Sunday, January 21, 2007

A call to move beyond left and right

I'm now knuckling down for my journalism exams and so I will be putting my posts on hold until February 9. Although I would far rather provide all of you with entertainment, memorising phrases from law-books verbatim, the nitty-gritty of local and central government, and short-hand tapes will take up much of my time from now on.

To bid you adieu, I recommend the extracts from Nick Cohen's book. While the majority of you will disagree and be offended by his rather crude characterisation of the protests against the war in Iraq as vast swathes of people taking to the streets to defend a fascist state; I reckon some of you may find his criticism of the prosetylising "left" is spot-on. Obviously actively marching for a dictator is plain stupidity, yet the protesters were questioning a war that was sold as a pre-emptive strike. As has become plain the war was a case naked imperialism and furthermore poorly planned. I do however think Cohen is right to emphasise that given we've made things even worse for the people in Iraq, we shouldn't cut and run but instead do our utmost to help them build a decent democratic state. How this will be possible is anyone's guess, but I'd still say we have a responsibility to provide order from the chaos our leaders have created.

Yet I find Cohen's criticism of stereotypical "leftist" viewpoints convincing even if I hope that few people are committed to holding such extreme points of view. To me it seems clear people who support Islamic terrorism as a means of counteracting the power of capitalism and American imperialism clearly have some form of death-wish. Yet how many people really believe Al Qaeda are fellow travellers? We might try and understand the motives of an average Jihadi, but despite the crudity of the Western world's foreign policy the murder of innocents should still strike all reasonable human beings as wrong and also deeply worrying as a trend. Also, blind support for the Palestinians against the Israelis seems to be the wrong way of addressing the situation and I think there are definitely those who take sides over such an issue. Yet surely there can be a middle path: namely open support of a settlement to provide peace and fairness, instead of taking a partisan stance in favour of either side.

These issues are clearly too complicated to sum up in a paragraph, yet I think Cohen has tapped in to a rich seam of thought for a book: the attempt to move beyond left and right. To this topic a sensible addition would be a call for a modern humanism. The debates between left and right have become jaded and we must focus on an attempt to attain fundamental freedoms for all people in the world, encouraging them to use these responsibly and to encourage a dialogue about how to maintain peace, stability and the survival of our race whilst finding some way of co-existing with our surroundings and environment. Can we cease to be destructive?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Staring in to the Abyss

Poor Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, was condemned never to be believed after having turned down the advances of Apollo. She foresaw the plight of Troy and her death in Agamemnon's bath but could never avert her country's (or her own) sad fate. Bloggers often share Cassandra's catastrophist tendencies, although it remains to be seen whether our own worst fears are wildly speculative fantasy or a grim reality which many of our contemporaries shirk from confronting.

What does this highly pessimistic mindset indicate? Is it a valuable voice of discontent that can stop things disintegrating before they are too late or the last cries of a dying civilization? I have heard some say that Blogging compares with the pamphleteers of the Seventeenth Century who supposedly turned the world upside down during England's brief republic. The comparison brings together the crumbling of barriers to publication that in times prior to 1639 were set up by strict blasphemy laws and an authoritarian Monarchy, and nowadays, by a press that have caved in to an oafish populism and subservience to a court whose information they depend on for advancement. Our press have found out they have backed a bunch of liars and middle managers whose only solution to our problems seem to be to rename things, yet they seemingly cannot summon any way to effectively criticise the magicians who so wowed them at first with their presentational skills. At the same time the public over the last 10 years has had a complicated lesson in the power of Newspeak and simultaneously a medium has arrived which allows us to express what we think to one another bypassing the contented and lack-lustre news-gathering middleman.

This is in some ways what I would like to think, but I also worry that the sheer scope of the internet and the failure to fully discuss issues can mean this new medium has several flaws. It is incredibly surprising, for instance, how quickly some on the internet launch in to attacks, not on the arguments of others, but their personal characters. This might just be a direct consequence of the enraged silenced masses who have had a new medium open up allowing them to say what they really think. Yet how will any of this change policy and how do we hold government to account as the minutiae of the latest acts and trends at Westminster are overlooked even as distrust spreads like a cancer? The detail and the professionalism of traditional news reporting is scrapped and instead disparate bits of information, are discussed all over the web with far greater interest then the irrelevances of celebrity gossip, yet often lacking the contemporaneity we would demand from a traditional news feature. This is great news for minority interests, but could it also mean that as the traditional news institutions crumble from the levelling effect (produced by millions tapping away at their computers, eschewing the tittle-tattle that even the serious press have now stooped to publishing) the net result will be worse, for the sea of information will carry on expanding and we will have no way of checking its veracity.

The problem with our attempt to take on the grand themes is that the Cassandra complex will arise. Looking at the world we will in general see many horrendous things. I have simply talked of the new changes I see afoot in the information age, and part of me surges with optimism yet other doubts envelop me. If we are all talking together and expressing similar doubts why is it that nothing seems to change? Could it be that the groups we form on the net, like in life, are largely self-selecting and that the grave doubts we so often express are not perceived by millions of our other fellow men? Is the net full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Monday, January 8, 2007

What does our navy do?

As a very ignorant civvie I've failed to get overly worked up by the funding cuts of our navy. In fact, rather like the Chancellor I think a good segment of the £40 Billion deficit could be wiped out by scaling down investment in the armed services, especially the navy. So I found this article to the contrary by Max Hastings of interest. Hastings must be one of the more eccentric and talented writers to have been conscripted to the Guardian team since civil liberties became top of the agenda for the 21st Century; rather than the boringly entrenched debates between left and right about redistribution. Yet Hastings also serves that nice role of providing the unwashed masses who read the Graun (such as myself) a bit of the Torygraph point of view as to how Britain should continue to rule the waves. His argument takes the line that we underfund the armed forces at our peril, as the quality of the soldiers will go down. Yet despite this argument why do we need a navy of the size we do and what does it serve? As the front page of the Telegraph stated a few days ago (in a piece ironically in defence of the navy, revealing the funding cuts), the last time we used its full capacity was the Falklands War. Are there any better reasons to retain the navy and what are they?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

The limits of my language are the limits of my world (or can we think beyond language?)

Having taken a healthy 2 week holiday away from blogging to stuff my face on Spanish christmas fare and demolish my liver it is a bit daunting to be back in the UK having to face exams and the baying crowds (my definition is the 3+ variety) who visit this blog in search of a grammatical, or, heaven forbid, a logical mistake!

Which brings me to my good friend Mr. Wittgenstein, whose wonderful, if impenetrable book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus woke me from my dogmatical slumbers in bed. The bracketed comment in the title above, is mine, and is the thought that tortures anyone who enters in to Witt's philosophical world. Is life just language or is there something that can be thought about outside language? If you're a french philosophe of the Derrida school the first might seem an attractive option, but if, like me, you're of the romantic and yet realist persuasion that we are not all created constructs of the language that we use, the fact that Witt, in this famous passage seems to endorse the idea that there is no world outside of language can be terrifying. Does he really mean what he says? What kind of world do animals inhabit? Is he just dead wrong or is there something profound lurking in the words of the zen master? Let's face it, whatever is going on in the Tractatus is very odd and the definition of "world" is queer to say the least, but the book holds such endless fascination that even such opaque pronouncements are set to torture the unwitting reader for years to come. Damn book, I wish that philosophy didn't have the capacity to give a person nightmares even once the reading matter has been laid down many years ago and lost somewhere in one's room! Yet isn't that the fun of it?