Friday, July 18, 2003
Vive le courriel!

The current top two documents on Technorati's Breaking News, which is a link monitoring service for blogs, are both to an AP article concerning the June 20th publication of the Journal officiel of the French Republic. An extract follows:

France bans 'e-mail' from vocabulary

PARIS, France (AP) -- Goodbye "e-mail", the French government says, and hello "courriel" -- the term that linguistically sensitive France is now using to refer to electronic mail in official documents.

The Culture Ministry has announced a ban on the use of "e-mail" in all government ministries, documents, publications or Web sites, the latest step to stem an incursion of English words into the French lexicon.

The ministry's General Commission on Terminology and Neology insists Internet surfers in France are broadly using the term "courrier electronique" (electronic mail) instead of e-mail -- a claim some industry experts dispute. "Courriel" is a fusion of the two words. [...]

The move to ban "e-mail" was announced last week after the decision was published in the official government register on June 20. Courriel is a term that has often been used in French-speaking Quebec, the commission said. [...]

Some Internet industry experts say the decision is artificial and doesn't reflect reality.

"The word 'courriel' is not at all actively used," Marie-Christine Levet, president of French Internet service provider Club Internet, said Friday. "E-mail has sunk in to our values."

She said Club Internet wasn't changing the words it uses.

"Protecting the language is normal, but e-mail's so assimilated now that no one thinks of it as American," she said. "Courriel would just be a new word to launch."

The blogosphere can't let this one slide apparently. Some responses:

Sign of the Times

Aside from snide remarks, obstuctionism, and escargot, can anyone tell me one relevant thing the French have done in the last 40 years? They are living on borrowed time. They have no place in today's world. They don't contribute economically, they only seek to disrupt politically, and French food ain't what it used to be. So what if the French don't want English words. To me, this is as important as Fiji choosing a new color to paint military jeeps.

Goodbye East Coast

This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen.


all those stupid frenchmen...just cuz they wanna be "different"...damn...what's wrong with english? the language of the world...i tink if the french cant live with the world...they should just move to the moon or something and live there by themselves, and be DIFFERENT.

Extremely Lorene

french people are funny

No more email in france. Now it's "courriel". J'ecrit le courriel.

silly french people. au revoir email!

Just another reason to make fun of the French.

The Guards Of Magog

In another attempt to distance themselves from the US, the French government has banned the word "email" from their lexicon. Ah, the French. Always picking the wrong battles to fight.

Oh, and then there is this gem of erudition:

Rancho Relaxo!

Dumb Frenchies.....Do they honestly believe this is gunna catch on?

Dumb gringo. It ain't "gunna" hafta. In Canada, people have been using other words for "e-mail" in French for years.

I assume the bigger name right-wingers of the blog world will pick this up before too long. I'm betting on a Volokh, and at least one of the unholy trinity of Instapundit, Lileks or Little Green Footballs. Allow me to respond to those who have already blogged this as yet another example of French perfidity, and those who no doubt will soon: You are all a bunch of idiots.

Here is exactly what appeared in the Journal Officiel:

courriel, n.m.
Domaine : Télécommunications-Informatique.
Synonyme : courrier électronique, message électronique.
Définition : Document informatisé qu'un utilisateur saisit, envoie ou consulte en différé par l'intermédiaire d'un réseau.

Note :
1. Un courriel contient le plus souvent un texte auquel peuvent être joints d?autres textes, des images ou des sons.
2. Par extension, le terme « courriel » et son synonyme « courrier électronique » sont employés au sens de « messagerie électronique ».
Équivalent étranger : e-mail, electronic mail.
Attention : Ce terme annule et remplace « courrier électronique » publié au Journal officiel du 2 décembre 1997.

Let me draw your attention to the last line, which I will translate:

Attention: This term supersedes and replaces "courrier électronique", published in the Journal officiel on December 2, 1997.

In short, the French government has been promoting a replacement term for e-mail for five and a half years, and seeing how that term has not been widely adopted, they are now promoting another term to replace it. This is:

  1. Not news. The proof: Five and a half years!

  2. Unrelated to French international relations or the recent unpleasantness over Iraq. The proof: Five and a half years!

  3. Not a ban, in public, in private, in advertisements or in government, of the word "e-mail." The proof: People used "e-mail" all the time, despite an official terminological recommendation for five and a half years, and yet no one went to prision.

  4. Not a neologism. "Courriel" is not a newly imagined term. I can personally verify that it has been in colloquial use in Quebec since at least 1993, when I got my first personal e-mail account.

Now, tonight on Pedantry, you're in for something special. Most of the topics I post on are philosophical, political and public affairs related, with occasional jaunts into the social sciences and less classifiable material. I comment a lot on blogs run by people with extensive backgrounds in philosophy and economics. I always feel a mite bit reserved, because I have had exactly one undergraduate class in economics, one in theology, and one graduate class in philosophy. Well, tonight, you're going to get a dose of me mouthing off on my own personal field of expertise.

You see, once upon a time, I aspired to become the first anglo terminologist at the Office de la langue française, Quebec's language authority. I was well on my way too. My last big thesis before I ran out of money for school showed that as far computer terminology was concerned, the Académie Française had an abysmal record of normalising terms that failed, while the OLF and various French-language and bilingual technical normalisation committees - in Canada, the EU, and at the ISO level - had been extremely successful in establishing and promoting widely used French terminology in IT. I followed the Académie's recommendations over the course of some 30 years, from the early 60's to the early 90's, and found that they had an incredible record for picking dogs. I even advanced a hypothesis as to why the Académie was so ineffective, but that's for another post.

(Actually, the whole history - which isn't hard to find on the 'Net if you can read French and you know where to look - fits perfectly my 1994 criticisms of the Académie Française: First, they wanted "message électronique", then "courrier électronique", and now they go with the spontaeously created Canadian term "courriel." Blew it twice before going with something simpler, easier to pronounce, easier to spell and easier to remember. Thank God they didn't take the OLF's recommended spelling "courriél.")

Let me try to clear up a few misconceptions about French language authorities:

  1. Every first-world state language that I can think of has an organisation responsible for language standardisation except English. France was the first, but it is far, far from unique.

  2. In every one of those official language boards that I have any significant contact with, controlling rampant anglicisation, particularly in specialised technical domains, is the major concern.

  3. Not a single one of these organisations is empowered to outlaw words, even in government communications. They are normalisation committees, and usually their powers are limited to making recommendations. In some countries (but not in France or Canada) they have to power to control the terminology used in public school textbooks. In Quebec - where there are language laws - it is technically possible to be prosecuted under the outdoor signage laws for using incorrect anglicisms, but as far as I know, there has never been such a prosecution. Quebec's sign laws require some things to be in French but do not specify what constitutes French.

  4. French policy is less anti-English than Icelandic policy, and is less likely to impose new words on people out of the blue than China's.

