Saturday, April 28, 2007

Verse on Worse

Comment is Free on Why there is no reason for no rhyme
Time for a rhyme
The US Academy of Poets sends out a poem a day - but why do none rhyme? Because neither rhyme nor reason excites modern bards, it seems.
April 27, 2007
The American Academy of Poets is just coming to the end of its national poetry month. Richly endowed, the Academy is trying to reintroduce poetry into the American mainstream and one of its chosen weapons is a Poem A Day, emailed to members and those interested.

For disclosure, I should mention I'm a member of the Academy - you get free books! - and during the last election boomed my Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative heroic epic "Bushowulf" down in the Bowery Poets Cafe.

I've clicked on each day for my daily dose of the muse, and became more and more astonished and amazed. Not one poem so far rhymes. In fact a lot of them don't even scan in any significant way, let alone alliterate. I think I see the flaw in the campaign.

Today (April 27) is apparently the 340th anniversary of John Milton getting ten quid for Paradise Lost, which of course was not rhymed either - but it surely has rhythm if you read it aloud.

Call me prejudiced, but while people have a first amendment right to whinge in prose if they want to, I have the right to say it is not poetry when they do so badly.

It can be poetical, but lyric poetry was originally meant to be sung to a lyre, not intoned lugubriously. And one of the points of having rhyme and rhythm is that they make poems memorable as well as musical.

Some of the daily poems are, in fact, not so bad. Others I would happily ditch for the verse in a greeting card, whose makers at least acknowledge that poetry has rules, as well as sentiments.

I recently bought a disk and book of poems to try to keep my three-year old engaged in the car. He loves them, and insists on scrutinizing the pages as the CD plays: but most of all he loves Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," Ogden Nash's "Isabel", and Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening", William Blake's "Tyger", and similar metrical exercises declaimed with feeling.

He insists we fast-forward past the entirely effable effusions of political correctness. I don't see this as a sign of immaturity. On the contrary, it is in the valuable tradition of the little boy questioning the emperor's new clothes.

It is the memorability that has to count for something. I suspect insofar as any of us remember poetry, we are far more likely to remember what George Orwell called a "good bad poet" like Kipling, or Tennyson, or TS Eliot than the more ethereal products of the day.
The original, British, version of "The Office" quotes the civic anthem of its location, John Betjeman's poem:

"Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

"Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath."

It's less poetical, but much more memorable than strangely intoned musings on eternity. Indeed, they would be better to remember the lyric in the poetry and put out some Bob Dylan or Lennon and McCartney lyrics, (see, that word again) if they want to persuade people that poetry is indeed already part of our lives and not something tedious to be extraneously injected.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Empires - the Big Ones

Well OK, I posted the link for this in December, and there were some complaints that it was hard to get, which is a shame because the illustrations and layout were really good. But what the Hell, as we witness the accelerated decline and fall of the American Empire, I couldn't resist posting the full text.Small Blogs, small minded bloggers, that's what I say!


" Decadence and moral turpitude are not necessarily accurate auguries for imperial success or failure. Rome’s expansion did not take place during a golden age of Republican virtue, but rather came accompanied by a spectacular explosion of Republican vice."



One can almost apply the children’s game of rock, paper, scissors to the end of Rome. Did that world collapse when people began building with oak instead of marble? Did a shortage of paper for bureaucrats wrap up the world of antiquity? Did new Hunnic technology in the shape of much-improved bows and arrows bring down the republic?

And that indeterminacy about the end of an empire applies equally to the question of its very existence. Is there an American empire? And if so, is it falling? What might bring America to its knees—dependence on Middle Eastern oil and Asian computers? Modernist architecture or megadeficits? Unlike the case with Rome, which had to wait several centuries for barbarian “apologists” to celebrate its otherwise universally lamented passing, the putative fall of the American empire has critics worldwide exulting in anticipation. Many Americans, on the other hand, are bemused at the suggestion that their country ever had an imperial role at all.
The Roman Empire inevitably shapes not only how we view history, but also how we look at the present and future. The Roman self assessment as the sole, legitimate civilized empire surrounded by “lesser breeds without the law,” as Rudyard Kipling intoned in “Recessional” (1897), can be found deep in European tradition, and even deeper in its Anglo-American offshoot. Although the Roman Empire rather pitifully cowered behind the city walls of Constantinople (and a few enclaves elsewhere along the Mediterranean coast) by its official end in 1453, the fall of that city and the death of its last emperor, Constantine Paleaologus, reverberated throughout Europe. The victorious Ottoman Sultan Suleiman paid tribute to the potency of his victim’s title by usurping it, and styling himself Kaiser-i-Rum, caesar of Rome.

But nothing becomes an empire like its fall. We look upon its works with a sense of despair that such a mighty social edifice could fall so completely. Whether it is the Anglo-Saxon elegist on the ruins of the Roman city of Bath (“giants made it”), or Edward Gibbon “musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter,” or even Isaac Asimov’s reflections on history in his Foundation trilogy, the fall of Rome is behind the almost omnipresent Ozymandian nostalgia that permeates Western intellectual life. Even Tolkien’s imaginary Middle-earth is a wistful echo of post-imperial collapse.

Although many of us—myself included—share in this fascination, one has to admit how odd it is that our generally accepted apogee of civilization was in fact a military dictatorship based on brutal aggression, conquest, and slave trading, whose most memorable entertainments

were forcing people to kill each other or setting wild beasts to dismember them in front of large audiences. Why do we remain perennially enthralled by the Roman legacy? Charles Maier, the author of Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors, speaks of “the dirty little secret of empire”: many of us at heart are fascinated with the successful exercise of power, even if we have to drape it in the fig leaves and laurels of culture, law, and civilization. Joseph Conrad’s Marlow ambivalently describes the imperial adventure this way in the brilliant opening passage from Heart of Darkness: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only.” Needless to say, that supposedly redeeming quality of the “idea” has vexed several generations of critics. Maier refers to our fascination with contemporary manifestations of national power. This kind of power—in Latin, imperium, which Maier points out means “power and command”—usually drapes itself in the sanctity of historical precedent.

Another reason for our fascination is the eminently Orwellian one: the successful exercise of power rewrites history. Rome so thoroughly controlled its literary present that it has successfully dominated future perspectives—and with few exceptions, the barbarian point of view has not come down to us. Literary merits aside, this might be comparable to a future generation learning about the current American superpower strictly from Fox Television docudrama transcripts. Even as nationalist Germans in their 19th-century Teutonic nostalgia raised monuments to Hermann, the victor over Augustus’s legions, everything they knew of him was as Arminius, from the Roman histories. Despite such völkisch recovered memories, Emperor Wilhelm II took the Roman title caesar—Kaiser—in emulation of the people who spent a millennium in combat with his Germanic forbears. And it was Latin that they learned in German gymnasiums, not Gothic.

Peter Heather’s book is a refreshing way to look at Rome—from the barbarian point of view. His previous works have focused on the Goths, whose arrival marked the beginning of the end for the empire, albeit, as he makes clear, that was not their original intention. He thus avoids the reflexive view of “Romans good, barbarians bad” that permeates classicist perceptions. “I have no truck with the idea (originating with the Romans themselves of course) that the Roman Empire represented a higher order of society, after whose demise the only possible way to go was downwards,” he declares. He also avoids the common Anglo-Saxon perception that the curtain came down in 410 CE, when Alaric sacked

Rome and Honorius allegedly pulled Roman forces out of Britain. There were men and women born that year in Western Europe who died of old age, considering themselves Romans and living in an essentially Roman polity.

Declines and falls are usually retrospective definitions, and—apart from the perennial feeling, attested through history, that the younger generation is always in the process of going to the dogs—they are not always so apparent to contemporaries as they are afterward to systemizing historians with points to make. Gibbon, taking his cue from earlier polemicists, saw decadence and soft living as among the causes of the fall of Rome in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788). Paradoxically, he saw an excess of Christianity as a major dynamic, while far more numerous Christian commentators saw the collapse as punishment for insufficient faith. Gibbon also saw a long decline preceding the fall. In fact, recent historical analysis such as Heather’s suggests that the fall was not so inevitable—and that it was actually precipitated by a series of foolish imperial decisions that exacerbated economic and military changes. Heather, Henri Pirenne, Julia Smith, and others also suggest that for many people, possibly a majority, the Dark Ages were not quite as dark as classicists have persuaded us.

