Regular readers will be aware of my admiration for the work of Aaron Sorkin, and will understand the dark days I've been going through since the end of The West Wing and the cruel early demise of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. But despite any apparent involvement from the great man himself, Brothers and Sisters, now in its second series here in the UK, increasingly exhibits many of the signs of a Sorkinesque classic.
There's the same mix of political, personal and workplace drama, tinged with a liberal humanist warmth, plus some superb writing and acting. What's more, recent episodes have often seemed like a reunion of actors from Sorkin's greatest hits, such as The West Wing (Rob Lowe), Studio 60 (Steven Weber) and thirtysomething (Patricia Wettig and Ken Olin). Not to mention outstanding performances from other regulars, such as Sally Field and Calista Flockhart, and (to me, anyway) convincing American accents from Australian Rachel Griffiths and Welshman Matthew Rhys.
The series somehow manages to be stunningly contemporary - covering issues such as Iraq, gay marriage and the presidential primaries - without being clunkingly issue-driven, as well as combining serious drama and comedy in a way that most other programmes (except those written by Aaron Sorkin, of course) quite fail to do.
Reading the London Review of Books can be a bit like reading the Guardian: just when you decide you've had enough and have resolved to cancel your subscription, along comes something to restore your faith - at least, until the next time (see this post). So after gritting my teeth through recent issues featuring (inter alia) Gareth Pierce on the 'war' on British Muslims and Patrick Cockburn on the Iraqi 'resistance', the latest issue includes a couple of articles that make you think your £3.20 was money well spent.
I don't usually have much time for Ross McKibbin, but his in-depth piece on New Labour education policy, and particularly the city academies, is one the best things I've read on the topic, and has a good sense of historical perspective. I think he's absolutely right to say that, in the aftermath of comprehensivisation, 'the Labour Party had only the vaguest notion of what might constitute a democratic educational system.' His position on the academies is a pretty reasonable one: yes, they've achieved some successes, but why on earth do they need business sponsorship (which he describes as 'increasingly preposterous and socially regressive'), and what would be wrong with making all secondary schools quasi-academies: 'schools which possessed much of the academies' autonomy and their academic culture'? (see this post.)
I also enjoyed Eliot Weinberger's retrospective on the Obama v. Clinton contest. If you want a catalogue of reasons why Barack won and Hillary lost, then look no further. And he's quite amusing too. Listing Clinton's campaign errors, he describes her self-reinvention in Pennsylvania 'as a Woman of the People, waxing eloquent on her hunting days with Grandpa and downing shots in working-class bars, as she derided Obama - the son of a single mother on welfare - as an elitist, out of touch with the regular people she'd presumably been hanging out with all these years at Yale Law School, the Arkansas governor's mansion, the White House and the Senate'. Weinberger concludes on a note that spells hope for the Democrats in November: 'I have yet to meet anyone under forty who is not an Obamamaniac'.
Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting debate going on over at The New Republic about Sally Quinn's admission that, though a non-Catholic, she took communion at the recent funeral of her much-mourned fellow-journalist (and staunch Catholic) Tim Russert. Quinn says she did it 'for Tim'. She concludes: 'I'm so glad I did. It made me feel closer to him.'
The Catholic League's Bill Donahue has responded that in Quinn's 'privileged world, life is all about experiences and feelings.' He continues:
Moreover, Quinn's statement not only reeks of narcissism, it shows a profound disrespect for Catholics and the beliefs they hold dear. If she really wanted to get close to Tim Russert, she should have found a way to do so with trampling on Catholic sensibilities. Like praying for him - that's what Catholics do.
Responding to the response, Quinn has said that she was 'baffled' and 'completely blindsided' by it, adding: 'I'm very pluralistic about religion.' Andrew thinks Donahue's statement lacks Christian charity, but most of the commenters at the TNR site seem to disagree - including a fair number of non-believers and ex-believers. Many of them, including some who claim not to have much time for Donahue or his organisation, accuse Quinn of naivety and of having a 'mushy' attitude to belief.
Perhaps surprisingly, my own reaction to Quinn's confession was rather similar. I've been trying to work out why this is, given that I'm an extremely lapsed Catholic and a secularist who has frequently argued in favour of the right to offend religious sensibilities. But I think there's a difference between offence that is caused (or taken) in the course of reasoned argument about the truth, and deliberately (or ignorantly, in this case) setting out to disrupt the practices of a religion to which you don't subscribe.
If I'm honest, though, what really that gets my goat about Sally Quinn's actions, and her interpretation of them, is the touchy-feely, new-agey attitude that both Donahue and the TNR commenters detected. Quinn co-edits the 'On Faith' column at the Washington Post. Like Libby Purves' 'Faith' section in the (London) Times, this tries to cash in on the supposed revival of interest in matters of belief and exemplifies the 'all faiths are equally valuable and certainly better than no faith at all' approach that I criticised here. Honest belief, or unbelief, I can take, but not this lazy, muddle-headed 'we all believe the same thing really' stuff.
Further to my post about revisionist histories of WW2: Michael Weiss writes on the same topic here, linking to Geoffrey Wheatcroft's NYRBreview of a couple of books about Churchill, Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke and Pat Buchanan's attempt to rewrite the history of the last 60 years. Weiss is more tolerant of Baker's pacifism than of Buchanan's paleocon revisionism:
Nicholson Baker is a pacifist and therefore believes war is never justified. His principles have made his tract tone-deaf, voulu, and slightly creepy - but also, in its way, harmless. Even the untutored student of World War II can decide for himself, according to the in situ examples he provides, just how much there really was to choose between Hitler and Churchill. [...]
But Buchanan's cards are all showing, and they have been for years. He's made it his life's work to undo the established wisdom of the climactic event of the twentieth century and to offer this 'alternative' history of the hot war against totalitarianism from the perspective of the lonely little America Firster who has been as hounded and excluded from the great debate as Germany was at Versailles in 1919. He'll find he's still got his work cut out for him. Some things are true and right even if every schoolboy has been taught to believe they are, and history to the defeated revisionists may say alas, but cannot help or pardon.
Buchanan's self-reinvention as the cuddly token conservative on MSNBC chat shows makes it easy to forget the extent of his reactionary isolationism.
As if to prove my point about the sexism of BBC tennis coverage, the tweedy-voiced male commentator has just (2.05 p.m.) described Anne Keothavong's blistering performance against Venus Williams (4 games all in the first set as I write) as the 'hors d'oeuvre' before the 'main dish' of Andy Murray later on. Yuk. If you're not already doing so, you can watch the match here right now.
I don't know, I may be totally wrong, but perhaps there's a hint of something else besides sexism in play here. The same commentator has just described the spectators on Centre Court bedecked in Union Jacks as waiting to lend their support to Murray. But hang on, Anne Keothavong is the British women's No.1 - isn't it possible that their patriotic garb is as much for her as for her male counterpart? Or was the commentator betraying a feeling, however unconscious, that Keothavong, born in London of Laotian parents, isn't quite as - well, you know - 'British' as Murray?
The Guardian continues its implicit support for the campaign to have Islam recognised as an ethnicity, by describing Tarique Ghaffur as Britain's 'most senior Muslim police officer'. Since the story is about Ghaffur's claim of racial (not religious) discrimination, this label seems tendentious, to say the least. Is Sir Ian Blair Britain's top Christian cop? Why couldn't the paper have described the assistant commissioner, who was born in Uganda to Pakistani parents and grew up in Manchester, as the country's top Asian police officer? Islam is not an ethnic identity that you're stuck with for life, but a set of beliefs about which people can change their minds. Confusing the two only encourages those who would like to see causing religious 'offence' placed on a par with racial discrimination, and changing your beliefs defined as 'apostasy' and cultural betrayal.
More encouragingly, today's Guardian also includes a powerful piece by Rahila Gupta of Southall Black Sisters, in which she accuses the government and child welfare professionals of swapping the discredited doctrine of multiculturalism, with its muddle-headed toleration of 'cultural practices' that oppress women and children, for the equally dangerous mantra of 'building cohesion'. Secular groups working with minority communities - like the Sisters themselves - have seen their funding cut, while religious organisations are courted by government, and welfare agencies such as the NSPCC call for 'the engagement of faith and community leaders in the fight against domestic violence'. According to Gupta, these efforts are deeply misguided:
The NSPCC organised a conference aimed at the Muslim community which was attended by 50 imams. It found unsurprisingly that, 'for some imams, the issue of domestic abuse is not on their radar'. Perhaps the most telling statement of all was that 'many mosques are the premises of men only'. In the teeth of such entrenched patriarchal attitudes, calling for the training of imams feels like trying to empty a lake with a teacup.
Gupta quotes a senior police officer as saying that 'the government's agenda on terror is hampering police work on issues such as forced marriage because the government is keen not to alienate those same leaders in the fight against extremism'. When will the government realise that engaging with British citizens of Asian origin via self-appointed, patriarchal 'community leaders' is sexist, undemocratic and reminiscent of colonialism?
How great is this? For the first time (I think) the BBC is live-streaming Wimbledon via the internet. This means you can drop in on matches or have them on in the background, without leaving your desk. No more sneaking downstairs for a ‘quick look’ at the TV. I’m not sure yet if this means I’ll get more or less work done over the next two weeks.
What’s more, you can flick easily between up to five different matches, or alternatively stick with the match you’re really interested in. In the past viewers have been subject to the whims of producers, who have a habit of cutting away from really interesting matches (especially if they're women's games) in favour of marathon slug-fests between the top male seeds, or Tim Henman's latest humiliation.
Tennis is just about the only sport I don't have to pretend to be interested in. I'm no great fan of Slavoj Zizek, but I enjoyed his response, on yesterday's Today programme, to Evan Davies' question as to why his latest book on popular culture doesn't mention football. The Slovenian philosopher proceeded to denigrate sport of all kinds as pointless. About skiing he said something along these lines (imagine heavy East European accent) : 'I don't get it. You go all the way up to the top, just to come all the way down. I'd rather stay at the bottom and read a book'. Quite. (Mind you, I can imagine sport-loving critics of Zizek responding that this statement encapsulates much of what's wrong with his worldview.)
Finally, let's hear it for Hackney-born Anne Keothavong, the British women's No.1, who fought long and hard to win her first round match yesterday, but whose success was inevitably overshadowed by all the attention focused on the new great white hope of British tennis, Andy Murray (whom Keothavong recently took to task for dissing his fellow British players). Shame she has to face Venus Williams in Round 2.
I’ve been reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, which first appeared in 1974. We think of the ‘70s as the high tide of second wave feminism and gay liberation, but I was struck by just how dated some of the book’s attitudes seemed. Tomalin’s attitude to her subject is often peevish and disapproving, but particularly noticeable was her tendency to blame the failures of feminism, whether in the 19th or 20th centuries, on feminists themselves. And I thought her account of Wollstonecraft’s early same-sex passions, unconvincingly construed here as little more than platonic, was coy and old-fashioned, to the say the least.
I’m now revisiting Barbara Taylor’s magnificent and groundbreaking Eve and the New Jerusalem, which for me is up there with E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class as a classic study of early 19th century radicalism. But Taylor’s book, first published in 1983, strikes me as dated for different reasons. Its optimistic vision of reviving the utopian socialist feminism of the Owenites now seems sadly misplaced, given the worldwide collapse of socialism at the end of the decade. Again, the dominant image we have of the ‘80s is as the decade of thrusting free-market Thatcherism, but it was actually the period when the ideas of ’68 gained widespread influence, as the ‘60s generation achieved power in local authorities and political organisations. In retrospect, the ‘new times’ socialism and feminism of the ’80s appear like a last burst of radical energy and hope, before the neoliberal left-right consensus of the ‘90s.
I think I’m right in saying that there hasn’t been a major biography of Wollstonecraft since Tomalin’s. This is a pity, since Wollstonecraft’s ideas, like those of her radical contemporary Tom Paine, are more relevant than ever, at this time when freedom of expression and women’s rights are under threat from religious fundamentalism and shoddy cultural relativism. This, and not the dates of kings and imperial wars, is the ‘heritage’ that government ministers, concerned to bolster notions of shared ‘Britishness’, should ensure is studied by schoolchildren and new immigrants.
Andrew Sullivan links to this piece by Stephen A. Cook, which argues against Western governments adopting a strategy of support for 'moderate Islam'. The article carries the attention-grabbing headline 'The myth of moderate Islam', but this is misleading, since Cook's principal argument is that secular governments have no business expressing theological preferences or advancing the cause of particular belief systems (something I wrote about here).
Cook gives two main reasons. The first is that Islamic factions that present themselves as 'moderate' often turn out to be no such thing once they gain power. The second and more compelling argument is the impossibility of agreeing on a definition of 'moderate'. He gives the examples of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (who has expressed 'moderate' views on the role of women and political reform, but at the same time supports suicide attacks against Israeli citizens), Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (the 'moderate' former Iranian president, who once implored his fellow countrymen to kill westerners wherever they could find them), and Turkey's 'moderate Islamist' AKP, whose real agenda seems to be the creeping Islamisation of Turkish society. Cook concludes:
Given the wildly different criteria for what constitutes 'a moderate', policymakers will run in circles trying to determine who is a moderate and worthy of support, and who is not. One person's moderate is another person's radical, and another person's moderate is little more than a patsy of the West. A policy built on support for moderate Islam is only asking for trouble.
A smarter position is to avoid theological discussions altogether. As with all faiths, there will be heated debates between competing groups within Islam over the proper interpretation of sacred texts and the relationship between religion and politics. Yet because these arguments are so opaque to outsiders, policymakers should resist the urge to jump in. Given that moderation is in the eye of the beholder, Washington should not have an ideological litmus test for whom it wishes to engage. Rather, policymakers should focus on identifying those who can contribute pragmatic solution to the many problems we confront in the region, 'moderate' or not.
It may be whistling in the wind, but surely an even smarter and bolder strategy would be to support those flickering signs of secular, democratic political and civil life emerging in parts of the Middle East. (I think the problem with this option - certainly for the current US administration - is that those movements are almost invariably on the Left.) Am I the only one to find western governments' attempts to engage with 'moderate Islam' faintly patronising and colonialist (as well as defeatist), as if accepting that some nations, and some ethnic groups within our own countries, are never going to be ready for the kind of secular modernity we take for granted, and that therefore some form of theocracy is always going to be their lot - so it might as well be a relatively mild and acceptable kind?
Pascal Bruckner makes the case for democratic countries boycotting the third UN World Conference against Racism, due to be held in Geneva next year, which promises to be a 'repeat performance' of the 2001 event in Durban that 'rapidly degenerated into one-upmanship among victims and bloodlust directed at Israeli organisations and anyone else suspected of being Jewish'.
According to Bruckner, recent reports by Doudou Diene, the UN Special Rapporteur for racism, xenophobia and discrimination, 'do not encourage optimism'. Diene's main concern appears to be the rise of 'Islamophobia' and he's one of those arguing that offending people's religious beliefs is a form of racism that should be outlawed (see this post).
Much more encouraging is this piece by Pakistanti democratic socialist Farooq Sulehria, in which he reports on the sorry state of human rights in the Muslim world and castigates Arab and Asian leaders for their tendency (exemplified by Diene) to blame others for their countries' ills:
When all else fails, 'Jews' and the 'Christian' West are there to lay the blame for all our ills. Conspiracy theories instead of scientific, rational thought holds sway across much of the Muslim world...
However, the solution to all our problems is always simple: return to an imagined past which, mercifully for the people of the seventh century, never existed...
We kill Theo van Gogh when confronted with a film. We burn down our cities in response to a blasphemous and racist caricature. Still, we refuse to understand that our answer to every 'provocation' is either a fatwa or mindless violence - perhaps because creativity is anathema to us. Not because we lack fertile minds, but because we lack liberation and freedom - liberation from self-imposed mental, moral, and cultural censors. And freedom to think and express.
Scientists claim to have discovered that gay men and heterosexual women share similar kinds of brains, as do straight men and lesbians. Apparently studies have shown that gay men and straight women both tend to have a poor sense of direction, while they outperform straight men and lesbians in tasks that require verbal fluency.
I'm not sure where this leaves all those lesbians and straight men who happen to be brilliant writers, or all those heterosexual men who have difficulties with maps. Nor is it easy to see how this theory would account for bisexuality, or for the experience of those who go through a gay phase in their youth only to settle down with a partner of the opposite sex, not to mention those whose sexual preferences change in more subtle ways throughout their lives.
I can see the usefulness of all this neuroscientific stuff for challenging those who insist that sexual preference is a mere lifestyle 'choice', but it's really far too reductive to account for the complexities and vagaries of human desire. Like all positivist science, it isolates historically and culturally shifting phenomena (the notion of 'the homosexual' as a distinct category was unknown 200 years ago), treats them as if they were fixed and unchanging, and attempts to identify 'hard-wired' causes that explain them. I often wonder if, in a hundred years time, this kind of neuroscience will seem as peculiar as the theories of those Victorian phrenologists who claimed to have identified the key features of the 'criminal' brain now appear to us.
We were shocked last night to hear about the sudden death, at the age of 58, of Tim Russert, MSNBC's Washington bureau chief, host of 'Meet the Press', and general mainstay of the channel's coverage of the recent primary campaign. Looking in on the election from across the Atlantic, via the internet, we'd grown accustomed to his familiar, genial presence and come to depend on his expert knowledge and unrivalled insight. 'What does Tim say?' was often our first question when any fresh story broke in the seemingly endless tussle between Clinton and Obama. We'll miss him. May he rest in peace.
The tributes to Russert keep pouring in. I particularly liked this one from Christopher Hitchens.
Andrew Sullivan links to this item about the rise of 'misery lit'. But you read it about it here first. And Andrew is a bit behind the times in failing to mention the recent (and encouraging) decline in sales of what W.H.Smith categorises as 'tragic life stories'. As one publisher said: 'A number of the big publishers are now doing a book a month. Even the most miserable person in the world is being oversupplied by that volume'. A cheerful thought for a Friday afternoon.
The always excellent Elizabeth Drew has written an informative profile of possible Obama running mate Jim Webb, in the latest New York Review of Books. Reading Webb's CV left me feeling both inspired and exhausted:
a best-selling author; a screenwriter (Rules of Engagement, and another in the works); an Emmy-winning documentary producer; the author of a large number of articles and book reviews; an Annapolis graduate; a boxer (he lost a legendary and controversial championship match at Annapolis against Oliver North); an autodidact who grew up a military man's son and indifferent student but on his own became a passionate reader of history; a first lieutenant and Marine rifle platoon commander with Delta Company in Vietnam, where he won the Navy Cross for heroism (the second-highest award in the Navy and the Marines), the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts; a graduate of Georgetown Law School who then worked on the staff of the House Veterans Affairs Committee; a teacher of English literature at the Naval Academy; and an assistant secretary of defense and then secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration.
Not to mention his achievement in wresting his Senate seat from a near-certain Republican incumbent. A Virginian who has written a book about his Scots-Irish heritage and who bristles at the word 'redneck', Webb could help Obama to win over those white, working-class voters who seemingly flocked to Clinton in the primaries.
Webb may turn out to be too unpredictable a proposition for the Obama campaign to handle. But his occasional eccentricity is what many find appealing about him, as in this anecdote recounted by Drew:
The sense in Washington that he was—well—different was enhanced by his famous first encounter with President Bush after the election, when at a November White House reception for newly elected members of Congress, Webb refused to shake Bush's hand. Bush then sought Webb out and asked him about his son, who was serving in Iraq, "How's your boy?" and Webb replied, "I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President." "That isn't what I asked," Bush snapped. "How's your boy?" Webb responded, "That's between me and my son, Mr. President."
Richard Just, writing in The New Republic,is less indulgent of Webb's eccentricities and argues that he's a reactionary, not a liberal, while Timothy Noah over at Slatebelieves that the Virginia senator would be too much of a risk for Obama.
Bob has an excellent post up about the pseudo-leftist journal CounterPunch and the dubious politics of its editor, Alexander Cockburn. He makes some interesting links between the myopia of the old Stalinist left and the neo-Stalinism of many on the contemporary anti-war/anti-American/anti-Israel left. Bob's piece includes a fascinating historical digression on the role of pro-Soviet Communists, such as Cockburn's father Claud, in the Spanish Civil War. It made me realise how little I knew about the various factions that made up the Republican left, and how I had probably swallowed too easily the official CP line about the Trotskyism of Orwell's POUM - something that for me had always damned them by association with the Trotskyite factions (IS, SWP, et al.) of my youth. Reading Bob's post has inspired me to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the period - can anyone recommend a good book on the politics of the Spanish Republic?