Now, let me return to the task at hand: "e-mail", "courrier électronique" and "courriel." Let's do a little empirical linguistics. Try the following links to Google searches, and look carefully at the document counts in the upper right hand corner:

Think for a bit about those numbers. There are over 400,000 pages using "courriel" and about the same number using "courrier électronique." That suggests that the terms recommended by official committees do get used, and do make a difference. "Courriel" is catching on, and it is easier to say and spell than "courrier électronique." Furthermore, by adopting it, France is moving in line with Quebec usage, helping to prevent vocabulary from drifting too much across the French-speaking world.

In contrast, on the Culture Ministry's website itself, you find "e-mail" almost twice as often as "courrier électronique" and almost ten times as often as "courriel." That hardly suggests that this official endorsement of vocabulary has much force of law.

So, let me reiterate: Get a freaking life, francophobic losers and Paris-based AP reporters! You have no friggin' clue what you're talking about!

Added to my list of posts to write: Why every other language in the world has a language commission and why that's a good thing.

Update: 1:32 CET July 19 -- We have a Volokh. Can I call'em or what?

Good stuff in this week's Exile

First, Mark Ames' editorial this week seems to either mourn or celebrate (I'm not sure which) the passing of Russia's short-lived stability under Vladimir Putin:

Russia Thaws

When Putin came to power in late 1999, one of the things he promised to do was put a lid on the unpredictability and anarchy that marked the Yeltsin years. Feeding on the nation’s exhaustion—no culture could possibly sustain the reckless, destructive pace of the 1990s —and employing old-style KGB and gangland tactics, Putin masterfully fulfilled his promise to seal Russia’s radioactive soul in a kind of semi-freeze. Russia, once the land of Infinite Events, became almost...boring. Boring, and believably so—it seemed that a new paradigm had indeed been achieved. For the first time, Moscow seemed almost safe, recognizable and predictable.

Late last week the casing cracked and subcutaneous Russia spewed out into the atmosphere. The arrest of YUKOS billionaire Platon Lebedev is one of those truly ground-shattering events that we haven’t seen in Russia since Putin consolidated his power. Such a thing as arresting the West’s favorite billionaire and denying him even the right to visit his lawyer didn’t seem possible any longer.

It seems sudden, but in fact the casing cracked months ago. It’s just that the whole facade of normalcy finally imploded last week. All those sushi bars that the Thomas Friedmans have raved about with triumphant relief are not examples of progress but rather camouflage.

Russia is back. The Russia of the 1990s, that is. Think about it. Moscow is once again ranked in the top three most expensive cities in the world, the stock market is hitting its Yeltsin-era peak, foreign investors rate it the hottest emerging market, debt issuance is soaring, the last major auction, Slavneft, was grossly rigged in favor of the Kremlin’s pet oligarch, and Western correspondents are singing the praises of Russia’s “transformation.” In the media world, The Moscow Times was taken over by yet another oligarch, just as it was in 1996, while yet another of Russia’s “last independent television stations” caved into the Kremlin, a repeating drama that goes back to NTV’s 1996 decision to join the Kremlin fold. Expats are pouring back into Moscow to feed from the trough (in the last year, two new English-language nightlife papers, Pulse and Element, were added to the two that already exist along with three straight English-language newspapers), whores regularly demand $200 a pop, and now, contract killings and a burst of high-profile scandals and savage political machinations have made Russia seem, well, Russian again. If you need any evidence that the Russia we knew is back, just look at our cover: eXile columnist Edward Limonov is out of jail and back in the business of plotting a revolution and driving our readers up the wall. [...]

Whether you’re a thrill seeker or a starch-collared executive, you might want to start accepting the fact that the safe, familiar, MegaMall/IKEA-bound Russia you invested your hopes and delusions in is little more than camouflage masking the hide of a cruel and unpredictable beast. If you survive the surprise— and you will survive if you’re not stupid enough to think, “They can’t shoot a Westerner!”—then you’ll go back home with a chest full of Events, priceless memories that no one who stayed in their Safe Western Home could ever fathom. Those incidents will come in handy for the rest of your life.

There's a part of me - the masochistic part with a penchant for packing his bags and changing countries when he's bored - who is thinking great! There's still a part of eastern Europe that deserves to be called the "Wild East"! I haven't missed out yet! The more rational part of me, however, knows that if my wife couldn't face winter in Montreal, Russia is out of the question.

As Ames' editorial notes, Edvard Limonov has been released from prision. Now, Limonov is not the most repuatable character in Russia, and I do not in any way endorse his politics - or at least I think I don't, since I've honestly never managed to work out precisely what they are and I certainly can't see myself supporting anything called "the National Bolshevik party" - but I do recommend his novels. If you don't know who Limonov is, the Exile has published a summary "for Dummies" to help you out as well as an account from Limonov himself.

But I want to draw special attention to this week's War Nerd commentary:

Iraq: the “Duh!” Theory

A lot of people have been asking me to do a column on what’s happening in Iraq. Most of the emails go like, “Why are they shooting at us? We liberated them!”I have to admit, even though I hated the war (and will always hate Bush for making me hate ANY war), I was pretty pissed off at the Iraqis too. The ungrateful bastards, maybe they’d be happier if we brought Saddam back if that’s what they want, then they’ll smarten up.

But then I went to the 4th of July fireworks show in Lemoore, and driving home I suddenly realized how these ragheads probably feel. [...]

[S]itting there in my car I was ready to kill anybody who said anything bad about America. What that showed me is, the way you love your country is way deeper than how you feel about the people running the country. I hate W., the little draftdodging oil-money phony, but if any foreign army tried to “liberate” the US from him, I’d die trying to stop them. I realized how your country is so much to you, even if you hate the fuckers running it, you’d sooner have them than a bunch of foreign troops. [...]

And then there’s the wuss factor. Getting liberated means you couldn’t handle the situation yourself—you’re a pussy. I’ve sat through a lot of action movies, and I didn’t want to be the girl who gets rescued, I wanted to be the guy who rescues her. Getting liberated is like getting castrated: maybe it was necessary, but you have a hard time feeling grateful. Like the French when we liberated them from the Nazis. They thanked us, but….

Even when the locals welcome the army at first, they change their mind later on. The Ukrainians cheered the Wehrmacht in 1941, but changed their minds fast. The Catholics in Ulster cheered the British Army in 1969, but changed their minds after the Brits killed 14 demonstrators. And in case you don’t remember, US troops killed 18 Iraqis in Fallujah a couple months ago. 18 dead—that’s a lot of pissed-off relatives who are going to start digging up the AK-47s they buried in the back yard, looking for some payback. No wonder Fallujah is now the least-pacified city in Iraq.

