Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Burnin' Down the House

Well, this isn't very good is it?

A prized collection of antiquarian books - including a rare edition of works by Sir Walter Scott and a complete collection of the writings of Rudyard Kipling - was destroyed.

Mr Linklater said the destruction of irreplaceable bound manuscripts of books by his father, Eric Linklater, was "a devastating loss".

Bloody buggery bollocks, as I seem to remember they used to say in Ab Fab.* Not a very good way to see in the new year.

Apropos of not a lot, I'm often interested by how little even quite important manuscripts sell for. Rick Gekoski estimates the handwritten manuscript of Lord of the Flies at the high end of a £50,000-250,000 estimate, were it to go to auction, which seems to me to be very little money. Well, it's an eye-bulging amount of money obviously. But were I, for example, a Captain of Industry or generic Bond Villain, it seems to me that I could happily spend that and then some and not come away feeling I'd been fleeced. The top carbon from the typescript of The Kraken Wakes was on sale not so long ago for a low four figure sum. Even given that it was the carbon, it doesn't seem like that much to me, if you've got the disposables. I think I'd prefer that to a plasma screen TV*. Of course I can't afford either, but that's not the point.

*Though that may have been part of a fevered dream, I'm not sure.
**Which is why I will die alone and unloved, possibly known by local youths as "The Scary Book Guy".

Snyder Rifle (urrrgh)

Jack Snyder's one of the good guys. Julian sitting in for Andrew Sullivan flags up the fact that he's got a new co-written book out the warns that when it comes to the old Democratic Peace theory, all may not be well in the garden of shag. The Cato event that's on next week may well be worth checking out if you have the time.

On a similar note, anyone who hasn't read Fareed Zakaria's "The Future of Freedom"... er... should read it.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Let's all go to the lobby...

Roger Simon is, perhaps predictably, none to enamoured of George Clooney's latest opus, Good Night and Good Luck. I haven't seen the film so I can't comment on its content, though from the clips I've seen and commentary surrounding it I'm none too optimistic. Certainly it sounds like there's a substantial helping of boilerplate.

It's a shame really because a nuanced take on the McCarthy era would be worthwhile, not least because the common perception is shaded very strongly by the pat left-wing (and rather ahistorical, confused and Hollywood-centric) version of what went on and recent revisionist attempts by sections of the conservative commentariat to rehabilitate McCarthy are every bit as misplaced.

Joe McCarthy does not deserve rehabilitation. He was, at the risk of sounding trite, a bad man. His motivation was largely base, feeding as he did on the publicity and opportunity for self-promotion his position afforded him. Prior to finding his niche in anticommunism, he drifted with the breeze, latching on to any transitory issue that seemed likely to raise his profile. He was indiscriminate in his accusations, sweeping the innocent up with the guilty and making ever wilder claims as he began to believe his own publicity. He used his position as a weapon with which to menace personal enemies and political rivals. The Eisenhower executive branch viewed him as a menace and a fraud, though it was largely stopped from acting by a believe that the conservative grassroots had take McCarthy to their bosoms. Eisenhower himself personally vowed to put the boot into McCarthy when the opportunity arose - as eventually it did when McCarthy's claims became so ludicrous as to include the likes of General George C. Marshall. McCarthy's methods were simply not conducive to the functioning of an open and free liberal democracy. He deserved to fall and fall hard.

These flaws alone mean, it seems to me, that he deserved his comeuppance. However, as Norman Friedman has pointed out in his "The 50 Year War", perhaps McCarthy's worst legacy is simply the fact that he made anti-communism somehow grubby and not respectable.

"Of course, we all know there's no such thing as vampires or lesbians. But what's that under the bed? And who's that in the closet?"