On the other hand, Morris Berman, who has written of our culture’s impending doom before in The Twilight of American Culture (2000), has now stepped up the urgency of his analysis: the Dark Ages have already befallen America, presaging the imperial fall. His jeremiad berates fast food, Disneyland, modernist architecture, automobile-driven urban planning, and social paranoia. This catalog is convincing enough, and it echoes what many critics of contemporary American society have been saying for some time. But the biggest problem of all, as Berman sees it, is U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which he identifies as the “linchpin of the American downfall.” This echoes earlier sentiments by such historians as Pirenne who, writing on the eve of World War II, saw the advent of Arab power in the Mediterranean as the real terminal point for Roman civilization in Western Europe.

While Berman accurately charts the disconnect between the economic, diplomatic, and social power of America and its ability to build and maintain its empire, despite the ample historiographic precedent to support his thesis, he is not on firm ground about the enervating influence of decadence and impoverished culture. Sad to say, decadence and moral turpitude are not necessarily accurate auguries for imperial success or failure. Rome’s expansion did not take place during a golden age of Republican virtue, but rather came accompanied by a spectacular explosion of Republican vice. Corruption, predatory looting, savagery, and indeed conspicuous consumption characterized the Roman Empire during its most expansive imperial phase.
In addition, since it was the senatorial class who wrote the histories, one can easily forget that the early emperors were champions of the plebs against the aristocracy, and consolidated their following with generous distributions of imperial loot. While some Romans clustered to hear Ovid or Virgil declaim their verses during the “Golden Age,” far more of them—including the poets and statesmen—turned up at the Coliseum to watch violent, bloody spectacles. Moralists quite often miss the point that a successful imperial mindset precludes culture and morality as we usually accept them, involving as it does the invasion and conquering of foreign countries— not to mention the subsequent enslavement and exploitation of their peoples.

However, the innate hypocrisy of empire is that imperial powers usually claim to represent a superior morality to “the other,” the so-called barbarians beyond the frontier who become a perverse justification for imperial power when they react ungratefully to attempts to dominate them. There are certainly echoes of that now in America’s lonely hegemony as the world’s sole superpower. Berman quotes Joseph Schumpeter’s heavy irony, “Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors,” and points out the parallels to a massively armed and preemptively aggressive America. In “Waiting for the Barbarians” (1904), the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy explains how the concept of the Other helps define an empire. He describes messengers arriving at the imperial court to report on the disappearance of the threat:

And now, what’s going to happen to
us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

In much of the American foreign policy establishment, there was similar consternation at the fall of the Soviet Union. The communists were, like Cavafy’s barbarians, “a kind of solution.” With the disappearance of Communism, the entity of “Islamic fundamentalism,” more recently refined as “Islamofascism,” has begun to fill the gap left by barbarians and Reds alike. As Berman sees it, our imminent imperial collapse has as much to do with the clumsiness of our response to the Arab region as it does with any inherent threat from the Arabs themselves. Berman likens current U.S. policy in the Middle East to “a man with a headache convinced [that] he can make it go away by repeatedly hitting himself over the head with a hammer.”

Charles Maier discusses at length the question of what precisely constitutes an empire, and he considers previous examples in order to assess the exact status of present-day American power. One salient point of comparison involves the notion of territorial frontiers—and the imperial need to protect such borders against those perceived to threaten them. But the reality of exercising imperial power is usually more complicated. He sees the American empire as having “multiple zones of control.” These zones are “hegemonic” in Europe and Latin America—potentially direct, for example, in the Caribbean, and more or less covert in the places where the CIA exerts control by coup or proxy military occupation. The fuzzy forms of this kind of control are part of the Anglo-Saxon political tradition: at its height, the self-proclaimed British Empire had colonies, dependencies, dominions, mandates, and trucial states (those areas where the crown claimed to act in an advisory capacity only). Even in India, half the princely states were nominally independent. But no one was in any doubt that in the end, London called the shots. While British (and French) powers later supported modest efforts for the welfare of their imperial subjects, Washington is absolved of any obligation by the lack of a direct constitutional connection to—or acknowledgement of—any of its foreign dominions. Regarding the United States’ variegated package of command and control, Maier provocatively suggests that “whether we deem it empire may well depend on its duration.”

Some of the most interesting parts of Maier’s book cover the brusque way in which Washington self-righteously dismantled the twin pillars, political and financial, of its own British predecessor’s imperial house, with a view to inheriting the assets. Within two years of VE Day, Washington made its dollar loan conditional on London making the pound convertible. The resulting run on the Bank of England, followed two years later by devaluation, marked the beginning of a terminal decline of the pound as a reserve currency, and of the financial power that had underwritten British imperial might for two centuries. As Maier and others have shown, this supplanting of a rival and building an alternative empire was cloaked in anti-imperialist rhetoric, just as Rome and Macedonia depicted themselves as fighters against Asian despotism. In the face of less acceptable alternatives—such as Russian hegemony—the British reluctantly acquiesced in their own replacement as an imperial power and went remarkably quietly into that good night. As a palliative, they “built an entire postwar foreign policy on their own belief that they really do enjoy a special relationship [with the U.S.] based on Oxford hospitality and a willingness to commit manpower to common military efforts.”

There are good reasons for the continuing British influence on thoughts about American empire. Not only were they English-speaking, but almost as soon as the British had an acknowledged empire, they were declining it along with Latin nouns in their elite public schools. Rudyard Kipling, bard of empire, was also the Cassandra who, informed with Rome’s example, foresaw how it would end in “Recessional”:

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Despite such forewarnings, the British Empire, like Rome, showed a reluctance to turn the lights out as the end came. It persisted in an increasingly metaphysical form as both nominal subjects and rulers continued a set of polite not-quite fictions, but not-quite facts, either, to disguise the real decline. In 1914, London assumed with little challenge that the British declaration of war applied to the whole empire, including the selfgoverning dominions, and while in 1939 that was still generally true, De Valera’s Eire—still technically part of the empire—remained neutral while several other dominions declared war in their own right. India and Pakistan could both remain Commonwealth members even as they fought wars with each other, both with generals speaking pukka British accents. Australia, technically ruled by the Queen, could fight in Vietnam, while British Premier Harold Wilson resisted LBJ’s bullying and kept Britain out. Queen Elizabeth has no fewer than 16 ambassadors representing her various Commonwealth avatars in the United Nations.

By the time of the Falklands, even the old white dominions were sympathetic bystanders when Margaret Thatcher dispatched her hastily cobbled-together armada to teach the South Americans a lesson. With the exception of such atavistic blasts, the last trump for the old empire was Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s financially motivated decision to pull British forces in 1956 from east of Suez. But the ghosts linger. What will future archeologists make of the 21st-century coins from around the globe that still show the Queen’s head—even in the republic of Fiji. In effect, the British Commonwealth, until late in the 20th century, gave Victoria’s empire a shadowy half-life, very reminiscent of Western Europe in the years that were once mistakenly known as the Dark Ages. The global dispersion of the Queen’s head on currency could almost persuade future archaeologists that the British Empire outshone the American imperium into the 21st century, which indicates the pitfalls of an overly formalistic approach to empire.

While the British tried to pretend to an empire even when it had gone, the United States has carefully disclaimed any such thing even when it manifestly has been and is now an imperial power. Both Maier and Berman wrestle with the quantum indeterminacy of the American empire, and with its anti-imperialist rhetoric, which, as they both point out, so often involved a determination to break down and supplant other empires (that were more honest in their self-description). Like the British in many parts of Africa and India, the United States has usually used indirect rule—but it has practiced imperium with gusto. Despite Teddy Roosevelt’s enthusiastic espousal of the more bumptious aspects of Kiplingism and the “white man’s burden,”—the latter inspired by the U.S. conquest of the Philippines— Kipling’s reflections on the penalties and perils of the imperial adventure tend to be overlooked.

There is a big problem with this American denial of empire and history. Without an honest look at American campaigns, both overt and covert, we are condemned to living in a perpetually whitewashed present that leaves little room for thinking seriously about the future. The wars of conquest, the genocide of native American populations, and the repopulation that took much of Mexico, or indeed the Philippines, may have been euphemized as Manifest Destiny, but until Americans understand that it looked then and looks now like imperial aggression to the defeated—or, indeed, to bystanders—they will not really be able to understand how much of the world perceives the United States of America. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this imperial abnegation on the part of the indisputably imperial power of the age is that it makes it all the more difficult to detect signs of the end. As Berman notes, in some detail, there are clear signs of imperial overreach for a nation that spends half the world’s military budget—and has to borrow to do it. In the end, Rome simply could not afford the huge military machine it had developed, and its attempts to maintain it led to increasingly desperate gambles. The parallels are obvious to all but a society that has Panglossianism as its state religion.

