Sunday, 23 January 2011

A prophet without honour in his own country

From Tony Blair's evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, 21 January 2011

(I've now removed this video, since it insists on playing automatically whenever the page is opened, thus making it impossible to watch or listen to anything else.)

My transcription:

The numbers of people who are engaged in terrorism and become suicide bombers is very, very limited. But I think the global ideology that gives rise to this extremism has far deeper roots and, you know, I’m out in the Middle East a lot of the time now, and it’s the same issue everywhere. It doesn’t always come up in issues to do with terrorism or violence. It is about modernisation, it’s about attitudes to the West and it’s deep. It’s a lot deeper. And so, what happened when you got al-Qaida coming into this situation is that, it was more than just a few terrorists. It was backed with the ability to push an ideology that said, the West is fundamentally hostile to Islam, and that’s why we have to wage war against these people and we have to wage war against them and against the leaders that deal with them. Now, that ideology, in terms of how it results in violence, is very few people. That narrative about Islam and the West, I fear, has a far greater reach than we like to accept, which is why this problem is not confined to one area of the world today.
Because this is a looming and coming challenge. I’m out in that region the whole time. I see the impact and influence of Iran everywhere. It is negative, destabilising, it is supportive of terrorist groups. It is doing everything it can to impede progress in the Middle East peace process, and to facilitate a siutation in which that region cannot embark on a process of modernisation it urgently needs. And this is not because we’ve done something. You know - and I say this to you with all the passion I possibly can - at some point the West has got to get out of this - what I think is a wretched posture of apology, for believing that we are causing what the Iranians are doing or what these extremists are doing. We’re not. The fact is, they're doing it because they disagree fundamentally with our way of life, and they’ll carry on doing it unless they are met by the requisite determination and if necessary force.
President Obama goes in March 2009 to Cairo, right in the heart of Islam. He makes a speech where he says effectively, put aside the Bush era. I’m now offering you the hand of friendship. You, Iran, can come into partnership, you’re an ancient, proud civilisation, we will welcome you in. What’s the response he gets? They carry on with the terrorism, they carry on with the destabilisation, they carry on with the nuclear weapons programme. Now at some point, we’ve got to get our head out of the sand and understand, they’re going to carry on with this, and Iraq is one part of a far bigger picture.


Apologies if, as happens on my computer, the above video starts playing as soon as you open the page. I'm not sure how to stop this. Having this 'Talking Tony' on permanent loop reminds me somewhat of the gallery of living portraits in 'Harry Potter'.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

From nationalism to Niebuhr and the nature of evil

I've been meaning to recommend the high-quality discussion about nationalism and the nation state that took place at Bob's blog over the NewYear period. It began with Bob listing ‘national sovereignty’ as one of his ‘bad influences’ on the left, at the same time praising a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a 'good influence'. Norm took issue with both of these selections, defending the idea of the nation state and arguing that Bob’s advocacy of the one state solution relied on a misplaced premise.

This prompted Schalom Libertad to post a response to Norm’s response, arguing that ‘the national stands in the way of emancipation’ and advocating a break with, rather than a reinforcement of the nation state. Bob then posted a comprehensive response to these and other comments in another post.

I don’t propose to make a belated contribution to this debate, except to say that it prompted me to reflect on how my own position has shifted over time. Briefly, I would once have lined up unhesitatingly with the anti-nationalists and eagerly looked forward to a world in which the nation state and national interests were things of the past. Now, I find myself instinctively wary of such optimism. I suppose I’ve become more of a realist – about human nature as much as about politics (though not a 'realist' in the US foreign policy sense) – and more keenly aware of both the danger of utopian ambitions and the persistence of a need for local belonging and citizenship.

Anyway, the discussion between Bob and his online interlocutors reminded me of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s defence of the nation state, towards the end of her book Just war against terror: the burden of American power in a violent world. Elshtain challenges what she sees as the dominant hypothesis, certainly on the left, ‘that international organisations will slowly but surely take over many of the functions of nation-states’. She continues:

Nationalism and patriotism, according to this hypothesis, will give way to internationalism and universalism. These trends are often presented as if they undeniably herald a better day. The blurring and melting away of national boundaries, we are told, will make way for a more enlightened and less aggressive international order, or so the confident promise holds.
But for the time being nation-states are surely here to stay. One reason is the spread of democratic ideals. If, as Hannah Arendt insisted, no one can be a citizen of something as vague as 'the world' in the same way he and she can be a citizen of a specific polity, then it makes enormous good sense to build up politics in which people can be citizens.
I think I agree. Of course, Elshtain is writing as a Christian, and as one who has been influenced by a particularly Augustinian strain of Christian thinking, one which is realistic – critics would say overly pessimistic - about human nature and human potential. 