Occupations always go bad, because armies aren’t nice things. They were never meant to be. Armies are scary. Armies are where you dump all the guys you hated in high-school PE, the ones who thought it was so funny when you were too fat to do the rope climb. Or they’re the guys who got an option from the judge, “Either you go to the pen or you join the Army.” Now you’ve got 100,000 guys like that marching down Saddam Street. Foreign thugs with guns who don’t speak a word of the local language. You really think you’d be cheering?

Right about now I can hear all you angry patriotic types limbering up your typin’ fingers to send me messages like, “Saddam was a monster! Any Iraqi who’d rather have Saddam than the US Army is a loser raghead!”

Well, calm down and try to think like an Iraqi for a second. The thing is, Iraq ain’t Ohio. THEY AIN’T LIKE US. Why is that so hard for people to get? Saddam probably seemed pretty familiar, pretty natural and cozy to your average Iraqi. Like the editorial-page types love to say, “Democracy is not an Iraqi tradition.” So maybe they never saw why Saddam was so horrible. Just like most of you out there don’t think it’s so weird that a couple hundred oil-billionaires from Bakersfield and Texas own everything in America. Everybody’s life feels natural to them, and that goes for Iraqis too. [...]

And how hard is it to turn a 17-year-old into a guerrilla? Man, if they’d had that option when I was a senior I never would’ve had to take another vocational aptitude test. “Guerrilla fighter” would’ve been my first, second and third choice. Now there are hordes of Iraqi teenagers with no jobs and no money who get the chance to fire at Americans on the streets where the USAF can’t swoop down on them. And if they shoot at a GI on sentry duty and miss, they run off down the alley. That leaves the GI with a choice of either just letting the bastard get away to take another shot at him next day, or emptying a full clip at the alley. If he does that, he’s likely to hit some pregnant woman or little kid. That means another family instantly radicalized. [...]

I read a quote from a US soldier in Iraq that really got me depressed. He said, “I don’t want to say anything bad about these people but the way they attack us is really sneaky.” Well, that’s the whole idea of guerrilla warfare, the sneakier the better. But to a soldier it seems like murder, cowardly murder. So the soldiers get madder and madder, and eventually, on some hot-as-hell day when the smelly locals have been jeering at them for hours, some half-assed Lt. Calley type loses it and orders his men to fire on the crowd. And in about 20 seconds you’ve got dead demonstrators and thousands of angry relatives. [...]

So how do you get out of a mess like this? Ask the Israelis. They’re the best CI troops in the world, and they haven’t figured out a way to back out yet. There are no good ways. The two classic occupations of the last few decades were the Israelis on the West Bank and Gaza, and the British in Ulster. The British came in with the idea they were going to protect the Catholics from the Protestants, but a year after they arrived their troops were getting pelted with rocks every time they went into a Catholic neighborhood. They fought the IRA for 25 years and nobody won. But the British lost, because they had something to lose. The Brits did a “white paper” on the cost of the war in Ulster and figured they lost hundreds of billions of dollars on it. Not from paying the troops but because every time a package came into the UK it had to be searched. Every time a car came into London it got searched. Worst of all, nobody was going to invest in a country that seemed to blow up every week or so. And all for a crummy welfare slum they didn’t even want. And they didn’t even win. [...]

There aren’t any good solutions when you occupy a foreign population. There are some techniques that help, but they’re cold-blooded stuff that won’t make the home folks happpy. For example, you can play tribe against tribe, say Iraqi Shiites or Kurds vs. Sunni. But that takes years, guarantees lots of blood, and doesn’t make the “liberators” look too good on the nightly news. Or you can do what Stalin would’ve done: kill’em all. But we’re not Stalin, so we won’t do that.

What we’ll do is keep losing a man or two a day, running around blasting the wrong people, making the Iraqis feel tough for the first time in history, and wondering “Why, O why, don’t they love us?”

Not to be too Instapundity, but "duh" indeed.

Mr Blair goes to Washington

I skipped out on Blair's speech before Congress last night. It was on at "precisely" 19:53 British time - or so BBC World kept claiming in the run-up - and there was a movie about women sumo wrestlers on another channel at eight. It was a tough choice. Watch Blair spout nonsense in front of America's most exclusive geriatric millionaires' club or watch zaftig British women toss each other out of a sandy ring?

I missed the speech, but Ryan at Beatnik Salad didn't:

Bravo Tony!

I'm filled with pride this morning, let me tell you. To the brim!

"Let me also express my gratitude to President Bush," began the big speech. "Through the troubled times since September the 11th changed our world, we have been allies and friends. Thank you, Mr President, for your leadership." Yes, thankyou, George! I'm glad our leader has a leader - I wouldn't want him to lose direction.

I recommend clicking through and reading the rest. Also via Beatnik Salad, I recommend the post at Billmon's Whisky Bar on the same speech.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

I once compared Tony Blair to Colonel Nicholson -- the British officer whose warped sense of duty leads him to collaborate with his Japanese captors in The Bridge On the River Kwai. But the more I listen to Blair -- as in his speech to Congress today -- the more I'm reminded of Kurtz, the crazed colonial administrator in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

There is always a temptation to engage in conspiracy theorising, especially when some decisions actaully do seem to get made by conspiracies. (Who did put the "45 minutes" remark in Tony blair's speech on Iraq, and the Niger uranium claim in Bush's?) However, I am beginning to face the real possibility that men who seem corrupt in power may actually believein what they're doing. Blair is beginning to remind me of a Yiddish short story I ran into a couple weeks ago.

I just don't get it otherwise, unless it was the price for this:

Guantanamo trials to be suspended

TOKYO (Reuters) - The United States has agreed to suspend controversial military court proceedings against terror suspects held at Guantanamo Bay pending talks with British legal officials next week, the government says.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said a joint U.S.-British statement, due to be released later on Friday by the White House, would confirm the decision following Blair's talks on the subject with President George W. Bush on Thursday.

"The president listened to the concerns of the prime minister and we believe that this is the best way forward," the spokesman told reporters travelling with Blair.

Does this mean no military tribunals, or just none for British citizens? The dateline is less than 90 minutes old, so we'll have to see.

Found in a Matt Taibbi column

For those of you unfamiliar with him, Matt Taibbi is a columnist for the NY Press and a former editor of the Moscow's The Exile. I was looking through some of his old columns today and came across this gem, which more or less summarises all my problems with the Democratic party and the center-left:

It has been 14 years, almost to the day, since Fukuyama–a former Reagan advisor and an influence on Paul Wolfowitz–published, to great fanfare, an article entitled "The End of History?" in the summer issue of The National Interest. The essay was a labyrinthine piece of theory that recalled Marx, Hegel, and Reaganite foreign policy simultaneously, and was joyously misinterpreted by people on all sides.