Indeed, Heather’s book shows just how much of Rome’s collapse was fiscal as it was military. He does so in a lively and engaging style calculated to annoy the more abstruse scholastics, both of the Classicist and the Modern sociological schools. He points out that while the provincial elites had wholeheartedly adopted Romanness, most of the population lived at barely subsistence level: “In political terms, the number of people benefiting from Empire’s existence was small.” In fact, that was one reason for the wholehearted adoption of imperial standards by the provincial elites. The massive military machine existed to put physical surety behind legal guarantees of landowners’ property rights. In the third and fourth centuries, the need to maintain that military apparatus led to a centralization of government, and landowners with ambitions increasingly realized them in the bureaucracy of empire. As with China and, later, Britain, the qualifications for social and fiscal promotion were an expensively acquired knowledge of the classics, and a familiarity with a Latin that was already archaic, compared with the vernacular versions spoken in the camps and streets.

Unconsciously emulating Rome’s imperial practice, the reformed “public schools” of the British high imperial era offered scholarships “on merit,” meaning proficiency in Latin and Greek, which presupposed an expensive and therefore exclusive grounding in them. Similarly, the costs for citizens like St. Augustine of such an expensive education assured an oligarchy with some internal features of meritocracy.

Heather points out the degree to which the empire generated changes in its neighbors. Trade, subsidies to tribal chiefs, and the need for slaves and military manpower transferred techniques and capital over the lines. With few exceptions, the barbarians who came over the border had more in common with Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande than with the archetypal forces of barbarism and chaos that lurk in the back of our historical imagination. They wanted a place in the sun, and usually they could negotiate their immigration on mutually acceptable terms with the imperial authorities.

By the end of the fourth century, their desire to get the walls of the empire behind them was greatly exacerbated by the arrival of the Huns, a tribe of barbarians from central Asia. Heather concludes that the Huns’ new technology made the difference. Of course, in any contest between settled peasants and nomad pastoralists, in the short term the latter have major advantages—they can always ride away, leaving the farmers dead in the smoking ruins of their villages. To that, the Huns added a bow that was not only composite, but designed specifically for mounting an assault while riding full speed on horseback. It was longer than earlier horse bows, but asymmetrical so that the lower half would not tangle in the horse and its accoutrements. A small historical detail, perhaps, but one that forced many a Goth to cross the Danube in search of asylum rather than loot. (In fact, the looting was done mostly by a local Roman commander named Lupicinus while Emperor Valens’s army was busy to the east, fighting the Parthians.)

Former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali once noted that neither the Roman Empire nor the United States had any patience for diplomacy, which is “perceived by an imperial power as a waste of time and prestige and a sign of weakness.” Heather suggests it was as much a failure of Roman diplomacy to adapt to changed circumstances that led to the end, \as it was of military power. The peace pact that followed the disastrous (for the Romans) battle of Adrianople, in which the mistreated Goths successfully took their revenge, was as important for the precedent as for the effects. The Goths now provided armies and not just individual recruits. Even so, Heather points out, although “the traditional integrity of the Roman state had been breached,” Rome was “still a long way from imperial collapse.” In fact, the empire struck back vigorously and often, for more than a century. If Gibbon is taken as a guide and we accept the Byzantine claims to succession, that century becomes more than a millennium. Rejecting “the old game of singling out a single date for unique significance,” Heather sees in the years before the deposition of the last Western emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476 CE “an extraordinary rush of events that saw the Empire go from somewhere to nowhere in less than a decade,” which he considers the culmination of elements set in motion by Hunnic pressure a century before.

More than military defeat, the invasions eroded the resource and tax base for the Roman state and reduced its flexibility and ability to respond. Heather points out that patriotism was a negotiable quality for the landed elite, who rapidly came to terms with the new military commanders, usually “barbarians” who moved in. On the other hand, archaeological evidence suggests that the late empire, far from being decadent, overtaxed, and unproductive, was in fact enjoying comparative prosperity, and agriculture was enjoying a boom.

Local Roman elite acquiescence in the barbarian takeover was easier because so little changed, particularly at first. The newly arrived tribes with their kings maintained the structures of the Roman state, in fact probably with more fiscal economy, since they lived off land allocated to them, rather than taxation as had their Roman military predecessors. Most of them even acknowledged the “sovereignty” of successive Roman emperors.

Heather concludes ringingly that Rome’s “Germanic neighbors had responded to its power in ways that the Romans could never have foreseen. There is in all this a pleasing denouement. By virtue of its unbounded aggression, Roman Imperialism was ultimately responsible for its own destruction.” However, I suspect that he has sacrificed his own balance for a memorable conclusion, albeit one that harmonizes well with Berman’s predictions for the United States.

Rome had created its successors; the enemy had indeed become us. Across Western Europe, Roman law, taxes, and education remained the basis of the society that directly succeeded actual Roman political power. The so-called barbarian successors saw themselves in Roman terms, and in most cases ended up speaking Latin.

One characteristic of late antiquity’s Latin composition is an overly ornate and easily parodied writing style, often feigning erudition, and which bears a remarkable similarity to modern academic sociological and literary-critical writing. It is sad that Julia Smith, a person of genuine erudition and with an interesting story to tell, should obscure "Europe After Rome" with the stylistic tropes of modern academia, not least since it often seems so extraneous to her content and to much of her writing. For example, “In 500 [CE] Europe was post-imperial, but not thereby post-Roman,” is a lapidary summary of the argument she shares with Heather, as compared with the sesquipedalian obviousness that says writing “encodes speech in a widely shared repertoire of visual signs that represent the sounds that combine to form words.” This would exclude Chinese pictograms, but you see the point. Occasional clunky prose aside, Smith maps with an engaging mixture of anecdote and analysis just how the early medieval age grew organically out of late antiquity without a crash, nor even much of a whimper, as societies adjusted to the new circumstances. Indeed, her panoramic view of the period shows the complexities of the cultures, which, if monetarily disadvantaged in comparison with the gold standard Roman era, still did at least an equally good job of feeding their people.

It is somewhat surprising that neither Smith—nor Heather, for that matter—refer in their works to the historian Henri Pirenne, whose book "Mohammed and Charlemagne" (1937) may inadvertently bring a cheer to the political scientist Samuel Huntington and his fellow fans of the clash-of-civilizations theory. Pirenne, whose work still provokes debate 70 years after his death, saw the disintegration of Rome not with the arrival and dominance of the northern barbarians, but with the arrival of the Muslim Arabs in the seventh century. Pirenne demonstrated that Arab control of the Mediterranean broke down the trading world of Western Europe. While the Germanic invaders became Christians, the Arabs brought their faith with them, and even if, especially in the early days, Islam looked simply like yet another Christian heresy, its fundamentalism militated against absorption. The Arabs appropriated Roman (and Greek) technology and methods, but they maintained a distinct identity that prevented even the more token acceptances of Rome’s weak authority. After the Arabs seized control of the Mediterranean, spices, paper, oil, silk, and many other previously common commodities disappeared from the records and tax rolls of the West. In a precursor of contemporary vestigial British Commonwealth ties, the Frankish kings had minted Roman coins with imperial images right up to the beginning of the seventh century. After the Arabs, they moved from the gold standard to a silver-based currency—and inscribed images of their own heads on them. “Gold resumed its place in the monetary system only when spices resumed theirs in the normal diet,” Pirenne points out. Commerce provided liquidity for an economy otherwise restricted to local subsistence with payment of dues in kind.

Pirenne even suggests that the disruption of the papyrus supply effectively halted the old Roman administration that had hitherto kept the successor kingdoms solvent. Hugely more expensive parchment and vellum were now the writing materials of choice, and they were too scarce to use for interoffice memos. A paper-dependent bureaucracy was surely heading for rapid extinction, not least since many of the commodities it was recording and taxing were also disappearing. As Smith points out, producing one volume of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History required the skins of thirty dead animals, and the Lindisfarne Gospels implied the slaughter of no fewer than 150 calves.

Insofar as the Dark Ages were dark, they may have been so because paper did not survive, and our knowledge of their time and the preceding world of antiquity depends very much on the choices that scribes and patrons made about what was worth transcribing onto more durable vellum. Apart from the Christian texts, those choices reflected the classics of elite education, which of course took the Roman self-assessment as, well, gospel. Despite Roman self-absorption, their law, literature, administrative standards, and even economic practices survived by centuries the end of direct military and political power.

Even so, the idea of “after us, darkness” remains one of the more potent imperial myths. Sadly, mere facts are unlikely to dispel such a deeply engrained and powerful metaphor.

