Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Healthy Decadence

Every so often ideological radicals denounce their liberal enemies for their decadence, like the Nazi Germans did to 1940s USA. The famous Liberators poster displayed in Holland before the Allied invasion depicted the US in terms of crude stereotypes: an African hand in a boxing glove holding a bag of cash (a big-nosed Jew cringing behind it), a cage of ape-like black Americans dancing the jitterbug, scantily-clad white beauty queens, a vinyl record, a Ku Klux Klan mask, an African arm entwined with a noose, an arm in a striped prison uniform holding a gangster-style Tommy gun, the other arm holding a grenade. These images depicted the US as a barbaric, racist, self-indulgent culture that would blunder into Europe and destroy its superior and older civilisation.

Communists would also attack the capitalist countries for their decadence, and "degenerate" modernist artists and composers were persecuted under Stalin. For some communists the collapse of the decadent West seemed inevitable; instead the decadent prospered while most communism petered out and Nazism was crushed.

Today the cries of decadence come often from Islamists, revolted by the easy sexuality and indulgent alcohol use of the West. One of the key minds behind modern radical Islamism, Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, was exposed personally to the excesses of Western secularism and racism during two years in the US, from 1948 to 1950. Qutb attended a church social in Colorado that appalled him:

The dance hall was illuminated with red, blue and a few white lights. It convulsed to the tunes of the gramophone and was full of bounding feet and seductive legs. Arms circled waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion.

A horrified Qutb flinched at this sensuality, announcing that "when the wheel of life has turned and the file of history has closed, America will have contributed nothing to the world heritage of values."

Decades later, the Islamists have little to boast about while the values of the decadent West have spread ever further. Industrialisation, democracy, social liberalism and mixed markets have shifted east and south with the collapse of communism: the decadent, it seems, are tenacious. American philosopher Robert Pirsig wrote in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals about the problems inherent to restrictive conservatism and illiberal radicalism:

...a ruthless, doctrinaire avoidance of degeneracy is a degeneracy of another sort. That's the degeneracy fanatics are made of. Purity, identified, ceases to be purity. Objections to pollution are a form of pollution.

Pirsig understood the world as a struggle between static and dynamic values. Static forces keep society from evolving, they are conservative. Dynamic forces push things forward, change things. A society that is all static stagnates and fails if the environment changes. Yet any society open to dynamism and improvement is also open to degeneracy and decline:

Americans like to talk about all their freedom but they think it's disconnected from something Europeans often see in America: the degeneracy that goes with the Dynamic. It seems as though a society that is intolerant of all forms of degeneracy shuts off its own Dynamic growth and becomes static. But a society that tolerates all forms of degeneracy degenerates. Either direction can be dangerous.

Pirsig may explain the tenacity of "decadent" cultures, in that both decadence and technology are products of liberty. Relatively free societies, where individuals have the option to experiment, to question orthodoxies and reject traditions, are able to shift forward quickly and develop new ideas and technologies. Yet the liberties that allow dramatic increases in wealth and technology also free individuals to darker behaviours, behaviours that grew common during the revolutionary years of the late 1960s:

It's an extremely destructive form of degeneracy of the sort seen in the Manson murders, the Jonestown madness, and the increase of crime and drug addiction throughout the country. In the early seventies, as people began to see this, they dropped away from the movement, and the Hippie revolution, like the intellectual revolution of the twenties, became a moral rebellion that failed.

That liberty is a necessity of economic growth is the central concept behind the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom. The choking controls of communism and Islamism seem, so far, to have failed to produce wealth, while bloodthirsty Nazism smashed itself to pieces in war, but relatively liberal countries continued growing. China, after decades of stagnation under restrictive communism, is growing rapidly now and encountering the decadence once despised in its Western enemies.

Liberty, open to degeneracy and decadence, may be the only route to wealth. Those countries open to prostitution, alcoholism and shallow consumerism may also be those creating great art and architecture, technology and trade. So when I hear radicals talking about the decadence of their enemy, I feel a little relieved. The decadent, after all, usually win.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Devil's Cushions: a little mischief with Fox News

On Saturday I posted a few useful sources for news and commentry. Today, something rather different.