I was 19 and stoned when it came out and wouldn’t have been capable of reading the first sentence. The basic premise, though, was fairly easy to understand: Mankind at the end of the Cold War had ascended to the mountaintop and completed his ideological evolution, with Western liberal democracy the victor. Our system was the "final form of human government." Fukuyama was careful to point out that this didn’t mean that the world would be free of disaster, tumult or social problems, only that no higher form of government would supercede our own.

The philosopher was so sure about all of this that he was actually a little sad about history having ended, noting that "in the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history." [...]

People around the world who are bewildered by the dumb confidence Americans have in their system as the be-all, end-all of human existence would find the answers to their questions in The End of History: a blueprint for a society that can safely stop trying to better itself.

That was my initial reaction to Fukuyama. Then, a few weeks ago, I thought about him again, while attempting to determine the reason why I wanted to pack all of the Democratic presidential candidates into a missile and shoot them into space. [...]

The Democrats, just like the vapid artists that Fukuyama correctly predicted would dominate our lives, don’t want to be anything other than better caretakers for that museum of human history. They don’t try to imagine a fundamentally better world, because they actually believe that there isn’t one. They’re buffoons straight out of Voltaire, running on a platform of "Our mild improvements to this best of all possible worlds."


I am quite happy - gratified even - if large chunks of the population want nothing more than "mild improvements to this best of all possible worlds." I just think that position ought to be called conservative, and I am much happier sharing the world with those kinds of conservatives than the kind who think that 1950 (or 1900, or 1880, or 1860, or a Nozickite "state of nature") was the best of all possible worlds.

But, there still need to be people who imagine a fundamentally better world and who want to make it happen, because history isn't over. I can find a few in Belgium. Some of them are nuts, but most are not. Are there any in the US anymore? Has imagining a better world become an act of science fiction?

Sorry, I just did a circuit of the blogs and I'm feeling frustrated that the most radical project I see on the American left is getting people to understand that a president who starts unprovoked wars and runs up trillion-plus dollar debts on regressive tax cuts might not be a very good leadership choice.

Thursday, July 17, 2003
Humping on the bandwagon

I suppose this probably going to be the most blogged topic today, but I'm going to link to it anyway.

Masturbating may protect against prostate cancer

A team in Australia led by Graham Giles of The Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne asked 1079 men with prostate cancer to fill in a questionnaire detailing their sexual habits, and compared their responses with those of 1259 healthy men of the same age. The team concludes that the more men ejaculate between the ages of 20 and 50, the less likely they are to develop prostate cancer.

The protective effect is greatest while men are in their twenties: those who had ejaculated more than five times per week in their twenties, for instance, were one-third less likely to develop aggressive prostate cancer later in life (BJU International , vol 92, p 211).

The results contradict those of previous studies, which have suggested that having had many sexual partners, or a high frequency of sexual activity, increases the risk of prostate cancer by up to 40 per cent. The key difference is that these earlier studies defined sexual activity as sexual intercourse, whereas the latest study focused on the number of ejaculations, whether or not intercourse was involved.

The team speculates that infections caused by intercourse may increase the risk of prostate cancer. "Had we been able to remove ejaculations associated with sexual intercourse, there should have been an even stronger protective effect of other ejaculations," they suggest. "Men have many ways of using their prostate which do not involve women or other men," Giles adds.

So that's right boys, go ahead and wipe your pipe, spank the monkey, polish your flagpole, test fire your Death Star and put Mr Hanky's kids through college. It's safe, it's clean, it's easy and it not only feels good, it's good for you! Now, if anyone catches you hunting the one-eyed trouser snake, you've got the perfect excuse. I see a future of public health posters: The Surgeon General advises men aged 18-34 to masturbate at least once a day to reduce the risk of prostate cancer. I forsee discussions of technique in high school sex ed classes. I look forward to seeing Hustler sold at pharmacies and fitness stores and strip joints calling themselves "health clubs." Yes folks, those of us who are "outies" instead of "innies" can expect a much brighter, happier future for the next generation. Heck, why wait! I'm sure the Unablogger would be glad to help you get started on a prostate cancer free future right now.

Okay, having gotten that out of they way, I note that Brian Weatherson over at Crooked Timber is having a hard time coming up with an original evolutionary explanation for this interesting little research result, while Gummo Trotsky is far more interested in hearing the creation science take on matters. I have to admit to being a bit curious myself.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003
Some quick stuff I've been meaning to blog

  • Tobias Schwartz at Almost a diary points out how remarkable this last Bastille Day was.

    German heads Bastille Day parade

    PARIS, France (AP) -- A German general headed France's traditional Bastille Day military parade for the first time [...]

    Gen. Holger Kammerhoff opened Monday's march by leading 120 troops from the five-nation Eurocorps down the famed avenue to the Place de la Concorde, underscoring the close ties between France and Germany and the goal of closer European unity.

    The Eurocorps, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, was created a decade ago and includes 70,000 soldiers who will likely form the core of any future joint European army. [...]

    When was the last time a German headed a military parade through the streets of Paris? I'm thinking 1940. Times sure have changed in western Europe.

  • Patrick Nielsen Hayden links to Michael Kinsley's latest in Slate.

    Who Is Buried in Bush's Speech?

    Linguists note that the question, "Who lied in George Bush's State of the Union speech" bears a certain resemblance to the famous conundrum, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?" They speculate that the two questions may have parallel answers. But philosophers are still struggling to properly analyze the Grant's Tomb issue—let alone answer it. And experts say that even when this famous 19th-century presidential puzzle is solved, it could be many years before the findings can be applied with any confidence to presidents of more recent vintage.

  • Cosma Shalizi links to a New York Times article on the People's Mujahedeen, that rather strange "Islamo-Marxist" Iranian nationalist group in Iraq who were the subject of so much consternation a few months ago when it became unclear just what US policy towards them was.

    Learning from Experience

    Elizabeth Rubin, who's always worth reading, reports on visiting the People's Mujaheddin, a profoundly weird Iranian Islamo-Marxist group which got to run a "totalitarian mini-state" on Iraqi soil, in exchange for doing dirty work for the Baathists. Imagine an Iranian version of the Taipings, with husband-and-wife Great Leaders and a good PR department, and you'll have a rough approximation to these people. They are, naturally, now being embraced by the hardliners in the Pentagon because they're whispering such interesting things about Iran's nuclear weapons program; perhaps we'll get to hear some of the highlights in the next State of the Union speech. (Spotted via Kris)

    I guess I can always hope that someday an American president will learn that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

  • Maria Farrell at Crooked Timber is frustrated with casual sexual harrassment on the streets of Paris.

    Va te faire foutre, connard

    Parisian men; all the sexism of Latin Europeans and none of the chivalry? [...]