There are many lessons from Rome particularly germane to contemporary Americans. One of the most important is that the fall of an empire is not necessarily the end of civilization. People who disagree with us, or compete with us, are not necessarily barbaric. However, 9/11 and its aftermath revealed the presence and power of a dedicated group in the United States clearly imbued with apocalyptic visions of imperial fall. Berman quotes the poet Robert Lowell to make his point about the consequences of decisions made in the name of empire “as we enter the Dark Ages in earnest”:

Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war—until the end of time to police the earth,
a ghost orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

This is a poetic but apt description of the Defense Planning Guidance (a policy statement of the U.S. Department of Defense) and the works of the Project for the New American Century, which megalomaniacally consider how to continue American military imperium in the face of declining economic power. Maier points out: “The Pax Romana, the Pax Britannica, and presumably the Pax Americana are purchased with blood in the decades of their creation and dismantling. Whether the order they guarantee in the interim is worth the intervals of violence depends on how long the period of stability lasts.” Sadly, while there may well be an Imperium Americanum, the last five years show few signs of a pax to accompany it.

The evidence from Britain—and, indeed, from fifth-century Rome— would suggest that the majority of Americans will take some time to notice that their day has been and already gone. Indeed, the empire will fall with many Americans never admitting that it ever existed, even though they will certainly notice the difference. To the influential, consciously imperial minority in the United States that revels in its power, Maier cautions that

for all the rhetoric of a “burden,” it is often psychologically fulfilling for those who run it and provides a good living for those who justify it. It is not easy to give it up or to see one’s larger-than-life international status reduced to the mundane distributive issues of the post-imperial state. Nonetheless, as the British and the Dutch have learned, and as Americans shall eventually have to as well, there can be a rewarding civic existence once the hegemonic or imperial hour has passed. •

Books discussed in this essay:
Click on their titles in the left hand column to buy

Dark Ages America:The Final Phase of Empire, by Morris Berman

W. W. norton, 416 pages, $25.95 The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, by Peter Heather Oxford University Press USA, 576 pages, $40

Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors, by Charles S. Maier Harvard University Press, 384pages, $27.95

Europe After Rome: A New Cultural History 500–1000, by Julia M. H. Smith Oxford University Press USA, 400 pages, $35

Mohammed and Charlemagne, by Henri Pirenne Dover, 304 pages, $14.95

Illustration by Lisa Haney

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dark Tales for Dark Times

Dark Tales for Dark Times

Actors Theatre of Louisville, 31st Human Festival of New American Plays

So, after four years of a disastrous war, with another in the offing, led by an intellectually challenged President who has usurped unprecedented and unconstitutional authority, American playwrights have the material for rich and meaty public theatre. So what do they do? They take to their analysts’ couches and ruminate on the heaviness of being gay, Jewish or both.

This is a broad-brush reaction to the 31st Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville Kentucky. Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner assembled great drama by relating the personal to the broader body politic. This year’s crop was disappointing, tending to mawkish introspection.

Although much more compacted than, say, Kushner’s operatic vision, far and away the most successful play of this season is Sherry Kramer’s “When Something Wonderful Ends: a history, a one woman, one Barbie play.”

Lori Wilner playing Sherry Kramer, makes a monologue into a conversation, in a remarkably prescient act of prophecy inspired by her mother’s death. As she packs away her accoutrements of childhoods, her Barbie dolls and accessory, she seamlessly weaves in the story of how American (and British) gluttony for oil led by easy stages to the rise of the Ayatollah and the confrontation in the Middle East.

The writing began some time ago, so her ahistoric, but artistic elision of the differences between Iraq Taliban and Ayatollahs actually works – after all the White House has been doing the same, and by serendipitously, the tale off how Khomeini began his political career by protesting against a Status of Forces agreement that allowed GIs to run over Iranian kids with impunity is a timely reminder that past arrogance comes back to haunt us.

As she drove to clear up the family house, the history CD she is playing reveals that the SOFA was signed the very day in 1964 that she was acquiring the “Enchanted Evening” outfit, number 783 for her un-naturally voluptuous but nipple free bubble cut Barbie serial no 750;

Musings on life, death and consumerism flow seamlessly. After coasting Barbie’s Aston Martin across the carpet, she warns about “never again getting into a car that uses petrochemicals without understanding that it is a gun, and it is pointed at our heads.”

She muses about the amount of oil used to make the billions of Barbie dolls, “We could run the country for a year, if we could just get the oil back by melting a billion little household goddesses down.”

Most of the others were less successful. In “Strike Slip” Naomi Iizuka seems to be relating seismology and psychology. The attempt is helped by the inexactitude of both sciences but the web she weaves of too many life stories has more loose ends than a piece of macramé after the cat’s been at it. But some of the threads show a lot of promise, and it is positively and actively un-American in showing lots of people living happily ever after, on the proceeds of a serendipitously found mega-stash of cocaine except the poor hardworking Korean grocery store keeper who is prison for life while his daughter benefits. I suspect he is a loose end rather than a moral.

Ken Weitzman’s “The As if Body Loop” mixes stereotypical angst of a dysfunctional Jewish family of obsessives, psychoanalysis, American football and the Kabala and 9-11 to produce a science fantasy play in which the loony and possessive mother’s new age fantasies all end up being vindicated and everyone lives happily ever after.

Batch: an American Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle was like Foucault writing about sex: boring. Staged as it was in the local hot gay spot it was incestuously self-indulgent, content free, unchallenging. It was the least fun I have ever had in a night club. But of course, it was very avant-garde and the performers seemed to be having fun, so who cares about the audience?

More effective, but a little obsessive still, was Carlos Murillo’s “dark play or stories for boys” based on a tragic virtual relationship in Manchester, where a teenage boy uses the Internet’s chameleon-like nature to masquerade as his own sister, and ends in a gay relationship that he contrives to be close to fatal. Complex and convincing, it charts the loneliness of the long-term chat room in vicarious pseudonymous existences. In a way, it made me think that part of the Internet is a Thatcherite parallel Universe where there is no such thing as society, where no one usually ever has any responsibility.

I missed the actual performance of Craig Wright’s “Unseen” about prisoners in a totalitarian dungeon– suitably because I was appearing on a Fox TV show. I read the script instead. Kafka meets Godot; it attempts to get the audience, along with the two prisoners to empathize with their prison guard and torturer who is being badly affected by his work. Reality is bad enough, that one would have thought the flights of fancy here were somewhat superfluous.

In fact, that could be the overall theme. The writers are sensible and sensitive enough to note that reality leaves much to be desired. However, without regressing to so-called socialist realism, I could not help longing for the Kushner’s, Miller’s and more of the Kramer, to help us deal with reality without fleeing from it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How Fiery is the St George's Cross

How fiery is St George's cross?

The attempts to make St George's day a parade of Englishness betray a lack of self-confidence that is, well, un-English and un-British.
Ian Williams

Some of us are born into identities, some grow into them, and others have them thrust upon us. I will happily raise a tot today in memory of Shakespeare the poet, but will pass on St George's Day. The attempts to make St George's day a parade of Englishness betray a lack of self-confidence that is, well, un-English and un-British.

St David's, St Andrew's and St Patrick's days can be seen as attempts to reassert local identities against a dominant threat - the English. And of course, it is true that constant reminders are necessary to counter the assumption that England continues from Hadrian's Wall to John O' Groats. But whatever allegedly threatens any English identity, it is not from the Celtic Fringe that surrounds and permeates the bits south of Hadrian's Wall and East of Offa's Dyke. One cannot help but detect a subtext in this St George's Day stuff that there is a threat to "Englishness" from British citizens whose origins lie farther afield who may not necessarily see Morris Dancing and the maypole as big things in their cultural life. But how many little Englanders ever clomped their clogs around a maypole anyway?

The dangerous thing about identity is how it can be manipulated by unscrupulous politicians, whether Boris Yeltsin, who split the Soviet Union so he could be number one in its Russian core, or Václav Havel, who supervised the referendum-free velvet divorce between Czechs and Slovaks, even though neither of them especially wanted it. In the conservative press, you can read pundits who want the Scots to secede: this is not because they especially wish their northern neighbours well. On the contrary, they wish them gone in the hope that they will take their collectivist social democratic votes with them - away from Westminster. Actual feelings are more complex than this.

I remember during a union conference in Scotland standing at a bar the night before the England/Scotland match when a hairy Glaswegian giant who looked like an escaped extra from Braveheart heard me order and loomed belligerently into my face. "See you... ye're Inglish!" I demurred and told him I was from Liverpool. "Give the mon a drink, he's no Inglish!" he told the barman - and indeed the bar. And he was right.

