Monday, April 25, 2005

The worst calumny

In my recent introduction to openDemocracy's debate on the politics of climate change, I mentioned that Michael Crichton compares believers in global warming to Nazi eugenicists.

The thinking and motivation behind this gross calumny - rightly described as an horrific assault on sanity - are hard to understand.

It is scarcely descending to Crichton's level to point out that such wild accusations are little better than the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Big Daddy of modern conspiracy theories. The Protocols turn the nature of Judaism - a noble and compassionate tradition - on its head, with the disasterous consequences we all know.

Working out the roots of the Crichton mindset is important. Effectively countering it will probably depend on a deeper understanding than I have at present of the hideous vitality of hatred some people bear for environmentalism.

One of the most conspicuous, but - I guess - by no means the only contributory factor to the hatred is a perception (cultivated, manipulated, factitious?) that environmentalism is somehow anti-human. [Another factor in the US looks to be the manipulation of class war anatomised by Thomas Frank.]

But environmentalism as anti-humanism is the precise opposite of the case.

Trying not to be too angry, I have been glad to read Robert MacFarlane's series on nature writing, which includes a sketchy piece on English authors (perhaps over zealously cut by editors?), a useful piece on Raymond Carver, that most unexpected of nature writers, a workmanlike one on Willa Cather, and good introduction to Barry Lopez ( I agree more with MacFarlane than Jonathan Raban about Lopez's work, much though I like and respect Raban).

Best so far in the series is MacFarlane's most recent piece on Antoine de Saint Exupéry, whose books I am glad to be sharing with a very fine twelve year old:

"We are living on a wandering planet", [Saint Ex] beautifully observed. "From time to time, thanks to the aeroplane, it reveals to us its origin: a lake connected with the moon unveils hidden kinships. I have seen other signs of this."

This idea of connection - an idea that was both environmentalist and humanist in its implications
[my emphasis added] - joins all of Saint-Ex's writing, right through to his mystical work, Citadelle, unfinished at the time of his death (he died as he dreamed, disappearing in July 1944 during a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean). Up in his sky-lab, Saint-Ex developed a socialist version of heroism: a belief - in the words of his best English translator - William Rees, that "human solidarity was the only true wealth in life, mutual responsibility the only ethic". [my emphasis added]

This ideal was inextricable, writes MacFarlane, with the view from above - the aeronaut's vision: an viewpoint captured in the Greek word katascopos. In the short, exquisite prologue to Wind, Sand and Stars, Saint Ex described his first night flight in Argentina:

"It was a dark night, with only occasional scattered lights glittering like stars on the plain. Each one, in that ocean of shadows, was a sign of the miracle of consciousness. In one home, people were reading, or thinking, or sharing confidences. In another, perhaps, they were searching through space, wearying themselves with the mathematics of the Andromeda nebula. In another they were making love. These small flames shone far apart in the landscape, demanding their fuel. Each one, in that ocean of shadows, was a sign of the miracle of consciousness ... the flame of the poet, the teacher, or the carpenter. But among these living stars, how many closed windows, how many extinct stars, how many sleeping men ..."

"...We must surely seek unity. We must surely seek to communicate with some of those fires burning far apart in the landscape."

Chernobyl cracks

Land of the dead, extracted from Svetlana Alexievich's Voices From Chernobyl on the 21st anniversary of Chernobyl, contains an account by Lyudmilla Ignatenko of her fireman husband's death that is almost unbearably painful to read.

But good to see that the Russian sense of humour isn't quite dead. Here's Aleksandr Kudryagin, a "Liquidator":

We had good jokes. Here's one: an American robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then it breaks down. The Japanese robot is on the roof for five minutes, and then breaks down.

The Russian robot is up there two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: "Private Ivanov! In two hours, you're welcome to come down and have a cigarette break."


The Zone. Sometimes, in moments between waking and sleeping, I wonder if we are still in Tarkovsky's world.

Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right

If only it were so. But rather we have the BNP:

The BNP polled nearly a million votes in last June's European elections, but with immigration now high on the political agenda, [BNP Chairman, Nick] Griffin says he expects to lose votes to the Conservatives and Labour on 5 May, in the majority of the 118 seats the BNP is fighting.