Roznama Jawani is a Pakistani satirical news site, similar to The Onion. Posting ludicrous fictional news stories that poke fun at the norms and politics of Pakistan, Roznama Jawani includes such stories as:

...In detailed reports that Roznama Jawani was able to collect from the man’s friends, the 50 year old guy known as Gul Khan was very hyper at the time of his decision. His friends say that he was pacing the room....

Black Magic Practitioners Protest Against President’s Goat-Shield
Karachi — The National Council of Kaala Jaado Enthusiasts protested outside the Karachi Press Club yesterday, demanding the Supreme Court take immediate notice of the unfair way in which President Zardari continues to use goat sacrifices to protect himself.
Usually crazy enough to spot as satire, one story did slip through and got noticed by Fox News journalists, who repeated it as straight news. It was entitled "Pakistan: Islamic Clerics Protest Women Wearing Padded Bras as 'Devils' Cushions", and Fox ran it as a serious story, winning themselves this acknowledgement from Roznama Jawani:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Good sources of news and commentry

To avoid becoming brainwashed into a political view, or at least complacent about it, it can be useful to seriously browse alternative viewpoints. In this post I will give a few fascinating sources of articles from perspectives usually missed in the most mainstream Irish and British media.

The National Interest
This is an American magazine on foreign policy with a good mix of disagreeing views. National Interest often side-steps the usual partisian fights between Democrats and Republicans with serious examinations of international affairs. NI is published by the Nixon Center and was founded by neo-conservative Irving Kristol in 1985, despite which their tone now is often realist rather than neo-conservative. That is, writers often question the ready interventionism of neo-conservatives, calling instead for much more cautious uses of military power. There are lots of articles these days criticising American and allied intervention in Libya. As well as strictly foreign policy questions, National Interest also looks at loosely related ideas, like this intriguing article on records left by an American diplomat to 1920s Turkey, or this brilliant criticism of Sam Harris's anti-religious arguments.

Chronicles Magazine
This is one I've mentioned here before, a magazine for American paleoconservatists. These are pro-tradition Christians, opposed both to social democracy and to unprotected free trade. The paleoconservatives view left-wing calls for open borders and right-wing calls for global trade with antipathy. They oppose the constant militarism of neo-conservatives who want the US to intervene around the world, but also oppose feminism and homosexual rights. Like National Interest, Chronicles is presently busy with condemnations of the intervention in Libya. They also tackle social issues with blunt, confident conservatism that would appall most modern liberals. Not for everyone, which is why it is worth reading sometimes.

The Antiroom
This is a blog run by women in Ireland. Writing broadly (the most recent post is a recipe for Chocolate Molten Lava Cakes), The Antiroom contributors tend to come back to feminist issues. These are often in an Irish context, exploring the sexual inequalities in Irish politics, media and culture. They are often highly critical of the status quo, calling modern Ireland patriarchal. This feminism is mostly new to me and, since I disagree with lots of it, probably a useful perspective for me.

EconLog from the Library of Economics & Liberty
Strongly libertarian views on economics and politics. The writers are pro-capitalism and support liberal immigration policies. One argument proposed by EconLog is that poor countries should have charter cities: undeveloped regions assigned freedom from most of the nation's regulations. These free-trade regions would, they argue, attract commerce and inward migration. That is, EconLog economists view free market capitalism as the best cure for poverty.

Freakonomics Blog
Continuing on from the two Freakonomics books, the blog discusses odd and interesting ideas about society, often by applying economic principles to statistics. Some of these posts are pretty serious, some quirky observations of the authors, thrown open for readers to discuss.

The Nut Graph
A liberal Malaysian magazine that explores political and cultural issues there. Though some articles are based on Malaysian politics to the extent that makes them inaccessible to foreigners, others are more general. The Nut Graph looks often at the role of Islam in that Muslim-majority country, or at its high ethnic diversity.