I always considered myself British. A majority of my ancestors were Welsh in origin, with some Scots and Swedish, and we have been for three or four generations living in Liverpool, which is geographically in England, but functioned as the capital of North Wales, while being under heavy cultural influences (hence the dialect) from both parts and traditions of Ireland. For the cognoscenti, I've always thought that the Manx connection has been understated as well, although the nearby island of notorious smugglers clearly had some strong influences on the city. Over the years, I've added extra identities. When I came to the US, it made me feel European, and I acquired US citizenship as well. None of these are mutually exclusive.

Last week I almost had tears in my eyes at the New York launch of Liverpool as the European City of Culture for next year. Irish bartenders from the West of Ireland regard Scousers as every bit as Irish as Dubliners. In New York I have washed down haggis with a single malt at Burn's Day suppers, the best arranged by the St Andrews Society. I have toasted Trafalgar Day - in rum of course, at the St George's Society, and eaten strange ancestral Welsh dishes with the St David's society.

There is an interesting division of responsibilities in these New York charitable societies. They were founded some two hundred and fifty years ago to tend for Scots and Welsh down on their luck in New York. The St George's Society tends to any citizens of the commonwealth down on their luck - which is the kind of non-assertive subsumation of cultural identities I can live with. Which brings us to what unites most former citizens of the British Empire: a mild to middling resentment of the Home Counties public school types who presume to speak on our behalf and - I cannot tell a lie - a somewhat condescending attitude to natives of the colonies that broke away in 1776 - in the name of ancient English liberties by the way.

Those who only know of England in the home counties and the St George's cross should remember as they try to nudge out the Scots and Welsh that many parts of Northern England feel closer politically and socially to their Celtic neighbours than they do to either New Labour or even Cameron's new Conservatives. I could quite understand the Scots being miffed at London. But for the sake of Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, I hope they stick around and think of the Red Cross as something you put on ambulances, not bumper stickers.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Global warming meets diplomatic chill

Britain's effort to bring global warming before the UN is floundering because even when Blair does the right thing, no one believes him.
Guardian Comment is Free full version
Ian Williams

Tony Blair's reputation is all eaten up because he has cried wolf too often - while petting the biggest wolf around. Even when he tries to do the right thing, no one believes him.

This week at the Security Council the British convened a meeting on global warming. Blair is not always wrong, and it is no surprise that when he is right, it is on one of the few issues over which he disagrees with Bush. He has been consistently sounding the warning about global warming even when W found it inconvenient.

Sadly, however, the developing countries saw the Security Council debate as a power play, as an attempt by Britain as an American surrogate to introduce Neocon ideas of energy security and democratisation. It was sad to see how Britain's diplomatic stock has fallen in the world. The reception for the Global Warming debate showed the chilling effect of Blair's policies.

When Labour was elected, and Robin Cook was foreign secretary and Claire Short was development secretary, Britain could count on a hearing from the non-aligned, as well as the Arab and the Muslim countries. With a few ups and downs, Britain supported multilateral, United Nations initiatives and there was visible difference between Washington and London on key issues, even though the British had a widely-accepted role of trying to bridge the gap between Capitol Hill and the real world.

Indeed, even under Tory administrations, except over South Africa, Britain's policies have often paralleled Washington - but there was some distance.

Since the invasion of Iraq and, perhaps almost as importantly, Blair's acquiescence to the US and Israel stalling a ceasefire in Lebanon, there is little left of those warm feelings. This is sad, not least since climate change hits the poorest countries hardest.

The experts convened around the Security Council described in frightening detail the already almost certain consequences of climate change: dioxide drought in the global south and dioxide drowning in both developing and industrialized worlds. It was, in its way, even more chilling than descriptions of a nuclear winter, not least since we have lost many battles with the global environment, so at least some of the consequences are now inevitable. Several of them saw the conflict in Darfur as a reflection of climate change - the desertification of the region.

Margaret Becket, the former environment secretary and a true global warming believer, referred to "The consequences of flooding, disease and famine and from that migration on an unprecedented scale. The consequences of drought and crop-failure and from that intensified competition for food, water and energy. The consequences of economic disruption on the scale ...not seen since the end of world war two".

Which was all true, and even more so since, overwhelmingly, the causes for this are previous and present activities by the industrialized countries while the worst hit victims will be in the developing world.

However, somewhat churlishly, the non-aligned and developing country blocs argued that the issue was best dealt with in the Economic and Social Committee and the General Assembly, neither of which could be called "action-oriented" (in UN jargon), and thus missed a chance to extract some promises from the polluters.

They wanted to know what the purpose was of having a debate in the Security Council. And they do have a point. It's not as if the council were going to order blue-helmeted peacekeepers into Detroit to stop the production of SUVs. Perhaps inadvertently, the American ambassador's reference to his country's "long history of extending help so that people could live in democratic societies with robust economies and strong and stable Governments", may not have had the resonance in the UN that it would at a White House press conference.

Margaret Becket argued that the reason for a Security Council debate was to give full prominence to the issue - and she may have had a point, if it had been a heads of state event that drew out George Bush to say something committed and intelligent on the subject.

Doubtless the debate had the ancillary purpose of burnishing Blair's tarnished armour. But as long as Blair sticks with Bush, who has spent a term and half trying to sabotage the Kyoto protocols, his credibility will suffer.

The Security Council debate may have been a nice idea, but it shows how the last few years of Blair's slavish adherence to the Bush line has poisoned even his best-intentioned diplomatic efforts. We can only hope - without too much evidence - that Gordon Brown is different and he can rescue the country from his predecessor's diplomatic blight.

Friday, April 20, 2007

global warming diplomatic chill

Latest Comment is Free on the British initiative to hold a Security Council Debate on Global Warming

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hail the deserter-in-chief

Here is the full text of Guardian CiF on US desertions and Bush

Desertions are rising in the US army - and so are prosecutions. Maybe George Bush should be reminded about his own personal exit strategy.
Ian Williams

April 18, 2007

A working definition of chutzpah: a Bush administration prosecuting deserters.

Bill Clinton spent two terms of his presidency on the defensive because he had, in typical Clintonian fashion, prevaricated between his ethics and his political future on whether or not to register for the draft during Vietnam. In the end, he registered but was not called up.

It is interesting that people like the newly recess-appointed US Ambassador to Belgium, Sam Fox, spent so much time and money examining the military careers of people like Kerry, but are so uninterested in the eloquent lack of a military career for George Bush. But he won his ambassadorship the same way that Bush won his exemption - with cash and connections.

Back in the day, during the Vietnam war that he supported, young George Bush, "Googen" to his family, abused his family ties to join the Texas Air National Guard, which in those halcyon days guaranteed a free pass from the draft and deployment to Indo-China. He had to do that because President Lyndon Baines Johnson had abolished the graduate student deferment that so many other members of the Bush cabinet had already abused.

Towards the end of his five-year term, young W went missing, and failed to turn up for the occasional duties demanded. The technical term for someone absent without leave for such an extended period is desertion. But Texans are great believers in redemption - at least for sons of important political families - and the local establishment covered up his desertion.

He is now commander-in-chief of the most disastrous war since, well ... Vietnam. Things have changed. Congressmen's sons do not get protection any more. They do not need it since none of them are in the forces. National Guards are posted overseas in Iraq - over and over again. They and regular army recruits have discovered the small print in their contracts that says that they can't leave when they thought they could.

Now George Bush rarely misses a chance to turn up at a military base or a veterans gathering donning some item of military attire. Thankfully, he has not been seen in his Navy fliers outfit since the day he landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to proclaim "Mission Accomplished" - four years ago.

The Pentagon, struggling to cope with neocon dreams of global military hegemony, has steadily reduced its recruitment standards. It has tried to recycle the medically unfit back into the war.

But while many of the military seemed to accept that a war-dodging hawk deserved their loyalty, increasing numbers of them are discovering that they have been lied to about the war - and about the gratitude of the government that sent them as the war wounded discovered in the Walter Reed hospital. It will not help that this week Washington announced that it was lengthening tours of duty in Iraq from 12 months to 15 months.

Consequently desertions are rising - as are prosecutions. In the last five years desertions trebled compared with the previous five years - and they are still rising.

Last year the army reported 3,196 soldiers deserted, compared with 2,357 in 2004. It may be more. Some units reportedly try to cover up as much as possible so the figures may be under-reported.