"We are very happy that the old parties are now talking about these issues because in the long term what they will do is legitimise discussion of these issues and legitimise our position - and make the public realise they can talk about them, it's not taboo any more and, in the long run, they [the big parties] will raise expectations they cannot meet." (BBC, 24 April)

and Al Ghuraaba:

Therefore it is incumbent up you Oh Ulema and Imaam's [sic] to enact the follwing:

- forbid the Muslims in your area from participating in the elections that will take place on May 5th;

- Explain to Muslims that it is an act of Apostasy and Shirk [sic] for any Muslim to vote (for a Kaafir or a Muslim) in the upcoming elections;

bla bla bla bla ad infinitedium

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The perfect symbol a culture of emboldened stupidity

Matt Taibbi has a hilarious review of Thomas Friedman's new book here.

"Man travels to India, plays golf, sees Pizza Hut billboard, listens to Indian CEO mutter small talk, writes 470-page book reversing the course of 2000 years of human thought."

Thomas Friedman on flatness is "like letting a chimpanzee loose in the NORAD control room; even the best-case scenario is an image that could keep you awake well into your 50s".

Francis Wheen got Friedman in one in Mumbo Jumbo, where he recounts Friedman sauntering up the [Thai Prime Minister?] and telling him how he has news for him as now owns the country as a global shareholder. "How does it feel Mr Prime Minister?" ask Friedman - or some such. How it is the PM didn't throttle him, says Wheen, is a wonder.

Friday, April 22, 2005

An infinite capacity for self-delusion

Brad DeLong's review of Richard Parker's biography of J K Galbraith has some stuff worth reading (Foreign Affairs, May/June, here).

I like the line: "the businessman's capacity for self-delusion is nearly infinite".

Unlike other people of course.

Good thing there are no businessmen in the current US administration.

One other thing: Galbraith was...Canadian! (of the "Non-potable Scotch" variety).

This had an influence on his character formation and outlook.

This from DeLong is quite astute:

Galbraith would say, sardonically, that [the US] national self-image is just another fraudulent piece of conventional wisdom-nurtured by the delusional, who cannot see reality, and the rich, who see it all too well but know that such delusions make them richer and more powerful. And Galbraith would be more than half right. But this self-image is also a very powerful social fact, and this more than anything else explains his waning influence on U.S. politics. It is not that the Democratic establishment has lost its nerve or been seduced by law firms and lobbyists; it is that the old Horatio Alger myth has proved extraordinarily durable.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

New climate change blog

My blog on climate change is here. Can it be both good and useful?

Every Grain of Sand

I had not come across this before:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there, other times it's only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Moral bombshells

Freeman Dyson, of all people, reviews two books on World War Two in the New York Review of Books - Armageddon: the Battle for Germany 1944-45 by Max Hastings, and The End: Hamburg 1943 by Hans Nossack.

[Frustratingly, the review is behind the paying archive barrier in the issue cover dated 28 April, an issue which also contains Max Rodenbock’s fascinating piece on Lebanon in which he argues - tantalisingly - that a chance of creating a real nation has emerged at last (see here).]

I hadn’t thought very much about Hastings before reading Dyson’s review. There is still a stock image in my head of a slightly anoraky war hack of the Falklands War, going on to curmudgeonly heights at the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard. The prejudice is obviously unfair. Recently, for example, he’s been writing an often sensible column in the Guardian comments such as one praising Martin van Crefeld’s Defending Israel.

Dyson makes a strong case for Armaggeddon’s strengths – the effective way in which Hastings has compiled eyewitness accounts, and drawn some illuminating conclusions (in more than one sense, the Germans and Russians were fighting World War One all over again, whereas the Western Allies were acting more cautiously).

Dyson also draws four lessons – predictable from a man of his generation, character and intelligence: one, the immense importance of the Geneva Conventions; two, the fact that the Germans fought with tremendous skill and bravery, almost always outclassing other armies and only defeated by overwhelming numbers (but that, thankfully, the utter destruction into which the Nazis led the German people killed the false god of Soldatentum in German culture once and for all); three, the value of international alliances (which necessitate caution); and four, the moral ambiguity of war even when it is fought in a good cause.

Dyson dwells on this last point, moral ambiguity, with a focus on the Allied and especially the British bombing campaign. He argues that the campaign was not only immoral but counterproductive because, in his judgment, it sucked up about a quarter of the British war effort but had little effect on German war production. “We learned after the war” he writes, “that, in spite of the bombing, German weapons production increased steadily up to September 1944”.