    There comes a moment with these guys when it could go either way. Part of my brain is telling me that it is stupid, stupid, stupid to lash out, that I can’t win, and someone, probably me, may end up getting hurt. And it’s not fair to the guy I’m with, or the one or two guys in the crowd who look ready to intervene - they’ll end up having to take him on when I’ve goaded him into blind rage. But the only part of my mind that is working is the primal bit that wants to fucking kill him. [...]

    So, what’s the answer here? Should I either take a proper self-defense class or somehow try to lengthen my fuse? Continue my policy of verbal and physical resistance because it’s a proven deterrent to serious sexual or physical assault? Even thought it risks escalating an aggressive situation to a violent one? Try harder to cultivate Parisiennes’ froideur? Join the girls over at the Street Harassment Project in NY? Today’s Guardian seems to think laws are the answer to street harrassment and drageurs, but I still just want to thump them.

    And the film we went to see? The Hulk. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…

    There is a bit more to it, as the first two comments reveal:

    Jesus you poor thing! I have to say, I had more actual, full-on, aiming-to-hurt fistfights in three months living in Paris than in the preceding or following five years and it was always over the issue of behaviour toward women. The urban Frenchman does not hold his liquor well.

    Without wishing to be indelicate, would you hazard a breakdown of the people who ruined your day by estimated ethnicity?

              Posted by dsquared · July 14, 2003 01:50 PM

    Ha - it’s street crime day on Crooked Timber! And you’re one of the few but enormously appreciated guys who don’t regard that kind of scene as entertainment and actually step in.

    Eh, yes. The one aspect of this litany I didn’t volunteer. The guys on the corner were Turkish, so too the guy with the slow washing machine, the singer was Indian/Pakistani, Metro guy was black, and the noisy stomper was Egyptian. It’s a pretty uncomfortable tally, but fits with my previous counts - on average only one in six guys who hassle me are white. My female friends have similar experiences.

    A lot of (white French)people here would probably say the guys who hassle women the most aren’t ‘French’, which horrifies me. As a good little social democrat who supports more open immigration policies, it’s hard for me to come out and say, yes, there is a racial/ethnic aspect to this. But there is.

              Posted by Maria · July 14, 2003 02:11 PM

    I had something of a similar experience in China, although instead of sexual harrassment I was instead subjected to casual racism and contempt. After spending so much time studying Chinese, it was a huge disappointment to actually get to China and find that I hated the bulk of the people I encountered. It is a challenge to "good little social democrats" like yours truly. The lesson I've tried to take from it is not to romanticise social or ethnic groups just because you sympathise with them.

    In America I have encountered far more ignorance, racism, homophobia and general boorishness among America's lower classes than I ever have among even among its most paleolithic conservatives who have a higher social standing. Yet, somehow, I manage to support political causes intended to benefit the poor and excluded at some cost to the rich and connected.

    Part of how I do that is knowing that the most visible members of any social group are usually its worst examples, and that the majority are probably not as bad. Part of it is knowing that a group's social problems are often part of the cause of the bad beliefs and behaviours one sees in them. If poor Americans are more likely to be racist than rich ones, some of that is because rich people are rarely threatened by the things poor people most associate with minorities and foreigners. China's casual racism is the product of a culture of contempt for foreigners reinforced by a very chauvinistic nationalism which people who don't know foreign languages are hard pressed to escape from. And part is knowing that in most cultures there are trade-offs. France is in many ways not the best nation on earth to be a woman, yet it still has a more liberal maternity leave policy than the US.

    I think I wrote something recently about ambiguity...

  • I also want to point to this rather interesting story in today's Guardian:

    Cops? We are the cops

    Sitting on the broad, cool verandah of his house perched in the hills above Honiara, William Morrell seems lord of all he surveys. Towards the west is the police HQ, his office for the past six months. That's where the armed militants go occasionally, to share stolen money with some of his colleagues in the force. To the east, he can glimpse the Solomon Islands' government buildings - the place that the militants and police have found most fertile for robbery and extortion.

    Since January, Morrell has been police commissioner in this scattered archipelago of nearly 1,000 islands, a former British colony routinely described by diplomats as the Pacific's first failed state. The work has not been easy. Since he arrived he has had to deal with armed attacks on government ministers, the beheading of an Australian missionary, and a brutal insurrection by a half-mad rebel warlord. Worse still, the police force he commands is regarded by most as being the country's biggest problem.

    "I don't think I realised when I was applying for this how challenging it would be," he admits. It's certainly a far cry from his previous job as superintendent of Manchester police, where his last major task was coordinating security for the Commonwealth Games. [...]

    Morrell was landed in this position through a nondescript advert in the Police Review last year. Two years shy of his 30-years'-service retirement, and feeling that he wanted to travel and see a bit more of the world, he was one of only seven people to reply to the ad.

    Ominously, a briefing that was to accompany his first interview at the Foreign Office in London never materialised. He only fully gauged the seriousness of the situation in Honiara when he was taken to a further round of briefings in Brussels, Canberra, Wellington and Brisbane after accepting the job.

    "At each one the situation got worse," he says. "I didn't even know exactly where the Solomons were when I first saw the ad. It was only once I was applying that I started looking it up on the internet."

    What he read was alarming. First there was the armed extortion of the finance minister; then in December came reports that prime minister Sir Allen Kemakeza had been paying protection money to police officers using the Solomons' aid budget. The police had been reminding him of the issue by shooting at his house.

    Morrell's first reaction was to insist on being accompanied by a guard of Royal Marines. He has not taken a pay rise to come to the Solomons - indeed, his job is essentially part of the EU's foreign aid to Honiara - and admits to having very real fears for his personal safety.

    He has some protection: a security guard meets people arriving at his house, although he wasn't carrying a gun when the Guardian visited last week. At night the guards are normally asleep; sometimes they don't turn up at all.

    Morrell says that he has yet to be threatened to his face, but there is little doubt that he is a potential target. The line separating police and militants is hard to define, and powerful supporters of the militants can be found in the Solomons cabinet and in the highest ranks of the police. "You can't even rely on some of the people you're working most closely with," he says.

    His initial doubts were quickly reinforced when he arrived in Honiara, where the first task was to disarm the militant special constables. He was assisted by Sir Fredrick Soaki, one of his predecessors as commissioner and a leading peace advocate.

    The main concern was with the constables who had been members of the Malaita Eagles Force (MEF), the rebel group that overthrew the government in the 2000 coup. Soaki met a group of them at a restaurant on the island of Malaita. As they ate, a masked man walked up and shot him once in the side from point-blank range.

    Morrell was shaken. He had been in the country just two weeks, and one of his closest allies was dead. The police in Malaita, who took 45 minutes to cover the few hundred metres to get to the scene, could clearly not be trusted.

    Nor could those in Honiara's central prison, who let the three prime suspects escape from under Morrell's nose while they were awaiting trial. Such incidents must weigh heavily on his shoulders, but Morrell discusses the matter with a practiced impassiveness. [...]

    Morrell will be at least nominally in command of the 500 police and 1,500 soldiers, and a platoon of outside bureaucrats is expected to assume key posts in the main government ministries. Barking and Dagenham police chief superintendent John Lansley will be flown out at the same time, to act as assistant commissioner.

    It looks as if the Solomons will be reverting to a de facto colonial administration, but support for the intervention is none the less overwhelming. After five years of corruption and ethnic tensions, most people can't think of anything worse than the current situation.

    Upon reading this article I had two thoughts. First, they hired the chief cop of the country by putting a Help Wanted ad in Police Review? Second, can you imagine the US undertaking something similar?

    My Dad told me when I was a kid that the RCMP used to use the slogan "one riot - one Mountie." However, sending a single Manchester bobby to sort out an entire civil war presses the envelope. Nonetheless, this is something that America needs to learn how to do if it is going to be the protector of the world. Sending a single patient cop to the Solomon Islands seems like a very minimal response, but I suspect it will probably have more positive returns than a division of Marines.

  • Finally, I note that someone at blog*spot has dealt with this "BIG POST ERROR" problem. Thank you, whoever you are.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003
History and ambiguity in Prague and Harry Potter

One of the benefits I get out of vacations is a chance to read.

I'm not a very good tourist, you see, and I suppose it's all Guy Debord's fault, but that's for another post. The great thing about vacations is that I can sit somewhere, a train, a café, even a hotel room (just not on aeroplanes), and get some reading done. Despite tromping around Prague full time, I did manage to get several books read on this trip.

On the way to the airport in Brussels, I finished off Engine City, the last of Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light series. On the whole, I give it a thumbs up, but I don't think it was as good as the second volume. My only complaint is about the almost literal deux ex machina ending. I have no difficulty swallowing the "gods" that underlie the trilogy's premises - intelligent organisms that look a lot like asteroids, and that they might be conspiratorial beings with their own agenda. I had no trouble with genetically engineered intelligent dinosaurs or that giants squids were the first intelligent species on Earth.

No, what bothered me was introducing, in the very last volume and without a hint in the previous ones as far as I could tell, the idea that planets also host similar "gods" and that these gods are able to mess with our heads. Furthermore, it was never clear to me why the gods living in planets would want to make people protective of the gods living in asteroids. It would make a lot more sense to me if they turned their intelligent inhabitants into environmentalists. It is on this very point that the end of the third novel turns. I can see why a series of books whose main characters are immortal would have to end with their executions - I've sort of been expecting it since the first volume - but the crime for which they are executed, and the reason why the sentence was carried out, fits terribly poorly with the rest. A book that seems to spend most of its time focusing on the idea of human empowerment seems to end by telling us that humans are powerless against the gods.

The next book I finished off was one that I purchased on a discount rack at a bookstore on the American army base at Schinnen, Netherlands a couple of weeks ago. (One of these days, there will be a post about my visit to the American PX at Schinnen, but I'm holding onto it for the moment.) The book was The Telling by Ursula Le Guin, her first Hainish novel in some 20 years. Again, I have to give a qualified thumbs-up. There were a lot of elements I liked, like the world where a radical capitalist revolution has established a state as dehumanising as anything in the old communist world, complete with its "producer/consumers" in the model of the New Soviet Man. I also rather liked the ideas behind the Telling itself, a religion of sorts more on the Confucian model than the Christian one that the new progress-oriented state has driven underground.

I do have some issues with the book, in particular its very one-sided treatment of the "Corporation State" and its enemies. Le Guin does make the point that Aka - the planet most of the novel is set on - has made immense technological progress in a very short time, but that seems to count for little to her in the face of its more oppressive aspects. The Telling and its adherents are described in only the best terms, without any shading as far as I could tell. When the story's protagonist - an Earth-born linguist and anthropologist - finally discovers the reason the state hates its history and traditions so much, it is ultimately very unedifying.

We are told that one of the ethnic groups on Aka - presumably the wealthiest and most powerful before the revolution - had a social structure in which the Telling was linked to economic and political power. According to the explanation given to her, that ethnic group was the source of the corrupted religion that was abolished by the new regime. This explanation puts me in mind of Christian theologians and historians who believe that the early church was inherently less corrupt than the Christian institutions that survive today. There are people who think that it was either Paul the Apostle or the spread of Christianity among pagan Europeans that corrupted the faith. Alternatively, I have heard Muslims say that the Taliban are a product of the barbarian nature of Afghanistan's Pashtuns. In other corners of the world, there are Hindus who will tell you that India's castes are the fault of some invader, or that Confucianism is corrupted by Taoist and Buddhist influence (or the other way around.) This sort of explanation is common enough, and in many cases may even be true in some sense, but it does not excuse a religion of a history of oppression. It only suggests that there might be another, less oppressive form of that religion.

I am bothered by the appearance that Le Guin wants us to accept such a simple explanation. I would have liked to have learned that at the time of the revolution, the Telling really was an oppressive force. I would have liked to have seen at least one character who viewed the Corporate State as a mixed bag instead of as an unmitigated good or bad. I would have found it more credible and much more interesting to conclude that it was a good thing that the revolution swept away a corrupt religion, even though it was wrong cut people off from their past and drive their traditions underground.

On that count, MacLeod does a lot better. The anti-hero of the Engines of Light novels is a politically astute Russian officer named Volkov, who, as the second novel ends, is off to Nova Babylonia, the wealthy bright core of the Second Sphere and some 100 light-years away from the setting of the second novel. There, it is his intention to precipitate a social revolution in order to overthrow the arbitrary rule of the gods.

He succeeds, and the state that comes from it has been portrayed with the successes and failures of the Soviet Union in mind. On the one hand, it looks a bit like the state one might have imagined Lenin founding had he lived. It lacks the arbitrary brutality of Stalin's rule and its borders are not so closed that no one can escape. Yet, it is hardly a paradise either. There is ample evidence of economic inefficiency and coercive propaganda. Like the Soviet Union's brutal industrialisation under Stalin, it is both horrible and necessary - a response to an enemy held to be so dangerous that it justifies doing whatever is necessary.

Unlike Stalin's Russia, that enemy doesn't exactly materialise, or at least doesn't do so in the expected manner. As bad as the "Modern Regime" is, it is still a mixed blessing. That point is laid out explicitly in an exchange between one of the major characters, Lydia, a member of Nova Balylonia's former bourgeoisie, and Gaius, a spy for the smaller neighbouring capitalist state, Illyria.

