Monday, 25 May 2009

The Abominable Mr Phibbs

The Guardian seems determined to follow the winning business model of the New York Times and print lots of neo-conservative bullshit in the hope that will widen the appeal. The irony that this big-business-friendly approach is probably contributing to the 'liberal' newspapers flat-lining as businesses is somewhat obvious.

What is possibly the funniest thing about this is that the ‘right wing’ as opposed to ‘left wing’ newspapers employ people with identical views to Phibbs but they tend to be better writers and more incisive thinkers.

He reheats the argument for privatisation, that Adolf nationalised the banks (rather than just pouring billions of tax dollars into them), therefore he was left wing. Apparently he had a protectionist trading policy as well.

It demonstrates that for both left and right, privatisation and unregulated open markets are now regarded as default sensible positions at a time when there are still major debates on the first issue and the second has proven to be a disaster.

Still, I don’t think that lateral thought (or any other type of thought) is Phibb’s strong point:

‘ The Conservatives need to get stuck in and expose the BNP as a neo-Nazi outfit. This task can no longer be satisfactorily left to the Socialist Workers party. Voters will understandably dismiss anything coming from that quarter as hysterical abuse – even if in this case it happens to be true.
What Conservatives can add to this critique is something that the left can never admit: Nazism and communism are ideological twins. The BNP is in fact an extreme leftwing outfit. It wishes individual liberty to be sacrificed to state control. It seeks the overthrow of capitalism, and rages against profit and speculators. It wishes to institute a siege economy with protectionism and the nationalisation of foreign-owned companies. In this it is being consistent to its founding inspiration. Hitler nationalised the banks and insurance companies, the economy was rigidly centrally planned, there was an extensive programme of public works, independent schools were banned.'
So it can ‘no longer’ be left to the Socialist Worker Party because it is the same thing? I’m confused. And ‘an extensive programme of public works’, the dastards. It just goes to show what would have happened if the neoliberal labservatives had improved the railway network. We’d be goose-stepping to the platforms.

Of course, the implicit argument is that big business will save us from Nazism. I don’t think that Phibbs missed making this explicit because he knew about IG Farben and Siemens use of slave labour, but purely because it would be too incisive to do so. I don’t think waffle is an arch ruse in Phibb’s case, but just his natural mode of being.

Furthermore, he also implies that neo-liberalism protects our personal freedoms whilst Social Democracy does not. Uh, maybe.

Still, let's wish Phibbs luck in his bold mission to 'expose' the BNP as racists. Let's just hope that he has the intellect to do so.

Friday, 22 May 2009

My Kinda Theocracy

98% of Greeks are baptised Orthodox and there is no separation of the Church and state. Whilst the neo-liberal press from London to Athens is separated by many miles of land and sea, they are united by the cliche that the 'Ayatollah of Athens'* was anti-democratic because... he rallied people to oppose their government's anti-democratic measures.

Britain regards the words 'secularism' and 'democracy' as articles of faith. Yet I do not think that 'atheist' and 'secular' are cognates.

In Britain faith is seen by many dangerous and stupid people (like Appalling Cliches Grayling) as a force stopping us from reaching a golden age. If the last people stopped going to Britain's empty Churches, then millions of Brits would exchange 'Big Brother' and 'Britain's Got Talent' for stethoscopes and Milton. If this view is not religious, then I do not know what is. Grayling is far more 'religious' than I am. I do not have great hopes for any utopia, many of my friends are atheists as is one of my favourite journalists. Still, I dislike the smugness of atheist discourse in British society.

It seems to me that as with so much else, this is one of those odd areas where Britain's cultural obsession with the USA highlights how different we are. People in Britain can only really discuss faith within the paradigm of fundamentalist Christianity. Whereas I have found that the Apostolic Church in Greece was actually a profoundly democratic institution precisely because it gave people an alternative voice to 'elected' politicians.

Electing a politician is like playing darts blindfolded, we have no guarantees that they will do what we tell them to. It seems that as Gordon Brown's career comes to a pitiful end, he will take our nationalised Post Office with him... despite being a 'Labour' PM. Furthermore Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats unanimously decided that Saakashvilli should be rewarded for sparking a war with Russia. What a choice at the polling booth.

Yet people in Britain are biased against faith, which they see as opposed to Democracy, because our media can only give them stories about American Protestantism. I certainly share their dislike for the demented Falwell/ Robertson types, but I think by forgetting the Christian faith in the Apophatic tradition, they are missing out on a force that can be very good for society.

The Greeks are possibly even more devout than the Americans. Yet there I found attractive, intelligent young people who drank sensibly and sunbathed. They were very far from puritanical and were generally more capable of interesting conversation than most of my compatriots.

Furthermore, the Orthodox Church in Greece is a force for patriotism and democracy, not because it supports the political consensus but because it opposes it. The Priesthood are against the CCTV campaign in Athens. I wish that we also had a national Church that curbed the strange dictatorship known as a 'two party democracy'.