I don’t completely buy the argument on lack of effectiveness. No less a figure than Albert Speer, minister of armaments from 1942, said after the war that British and American bombing put challenges on the German war economy almost as great as the Russian campaign. If this is true, it is therefore all the more remarkable that Speer managed to oversee increasing armaments production even under such pressure. Further, as Dyson half-acknowledges, when the Allies did turn to bombing German oil refineries in the last few months of the war, the impact on the German capacity to make war was significant. What if they had targeted oil refineries earlier?

On moral ambiguity, Dyson is quite right. For one, he reminds of the huge losses of aircrew by Bomber Command. More than 40,000 highly trained aircrew were killed. Until the last few months of the war, a crewman had only a one in four chance of surviving to the end of his tour of thirty operations, and many survivors signed on for a second tour [In 1990 or 91, I learnt to hang-glide with a two tour survivor, by then a retired vet living in New Zealand. He described what it was like, as a nineteen or twenty year old, sitting down to breakfast every morning and not knowing which of your friends would not be there because they had died last night. He had trouble learning to hang glide as the joystick of a Lancaster and bar of a hanglider are pushed in opposite directions if you want to go up. At seventy or so, he took a lot of sharp bumps hitting the ground, but was quite undeterred.]

Dyson argues that the bombing campaign was worthless but that he owes his own life to it. Instead of being sent to die, the authorities put his scientific brilliance to work researching for the airforce. They had learnt some things from the carnage of World War One. [Elsewhere, in an autobiographical essay, Dyson recounts how he – a pacifist at the time – spent most of the war trying to convince the higher ups to increase the size of the bomber’s escape hatch so that more crews would be able to bail out. He did not succeed.]

Dyson writes that “there is overwhelming evidence that the bombing of cities strenghtened rather than weakened the determination of the Germans to fight the war to the bitter end”. Nozzack’s The End would appear to lend support to this argument. Previously I had decided not to read it, because an extract published online didn’t give me a good impression (see this post on the anniversary of the bombing Dresden). But Dyson has changed my mind. He quotes Nozzack, writing shortly after the firebombing of Hamburg:

It would be a mistake…to speak of latent unrest and rebellion at the time. Not only the enemies but also our own authorities miscalculated in this respect. Everything went on very quietly and with a definite concern for order, and the State took its bearings from this order that had arisen out of the circumstances. Wherever the State sought to impose regulations of its own, people just got upset and angry…Today the State credits itself with having exercised “restraint”, but that is ridiculous. Others say we were much too apathetic at the time to be capable of revolt. This is not true either. In those days everyone said what was on his mind, and no feeling was further from people than fear.

Nozzack’s conclusion, Dyson writes, is that the bombing decreased the respect of citizens for the State but increased their loyalty to the community.

It’s useful to look at these books around the time that Downfall, a German film about Hitler’s last days, is on general release. I agree with those who think it’s a good bit of film making, both compelling to watch and responsible – that it does not, for example, glorify the SS, but that it does bring us up close to very uncomfortable and very real things about human nature (see here) . [Something not mentioned in the end titles of the film – and which I had forgotten until Dyson mentioned it – is that the Russians lost 350,000 soldiers dead in just that final three weeks of the assualt on Berlin.]

People who we see as unequivocally see as evil were not all equally so, did not see themselves in that way, and they are just as human as you and me. Further – and equally uncomfortably: if you absent, as they often did in their minds, the horrendous things they were fighting for, it is possible to understand the sense of heroism or plain humanity many of them felt, and sometimes not without reason.

Why this blog?

Good to have a coffee with Danny Postel yesterday, and talk about many things. He asked me about this blog - what was it for?

Answer - it's not much more what people used to call a commonplace journal. Do people still understand that phrase?

I quoted what Samuel Beckett said when someone asked why he wrote in French. As I recall, it was: pour se faire remarquer.

My French is poor and I have this in my head as meaning "to notice myself". But was Beckett saying "to be noticed"?

I have not been blogging for over a month. In some circumstances that could have been a good thing. James Crabtree likes to quote William Gibson on the dangers of blogging for a writer - it's like taking the lid off a kettle: the release means it never boils.

But in my case at this particular time it not been a good thing.

Time with Danny is time well spent. (As is time with James!)