"[Volkov] gave us back our pride," [Lydia] said, "He showed us we could be a great people, that we didn't need to limit ourselves to what the saurs would accept. All but a few of them cringe before the gods. Volkov said we can go out to space ourselves, face and fight the aliens, and deflect anything the gods care to throw at us. The saurs went away, they stopped sharing their skiffs and the krakens stopped sharing their ships. New Babylon built rockets. For the first time in 10,000 years, people stopped travelling to the stars - but for the first time they actually visited the planets of this system. The saurs stopped healing us, and thousands upon thousands died in plagues. Maybe millions on the planet as a whole. The Modern Regime built hospitals, invented medicines, expanded health services to fill the gap. We lost the trade with the saurs and everything they produced in their manufacturing plant. The Modern Regime built factories. The provinces broke away under the burden of Volkov's space defence taxes - and what are they now? They're nations, like yours, independent centres of development, with the capacity- if not yet the will - to build rockets of their own. You have no idea, [Gaius], no idea at all how much of a triumph it is for Volkov that I'm sitting here talking to you - gods above, an Illyrian, uh, businessman of all things! Without Volkov, Illyria would would still be a sleepy agricultural province, with nothing to sell but sheep, and a dozy patrician on the Senate of Nova Babylonia, who left every hard problem to his saur scribe!"

[Gaius:] "We had to fight New Babylon to get independence!"

"Exactly," said Lydia, "And my friends here" - she waved vaguely at the now-growing crowd in the bar, a rabble who looked like artists or musicians or criminals - "who talk about the glories of Nova Babylonia are right - I remember it, and I loved it too. But we can't go back to it, and we shouldn't want to."

Seeing the new Prague set this in an interesting context. Most people forget that with the exception of Czechoslovakia, and even then only in a part of the Czech half, the formerly socialist nations of eastern Europe were very poor before socialism. Russia was the worst of the lot. Before 1917, it was poor and ill-led even by eastern European standards. Yet, it was backwards Russia that gave the west seventy years of fear. The Soviet Union's popularity as an example in the third world derived in large part from its very real successes transforming itself from a joke of a nation into a superpower. It had pulled itself up from poverty, played the leading role in the destruction of far wealthier and more technologically advanced Nazi Germany, and built an empire - and they did this on their own.

It is of course true that many other very poor nations grew far wealthier in the same period outside the socialist block, but behind each of those successes is a fairly large sum of foreign capital, and for each one there are a daunting number of failures. It made a difference in the world that an eastern European nation managed to pull itself up and make itself into something. People forget the disdain eastern Europe was once held in.

It is unfortunate to see in Prague how unindependent the post-socialist Czech Republic seems to be. Czech culture seems to have been replaced by a sort of transplanted generic western-Europeanism, reified as a commodity and deprived of its historical basis. There, you see the empowering revolution evoked by MacLeod in reverse, almost a parallel of Le Guin's Aka. Present-day Prague seems to have had no history between 1938 and 1992. Medieval Prague is alive and well and flourishes in the tourist quarter. Austro-Hungarian Prague is also alive, although only in the form of iconic figures pulled from their real history - German and Jewish names celebrated in a nation that has destroyed its ethnically mixed past. The pre-WWII independent Czechoslovakia is also remembered by odd monuments and plaques.

But, much like The Telling, Prague's more recent past has been swept away, replaced by casinos and international brand names. The city made Le Guin's descriptions of Aka's garish commercialism that much more alive. While the excellent communist-era public transit system still sweeps people to and from their Stalin Gothic paneleky, the only clearly marked reminder of Prague's 40-odd years of single party socialism was the Museum of Communism, an exhibition built by an American - the "bagel king of Prague" - and housed in a casino above a McDonald's.

I strongly doubt it reflects most people's memories of communism. It was as if the Mises Foundation had built a museum on communism. The first sign of trouble was right past the entrance: a quote from Stalin. One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic. The context was intended to condemn Stalin for this remark - the one simple, honest, true thing I can think of the paranoid bastard ever saying.

If I have any readers who doubt the truth of this particular quote, consider the difference in press coverage between the rescue of Jessica Lynch during the recent war in Iraq and the entire coverage of civilian casualties in Iraq. One is an individual, personified, given a name, a face and a concerned family. And the others? In the press coverage I have seen, they are just statistics. 5000 dead, 10,000 dead... You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs, you know? As far as I know, only the Guardian broke with this impersonal treatment, featuring brief biographies of some of the individual Iraqi dead.

It went from there to a truly gross misunderstanding of Karl Marx - who receives brief mention and a good deal of blame at the beginning of the exhibition. The most telling bit was blaming Karl Marx for the collectivisation of Czech agricultural because he neglected to talk about agriculture much in his works. This shortcoming is attributed to Marx "not thinking highly" of agriculture. Good Lord! Marx thought the peasantry was going to be destroyed by capitalism, which, in every developed capitalist country, it ultimately was. It's true that Marx didn't think very highly of the rural peasant life, and I can hardly blame him. I'm all of one generation off the farm myself, and both of my parents hated agricultural work.

It goes downhill from there. I can handle the bad translations (the English has been written by an amateur translator), the misdirection (talking, in the abstract, about how the foreign currency exchange system worked, and using the example of a prostitute who sleeps with western men as the example), the very business-oriented perspective on communism's problems, and the ability to simultaneously imply that communism had no popular support in Czechoslovakia after 1948 and that many Czechs supported "socialism with a human face" in 1968. In fact, the museum glosses over Dubcek and 1968, highlighting the Russian tanks and the two kids who immolated themselves in protest, but never even using the words "socialism with a human face." The exhibit concludes with a statement that "communism could not be reformed ." Through an unexplained leap, Dubcek's failure is then used to explain Gorbachev's failure to reform communism in the 1980's.

Those things don't necessarily condemn a museum. Museums should be like newspapers: biased and up-front about it. If you go to a museum dedicated to a painter, you won't find the people who hated his work given equal time. What condemns this museum is its complete lack of insight into life under the ancien régime. It offered nothing you couldn't have learned from American anti-communists in the 80's, nothing new, nothing that even explains the events it endeavours to chronicle except the most simplistic equation of communism with bad things. All it had was a lot of old pre-1992 memorabilia, some photos, anti-communist propaganda postcards (I might have bought good reproductions of actual propaganda posters from the period), and a bit of dumbed-down, poorly translated reading, separated from any real historical context. It certainly had nothing to offer worth 180 crowns. I don't know what children in Prague learn about their country's history, but I hope that museum isn't representative of it.

This brings me to Benjamin Kuras' Is there life on Marx? I bought the book because after reading the first chapter in the Charles University bookstore it seemed witty and insightful. For example, in the opening Kuras recounts the following story, which he declares is true:

[A] BBC team are working on a documentary about Karl Marx. They succeed in finding an old man who, as a teenager, used to do evening cleaning at the British Library in the days when Karl Marx was known to study and write there.

"Karl Marx, Karl Marx, sounds familiar enough."