Christian Science Monitor
Another worthwhile American publication, the Christian Science Monitor was founded in 1908 by Mary Baker Eddy, who also founded the Christian Science movement. Eddy's philosophical imprint remains in the publication's avoidance of sensationalism and fear-mongering. As early as 1883 Eddy wrote 'Looking over the newspapers of the day, one naturally reflects that it is dangerous to live, so loaded with disease seems the very air. These descriptions carry fears to many minds, to be depicted in some future time upon the body. A periodical of our own will counteract to some extent this public nuisance; for through our paper we shall be able to reach many homes with healing, purifying thought.'

Today it has lots of interesting and cool-tempered analysis, a decent read.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Blood and Rage: criminal, not warrior

Writing recently about the phrase "war on terror", I argued that this upgraded terrorist criminals to warriors.

I just read a relevant section from Michael Burleigh's Blood & Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism that confirms this view:

At that time, Washington took no cognisance of the fact that its European NATO allies regarded terrorism as a crime, rather than an act of war amenable to military solutions. Use of the word war inadvertently lifted groups of criminals on to another moral plane where civilised societies also have rules.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Oi! DON'T say Crusade!

Yesterday I posted about the Crusader Narrative, a world view that considers modern Western military action as a continuation of the medieval Crusades against Islam.

Today I was astonished to read this:

“The resolution is defective and flawed,” [Russian Prime Minister] Putin told workers at a Russian ballistic missile factory. “It allows everything. It resembles medieval calls for crusades.”

Odd and perhaps irresponsible language. Russian President Medvedev seems to think so too:

"It is absolutely inexcusable to use expressions that, in effect, lead to a clash of civilizations, such as 'crusades,' and so on. That is unacceptable," Medvedev said. "All that is now happening in Libya is the result of the appalling behavior of the Libyan leadership and the crimes it committed against its own people."

Russian diplomats did not veto the authorization of force resolution when it came before the Security Council because "I do not consider this resolution to be wrong," he added.

Having failed to learn a lesson from George Bush's poor choice of words back in 2001, France's interior minister Claude Guéant announced that "happily", French President Sarkozy "took the lead in the crusade" to mobilise support for intervention in Libya. Presumably using the word to imply a noble cause rather than a medieval religious war, Guéant has already come under attack for this insensitive language. Gaddafi must be pleased with this talk, however, having already referred to the intervention as "a colonial crusade".

So, again: don't say crusade.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Don't say Crusade

One of my concerns over the recent attacks on Libyan targets by "Western" allies is that the sight of Westerners bombing Muslims again would strengthen the Islamist Crusader Narrative.

This is the idea that a Christian West is attempting a new Crusade against Muslims by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, supporting Israel, backing anti-Islamist dictators like Hosni Mubarak and so on. This grossly simplistic narrative is applied to complex events, ignoring modern secularism, the divisions between Catholicism and myriad Protestant churches and the pro-peace mutterings of modern Popes. It is ludicrous, but the narrative gained strength in 2001 when US President George W Bush made the following comment:

This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while. And the American people must be patient. I'm going to be patient.

Bush failed to recognise that "crusade" had another meaning for some Muslims than the one he had intended. Here the word had changed to any campaign or moral cause. Here we can refer to Batman as the Caped Crusader: a man wearing a cape who seeks to make the world better. But some Muslims remembered the word as the medieval invasion of the Middle East by European Christians.

Today I woke to a thread on a Pakistani Orkut community entitled: "Why do the Crusaders still attacking Libya?" Throughout the thread some Pakistanis mock the idea of attacks on Libya being a "crusade", but others repeat it, one saying:

In these crusade wars, jews and hindus are allies of christians.... did you ever hear of Bush's speech about crusades?

So it seems that the Libya intervention is already being interpreted in terms of the Crusader Narrative by some observers. Since this narrative promotes a violent Islamist resistance to the perceived crusade, it seems deeply counter-productive to give it strength.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Crucio to Critics!

Wikipedia has an intriguing article on the politics of Harry Potter, and another about religious debates on Harry Potter, describing the great variety of complaints, controversies and interpretations of the books made by reviewers. Like the Rorschach tests that use random images to draw telling remarks from viewers, interpretations of Harry Potter may tell us more about the critics than the books.