This had (and has) major implications. It did so because the fact of the matter is that the threat was real. The empirical evience to back this up, both from the Venona decrypts and from the opening of the Soviet archives, is absolutely indisputable, except to a fully paid up pro-USSR shill*. The Soviets were operating an aggressive and extensive espionage network in the USA and they did, in fact, have agents in most parts of the US governmental and military bureaucracies and, for culture war purposes, within the artistic and literary community. These agents exacted a shockingly heavy toll in terms of purloined information, pilfered scientific research, leaked decrypts and the betrayal of Western agents in place and dissidents struggling for freedom within the Eastern Bloc. The fact that actually there was a threat is something that is, at best, skimmed over in the pat mainstream interpretation of the McCarthy period. Arthur Miller chose the Salem Witch Trials as his allegory of McCarthyism. The analogy is fundamentally misplaced because, although Miller would have us believe otherwise, the existence of actively treasonous figures within US society and bureaucracy was not an ignorant and superstitious conceit brought about by closed minds. Unlike witches, the reds did actually exist. But McCarthy was notably unsuccessful in uncovering the significant players (in fact, none of the major Soviet moles got their just desserts as a result of McCarthy, he just happened to be frolicking in the right ballpark**) and his methods caused such a backlash that it became easy for legitimate anticommunism to be portrayed as inherently repressive, untrustworthy and anti-liberal. The situation persists.

*Although it predates the high McCarthy period, it's worth noting, just because I'm a bitter, twisted little man being gradually eaten away in a pool of my own stomach acid, that in the case of almost every major high-profile Soviet spy tried brought down during the Cold War, from Alger Hiss to the Rosenbergs onwards, a substantial chunk of mainstream left-wing opinion made it, in some cases for a good forty year period, a noisy and ongoing article of faith that they were the innocent victims of outbreaks of authoritarian right wing paranoia. As it has emerged over the past decade or so that they were actually guilty as hell the common response seems to have been to pretend that nothing's happened.

**Alger Hiss fell foul of the HUAC, but of course McCarthy was not associated with HUAC. This is not to say that nobody fingered by McCarthy was guilty. In fact, several of the people on McCarthy's lists were guilty as hell. The problem is that a) he accused so many people that almost by the law of averages given the threat a proportion of them would be guilty and b) although evidence has shown some to be guilty, Soviet files and decrypt evidence provides no support in the large bulk of allegations made by McCarthy.

There Goes The Neighbourhood

Interesting little story.

Really the Anglo-American situation with regard to race in WW2 is rather strange. There's no doubt that even as early as the Great War the British, whose attitudes on race couldn't exactly be regarded as enlightened by the standards of today, found the American willingness to segregate American citizens peculiar and morally dubious*. The Americans, for their part, largely found Britain's colonial ways distasteful and repressive. So we have this rather whimsical situation in which the Brits, who controlled large armies of colonial subjects in which the overwhelming majority of officers were white (a minority of officers in some parts of the Imperial forces [especially the support arms] were native, but they generally had to claw their way up through the other ranks to a lare commission and couldn't expect to rise above company command) and in which the bulk of the troops were from parts of the world where self-determination was something that happened to other people, thought it was pretty grotty that black Americans didn't get a decent bite of the cheese and the Americans, who found the entire structure of British colonialism utterly offensive (and ripe for demolition) and who prided themselves on being beacons of liberty and overall creamy goodness were quite prepared not only to force their black soldiers to serve seperately but also frequently to treat them as distinctly second class. There's enough hypocrisy and general lack of self-awareness on both sides to fill a bucket.

Kevin Pollack

On a related note, with regard to the many and varied allied contingents of varying sizes based in the United Kingdom during the bulk of World War 2, there's a fairly hefty amount of Security Service documentation** reporting on very bad relations between the British and the Poles. The Poles were viewed by the police, the army, the security service and, apparently, a substantial chunk of the population of London, as being in the large part a bunch of violent racists and anti-semites (I believe more than one report wonders rhetorically whether there was much difference between the Poles and the Nazis in these respects). Not only was their antisemitism apparently overt and noisy but there were police reports of Polish troops roughing up Jews in the East End. Additionally there were regularly fights between Poles on the one hand and Imperial troops on the other and the security services reported Indian Army officers complaing of widespread incidents of Polish soldiers verbally abusing their men and in some cases refusing to serve alongside black or Indian forces.