And when shown a Marx picture:

"Yes, of course, I remember him. Used to sit at this desk here, piles of books around, scribbling like mad, never ready to leave at closing time. Had to be pushed out every evening. Then one evening, long before closing time, he suddenly jumps up and yells: I've done it! It's finished! Then packed his papers, off he went, and no one has head of him since."

Unfortunately, it deteriorates after the first chapter. Kuras attacks the new Czech regime as composed of the same people as the old Czech regime - that the communist bosses have simply transformed themselves into businessmen and machine politicians. He offers a number of tales of eastern Europe that lend support to the idea, and his reporting of the frauds perpetuated on the people of eastern Europe appears to be spot on.

I've heard variations on this analysis enough times to suspect that it's largely true, but Kuras has nothing to offer in response. I am of two minds on this subject. On the one hand, there is a part of me that would like to answer, well, what did you expect? They are the same Czechs as before, why would you think a different group of people would rise to power under the new rules? And on the other hand, I'd like to say that it isn't much of a revolution when all that changes is that the icons of old socialism get replaced with the Golden Arches. Maybe they should have taken another shot at "socialism with a human face."

That, however, is not where Kuras wants to go. Despite being an ethnic Czech himself, although by all appearances London-based since his early youth, Kuras is pretty critical of the Czechs as a people. He complains that they are lazy and shiftless, reliant on the state, and expecting the EU to bail them out. He offers only a single anecdote in support of this case. Kuras repeats - in a book written in 1999 - that the EU will never admit the Czech Republic. On this count, he was by all appearances dead wrong.

The part that really irritated me, where Kuras and I irrevocably go our separate ways, is the chapter where he extols the Czechs to adopt the Protestant work ethic. A lot of nonsense gets bandied about over the Protestant work ethic these days, generally by people with little belief in religion themselves or a personal history of hard work, and I don't think anyone who really believes that it is the key to national development can be taken seriously. Kuras even contrasts this to a supposed traditional Catholic belief in community values.

I would like a true believer in such things to explain to me how Belgium and the Netherlands can have comparable standards of living when one is the very source of the Protestant work ethic, and the other a nearly completely Catholic country. I would also like an explanation of why Belgians keep telling me that they are very individualistic by comparison to their communalist Protestant neighbours to the north. Honestly, I really don't understand how so many people can believe their countries to be paragons of individualism or community solidarity. I've become convinced that this entire line of thinking is utter nonsense.

Until fairly recently, the whole idea was something of an embarrassment to Weber scholars, and no one who mattered took it very seriously. Economic problems are not about psychoanalysis, and ethical standards have never proven very effective barriers to corruption when no mechanism of enforcement exists. Kuras's chapter on the Protestant work ethic is a real stomach-turner. He seems to imagine eastern Europe to be in the grip of some sort of post-totalitarian stress, and that they really need a good dose of capitalist values. I suspect the prostitute I met on the street in Prague understands capitalist values pretty well and thinks herself quite self-reliant. Certainly she is taking responsibility for her own income.

That brings me to the common theme of these three books: The ambiguity of history and the importance of coping with it. That means being suspicious of histories with clear good guys or viewing events as unmixed blessings and curses. It is with that in mind that I want to discuss my last vacation novel: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

[I did promise to review Orwell's Coming up for air here too, but I realised that I had nothing very interesting to say about it.]

My wife had dibs on the book and finished a couple of days after we got to Prague. It's pretty easy reading, so despite its length I finished it before we left the city.

The new Harry Potter has been described as the Empire Strikes Back of the series. We discover that Harry has a dark side. For the most part, it's not much of a dark side. He's moody, irritable, overimpressed with his own powers, sometimes a jerk, and there is just the faintest hint that he might be horny. Frankly, I'm darker than that every morning before I get my coffee. There is a bit more to it. We see that Harry has a destiny, and it's not a terribly pleasant one.

I suppose by now all of civilisation knows that the new Harry Potter novel ends with the death of a moderately important character. Harry blames himself for the death, but then finds out that someone he trusts is still more responsible. Harry discovers that someone has been withholding something very important from him about his own past, believing it to be for his own good. The tragedy at the end of the novel springs directly from that.

My first thought upon finishing was of George Bush and Tony Blair, and that there may be lesson for them in Harry Potter about lying to the public to sell a war that they (I presume) believed in. But, I suspect that Blair doesn't get to read a lot of novels these days, and one is tempted to suggest that it might be above Dubya's reading level. However, the real lesson of the Order of the Phoenix is very much about ambiguity, history and truth. Harry finds out that his father and his godfather were jerks in their youths, just as Harry sometimes is, and that among those they tormented is the hated professor Snape.

That is the lesson I hope some of Harry Potter's hundreds of millions of readers take from this novel. The world does not divide neatly into good things and bad things, and the proof is in any honest study of the past. Not knowing the full truth about events is dangerous, both to those ignorant of it and to those around them.

Update: Ye gods! The typos, the dropped words, the stylistic problems... Usually I'm a better editor than this.

Sunday, July 13, 2003
The New World Order looks a lot like the Old World Order

Via Kevin Batcho (who I'm glad to see is back to blogging), I direct you to today's The Independent:

Blair seeks new powers to attack rogue states

Tony Blair is appealing to the heads of Western governments to agree a new world order that would justify the war in Iraq even if Saddam Hussein's elusive weapons of mass destruction are never found.

It would also give Western powers the authority to attack any other sovereign country whose ruler is judged to be inflicting unnecessary suffering on his own people.

Now, it seems to me that this bears a much closer resemblance to the 19th century world order than the one that was supposed to be established in the aftermath of WWII. If this article reflects Blair's intent accurately, it means that some group of elect states will be able to simply intervene whenever they feel some other nation isn't doing what they think it ought to.

There would actually be conditions under which I would agree to this: The group of states empowered to make that decision should include all nations able to meet clear criteria that would be applied by reasonably impartial judges, the criteria should not include having lots of money, and states lose their say in decisions if they fail to meet those criteria. Lastly, I would want to see clear criteria for when those states agree to take action against a sovereign government. Would it require a majority vote? Or perhaps a super majority of 2/3rds or 3/4ers? Or nations representing at least half of the member populations?

But that is surely not what Blair wants. The Iraq war would not have happened had it been subject to such terms, and I suspect that the "elect" who get to make those decisons means little more than the current occupant of the White House. Establishing an international authority able to enforce some sort of code on nations means creating mechanisms for overseeing that authority and requires the states that take on such powers to obey the rules they set out for others. If America is to be empowered to judge whether another nation is democratic, then other folks get to judge the fairness of America's elections too. If Saddam Hussein can be removed for taking away the liberties of the Iraqi people and causing their poverty, then it has to be possible to levy the same judgement on George W. Bush.

Without a law applicable to all, this new world order Blair is calling for nothing more than reviving the long dead "civilising mission" of European colonialism, perhaps expanded slightly to include a few rich Asian countries.