After all, the diversity of opinion about Potter is vast. All at once, different critics have blasted the series for being: conservative, capitalist, socialist, pro-gay, sexist, multicultural, anti-Christian, liberal, casteist, Satanic, Christian, Zionist, anti-Islam, Pagan and finally secular.

It is not difficult to see where some of these ideas come from. Stormfront, white supremacist neo-Nazi website, has the following complaint:

However I have just finished reading the last few books and am disappointed in the highly anti-racial, anti-nazi metaphors and underlying messages depicted in the books.... It's been clear for a while that most pure-bloods and their desire to stay that way have been depicted as evil, Lord Voldemort being the first and foremost.

Well that's probably a fair complaint! In HP the villains are Death Eaters, a secret group of rebels obsessed with magical purity. Witches and wizards may pop up among the non-wizarding community, or they may be born to wizarding families. The Death Eaters - like purity-obsessed Nazis of old - believe that pure-blood wizarding families who have not mixed with Muggles (non-magic people) are superior.

Rowling makes it clear that the Death Eater's perspective is harmful and, since there are no absolutely pure-blood families, delusional. The comparison with Nazi Germany, then, is logical. But another Stormfront member remarks:

Gay leader of all the kids, interracial kids being happy with each other, evil Aryan bad guys (Malfia, Lucius, both blond hair blue eyes), etc. All the bad guys were white with blond hair or at least white, stupid Jewish propaganda, but how can you be surprised, this is just more of the same to me now.

...And that's where we lose them. "Jewish" propaganda?

Yet some critics have drawn parallels between anti-Semite perceptions of money-hoarding Jews and Rowling's goblins, who run the Gringotts Bank. Rowling's goblins have poor relations with the wizards, partly because the goblins understand property in different terms, believing that ownership of all goblin-built products revert to the goblin maker on the death of the wizard buyer. When wizards leave goblin products like swords to their offspring, or sell it on to another wizard, the goblins feel cheated.

This moneyed minority with poor relations to the majority seems a plausible allegory for the Jewish money-lenders so despised in early modern Europe. Yet the second part of Rowling's mythology, that the goblins understand property differently, seems to have no historical equivalent.

Really it is not at all obvious that Rowling intended to depict the goblins as crypto-Jewish characters. The comparison that comes to my mind is rather the stock fantasy characters of dwarves who, in Lord of the Rings and Pratchett's Discworld series, are great metal workers who obsess over gold and treasure, just as Rowling's goblins do. (Pratchett satirises this dwarvish greed by calling one of the favourite songs of his dwarves "Gold! Gold! Gold!")

Another superficially obvious observation about Harry Potter is that most of the action takes place in an old-fashioned boarding school. Anthony Holden attacks the series in The Observor:

...The Potter saga was essentially patronising, very conservative, highly derivative, dispiritingly nostalgic for a bygone Britain.... Why on earth couldn't Hogwarts (the name is indicative of the reach of her imagination) have been a comprehensive, or an embattled secondary modern or a solid old-fashioned grammar - a school of the kind with which most of those millions of young readers can identify?

Why, in the weariest tradition of English children's literature from Tom Brown's Schooldays on, did she have to send Harry to a neo-Dotheboys Hall, complete with such arcane rituals as weirdly named hierarchies and home grown sports with incomprehensible rules?

To be fair to Holden, writing in 2000, the books would develop a lot later in the series, the apparently two-dimensional characters and locations filling out. Yet he ought to have had doubts even then. The students at Hogwarths are jumble of races, hardly indicative of a bygone Britain. Instead the Stormfront neo-Nazis come closer to the truth with their observation that Rowling detests their obsession with racial purity. The series would later look at disadvantaged sentient species like giants, werewolves and especially house elves, often abused by the dominant wizarding community. This is a plausible allegory for modern discrimination against disadvantaged minorities. The mighty wizard Dumbledore is also homosexual, as Rowling admitted in a later interview. This admission was greeted with outrage among some religious conservatives: Rowling simultaneously attacked as a conservative bigot and a liberal propagandist.