Coincidentally, around the time I was following Bob’s debate on nationalism, I discovered (via new Facebook friend Gabriel Noah Brahm) the US journal Politics and Culture, which recently published Scott R. Paeth’s article on ‘The need for an Augustinian Left’. In what is basically a review of Michael Berube’s The Left at War, Paeth describes anti-war, anti-imperialist, ‘blowback' leftists as the ‘Manichean left’, after the philosophical dualists with whom Augustine contended. He condemns their tendency to divide the world simplistically into good and evil camps and calls instead for a pragmatic left that, following Augustine, recognises that we live in an imperfect world in which some form of order (like the nation state) is necessary and in which compromises with human fallibility have to be made. The argument is of course much more elaborate and sophisticated than this, so I recommend reading the whole thing.

One of the writers recommended by Paeth is Reinhold Niebuhr, whom he describes as ‘the quintessential Augustinian leftist of the past century'. Niebuhr has also been a huge influence on Jean Bethke Elshtain, of course. Regular readers may remember that some time ago I posted a video of a fascinating discussion, between David Brooks and E.J.Dionne, of Niebuhr and the Obama presidency 

Perhaps this is the year when I will finally get round to reading some Niebuhr: he's been sitting in my Amazon 'saved for later' section for far too long. And you never know, I might even force myself to tackle some St. Augustine. That would mark another shift of perspective, this time on the theological plane. Back in my believing days, I was briefly influenced by something called 'creation spirituality' whose advocates maintained that Christianity needed to recover a pre-Augustinian sense of the essential goodness of the world, and that the theological rot had set in with the North African saint's guilt-tripping  obsession with personal sinfulness. Again, I think the passage of time - and possibly middle age - has brought on a degree of Augustinian realism in me.

Anyway, in this video Jean Bethke Elshtain claims that reading The City of God can actually be 'fun'. I came across this talk thanks to a link on Facebook by Alan Johnson. It's ostensibly about Harry Potter, but Elshtain touches on a whole lot of other things besides, including the nature of evil, many of them tangentially connected with the above discussion:

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Arab atheists and agnostics speak out

You may not agree with everything said about religion in this video, but in a week when religious terrorists massacred people simply because they held different beliefs, and a politician was murdered for saying that maybe those who criticised religion shouldn't be executed, these testimonies by Arab atheists and agnostics are brave and encouraging.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Top 10 Books of 2010

I only just noticed that Bob tagged me for this. So: a last look back, before launching boldly into the New Year (if I can ever shake off this lingering Christmas 'flu).

I'm supposed to name my top ten books of 2010, but what I've done is list those I enjoyed reading most during the year, whether newly-published or not. On reflection, I'm rather appalled at the dearth of fiction, but I think you can probably see a pattern or two in the topics that have preoccupied me over the past twelve months.

The order is purely chronological - the sequence in which I read them. I wish I could have stretched it into early January, to include Eamon Duffy's excellent Fires of Faith, about the reign of Queen Mary, or Hitch 22, in which I'm thoroughly absorbed right now.

A couple of interesting facts. First, Bob and I have both included the same Saramago novel, and even more intriguingly, we both read it at more or less the same time (last August) in more or less the same place (the Lisbon coast). Second, I discovered after reading one of the books on this list that I share an office with a close relative of its author (but you'll have to guess which one).

I'm supposed to tag others, but the moment has probably passed. So here we go:

John Adams by David McCullough

Anna Laetitia Barbauld: voice of the Enlightenment by William McCarthy

The Bridge: the life and rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick

The Invention of Air: an experiment, a journey, a new country and the amazing force of scientific discovery by Steve Johnson

The Age of Wonder: how the romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science by Richard Holmes

The Lunar Men: the friends who made the future 1730-1810 by Jenny Uglow

Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago

A Journey by Tony Blair

The Whole Equation: a history of Hollywood by David Thomson

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens