That letter

I was considering what it was about that weird political letter that made me put in the effort to blog it. I think it’s two things, really. The first is that we are increasingly surrounded by the mass produced and mechanically produced, and I find amateur, hand-made things more and more appealing. Of course, even a hundred years ago, people lived their lives surrounded by mass-produced stuff, but as technology improves, more and more things can be done by machines. It’s now rare to see a hand-painted shop sign, for example. Concert flyers, fanzines, even posters about lost cats, have usually been run up on someone’s computer, and have the generic similarity that comes from everyone having the same few typefaces and little idea about how best to use them.

missive-4_2

It may seem slightly odd to be talking about the handmade in the context of a letter which is typewritten, photocopied, and stapled together, but I guess ‘hand made’ is sort of relative: each technology looks laborious and hands-on in the light of the next one. Hell, even things from the first generation of home printing look that way: I got a flash of nostalgia the other day because there was a sign in the optician’s window printed in Algerian.

The other thing about the letter which caught my attention, I think, was that slight whiff of paranoia to it. I think there’s an incredible pathos to these public displays of paranoia, not least because they are often superficially quite funny, like the killed by freemasons guy, or the graffiti that appeared at Charing Cross reading 

ARE THEY Putting
Nanotechnology in your
Food & Water?

STOP THEM EXPERIMENTING
ON Benefit
Claimants
&
The Mentally
ill 

I once stumbled on an internet discussion forum for people who believed they were being spied on by the US government: it was about the saddest thing I’ve ever read, but the sheer bizarreness of the delusions just seemed to be crying out to be made a joke of.

My letter-writer isn’t quite so clearly suffering from paranoid delusions as those cases, but still, distributing anonymous political tracts by hand, asking people to pass them on, to write to the queen and ask her to dissolve the political system as the last chance to save the country: I’m pretty sure that inside this person’s head is not a happy place.

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A weird letter

A couple of days ago, this peculiar typewritten envelope was put through the door:

The ALL CAPS typewritten envelope reeks of ‘political nutjob’ and the red cross in the corner, for those of you who don’t know, is the English flag — the cross of St George, in fact — which during major football tournaments can be passed off as support for the England football team, but at other times tends to be a sign of racist views.

So I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the letter was going to be about, but in fact it was odder than that. For one thing, notice that the envelope starts with a poem of sorts:

HOUSE BY HOUSE AND STREET BY STREET THE MESSAGE MUST NOW GO
PASSED TO YOU BY FACT IN PRINT OF WHAT THE ELDERS KNOW,
REALITY OF OUR PRESENT PLIGHT RESULTING FROM PAST YEARS,
OF THIS NEW LOW THE CONSEQUENCE OF RICH REWARDED PEERS,
THERE IS NO CHOICE FOR ANSWER THEN FOR WHAT IS TO BE DONE,
OUR NATION IN PRIORITIES MUST VOTE IN VOICE AS ONE

Inside, we find 5½ photocopied pages stapled together, all still typewritten all-caps. From now on I’m going to start using lower-case , though, because  it’s easier to read. The writer introduces himself/herself:

Dear reader,
I introduce myself as a person who has lived in London for over 78 years since birth,
I have children, grand children, also great grandchildren,
I know of pre war years, fear free streets, open front doors and when life was simply happy for all.
I also know of the war years, and the Blitz,
also death from the skies, for like many others I was here, I also know of post war years and the happiness and joy of realising I had not died like many others in the bombings of London.
So in fact like many others I had great fear at the front of my life, my youth was taken from me,
but now in my old age once again like many others fear is deep within my final years, when my mind should be calm before I am called,
leaving behind my descendants and an England on a path to destruction,
many young as well as the majority of the old have curfew fear,
no we dont go out after dark its not safe, wrong places at wrong times,
it dousnt look very good does it.

Which is actually kind of moving. But what surprised me was the proposed solution: write to the Queen, and ask her to abolish political parties, let her know directly what your concerns are, so that she can abolish the corrupt political system that has brought us 86 years of Con/Lab government. Apparently that’s ‘the only solution to prevent the revolution that will destroy the England that you stand upon.’ Although frankly, a mass grass-roots movement to completely overthrow our political system doesn’t seem like a way to avoid revolution.