Nonetheless Richard Adams from The Guardian repeated many of those complaints about Hogwarths and Potter's conservatism:

To the delight of the Daily Telegraph, the Harry Potter series is a priceless advertisement for traditional English public schools. Hogwarts is little more than the Rugby of Tom Brown's Schooldays with spells added. An indication of how closely it fits the archetype comes when Justin Finch-Fletchley tells Harry: "My name was down for Eton, you know, I can't tell you how glad I am I came here instead. Of course, mother was slightly disappointed."

Rowling herself makes the very reasonable response that the boarding school was useful to further the narrative by taking the children away from protective parents.

Apart from that, of course Hogwarths is a marvellous location for the series, heavy with history that leaves the building riddled with secrets and potential for adventure. The complexity of Rowling's plot only becomes clear in the later books, as does the role of Hogwarths in shifting that plot forward. Hogwarths is pleasing to the reader precisely because it is so radically different from the locations most of us experience. Readers in bland housing estates and multistory apartment blocks can move instead to a world denied to them: a world of comforting tradition, history, excitement and magic. The opulence and dusty history of Hogwarths compels in the same way that the monarchist fantasy of Narnia did. That is, Hogwarths makes Harry Potter excellent escapism.

Another complaint by Richard Adams is the alleged sexism of the series:

While women make up many of the main characters, they receive little attention. Even Harry's friend, Hermione Granger, is a well-worn stereotype: the middle-class "girly swot" who tries to talk Harry out of taking risks. It's no surprise to learn that her parents are dentists. The only times Harry competes with women as equals - Cho Chang on the quidditch pitch and Fleur Delacour in the triwizard tournament - he defeats them both. All of the central evil characters and senior authority figures in the books are men.

This allegation of sexism is also voiced by Christine Schoefer in Salon:

Harry's fictional realm of magic and wizardry perfectly mirrors the conventional assumption that men do and should run the world.... Harry, of course, plays the lead. In his epic struggle with the forces of darkness -- the evil wizard Voldemort and his male supporters -- Harry is supported by the dignified wizard Dumbledore and a colorful cast of male characters. Girls, when they are not downright silly or unlikable, are helpers, enablers and instruments. No girl is brilliantly heroic the way Harry is, no woman is experienced and wise like Professor Dumbledore. In fact, the range of female personalities is so limited that neither women nor girls play on the side of evil.

But, you interject, what about Harry's good friend Hermione? Indeed, she is the female lead and the smartest student at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. She works hard to be accepted by Harry and his sidekick Ron, who treat her like a tag-along until Volume 3.

Schoefer again writes this in 2000, before the series was finished, so she lacks the full picture. In any case, her complaints seem reasonable at first. The hero is male, as is the villain, Voldemort. The school headmaster and both Ministers of Magic are male.

Yet Schoefer's analysis lacks subtlety, for female characters feature in important roles throughout.

First, note the mixed-sex quidditch teams, where boys and girls compete in a highly physical, occasionally dangerous, sport as equals. Team captains may be male or female. This stands in stark contrast to the segregation of boys and girls in sport that I experienced in school, and which dominates most sport today.

Hermione, who Schoefer derides as a goody-goody, is often shown to be correct, and not just in bookish knowledge. In the Deathly Hallows, Hermione shows strength and perseverance, refusing to join her boyfriend Ron when he abandons their quest against Voldemort. Hermione is highly principled, her goody-goody behaviour born of a thoughtful sensitivity to right and wrong.

She also is the only one of the three with the wisdom to understand the dangers of power. Given the choice of an all-powerful wand to cast terrible spells, a stone which revives the dead, or a cloak of invisibility, Hermione chooses the latter. Ron and Harry go for the wand and stone respectively, both indicating their immature desires to control the uncontrollable. (Were Hermione in Lord of the Rings, she would have urged the others to destroy - not use - the One Ring.)