As I've written before, although I had my doubts about the wisdom of the Iraq war, I found myself more in sympathy with those who argued for it on progressive, humanitarian grounds, than with those 'stoppers' who seemed to be opposed on principle to military interventions against murderous tyrants. The same people were often as vehemently opposed to the war in Afghanistan (which I supported) appearing to exhibit more sympathy for the reactionary Taliban than for the secular, democratic forces that stood up to them.
One of the strongest arguments against leftist opponents of liberal intervention has always been a historical one. If you followed their reasoning to its logical conclusion, and applied it retrospectively, then the western democracies would never had stood up to Hitler. And there's nothing more damning for a good leftist than to be ranked among the appeasers (even though there were many in the 1930s, on the left as well as the right, who argued that cutting a deal with Hitler would be less awful than going to war, and who suggested - pre-echoing many on the 'indecent left' today - that Nazism was not much worse than western capitalism).
So it was probably only a matter of time before someone on the 'stopper' left attempted to undermine this historical argument. It seems that the experimental novelist Nicholson Baker, whose expertise as a historian was hitherto unknown, has gone there, with his book Human Smoke: The Beginning of World War II, the End of Civilisation.Baker suggests that the world would have been a better place if we'd just let Hitler get on with things: fewer lives would have been lost, the occupation of Europe wouldn't have been so bad, etc. Most contentiously, the book argues that if the Allies hadn't intervened, then the Holocaust might not have happened, thus neatly adding the worst genocide in history to the roll-call of things for which the west is 'really' to blame.
Anne Applebaum does a good job of demolishing Baker's arguments in her review in The New Republic, in which she accuses him of basing his analysis on second-hand sources and recycled myths taken from the internet. Christopher Hitchens is equally trenchant in his New Statesmanreview, criticising among other things the tastelessness of Baker's title. However, the general tenor of the comments in response to Hitchens' piece, on the NS website, which tend to favour Baker and repeat all the predictable non-arguments about Hitch's 'neocon' connections, confirm that the book is not an eccentric one-off but one more symptom of a wider malaise of the western left.
Other blogs that have already linked to this post include Bob - and Will at DSTW, who also links to a more detailed critique of Baker's argument by Snoopy at Simply Jews.
I've been reading Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, or The Murder at Road Hill House. It's a real-life Victorian detective story, an utterly absorbing account of a horrific child murder that gripped the nation in the 1860s, and provided the template for many fictional country-house detective stories. Summerscale's research is impressive, but the style and pace of her writing are even more so: the early chapter describing the house on the night before the murder holds the reader in breathless suspense and is almost filmic in its vividness. Some of the Amazon reviewers have complained about the number of digressions into social history, but that's just the kind of thing that history nerds like me love about the book.
My reading of Summerscale's book followed hot on the heels of Jerry White's equally absorbing London in the Nineteenth Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God. Taken together with my recent attempts to trace my family history, it feels as though I'm living imaginatively in the Victorian and late Georgian periods at the moment, my head full of dissenters and reformers, and captivated by the thought that my obscure ancestors walked, and often lived in, the same London streets as Blake, Hazlitt and Marx.
Following on from the worrying story about the teenager threatened with prosecution for calling Scientology a 'cult', there's a report that a police community support officer in Birmingham stopped Christian preachers from distributing leaflets because they were in a 'Muslim area' and their actions might constitute a 'hate crime'.
I'm no great fan of religionists proselytising in the street, but as the man said, I'd defend to the death their right to do so, however wacky their beliefs. And as a secularist, I'll complain till I'm blue in the face every time someone ascribes a religion to a geographical area, especially if that person is a state official. If the report is true, the police officer in question was behaving more like the enforcer of a sectarian neighbourhood protection racket than an officer of the law.
Along similar lines, Brett warns about a deeply disturbing attempt to include protection against 'defamation and contempt for religions' in the UN charter on human rights. As he says: 'It is people who require protection, not religions, philosophies, institutions and other abstractions'. There's more on this over at the National Secular Society's website.