The whole thing is long and rambling and repeats itself; but the other bit that stands out is about getting police back on the streets:

As is well known there are few crime preventers upon the streets.
Ref, =coppers with legs=
Even few of those are without fear,
Why.
Because they have no means of protecting their own lives let alone the general public.
Few criminally intent go alone,
more often than not the minimum is two but the norm is about four =++,
the first thing that must be done is to reintroduce our preventers,
yes you have it, the bloke in blue with legs,
it can be done you know,
but he must be given the tools for the job.
The rapid fire sleeper dart pistol capable of a multi knock down,
not straight away of course, but who is going to kill a copper if they have a dart in their arse and sleepie byes follows a little later,
it is an ugly solution to an ugly problem but its the only one to deal with todays primitivity,
deaths will occur in instances of dart dose and alcohol combinations also drugs.
In these instances the arresting officer will be exonerated following coronas report.
In the light of the approaching recession these problems must be taken up before further degeneration takes place.
The following is a must. Stop and search vehicles for knives and guns.
Instant custodial sentence for those caught in possession, no trials.

I don’t why I’m sharing this with you really; it’s just an interesting thing. You can see the whole letter on Flickr here if you want.

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Charlie boy apparently wants to destroy the monarchy

The Times hints at the gory details:

The Prince of Wales, who celebrated his 60th birthday on Friday, has told confidants he would like his role to “evolve” so that his knowledge and experience are not wasted once he inherits the crown, Jonathan Dimbleby, his friend and biographer, reveals today.

Translation: he wants to have his cake and eat it.

Look, it’s not that fucking complicated. Take all the enormous and unearned benefits of being born into the Royal Family and keep your mouth shut, or abdicate and campaign on your pet issues as a private citizen.

His charity work is generally unexceptionable, and he sells excellent biscuits, beer and sausages and gives the profit to his charity, so those things help me try to feel positive about him; but when he sticks his nose into politics it drives me completely nuts. If the official duties, the charity work, running the Duchy of Cornwall, the painting, the gardening and the polo aren’t enough to keep him busy, he’ll just have to take up knitting.

Democracy: it’s really not that difficult to understand.

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Self-evident

I always thought the US Declaration of Independence had a lovely bit of intellectual sleight of hand. It’s phrased almost as an exercise in logical deduction (various bits bolded for emphasis):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government … [rhubarb rhubarb] … The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

[long list of ‘facts’ snipped here]

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States….

Quite apart from the awkwardness of reconciling this document with slavery, the phrase I’d particularly  pick out is ‘self-evident’. Jefferson, of all people, must have known perfectly well that over the course of history, it has certainly not been felt to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Or indeed that they are endowed with inalienable rights; or that governments are instituted to secure those rights; or that they derive their powers from the consent of the governed; or that when a government fails in that respect, that it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

From Plato to George III, there were an awful lot of people who would have disputed those ideas; it is clearly begging the question to treat them as axiomatic.

As it happens, history has been kind to Jefferson: his revolution went well, and the country he and his cronies set up has become the most powerful on earth. The victory of the democratic way of thinking has been so thorough that it is possible to read the Declaration of Independence and take it at face value, as though it actually was a statement of self-evident truth instead of a piece of political rhetoric. Perhaps that’s for the best: if you believe, as I certainly do, that the principles laid out in the preamble to the declaration are a Good Thing, then it probably helps to have people treat them as an item of faith. But my pedantic soul revolts against it. I’m with Jeremy Bentham on this one:

Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.

Those rights — life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, free speech, freedom of religion, fair trials, take your pick — are not given to us by the universe; they are human constructs, things people have chosen and demanded for themselves. All the more reason to defend them.

You may be wondering why I’ve suddenly started going on about C18th political philosophy: well, it’s because I was struck by same process going on right now with gay marriage. There is an attempt by supporters of gay marriage to frame the question as one of simple natural justice: that this is a straightforward case of equal rights* and that the answer is, in fact, self-evident.

Now I’m a supporter of gay marriage, because I think that, all else being equal, we should avoid excluding a large chunk of the population from a social institution which has a central role in the culture; because the evidence generally suggests that having people in committed, long-term relationships is a societal good, and surely having a load of people keen to marry strengthens marriage rather than weakening it; and because it just seems like a way of making people happier with no obvious downside. But any claim that it is obviously a simple question of fairness seems a bit disingenuous.

I mean: has their ever been any society anywhere which has granted full legal marriage rights to homosexual couples on exactly the same basis as heterosexual marriage? I’m no anthropologist, and there may be examples I just don’t know about, but it seems fair to say that most people through history have not thought it was obvious that homosexual relationships are the same thing as heterosexual ones. The people who argue that ‘marriage is defined as between a man and a woman’ have a point: the introduction of gay marriage does redefine marriage in a fairly major way. There’s nothing unique about that; marriage has naturally been redefined over time as society has changed. But if you’re introducing a social change which is almost unprecedented in the whole of human history, it’s hard to deny that it’s a radical agenda.

I’m not suggesting that supporters of gay marriage should present it as a radical agenda; not if they want to get it into law. On the contrary, I think they are exactly right to frame it as a question of equal rights, and tap into the American rhetorical tradition that goes back via the civil rights movement all the way to Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. But like the Declaration of Independence, there’s a hint of a rhetorical rabbit being pulled out of a hat, as a rather controversial and radical conclusion is presented as though it was a self-evident truth.

*and indeed equal rites

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Lawks-a-mercy

I really am going to stop posting about the US elections soon, but this was kind of priceless:

The best bit is Bill O’Reilly trying to stick up for her.

[later edit]

And while I’m posting YouTube videos, here’s a bit of The Day Today that seems curiously relevant:

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California says yes to Prop 8…

I was sad to see that Prop 8 (the Californian ballot measure to rewrite the state constitution to ban gay marriage) was passed on Tuesday. I know it’s a big state and more diverse than its liberal image suggests, but you still kind of feel that if California isn’t ready to support gay marriage, it’ll be a long time coming for the rest of the US.

I used to vaguely support the idea of gay marriage as part of a generally liberal view of the world, but after a few online arguments about it I came to the conclusion that if I was suddenly appointed Lord High Dictator of the United Kingdom, it would be one of the first changes I would make on coming into office. Not because I think it’s overwhelmingly important or urgent, but just because it seems like a complete no-brainer. Most political problems are really hard: we all want to improve healthcare and education, reduce crime, help the economy, solve climate change and produce world peace, but it’s not at all obvious how to go about those things.

Allowing gay marriage on the other hand is a really easy decision. Even if you don’t believe it’s a civil rights issue, it just seems like a move with no downside. It’s simple to implement, because all the institutions and laws are already in place for straight marriage, and it makes a lot of people happier without hurting anyone.

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Cheap political point-scoring

I suppose its hardly a surprise, but still… this bit of David Cameron at PMQs had me harumphing. To quote the BBC:

Gordon Brown and David Cameron have clashed in the Commons over the reasons for Barack Obama’s US election victory. The Conservative leader said the change offered by Mr Obama contrasted with Labour’s offer of “more of the same”. He also taunted Mr Brown over his recent claim that with the economic crisis “this was no time for a novice”.

The idea of David Cameron trying to somehow identify himself with Barack Obama as a agent of change is a bit… jaw-dropping.

There is some parallel, in that both are young politicians running against unpopular incumbent governments; but somehow I don’t foresee the world finding his story quite as exciting. An Old Etonian from a wealthy banking family becoming Prime Minister; ooh, what an inspiring story of struggle against the odds.

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A European Obama

There’s an Associated Press article you can read all over the web including, for example, MSNBC, titled Europe has a long wait for its own Obama. I’m not going to comment generally on ‘Europe’, or even in detail on the UK, except to say that the most obvious difference is the relative recentness of large-scale non-white populations in Europe. It’s been 50 or 60 years now, so that excuse is wearing thin, but it’s still somewhat relevant, I think; even in a democracy, most people who reach positions of power and authority do so from a solidly prosperous establishment background, which is not the situation new immigrants are generally in. So with 8% non-white population, most of whom have been here for three generations or less, even if the UK was completely free of racial discrimination (which it obviously isn’t), the odds would probably still be against us having had a non-white Prime Minister by now. As a comparison, 6% of the population is Welsh, and we’ve only had one Welsh Prime Minister in 300 years.