So what can they do? In fact, several hundred have rediscovered Canada, to the profound embarrassment of Bush ally Stephen Harper. Canadians were against the war even before their southern neighbours saw the light, so it cannot send them back. Once they have registered as political refugees they get full Canadian benefits, work rights, and free healthcare that is a cut above what the Veterans Administration would offer them back home. Ottawa is wriggling. Their cases are going through the system until they meet the embarrassing precedent: Canadian judges granted asylum to a deserter from the Iraqi army because he had been ordered to take part in an illegal war against Kuwait. Ottawa does not want to see Kofi Annan in a witness stand testifying to the legality of Bush's war.

In fact, even if W's own personal exit strategy no longer applies, Bill Clinton has left a legacy for dissatisfied GI's. Bullied by the Pentagon over his own war record, Clinton acquiesced in its shameless prejudice that gay people like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and the like were unfit to be soldiers. He introduced the "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy. Any GI having a change of heart about the great crusade for democracy simply has to tell the commanding officer that he or she is gay or lesbian to get an automatic honourable discharge. To be derided as a "fag" or to be disenfranchised as a felon. A no-brainer, I'd have thought.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Deserter in Chief

Latest in the Guardian

Deserter in Chief
The cheek of W prosecuting Deserters
feel free to join the commentary!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Electronic Memory Holes

Recent Speculator column in Investor Relations Magazine.

Paper brought to book
March, 2007

Ian Williams worries about rewriting history
Books breed at night, with a surreptitious rustle of pages; there is no other explanation for their proliferation. But the days of excess paper may be short-lived. In the old days, backup meant laboriously interleaving the carbon paper in the typewriter and making sure you filed the copies away very carefully. Now, after reading a document in hard copy, you most likely throw it away. It’s easier to print a new copy when you need it than to waste space and time on filing cabinets.
Books have also become easier to print. My first tome, The Alms Trade, has been out of print for 15 years. But a publisher now wants to do a just-in-time edition: people who order online will get an individually printed trade paperback. The publisher is already anticipating e-books, however, so customers will just pay to download text the way they do now for music.
So far, though, the various e-book formats don’t meet the standards of flexible usage required by bathroom, bedroom and on-train readers. But it can’t be long before, instead of weighing down a suitcase with a heavy selection of tomes for beach reading and delays at airports, we can pack one handy electronic device the size of a book, but lighter, thinner and capable of carrying half the Library of Congress.
Certainly, we are close to dropping paper from the newspaper industry. Morning papers increasingly look dated; most of the stories are online the day before. A handily portable ‘flexi-sheet’ that gets updated during the day with customized news and features, which I could read everywhere from cab to work cubicle, would be very attractive.
But there is one drawback, for which we need to refer to George Orwell’s 1984, in which the hero Winston Smith’s job is continually rewriting the articles in the newspaper archives to reshape history according to the current political line.
I often write for online publications, and I think of Winston each time I spot a mistake and call the editor. A few strokes of the keyboard and the online article is rewritten as if the mistake had never happened. It’s almost spooky. Just think of the future paperless world of knowledge.
A CEO wants to backdate options? Simply adjust the minutes of the meeting and hey presto! The past is altered on the electronic file.We said someone had WMDs and went to war but it turned out we were wrong? Simply adjust the record, either to add WMDs or to change the rationale for war.
Paper may not be as durable as inscribed marble slabs, but at least there are usually multiple copies, not all of which can be recalled and altered. With the penetration of the web, however, is it inconceivable that Microsoft, Time Warner or the Department of Homeland Security could enter and edit documents in your electronic library? Will your collected works of Shakespeare have Othello, Shylock and shrewish Kate edited out for political correctness? Will earnings estimates be revised so companies always meet their targets?
That is why I suspect the SEC and the judicial system will insist on printed paper documents for some time to come – and I will stick with my paper library.

Monday, April 16, 2007

What Wall? What Occupation?

Here's the full text of my Guardian comment on Western Sahara...
For which I was attacked, (as always) on Serbia and Kosovo.

What wall? What occupation?

It's time to stop Morocco's prevarication over Western Sahara.
Ian Williams

April 13, 2007 4:00 PM | Printable version

It's not double standards, it's no standards at all. The world has let scoff-law Morocco ride roughshod over international law and the UN Charter. It helps to have friends!

Their territory split by a huge wall built at enormous expense, an occupied Arab population suffers under police raids and arbitrary imprisonment while the occupiers try to swamp the territories with settlers from their own population. In response, the locals are beginning an intifada, but face a much larger, better-equipped military force, the beneficiary of substantial overseas aid. Refugees living in camps are refused the right to return to their homes.

Despite clear decisions of the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council, the occupiers hedge whenever it comes down to the question of a peace settlement that grants independence even when American emissaries try to nudge them towards serious talks.

Welcome to Western Sahara, the occupation that admittedly has lasted only three decades compared with Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but which has excited much less media interest.

This week, the issue came back to what passes for the fore in this forgotten conflict, when the Polisario, on behalf of the Sahwaris and the Kingdom of Morocco both submitted their plans for the resolution of the problem.

The Moroccan one is superficially attractive after all these decades, offering Scottish-style devolution. But their track record on keeping promises is far from stellar. Over 15 years ago, Morocco accepted a peace deal that involved the referendum on self-determination. The cash-strapped UN has spent hundreds of millions on keeping a force there to monitor the cease-fire and arrange a vote. But as soon as it became clear that Morocco would lose any vote that involved independence, the king and his father before him, gave prevarication a bad name. They tried to stack the voters' rolls, and when that failed, simply refused to allow a vote that asked the question.

Morocco's human rights record leaves much to be desired, as indeed did Polisario's in the old days. But the Moroccan reticence about allowing a vote is eloquent testimony to the government's assessment of the popular mood.

What is the secret of Morocco's success? In essence, it is choosing friends carefully.

Morocco claims Arab solidarity - and is one of the best friends of Israel in the Arab World. Immediately after the Moroccans occupied the territory despite the ICJ ruling that rubbished its territorial claims, the UN security council passed resolutions 379 and 380, which explicitly and unconditionally called on Morocco to withdraw. However, the French and Americans blocked the enforcing of these resolutions. According to then-US ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

While the US's anti-communist fervour has died down - with communism - France has remained an important and unprincipled supporter of the king. Despite all that Cartesian rhetoric with which it opposed the invasion of Iraq, over the Sahara it has a novel and disturbing principle: the security council cannot impose its decisions on parties if they disagree.

France has claimed there was a tradition of using consensus on Western Sahara, which was a bit like the apocryphal prisoner who had killed his parents and then asked for the court's sympathy because he was an orphan. Any such "tradition" developed in response to constant French and American attempts to railroad a pro-Moroccan position past the other security council members in defiance of all previous decisions.

Britain's attitude seems to be that it does not have a dog in the fight, so it is prepared to go along with the Americans and the French. But the standing of international law, the UN charter and principles are surely a dog worth backing in any foreign policy with - in Robin Cook's words - "an ethical dimension". In the end, the illegal Indonesia occupation of East Timor succumbed to the persistent refusal of the world to recognise it.

Polisario has made a very reasonable offer, which is in complete accordance with UN resolutions and international law. It could also offer, instead of a Scottish style solution with the Moroccan army and secret police still in occupation - a Canadian style solution. We will put King Mohammed on our coins and welcome an occasional royal visit - but nothing more.

But in any case, the UK, the EU, and the UN, should stop accommodating Morocco and France and step up the pressure on Rabat. It's the law.

Friday, April 13, 2007

It helps to have friends, Morocco and Western Sahara

latest on Guardian unlimited on the other wall and the other occupation
Morocco and Western Sahara.
click for the text

So it went: Kurt Vonnegut, a writer for our times. full text

So it went

Kurt Vonnegut was a writer for our times.
Ian Williams
My appreciation i0n the Guardian site.
and anyone who wants to catch up or see what they have been missing should click on Vonnegut to see the Amazon collection him.

April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut's death on Wednesday does not end an era. In the age of globalisation, this bard - a champion of the simple, decent man being slapped in the face by one invisible hand after another - represents the future.

I last met Vonnegut as he sat in the morning sunshine on the steps of the building that houses the British Mission to the UN, a few yards from his 47th Street apartment. He was reading a newspaper he'd picked from the waste bin and was chain-smoking as well, which he had claimed to be a "fairly honourable form of suicide".

A life-long reader of his work, I handed him a copy of my just-published book on George Bush, and thanked him for an article he had recently done for the left publication In These Times. With his already huge eyes, perpetually lugubrious, magnified by his glasses, he shook his head sadly, "Without In These Times I'd be a man without a country", he said, repeating a slogan the magazine itself has adopted and which gave him the title for his last book.

One wonders how many of the obituaries will note that he was a loudly self-proclaimed socialist, and spent his octogenarian years speaking out against the Iraq war? A year into the war he wrote, "We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we're hooked on."