*Characteristically "Black Jack" Pershing, whose strong stance in "standing up" to requests to have American forces dispersed among Allied fighting formations has earned him a lot of praise and something of an iconic position, lost no sleep whatsoever in signing over the substantial bulk of the AEF's black contingent to the French wholesale and barely looking back.

**I believe Richard Aldrich is The Man when it comes to this topic.

Winston's back...

The newly released WW2 cabinet papers have been getting a lot of news coverage. I freely admit I have only checked out the various precis that have been bandied about on the computer interweb hypermeganet, but as far as I can tell we are supposed to get quite breathless about the following:

  • Churchill believed the top Nazi leadership should have been summarily executed.
  • He didn't much like Gandhi.
  • He didn't get on that well with the Free French leadership.
To the best of my knowledge none of this is actually terribly (or indeed in any way) revelatory, although the documents themselves will no doubt reveal interesting new details to an already known story.

For me the most interesting little nugget is this:

The documents also reveal intense debate in 1942 over possible British reprisals for Nazi atrocities in Czechoslovakia.

On 15 June, Churchill suggested that British bombers wipe out three German villages for every one Czech settlement destroyed.

This I did not know. Intriguing.

Metastasized Diarrhoea

John Quiggin, with whom I have differed in the past over his assertion that the United Kingdom should shut down its intelligence community, writes:

I just received an email drawing the (far from original) comparison between terrorism and cancer. It struck me that, to make this metaphor exact we’d need

  • attacks on cancer researchers for seeking to ‘understand’ cancer
  • even more attacks on anyone trying to find ‘root causes’ for cancer in the environment, such as exposure to tobacco smoke

Vee pithy. Vee, vee pithy. And in fairness it's sometimes true. But mostly not.

More accurately, you will get some lumpen idiots within certain sections of the commentariat who will live up to this sort of stereotype. However, it's a lot more complicated than that.

The problem with "understanding" and "root causes" is not that we shouldn't be trying to understand or that we shouldn't attempt to address root causes insofar as is a) practical and b) not an unreasonable abdication of our values. It is the fact that most of the people outside the academic/policy community who talk about "understanding" and "root causes" don't actually know what these are.

There's a lot of literature out there. Terrorism experts have spent a substantial amount of time constructing empirically based studies looking into terrorist motivation, behaviour and recruiting patterns, both in general and in terms of terror-group specific case studies. The literature is not monolithic and areas of disagreement exist between the experts, who often come from varying disciplines and areas of expertise.

The problem is that the people who talk loudest about root causes and understanding within the public forum - the Cherie Blairs, Jenny Tonges, Guardian Opinion section contributors, Chomsky/Said cultists and Question Time audiences of this world - generally show no sign whatsoever of having read, let alone seriously engaged with, this literature. Instead we are too often treated to blissful assertions regarding the roles of poverty, global inequality, Western arrogance etc etc.

This is not to say these don't play a role. Some do and some don't* and indeed, as can be seen from individual group case studies, actually motivatory (is that a word?) factors can vary from terror group to terror group. But the reason so many root cause-wallahs take a lashing is not (mostly) because of an inherent closed-mindedness but because their root cause explanations are often based on nothing more solid than taking the prejudices they harboured pre-9/11 and dumping them down as a template for what causes a sort of catch all "desparation" that we are supposed to believe causes terrorism. As far as I am aware, Jerrold Post, Marc Sagemen, Walter Laqueur, Max Horgan, Walter Reich, David Rapoport, Martha Crenshaw and company actually don't have to dedicate much of their time to fending off ad hom attacks for having carried out the work they've done, nor does thier progression up the ladder within the security community seem to have been obviously impeded.

Dr Quiggin thinks that what we see today is the equivalent of cancer researchers being attacked for seeking to understand cancer. In fact what we more often see is the equivalent of Tom Cruise being attacked for arguing that people should put their faith in L.Ron Hubbard mystic happy clappy bullshit as treatment for post-natal depression rather than anti-depressants.