And one point I’d take from the way the US election has panned out is that all votes are cast for an individual. It’s not very long ago that the press was busy asking whether America was ready to vote for a black president; the answer seems to be yes, but that wasn’t necessarily obvious in advance. You can only find out the answer by having the election; and until you have a candidate, no-one can know the answer because it’s impossible to judge your own responses until you have a real person with a name and a face and a set of policies and a campaign. America may not be ready to vote for ‘a black man’, but they are ready to vote for Barack Obama.

Similarly, it might be difficult to imagine a black or Asian prime minister, but then it would have been difficult to imagine a woman in 10 Downing Street until Margaret Thatcher came along. Do I actually think it’s going to happen any time soon? No, absolutely not. In fact, given the way the parliamentary system works, you can pretty much guarantee it won’t happen for at least six or seven years. But would the British public be willing to vote for a dark-skinned candidate for PM? It’s impossible to know, but if, like Obama, they were charismatic, eloquent, unflappable and running against a staggeringly unpopular incumbent, I wouldn’t bet against them.

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In which my irritation boileth over

Gerard Baker, the United States Editor of the (London) Times, has been gamely sticking up for the Republicans during this election. Even among the employees of that relatively conservative paper I imagine he feels like a bit of a beleaguered minority, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the tone of his articles has started to get a bit hysterical and defensive.

Still, this bit from an article about Sarah Palin really annoyed me:

As for the anti-intellectualism she seems to represent, this is a favourite old saw not only of the Left but also of the whole Establishment crowd. There’s an unshakeable view among the coastal elites that real wisdom is acquired only by circulating between the ivy-encrusted walls of scholarship and the Manhattan and Hollywood cocktail set.

But there’s real wisdom among those derided Americans who have never even ventured to the coasts, but whose steady consistent voice and values have been truly responsible for America’s many successes.

Now, I’m quite sure that there is genuine snobbery aimed at rural America by people from ‘the Establishment crowd’, and that the hostility towards Palin is partially fuelled by that snobbery. And I’m sure there’s real wisdom among landlocked Americans, and I even think it’s important that any culture has a strand of conservatism: stability and continuity are real and important political virtues.

But the real story is not that stereotypes about small-town America have undermined Sarah Palin; it’s that Sarah Palin has done great damage to the image of small-town America. Of course there should be many routes to political power; it shouldn’t be necessary to go to an Ivy League university — or any university at all — to qualify for high office.

But however you get there, once you’re running: you have to be able to talk coherently about politics. This is not an unreasonable demand. Palin’s Couric interview was genuine car-crash TV, and although her performances are getting less panicky, she still answers questions with a freeform stream of low-content babble.

She doesn’t have to be an expert on every subject, or speak in elegant, delicately wrought paragraphs. In fact, given her populist image, that would be a mistake. But she’s not even very good at being a populist. She’s no Ronald Reagan. She’s not even a Mike Huckabee. All those folksy colloquialisms are a good start, but she needs to develop a line in snappy, memorable bullshit for all the bits in between.

Thankfully, it looks like the Democrats are going to win this one, so I’ll soon be able to return to that happy state I was in before, when the only Palin I ever had to think about was the ex-Python, and Gerard Baker can be left to cry into his beer and nourish that sense of victimhood on behalf of the poor oppressed people of the Real America™.

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Zombie Reagan speaks

I wonder what the legal ins and outs would be of the Obama campaign just running this video as a campaign ad?

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The return of Mandelson

It was a weird moment to see Peter Mandelson of all people return to the cabinet. Particularly weird, for me, because I had been half-heartedly composing a mental list of the celebrities I would most enjoy seeing on Strictly Come Dancing*, and so far the only people definitely on it were Christiano Ronaldo, Rachel Weisz and Peter Mandelson. He is, one way or another, one of the most intriguing political figures of the last fifteen years.

All the analysis in the papers has been focussed on the electoral logic of it — the need to build bridges within the Labour party seems to be the popular explanation — but I’m not sure I buy that; he’s certainly not someone the voting public have ever warmed to. Perhaps Gordon Brown really does just think that Mandelson is the right person for the job.