Her aside, the books have a number of other worthy female characters. Luna Lovegood is an unpredictable and initially friendless character who emerges as an unlikely hero in the later books. Luna suffers from bullying, but shrugs off her unpopularity with indifference. She, probably more than any other student, is individualistic, a loner strong enough to wander away from the herds of friends. She is also one of the few students who strays from her Hogwarths house, Ravenclaw, to spend much of her time with a rival house. She is courageous, sometimes solitary, but loving.

Hogwarths itself was founded by three great wizards and a witch. That only one quarter of the founders were female may be seen as sexist, yet it compared favourably with reality: Eton was founded by one man, King Henry VI, and today still educates only boys. The inclusion of the female founder Helga Hufflepuff indicates that Rowling's magic world was historically more equal than ours.

Another major character is Ron's sister Ginny. One-dimensional and shy at first, Ginny develops into a defiant young woman motivated by aggressive loyalty, known for her prowess in sports and magical combat. She, Hermione and Luna are members of the DA, a secret student body designed to share defensive magic knowledge for fighting off Voldemort, and together this mixed-sex organisation fights a number of major battles with adult Death Eaters. There is no sense that female witches are less capable with magic or less determined in conflict than their male peers. While gender disparities exist among the adults, it seems largely much less obvious among the students.

Meanwhile the male authority figures become gradually more flawed and complex as the series develops. The apparently all-knowing Dumbledore is exposed as a former bigot, drawn to dark magic by his lust for power. Young Dumbledore justified his immoral acts in terms of the "greater good". Rowling mocks the power-hungry instinct of several male characters: is she pushing for something deeper, a critical look at the obsessive drive for power that motivates our (mostly male) dictators and politicians? Perhaps not. Among the Death Eaters are powerful and murderous women as well as men. Perhaps the second most powerful Death Eater is the brutal Bellatrix Lestrange, a woman of such power and malevolence that I find it difficult to see real-life equivalents in the governments of Nazi Germany or Stalinist USSR.

Rowling's world, with its male hierarchy, reflects some of the sexual inequality of ours, but the fantasy is probably quite a bit more equal than reality.

A final complaint is easier to shrug off: that Harry Potter promotes Paganism, even Satanism. This is easy to dismiss in casual terms for the simple reason that I know dozens of people who read and love Harry Potter, and none of them are Pagans or Satanists.

Rowling's witches fly on brooms, wave magic wands, keep black cats and toads: these are all stereotypical images of witches familiar from Halloween costumes or Scooby Doo. They're also rather removed from true polytheist Pagans: in Harry Potter religion takes a back seat. Rowling's wizards never worship Pagan deities; instead magic is treated as a science. Hogwarths, meanwhile, is culturally but not religiously Christian, celebrating Christmas as a tradition-laden secular holiday with no mention of Christ.

Rather than takings its cues from religion, Rowling's magic inherits the legacy of fictional fantasy magic. The result is obvious: over 400 million books sold, with The Deathly Hallows selling 2.7 million in the UK over its first 24 hours, yet the highest estimated Neopagan numbers for the UK that I can find are 250,000. Clearly Harry Potter is a lousy recruiting device.

But claims about Potter deliberately seeking to indoctrinate children to Paganism or Satanism are just absurd, particularly when the final book demands a rather obviously Christian sacrifice, coupled with a Tolkienesque appreciation for the dangers of power. I emailed Professor of History at the University of Bristol Ronald Hutton, an authority on historical paganism and magic as well as modern Neopaganism, to see if he had noticed any uptick in Neopagan numbers since the rise of Potter. Prof Hutton's response:

I have myself seen no evidence that J. K. Rowling's novels encourage Paganism. They are perfectly compatible with Christianity, though also with many other systems, as they preach a powerful set of ethics rather than a form of religion.

In any case religious objections seem particularly bizarre to an old fantasy fan like me, having spent my childhood pondering the works of Tolkien, Susan Cooper, Ursula le Guin, Pat O'Shea and the like. Today I do not pray to The Horned God! Magic in fiction has been around for centuries, with Pagan converts relatively few and far between.

Where people seek to find narratives, biases and hidden messages in literature they will find them. Harry Potter is a good example simply because the critics are so diverse, the alleged meanings and messages so many and so ludicrous. A great many other works also undergo shallow analysis, sometimes accompanied by complaints of moral outrage. Some critics seem determined to find evidence in literature that reinforces their own prejudices, forgetting that the main goal of fiction is pleasure, not propaganda. To all of these unhappy folk: CRUCIO!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dublin's Fascist Symbolism

This is the Daniel O'Connell statue on Dublin's O'Connell Street, complete with seagull perched jauntily on O'Connell's crown:

At four corners of the statue sit four angels. Here is one of the four:

The angel is holding a bundle of rods with an axehead jutting out the top. Readers familiar with modern European history will recognise the shape. Here is one of the contexts in which that symbol was used:

The rods and axe are called "fasces", and were used by Mussolini's Fascist Party during their reign in Italy.

Yet the statue predated the rise of Italian fascism by many decades, sculptor John Henry Foley finishing the work in 1882. The fasces feature widely in American state symbolism too: Abraham Lincoln's great statue includes his hands resting on two fasces while the Seal of the United States Senate features crossed fasces which, they explain, "represent freedom and authority".

In fact the fasces were used in Ancient Rome as a symbol of authority. Fascist Italians may have been attracted by this mixture of violent power and collectivism: the rods tied together are stronger than any individual rod alone. Like the swastikas plastered all over Hindu and Buddhist temples centuries older than Hitler, the pre-Fascist fasces lingering in plain sight today seem rather weird anachronisms, respected ancient symbols polluted by the memory of Mussolini.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Upgrading criminal terrorists to warriors

One of the odd arguments in modern American politics has been over the phrase "war on terror".

George W Bush launched the war on terror back in 2001, announcing in a speech days after the 9/11 attacks that:

Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

There were criticisms of the phrase, not least because terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology. But US Presidents had declared wars on strange things before, Lyndon Johnson declaring a war on poverty in 1964, Nixon a war on drugs in 1971. This was just another war that could not end with the surrender of a named enemy.

A major point of contention was the military nature of this WoT rhetoric. Advocates argued that the 9/11 attack was an act of war and that this military-sounding language was appropriate. Right-wing American broadcaster Bill O'Reilly put it like this:

I believe that you have to go to a war mode in the sense that you have to tell these people, look, you've attacked us. It's not a crime. It's an attack. It's war.

O'Reilly is bothered by the decision by the Obama administration to abandon the phrase "war on terror" in favour of a vaguer "Overseas Contingency Operation". Sarah Palin is similarly annoyed:

We are at war with radical Islamic extremists and treating this threat as a law enforcement issue is dangerous for our nation’s security. That’s what happened in the 1990s and we saw the result on September 11, 2001. This is a war on terror not an “overseas contingency operation.”

In some cases this discussion featured right-wingers embracing the military rhetoric of the WoT and insisting that the left are, naively and typically, trying to turn terrorism into a criminal issue. Obama's refusal to use the phrase is attacked as political correctness:

The new hygienic, sterilized language and "politically correct" term being introduced by the Obama administration for the 'war on terror" is now "Overseas Contingency Operations". In place of "terrorist attacks" the politically correct term is "Man Caused Disasters." Let's not offend murderers, al-Qaeda and the Muslim terrorists that attacked us! This will make us safer, no doubt.

Obama and Napolitano are quite obviously out of their minds. If these mental cases were in power during WW II they would not call Hitler's "Third Reich" Nazism they would refer to Nazism as "Asserting German Pride."

Yet earlier rightists did not subscribe to this noisy militant language at all. Back a few decades arch-rightest Maggie Thatcher was refusing Provisional IRA terrorists in prison the political status they demanded:

Once again we have a hunger strike at the Maze Prison in the quest for what they call political status. There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status.

Thatcher's approach was radically different from that of the modern American right-wingers who still talk in military terms about terrorism and war. Thatcher saw IRA killers as criminals. She was certainly unconcerned with not offending IRA members, in fact this refusal to accept the political nature of their crimes caused IRA prisoners to protest, some dying on hunger strike. To them, being considered criminal was a disaster worth dying to prevent.