*The role of poverty, for example, is an interesting and complicated one and its impact can range from near non-existant to fairly important depending upon which group is being discussed. In the case of al Qaeda the role is plays either as a motivator or as a "recruiting sergeant" is, at most, minimal. In the case of Palestinian terrorism there is empirical evidence that it can make certain terror candidates, most notably potential candidates for suicide bomber recruitment, riper pickings for the higher-ups within the terror networks.** However, to claim that poverty is a catch all "root cause" of terrorism (as an annoying large number of people do) is simply not supported by the empirical evidence.

**Especially interesting is the case of female suicide bombers recruited by Hamas. What has certainly been the case in a number of documented instances is that impoverished Palestinian women who have exhibited no overt sign of religious radicalisation, but who have young children, have been approached by Hamas officers who have induced them to suicide murder on the committment that their children will receive a handsome, life-changing financial annuity in exchange for the "sacrifice". The sheer cynicism and moral cowardice of the terrorist recruiters deserves to be given greater exposure in the Western press.

You a ho' etc.

Dan Drezner has his list of the 10 worst Americans up.*

Interesting list. Slapworthy though Al Sharpton so undoubtedly is, I don't think he'd be on my list and neither would Richard Nixon.

And, frankly, nor would JJ Angleton, nuts though he clearly was.**

I haven't managed to come up with a top 10 list of my own, either for Brits or Americans. My Brit list tends to be far too heavily slanted toward the 20th century, for a start.

A few people possibly worth considering.

Brits: Horatio Bottomley, Kim Philby, Charles Townshend (of Kut), William Joyce, Sean Russell (who was, I believe, technically a British subject), Henry Morton Stanley (Though I think he became a Worst Yank later on)

Yanks: Joe Kennedy, Douglas MacArthur, Charles Lindbergh, Andrew Jackson, George Armstrong Custer, Henry Ford, Ramsey Clark.

May add to the lists as names crop up.

*Which follows on from this.
**Not sure I'd put Aldrich Ames up there. Was he a turd? Sure. But people always go, "Oh it was so terrible, more terrible 'cos he did it for the money and doing for the money is so base". Yeah? Well I dunno, I think maybe crapping on your country out of ideology at a time when Communists were herding millions of people into gulags, inflicting man-made famine on the Ukraine and later on suppressing Eastern Europe and going just plain nuthouse crazy in China was worse***. I am a lovable eccentric though.
***And why is it that if you're talking about somebody who spied for the Reds people - especially people who read the Guardian or work for the BBC - always get this sort of furrowed brow look and go, "Yes but they were motivated by sincerely held political beliefs". Hungh? So what? Surely that must apply to Nazis too then? If I started talking about Lord Haw Haw or whoever, would you be saying the same thing? No? Then shut the f*** up? Yes? Then shut the f*** up.

Cock, Arse, Cock, Bugger

Having come across, at a gibberings-of-uncontrollable-glee-inducingly-low three figure price, a set of bound notes and correspondence relating to a certain set of Royal Navy gunnery tests, inscribed by a certain Arthur Pollen to a certain John Fisher*, I have just been informed that I have been beaten to the purchase by the British Library**.

Bugger. Bugger!!! I rather feel that my patriotic outlook ought to mean that I should be feeling a warm glow from the knowledge that, rather than gathering dust on my shelves, it has been "saved for the nation" or whatnot. Curiously, right now I feel more like engaging in an elaborate and noisy act of ritual suicide***.

You know those bits where Charlie Brown stands there and goes "ARRRRRRRRGH!"? That.

*Either you know who these people are or you don't.
**Which makes it doubly bad because the fact that it's in the BL's holdings means it will never, ever come on the market again.
***Or instigating some sort of Pink Panther/Wrong Trousers style criminal enterprise in order to get my sticky little hands on it.

Happy New Year

Anthony has been doing a nice job of shouldering the slack of the remaining old man (read: me) on the blog. As one of my many New Year's resolutions, I'll try to take up some of the blogging burden. This of course, however, will probably drive away the site's remaining fan base. Oh well.