Which scares me a bit. Not because I have any doubts about Mandelson’s competence and expertise; on the contrary, because he is associated in the public mind primarily with spin and internal party feuding, I suspect he’s never been given enough credit as a talented politician. No, it’s because if the seriousness of the economic situation was measured in terms of things Gordon Brown is worried enough to do, then ‘cut a fraction of a percent off interest rates’ might be economic DEFCON 4, with ‘nationalise a high-street bank’ as DEFCON 3, and if everything we’ve ever been told about their relationship is true, ‘give Peter a job in my cabinet’ must be about DEFCON ‑27⁑.

* note for Americans: what you call Dancing With the Stars.
⁑ Amusing trivia I learned from the Wikipedia DEFCON article: the British equivalent is called the BIKINI state.

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This financial crisis is a bit of a buzzkill.

I haven’t commented much, because I don’t think my political instincts are that brilliant even for the UK, let alone a country I haven’t visited for over a decade. But I’ve been enjoying the US elections ever since the primaries: the Americans always do democracy on a bigger scale than the rest of us, but this time round it has been more dramatic than ever. Not so much political theatre as political epic. The Cinton vs. Obama storyline alone was more exciting than anything that’s likely to happen in our own next general election; and it kept on getting more remarkable. I mean really: Sarah Palin! You couldn’t make it up. It adds to the fun, of course, that it definitely means the end of Bush and probably a Democrat in the White House.

But since the world’s financial sector apparently started circling the plughole, I’ve been unable to take the same kind of simple pleasure in the whole thing.

This is genuinely scary. When apparently well-informed people start making comparisons with the Great Depression: eep. Even if they’re saying things like ‘with the right government intervention we should be able to prevent this turning into anything like the Great Depression’: still eep. What Sir Alex Ferguson once called ‘squeaky bum time’.

Neither candidate has exactly covered themselves in glory over this issue. McCain’s stunt of ‘suspending’ his campaign and rushing back to Washington was the undoubted low point, but neither of them has said anything that convinces me that they have exceptionally clear insights or solutions to offer. Neither of them has made a strong and unambiguous case either for or against government intervention. I understand that since they are not in office and are in the middle of an election campaign, they are in the worst possible position to be unbiassed and pragmatic; perhaps it’s too much to expect to ask them to rise above the politics of the moment. But they haven’t. Neither of them has managed to step in and fill the leadership void left by the complete disintegration of Bush’s credibility.

When asked in the debate how the crisis would affect their spending plans, both of them fluffed the issue: Obama just restated all the things he wants to spend money on, and McCain came out with some ludicrous crap about cutting earmarks. I’m not expecting them to come up with new plans on the fly, several months in advance and without knowing how the situation will change, but it would have been nice to see them engaging seriously with the question.

And that leads me onto the last point: this is a horrible time to become President. I will be thrilled to see Obama elected, insha’Allah, but I think the job may be a poison chalice. Just to take healthcare: there’s no doubt at all that America can afford a proper healthcare system, since Americans already pay more than everyone else for healthcare as it is. But it is money that will have to come from somewhere, and the state of the economy will not make the politics of it any easier.

Frankly, even if it wasn’t for the economy, the next President would have enough on their plate dealing with Iraq. It may be that there there is no good exit strategy from Iraq, but we who invaded the country have some responsibility for what happens to it. As the shop sign says: you break it, you’ve bought it. I would vote for Obama, if I had a vote, at least partially from a belief that he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq in the first place, and therefore that he is hopefully less likely to get into some new foreign adventure of his own. But I don’t have any faith that he knows how to sort out the mess in Iraq now. Would McCain do any better? I don’t know. I suspect that to do the job properly would take decades, and I don’t think there’s the political will in America to commit to that kind of timescale anyway. The Iraqis might not be thrilled either.

All of which adds up to: It’s a lot harder than it was a few months ago to look forward to the election with a sense of optimism.

» the picture, Last Chance, is © huangjiahui and used under a by-sa licence.

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On Sarah Palin

Scanning over the basic facts of Sarah Palin’s life, I was immediately struck by the fact that 40% of her children are named after witches.* This may say more about me than it does about her.

Piper and Willow.

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Occupational Hazards by Rory Stewart

Occupational Hazards is Stewart’s account of trying to administer Maysan province in southern Iraq. He’s obviously an interesting character; to quote his author bio: ‘After a brief period in the British army, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, and then joined the Foreign Office, serving in Indonesia and Montenegro, Yugoslavia. From 2000 to 2002 he walked six thousand miles across Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. In 2003, he was posted to Iraq as CPA Deputy Governate Coordinator of the provinces of Maysan and later Dhi Qar.’