Vonnegut's characters, like himself, are bemused spectators - trying to be kind to others as the universe grinds inexorably on. The first of his that I read, many years ago, was Player Piano, a science fiction satire based on his time in corporate America, working in the PR department of General Electric. It lampooned corporate culture and the advance of automation.

It took much longer for him to translate his most traumatic personal experience onto paper. Slaughterhouse-Five, later a film, tries, in a triumphant misadventure, to make sense of his time as a PoW in Dresden during the firebombing of 1945. Captured as a GI during the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans had put him to work, fittingly as it turned out, in a slaughterhouse, making vitamin supplements. It was one of the safest places in the doomed city, and when he and his colleagues surfaced, they were put to work retrieving the semi-cremated cadavers of the Dresdners who weren't so lucky.

Though he began as a science fiction writer, he escaped being corralled into a publishing niche, and his books escaped into the real world. Endlessly inventive, he is often accused of practicing black humour. That is unfair. His sweet and sour humour was defensively cynical about the world, but relentlessly optimistic about human decency. He quoted his own son, epitomizing this view: "Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is."

Vonnegut had succeeded Isaac Asimov as Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, and, in a memorial service for the deceased atheist quipped, "Isaac is up in heaven now". He recalled "It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, 'Kurt is up in heaven now'. That's my favorite joke."

I sincerely doubt that he is up there. But his work made down here a lot less like Hell. He will be missed, in all his occasionally-curmudgeonly idiosyncrasy.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

So it went: Kurt Vonnegut, a writer for our times.

Kurt Vonnegut died Wednesday. Not a total surprise for a chain smoking octagenarian, but he gave every sign of living forever.
My appreciation is in the Guardian site.
and anyone who wants to catch up or see what they have been missing should click on Vonnegut to see the Amazon spread on him.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The New Salem Witch Trials

Here is the full post that appeared in the Guardian over Easter

The new Salem witch trials
New Labour is planning to use lie detectors on benefit claimants. But if lie detectors are so great, why not use them on politicians?

Ian Williams
New Labour's proposal to use voice activated lie detection on benefit claimants suggests a whole new approach to the impending elections. After the ID cards debacle, it should be no surprise that New Labour's latest gimmick is to spend a fortune on pseudo-science: lie detectors for benefit claimants. The new system depends on "Voice Recognition Analysis", or "Voice Stress Analysis", as it is also known. John Hutton, the UK work and pensions secretary claims, "This technology-based process aims to tackle these fraudsters...Our investigators are successfully using sophisticated 21st century techniques to stop criminals. The introduction of this cutting-edge technology will be another weapon in the battle against benefit fraud." Allegedly, "The technology analyses changes in a caller's voice and enables trained operators to identify suspect cases at the start of a claim." There are so many layers of absurdity to this onion of a policy that it almost reduces one to tears. Firstly, the government's own statistics report that the suspected fraud is £310m a year, whereas official incompetence amounts to £400m overpayments a year - which suggests that some device to identify innumerate bureaucrats could be more productive, albeit equally unscientific. Secondly, the move smacks of corporate welfare - since this is New Labour and, of course, the money goes to a private contractor. Thirdly, "lie detection" is a science on a par with phrenology or the ducking stool to test for witches. The old polygraph, generally only used in the US, tested the victim's respiration, perspiration and similar physiological signs for nervousness. It was so effective that several Soviet double agents in the CIA passed it with flying colours. A down-to-earth Australian judge succinctly dismissed lie detection: "Devoid of any proved or accepted scientific basis, the evidence of Mr Glare (the lie detector operator) is simply hearsay which is inadmissible and of no probative value." Civil rights campaigners in the USA have waged partially successful struggles against its use, but - as with the X-files, creationism, psychoanalysis and Saddam's support for al-Qaida - no amount of evidence will dislodge some popular beliefs. The new voice technology is based on the "microtremors of Lippold", which has become the modern equivalent of a phrenologist's bump. As a study for the US Department of Justice reported, "Some of the claims made by these manufacturers have no basis, or are so extreme that they go against basic speech science". In particular the report debunks claims that machines can distinguish between the results "due to emotion and those due to deception". So benefit claimants struggling to make ends meet, knowing that the government has declared open season on their kind, talking to a prying bureaucrat who can reduce them to destitution, may understandably be stressed. In fact, the more they need the money, the more the moron behind the machine may see signs of mendacity. But the crucial reason for scepticism about the effectiveness of lie-detection technology works is that democratic governments would not allow it. Imagine the election debates. If there were a mendacity monitor in the corner of the TV screen assessing whoever is speaking, there would be a serious shortage of candidates. Much more effective would be a motion detector trained on their lips - they're moving, so the candidates must be lying. Indeed, it's possible that even an effective lie detector would not solve our real problems. In this age of unreason, the biggest threat to humanity is not the lie but the firmly believed untruth. Politicians who truly, sincerely and deeply believe in Armageddon, their own infallibility, that the war in Iraq was against terrorism instead of promoting it and that water-boarding is not really torture. Or that the small number of false benefit claimants represents a major problem and that bringing back the modern micro-chipped equivalent of the ducking stool is the way to do it. It's sad to see unreason straddling the Atlantic. Maybe next we will see the rendition of witches to Salem through British airports.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Pseudoscience and New Labour

Latest on the Guardian site: New Labour threatens lie detectors on benefit claimants. If they worked, we should use them on New Labour and other politicians!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Wanted: Three Regime Changes

From this weeks Tribune in London, my column on the prisoners

Old Rabbie Burns, who had more lines than the average Trotskyist guru, had the best one for the Iran prisoners crisis:

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae monie a blunder free us

An foolish notion.”

I hope Tony Blair drew some such appropriate lessons from the extremely tepid response of the UN Security Council to the peremptory British demand for a condemnation of the Iranian arrest of the British sailors, which also implied general acceptance of British evidence on the location of both the boat and the boundary.

Far from accepting the Palmerstonian terms proposed by London, the best Blair could get from the other members was an anodyne press statement expressing a pious hope for a speedy resolution of the problem. The other members of the Council did not have to be in the Revolutionary Guard fan club to see that some balance was called for. The Iranians have indeed breached the Geneva Conventions by showing a woman prisoner smoking and wearing a headscarf.

Admittedly, no one spliced the mainbrace for them, but as so many people immediately thought, that was so much better than an orange boiler suit, gag and blindfold, with fetching shackles for accessories. And better still than being naked and sexually humiliated, or draped with electric wires, beset with savage dogs.

And while we know where the British prisoners are – they have not been chained to the deck of a charter plane and flown to some place where totalitarian torturers can demonstrate by how much the science has advanced since the Inquisition closed shop.

There is indeed a threat of show trial, which no one takes seriously. But their fate will be resolved, and almost certainly satisfactorily, well within the five years that it has taken our special relations in Washington to bring the Guantanamo prisoners to trial. While we fret about the fifteen, let us remember that the rest of the world sees how superior Blair’s friend Bush is to Stalin.

This was not a good week for an American ally to discover an attachment to prisoners’ rights. Uncle Joe had show trials, and then sent the survivors to the Gulag. The Pentagon sends people to the Gitmo Gulag – and then years later has a “No-Show” trial, in which hand-picked judges refuse to let the defendants see the evidence against them, sack their lawyers, and insist on an admission of guilt or being rendered back into the system. And that was for David Hicks, a privileged white citizen of Australia, whose Prime Minister, next in line up the White House rectum after Blair, is under heavy public pressure about the case.

This in no way mitigates the illegality – and indeed the stupidity - of the Revolutionary Guards and their backers in Teheran, who would have been better disarming their prisoners and handing them back with souvenir packages of pistachio nuts and signed portraits of Ahmadinejad to remind them of their stay.

But let us consider the Iranian point of view. For months, there has been drumbeat of war from Washington and Israel. There are three US and French carrier groups just off shore. With close assistance from Britain, which also owns Diego Garcia, the likeliest main base for operations, the US has been ratcheting up an Iraqi-style WMD resolution against Iran, while building up its forces in Iraq close to the border.

Ironically, the resolutions’ title in the Council records is “Non-Proliferation.” Think about that. Three overt nuclear powers, Britain, which is about to update Trident, France, and the US, which between them have been pushing nuclear power as an answer to Climate Change bribed India, another nuclear power that is not even a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty, to refer Iran’s nuclear programme from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The most vociferous proponent of this action is Israel itself, the only nuclear power in the region, which has made overt threats of action against Iran

One could see why the Iranians did not exactly offer flowers or a floating red carpet to Royal Naval personnel operating along the disputed maritime boundary. In fact, if anything, if the Revolutionary Guards had they intellect to match their paranoia, they should have suspected that this was deliberate allied provocation.

