslavia?
Whatever you make of Hitchens's political views, to which I am exactly opposed in every essential and almost every particular, these are extraordinary remarks. You have to assume that Hitchens has never heard of Karadzic's Svengali, Slobodan Milosevic.
Milosevic became President of the Serbian League of Communists in 1986. He indicated his plans very early, by welcoming an open letter from the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts that called for a Greater Serbia, carved out of the terrorities of other republics. This was the signal for the resurgence of a vehement xenophobia and imperialism, which Milosevic confirmed in 1989 by revoking the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina. It was an obvious and deliberate incitement to Croatian independence that Serbia thereby became the dominant single player in the Yugoslav federation, with three votes out of eight.
The answer to the question why Yugoslavia became a battleground in the early 1990s is thus Slobodan Milosevic, er, ruthless economic liberaliser.UPDATE: I originally said in this post that the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina had been revoked in 1987. The correct date (see comments) is of course 1989.
The political editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, declares: "Obama needs a history lesson." The required lesson is that "America was moulded along Adam Smith’s lines while Scotland imported the disastrous ideas of the French Enlightenment which continue to dominate discourse today... Essentially, the Scots Enlightenment stood for individual liberty and small government while the French one stood for power, and big government."
The "essentially" is a nice touch. If this is your idea of a history lesson, then you'll probably also wish to consult the bio-energy expert Dr Karadzic for an exposition of recent advances in medical science.
The "disastrous ideas of the French Enlightenment" that so exercise Fraser were strongly influenced by admiration for the English (note: not the Scots). Consider Voltaire's gushing idealisation of England in his Lettres philosophiques ou Lettres anglaises of 1733, letter 8:
Voici une différence plus essentielle entre Rome et l’Angleterre, qui met tout l’avantage du côté de la dernière: c’est que le fruit des guerres civiles de Rome a été l’esclavage, et celui des troubles d’Angleterre, la liberté. La nation anglaise est la seule de la terre qui soit parvenue à régler le pouvoir des rois en leur résistant, et qui d’efforts en efforts ait enfin établi ce gouvernement sage où le prince, tout-puissant pour faire du bien, a les mains liées pour faire du mal; où les Seigneurs sont grands sans insolence et sans vassaux, et où le peuple partage le gouvernement sans confusions.
For the philosophes, England was the nation of liberty and free thought. It wasn't true, but Voltaire's starting point was the exercise of arbitrary authority in France. I fear that Fraser thinks the French Enlightenment is another name for Paris's revolutionary tribunal that sat a full 60 years after Voltaire wrote. If so, then that is an error.
The French Revolution was not caused by the Enlightenment. It gave office to those who had been influenced by the Enlightenment, such as Lafayette and La Rochefoucauld. These were not agents of "power and big government" - indeed Lafayette had given military service and substantial funds to the American Revolution, which Fraser is concerned to claim for Scottishness. The reforms enacted by the Constituent Assembly from 1789 to 1791 were quite limited, but went in the direction of secularism and the removal of the hereditary principle. Those who believe, crudely, that the American Revolution was good and the French Revolution bad might explain why the sainted Thomas Jefferson, as ambassador to Paris, saw these causes as consistent. (Conor Cruise O'Brien, one of the great polymaths and statesmen of our time, does in fact have an explanation. In his book The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1998, he argues that Jefferson - Jefferson! - was inconsistent with the American Revolution, and should be regarded as an ideological forerunner of Pol Pot. That really is his thesis; Pol Pot is his own analogy. At least O'Brien recognises the problem, even if his solution is bizarre.)
Fraser - as I'm addressing him - might explain also why the revolution of 1789 was so admired throughout Europe, including Britain (and I do mean Britain) and particularly in Germany. This was not a "disaster": it was, like the American Revolution, a historic moment for the cause of reform, secularism and (I use the term without irony) progress. The turning point was war with Austria and Prussia in 1792. This precipitated a second revolution and all that followed: regicide, terror, and the reassertion of autocracy and nationalism. There was no reason that European governments should have sought to undermine the movement of 1789, and in doing so they became steadily more authoritarian at home.
Here's a more recent analogy. Most of my readers will probably hold Lenin responsible for the repressive character of the Soviet state and what turned into the horrors of Stalinism. I certainly do. But I do not hold Alexander Kerensky responsible for them. He stood for the principles of democratic government against reaction. Likewise the notion that the French Enlightenment was a force for repression and arbitrary authority is baloney.
I suspect I know what's behind this historical revisionism. The American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb's book The Roads to Modernity was recently published in the UK, with a foreword by the prime minister. The book is a sustained attempt to distinguish the British and American Enlightenments from the French tradition. There is a clear subtext here about modern politics that takes precedence over the history, and that I don't in any case find as appealing as some of my fellow Atlanticists do. I'm still less convinced by the preposterous message inferred by the political editor of The Spectator: "That so many people in Europe still believe the French principles (government virtuous, masses selfish) shows how this continent never could quite shake off the hierarchies."
The comments underneath Fraser's post are obviously not his fault. But there's one who signs himself with the self-explanatory moniker "TGF UKIP", and who is enthusiastic about the "fascinating and illuminating post and series of comments". I quote him not to embarrass Fraser but because I think he's understood Fraser's point very well, more's the pity.