He explains that, after being away from the Foreign Office for some time, he approached them and asked to be sent to Iraq. He never quite says why; he clearly finds the work fascinating and loves the Middle East and central Asia (he has now returned to working on regeneration in Afghanistan, at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation); even so, there can’t have been many people whose immediate reaction to the invasion of Iraq was to send off a CV and ask for a job. His reward was to be given the job as supreme civilian authority in Maysan.

US Army soldiers and Iraqi hosts

The book is an account of his time trying to do that job; trying to set up some kind of administration, get reconstruction projects started, and prepare the province for handover to Iraqis. And the overwhelming impression is of chaos. The kind of broad brush stuff we’re all now familiar with — Sunni vs. Shia, moderates vs. extremists — is just the tip of the iceberg. Apparently 54 new political parties appeared in Maysan in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. There were conflicts between different tribes; there seem to have been endless different clerics, all with their own supporters; the educated urban Iraqis looked down on the rural population. Stewart had to try to achieve some kind of balance of their competing claims while also favouring the kind of moderate, secular government that the CPA aspired to producing. He also had to deal with the central administration in Baghdad, which was disorganised, ideological and unhelpful; and with the local British Army commanders, who he theoretically outranked, but who had their own priorities and were not under his direct command.

He writes well, and the book is in turns depressing, funny and, mostly, interesting. I don’t think I’m giving away the ending when I say that, despite some successes, he didn’t manage to establish a model secular democracy in his chunk of Iraq. On the other hand, if you read the book hoping to understand why the occupation hasn’t been more successful, it doesn’t provide any simple answers. He recognises the reasonableness of many of the criticisms aimed at the administration: the failure to prevent the looting immediately after the invasion, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the lack of planning generally. But his own feeling is that actually, even if all those thing had been done right, it still would not have been enough to create a peaceful, stable, democratic Iraq; that we overestimate our own powers if we think we can shape a country that way. And that we could never have planned for all the complexities anyway.

» The picture, US Army soldiers and Iraqi hosts, is taken inside the traditional Marsh Arab reed-built mudhif. I don’t know if it was taken in Maysan, but it’s certainly the right kind of building. It was taken by James Gordon and is used under a CC attribution licence.

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Why Obama won the nomination

That post title probably ought to have a question mark at the end.

It is ridiculous to suggest that there was a single reason why Obama won it — or why Clinton lost it — but I’m going to do it anyway. I really think that a lot of it came down to timing. Politicians tend, when they first arrive on the scene, to have a honeymoon period; few people have managed to have it quite so precisely when they need it as Obama. His moment as flavour of the month, when he was at his most shiny and new and exciting, seemed to just coincide with Super Tuesday. The news media has the attention span of a three-year-old and is always attracted to ‘news’; to newness.

Clinton had great difficulty competing for the spotlight at the crucial moment because however historic her candidacy was, it wasn’t news. She has been an international figure for nearly two decades; everyone has known she was going to run for president for years; she entered the race as the candidate to beat, with a huge campaign fund and a high public profile. She was expected to do well; any other narrative was always going to be more exciting and more newsworthy.

Obama as a mosaic of US state flags; used under a CC by-nc-nd licence

That’s not to say that newness was the only thing Obama had going for him; novelty value will only get you so far. Ask Mike Huckabee. There are lots of reasons why Obama excites people: he’s an excellent public speaker, if a slightly ponderous gravitas is your thang; he’s young, he’s intelligent, he looks good; and lots of people are excited by the idea of a black candidate. I just think if he had come into the race as a more familiar figure, perhaps from a failed run for president four years ago, or from a prominent job in national government — someone the public had already had a chance to form opinions about and get used to, in fact — he would have found the campaign noticeably heavier going.

I’m not suggesting that there’s some appalling skeleton in the Obama closet which would have come out in the meantime. And I’m not trying to make some kind of accusation or complaint; I don’t suppose anyone has ever made it to be a presidential candidate without a few slices of luck along the way. I just think it’s an observation worth making.

» ‘Barack Obama made out of US flags‘ posted to flickr by tsevis and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

An observation

If there’s one lesson I hope everyone concerned has learnt from the current US election cycle: it’s a really stupid idea to disenfranchise a whole bunch of your constituents for any reason. I’m thinking of the debacle surrounding the Democratic primaries in Florida and Michigan.

Of course it has only become such a thorny issue because the race is so close; in a lot of years it wouldn’t have made any difference. But it’s one of those situations where, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems blindingly obvious that to disenfranchise whole states and millions of voters should not have been the solution to a matter of internal party discipline. I mean really, what were they thinking?

As I’ve said before, I think the US primary system is nuts anyway. But that’s not a reason to screw it up even further.

The Century of Revolution by Christopher Hill

The full title is The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714; i.e. the century in question is the longish C17th from the death of Queen Elizabeth to the death of Queen Anne. I guess most centuries are centuries of revolution somewhere, and in one way or another, but the C17th was the only time the English have had an actual literal political revolution. In fact we had two, or one and a half. The first one, in the 1640s, definitely was a revolution — with parliament deciding to put an axe through the king’s neck, and power resting with the army and so on — but is usually referred to as the ‘Civil War’. The second one is referred to, at least by the English, as ‘the Glorious Revolution’, but was really something else: half invasion, half coup. It’s probably a bit strong to describe it as the Dutch conquest of England, but it was probably something closer to that than a ‘revolution’.

I bought this book because I was aware of a gaping hole in my knowledge of British history when it came to this period; I mean, my historical knowledge is patchy anyway, but I’ve read quite a few books about the C18th and C19th, and some about the Tudors and the medieval period, whereas my knowledge of the C17th didn’t go much beyond the clichés; right but repulsive vs. wrong but wromantic, and all that. So I bought this book hoping to get an overview.

And it did provide that; if anything I think I should have gone for something slightly more specific. A book that covers a whole century of history in a few hundred pages is inevitably going to be a firehose of facts; an enormous amount to take in, and not much of the kind of detailed context and human interest that sugars the pill a bit when reading history. Hill divides the period up into four sections, and for each, he organises the material into  ‘Narrative of Events’, ‘Economics’, ‘Politics and Constitution’ and ‘Religion and Ideas’. Which works pretty well, and I do feel that I’ve been given a good grounding in what was going on. I don’t know how much of it I’ve retained, though. If I was really serious about trying to get a handle on the period, I should probably read it again. Which I don’t think is going to happen.

It’s an interesting period, though. The Elizabethans seem so distant and exotic; the Georgians are so modern in comparison, and that difference, that spectacular change, is what makes the C17th so fascinating. Constitutional power shifted from the monarch to Parliament, Cabinet appeared, the civil service started to develop, economic power shifted from the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, the stock market was established, credit notes removed the need for all business to be done using discs of shiny metal, the religious monopoly of the Church of England was broken, Britain became a dominant naval power, agriculture was modernised. We became modern: or at least more modern than most.

» The photo of a Loyalist mural in Belfast was posted to Flickr by Benjamin Harrison and is used under a CC by-nc licence.

China hoist by their own petard

BBC News:

“Thirty-five arrests have been made after clashes between pro-Tibet protesters and police as the Olympic torch made its way through London.

Of course, in the parallel world of the Chinese official news machine, the only thing interfering with the movement of the torch was a sprinkling of snow. Actually, to be fair, there is an article about ‘the attempt by some “pro-Tibet independence” activists to sabotage the torch relay’. It’s not exactly hard hitting journalism, but at least they don’t completely pretend that nothing happened.

It’s not part of the traditions of the Olympics to send the torch all the way around the world on the way to the host country: they did it in 2004 because the games were being held in Greece and the trip from Olympia to Athens was a bit too short. But China had to make it as high-profile as possible, and have, as a result, created a three-month long opportunity for protests and bad publicity. By the time the Games come round, far more people will be able to recognise the Tibetan flag that ever could have before.

Personally, I think the focus being Tibet all the time is slightly missing the point: for me, China’s human rights record as it applies to the other 99.8% of the population is rather more important than Tibet, if only because of sheer numbers. But Tibet is a much simpler, more photogenic issue with a charismatic spokesman, so perhaps it’s not surprising it attracts all the attention.

» Photo credit: olympic torch-19 found on Flickr and © suburbia2050.