One hopes that the Iranians have the good sense to climb down. But then one would hope that the US would have the good sense to offer the Iranians what they really want – direct talks with Washington and a Libyan style deal.

On one small point the Americans who want a regime change in Teheran may have a point. The whole tragicomical set of circumstances that led to the prisoner crisis could best be resolved by regime change – in London, Washington and Teheran.

Casting the First Stone - full text

Casting the first stone
Both the United Nation's new Human Rights Council and its most vociferous critics are guilty of hypocrisy when it comes to Israel and human rights violations.

Ian Williams

April 4, 2007 9:30 PM | Printable version
It was a make-my-day event for UN Watch at the United Nations' human rights council in Geneva on March 23.

UN Watch is an organisation whose main purpose is to attack the United Nations in general, and its human rights council in particular, for alleged bias against Israel. Last week, the ill-advised president of the council, Mexican diplomat Luis Alfonso De Alba, who usually politely and formulaically thanks the "distinguished representatives" for their remarks, made a point of saying that he was not thanking the UN Watch representative, Hillel Neuer - although, to be fair, he did still call him "distinguished."

Ambassador De Alba also threatened that "any statement you make in similar tones to those used today will be taken out of the records." De Alba's remarks stood out in the context of the somewhat rabid opinions frequently expressed by delegations in the council.

Neuer had made pointed, and indeed accurate, remarks about the council's shameful neglect of Tibet, Chechnya, and other regions, which he contrasted with its repeated special sessions on Israel. Neuer is quite right that most of the sundry tyrants around the Middle East care little about the Palestinians, as many of them demonstrate with their treatment of Palestinians in their own territory. He was also quite right to point out that the council has hedged and prevaricated on Darfur.

One cannot help but suspect that it was Neuer's strongly critical mention of the council's inaction towards China and Russia - subjects that even the US is not that desperately forward about - which tipped the Chair's gavel against him, although admittedly it could also have been Neuer's declaration that the council's "response has been indifference. Its response has been criminal. One might say, in Harry Truman's words, that this has become a do-nothing, good-for-nothing council," that most upset its president.

Whatever the reason, De Alba played right into his hands. The martyrdom of Hillel Neuer is now played up in all the usual suspect neocon places, from the Wall Street Journal's editorial page to the New York Sun and Canada's National Post. The video has been circulated widely, with a call for donations, and the usual cluckings about the UN.

UN Watch will not be getting a cheque from me. Not being thanked is not an attack on human rights. Being threatened with censorship in the future could be. But UN Watch refers to this speech as being censored. "Banned: the speech the UN refused to hear," shouts the email that UN Watch sent out. Which is odd, because the clip it is linking to on YouTube actually comes from a UNTV webcast, which it acknowledges when it invites people to download the Realplayer version.

Yet, sadly, the non-aligned majority in the new human rights council have lived down to the worst fears of human rights workers, and ensured that only Israeli repression of the Palestinians is condemned of all the horrendous human rights situations across the globe.

Don't get me wrong. Israel has been and is treating the Palestinians in a manner which Jimmy Carter was quite right to compare with apartheid. But to give a free pass to Sudan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus, as the council has done recently, devalues the Palestinian case, and gives Israel and its friends a claim to discrimination.

Anyone carrying a hypocrisy detector through the UN would be distracted by its continuous beeping, as one would expect in places filled with politicians and diplomats. But passing UN Watch's office would set it beeping as well. If the organization could point to a single occasion when it had condemned manifest Israeli transgressions of the human rights of Palestinians, it would give itself a secure platform from which to criticize the human rights council. UN Watch rightly criticizes Sudan's refusal to let in a human rights council delegation into Darfur. But then how, with a straight face, can it avoid criticizing Israel for refusing to allow in rapporteurs from the same council?

Humanity, and the human rights council, should steer clear of obsessive Israel boosters just assiduously as it avoids those who obsessively attack Israel to protect other human rights offenders. Human Rights Watch or Amnesty will get any cheques I have to spare.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Casting the First Stone

The UN is often accused of being blinkered about the Middle East, a situation that will not be helped by the news in an Arabic paper today that Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon asked whether the view from his quarters in Beirut was the Atlantic Ocean.

To be fair, and non-Eurocentric, I could not swear in Pusan whether I was looking at the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea or whatever, but perhaps some intensive coaching on the Middle East situation, like where the Levant is actually situated, may be in order

More substantially, my latest in the Guardian, on UN Watch and its "martyrdom" at the UN, may provide grist for a Middle East mill or two.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Sublime Intervention!

Here's the full text: check the Guardian Comment is Free to see the Care in the Commentary it evoked.

Sublime intervention
It is difficult for some people to accept that sometimes countries do a good deed because it is actually the right thing to do.

Ian Williams

Those who make a fetish of opposition to "liberal interventionism" would have probably defended the slave trade.

As sundry public figures engage in "we are sorrier than you are" competitions about the slave trade to commemorate the 200th anniversary of its abolition in the British empire, it is worth looking at the significance of what followed. It was perhaps the first clear example of humanitarian intervention in modern history.

At the height of a war for survival with Napoleon - who was incidentally fighting bloody wars in the Caribbean to reintroduce slavery to Martinique and Guadeloupe - popular pressure forced the Royal Navy to send ships to West Africa to set up the anti-slavery patrol.

The Royal Navy, which incurred heavy casualties from disease, spent decades trying to suppress the trade, within the constraints of international law, and with varying degrees of active resistance from the French, Americans, Spanish and Portuguese. This happened despite the sugar and slavery lobby in parliament, and even though the British government at home was one of the most repressive ever - think of the Peterloo Massacre in 1919.

Tony Blair devalued the concept of "humanitarian intervention" with his retrospective invocation of it to justify the invasion of Iraq.

But that is no excuse for the anti-Samaritans of the so-called left who sneer at "liberal interventionism" as if there was something shameful at wanting to stop mass mayhem against people in foreign countries.

It is a difficult idea for some people to accept that sometimes people and countries do good deeds - like fight against the slave trade - because it is the right thing to do.

Looking at some of the guff we still see about the intervention over Kosovo, for example, I can imagine some of our current wannabe commissars' reaction if they had been around in 1807. They would have denounced the anti-slavery patrol as imperialist intervention in west African kingdoms' sovereign affairs. They would have denied that anyone died in the trade, or maybe excused the trade as a necessary step to economic development and questioned the motives of the anti-slave trade movement, filled as it was with protestant evangelists.

In fact, the modern concept of humanitarian intervention was invoked when Saddam Hussein was attacking Kurdistan after the Gulf war. When I asked the UN legal department at the time what the legal basis was, they muttered that Hitler had invoked it to invade Czechoslovakia, citing maltreatment of the Sudeten Germans. It was easy to see that, as precedents went, this one was not going far.

It was probably Blair's abuse of the concept in Iraq that led to the international commission set up by the Canadian government to rename it "the responsibility to protect", which was adopted by the UN in 2005.

Their formulation took account of the possibilities for expediency inherent in the idea.

The commission stressed that the international community - not a self-selected state - should only override state sovereignty to stop continuing or anticipated killing. It should be clear that the operations had a real chance of success and would not make things worse. Despite Blair's invocation of humanitarian reasons, his invasion of Iraq failed on almost every test of the principles - while Kosovo passed most of them.

Although the Kosovo intervention was tainted by Clinton's refusal to let it go to the UN, the support of every country in western Europe went some way to meeting that principle - and when the Russians tried to raise the issue, they were trounced in the voting. Darfur would clearly pass most of them - except for the UN security council mandate, and even there, a quarter of the diplomatic effort expended on rounding up a posse against Iran would surely get a resolution against Sudan.

Humanitarian intervention is like brain surgery: sometimes essential, but only to be used as a very last resort, and then only in the most careful way. Progress is slow. Two hundred years after the British attempt to outlaw the slave trade, the Jinjaweed are riding with impunity. But I hope it's not for much longer.

When it comes to damming rivers of blood, I would rather be a sneered at as a liberal interventionist than be a Leninist Pontius Pilate washing his hands of mass murder anywhere else in the world, defending the "sovereignty" of any mass murderer who happens to claim to be anti-imperialist.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Sublime Intervention!

In my latest Guardian Comment is Free,
I argue that some of the Leninoid anti-Interventionists would have opposed Royal Navy patrols agaisnt the slave trade two hundred years ago.
Feel free to join in the resulting scrum at