For the IRA struggled to depict themselves as soldiers, warriors. IRA itself means Irish Republican Army, while they surrounded themselves with military symbolism. The decision-making body was called the Army Council, funerals of IRA members often featured military-style volleys of gunshot with masked gunmen making military salutes. The IRA needed to be considered soldiers fighting a legitimate war: perhaps Thatcher knew that demoting them to the role of criminals, alongside the child-rapists and drug-dealers, was a massive blow to their prestige and legitimacy.

Like the IRA, modern Islamist terrorist groups have similarly used grand, military-sounding language to bolster their narrative of a global jihad. Bin Laden himself puts it:

May Allah keep me close to knights, humans in peace, demons in war. Lions in Jungle but their teeth are spears and Indian swords. The horses witness that I push them hard forwarded in the fire of battle. The dust of the battle bears witnesses for me, so also the fighting itself, the pens and the books!

All this pompous warlike rhetoric seeks to establish Al Qaeda as an army of good men fighting a glorious war against the wicked. Bin Laden often referenced historical conflicts like the invasion of the Crusaders; Bush fumbled this badly by using the modern English translation of "crusade" (any noble venture) to describe the WoT - "This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while" - playing into the hands of Islamist propagandists.

So WoT rhetoric tends to strengthen the militant Islamist narrative, by acknowledging Al Qaeda not as a criminal gang, but as a band of (terrorist) warriors. Comparisons with Nazi Germany also inflate the perceived power of this decentralised cluster of killers, presenting it instead as a monolithic military power.

Sarah Palin and the others reward Al Qaeda when they upgrade them from the role Thatcher saw for terrorists - filthy criminal murderers - to the role they actually seek: warriorhood. On this one, the Obama administration is right. Exciting warlike rhetoric strengthens terrorist organisations trying to depict their struggle as war. Dismissing it as criminality is a far greater insult.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Why Ireland is suddenly fascinating in Pakistan

For a quick glimpse at the weirdness of modernity, see Google's data for the popularity of the search term "Ireland" in Pakistan over the last 12 months:

The key to this sudden fascination with Ireland lies neither in some new trade deal nor a shift in foreign policy. Here, instead is a hint: a Google graph showing the popularity of the search term "cricket" in Ireland!

Cricket, a sport most Irish people don't understand, let alone follow, was plunged into the news in Ireland days ago when the Irish team defeated England. Unlike India and Pakistan, where cricket is hugely popular, cricket in Ireland became strangely associated with the old Anglo-Irish Protestant elite, despised by Irish nationalists. For years it was ignored, sneered at sometimes as an elitist sport of the former conquerers, often by nationalists who saw no contradiction in cheerfully supporting English football teams.

So Ireland's unexpected victory against England brought the sport suddenly to attention in Ireland, and brought the country suddenly to attention to South Asians. The following day I woke to emails from several Indians and Pakistanis, congratulating me as the only Irish person they know!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sexism in insurance update

Following the below post about sexism in insurance premiums, I received an email from Marissa Venturella at Newsy.com, inviting me to embed this video on the topic:

Multisource political news, world news, and entertainment news analysis by Newsy.com

This is just a brief round-up of media opinions on the topic, thanks to Marissa for sending it our way.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

New anti-sexist insurance ruling: masculinazi?

Sometimes questioning feminist demands for equality on this blog, I point to those inequalities that work in women's favour, like the sexual discrimination of motor insurance companies who charge men higher premiums.

But the European Court of Justice has just ruled that this discrimination is unacceptable and from December 2012 insurance companies will have to charge the same. This will force companies to push up premiums for those groups considered low risk, like young women.

While seemingly a victory for equality, I have the same doubts about this as about all equality regulation, that it may have unintended consequences, not least the increased cost to insurance companies that may be pushed onto the customer.

In any case, feminist demands for regulation to fight sexism are sometimes denounced, absurdly, as "feminazi". In this case the demand has been for regulation to fight anti-male sexism.

Is this a case of masculinazism?