*Said Ayatollah did not hang anyone from cranes or impose theocratic law, but believed in God and wore black. So he was kind of Ayatollah-ish.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Pop-Culture Entropy

We all search for meanings and labels to attach to ourselves and to other people. Yet I am often surprised at how subjective these are. Aside from my identity as an Orthodox Christian, I do not know what other words I would use to describe myself, apart from a great sinner.

I regard myself as politically liberal and a fan of pop culture. Yet both of these have passed from defining fairly cynical positions to being articles of faith.

Take films for example. The latest instalment of Tarantino’s endlessly unimaginative career has (astoundingly) won great reviews.

Tarantino has learnt his main lesson from David Mamet: if you use the word ‘fuck’ often enough, you will be praised by upper-middle-class film critics for raw, clever and realistic dialogue on a literary level with Aeschylos.

And then he has learnt presumably from someone else that if you are self-consciously derivative then it is not derivative, but ‘post-modern homage’. And that’s good.

Lastly, he seems to have learnt from Baz Luhrmann that if you use pop music in period films, this will be praised as ‘inspired’ rather than embarrassingly stupid because it flatters idiots, especially if the lyrics are related to what is happening. IE ‘It was very inspired of Tarantino to use an 80s British rock song called ‘putting out fires with gasoline’* in a film set in 1940s France because there is fire and there is gasoline. Me clever. Me understand what Tarantino say.'

I am far from being puritanical or highbrow in my film taste. I defend the view that many excellent films in the 1980s were stupid action adventures that nonetheless contained interesting ideas about consumerism and aggression. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film ‘The Running Man’ was a hilarious satire on sadism and conformity.

In this sci-fi movie, America has undergone a financial crisis, and for entertainment the crowd watch people being butchered on TV (hmm, hmm). There is a brilliant advert for one daytime TV show which shows a man picking up dollars in a cage filled with Doberman Pinschers. Conveying the state of society through its advertisements is both very funny and deeply concise, avoiding pretentious philosophising and laboured moralising.

Yes, it is a silly film with a largely clichéd plot, but it does represent the things that good pop culture can do with some imagination. Now contrast this with Quentin Tarantino. Has he ever had an imaginative or original plot idea?

In fact, Tarantino is less like DeSouza (the writer of The Running Man) than he is like Killian, the smarmy talk show host who makes money by flattering the baying sadistic crowd whilst feeding them torture porn. In case anyone thinks this term is a stupid hyperbole, the IB star Eli Roth has described the scene where he beats a Nazi to death as ‘porn’.

I don’t think one need be an admirer of National Socialism to find this very strange.

Now we have reviewers of this film stating that it is a work of post-modern genius that is cunningly disguised as a clichéd piece of crap.

In further entertainment news I’ve read that Russia and China are going to invade America in the remake of Red Dawn. This is another 80s film that was ultimately very daft, but with interesting ideas about how quickly America would adapt to Soviet Invasion and if there was a rebellion, how brutal would the rebels be? Whilst it was not 'Battle of Algiers' there were memorable scenes where Patrick Swayze dispatches injured prisoners, including one who looks like a teenager. This is not shot in a gloating way, like Tarantino, but with striking moral ambiguity for a film with such a mad reputation.

Yet now the Soviet Union has collapsed, why exactly would the Russians invade? And why would China risk invading a country that owes them so much money? In fact China is all that’s keeping America’s economy going right now.

Perhaps ‘pop’ culture has ran out of steam. It is a profoundly American form of entertainment (just look at the pitiful efforts of the French and British to emulate it) and perhaps it gave a voice to the libertarian right/ left who were elbowed out of the statist corporate policies that the Democrat and Republicans both followed. Now we have reached a paradox that because the state did not regulate the banks, the state has partially nationalised them. Subsequently the idea of a self-regulating market is gone.

In political news, I notice there has been a blanket silence on both ‘left and ‘right’ publications about Obama’s Vice President Biden (a sordid Serbophobe bigot) going to visit the puppet government in Belgrade. Could it be that liberalism is going the way of pop-culture?

*This song appeared in yet another brilliantly mad 80s film, 'Cat People'. This may seem derivative but no doubt shows Quentin's genius for 'post-modernism'.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

More Photographs

Sarkozy's Greatest Achievement

Whenever a Social Democrat gets into power, The Guardian/ Observer will generally refer to them as 'populist' or 'demagogue'.

When they are in opposition however, The Gobserver will only print their side of the story to keep up the pretense of being 'leftist'. This is the case with their recent piece of tripe concerning Nicolas Sarkozy . Given the amount of coverage they gave it, it seems his greatest acheivement was offering titillation to middle aged men:

'Bruni, a guitar-strumming, silken-haired former model with a self-proclaimed history of man-eating and a penchant for singing about sex, was all the media could have ever wanted and more. She was also, it appeared, all that the president could have wanted. With typical "super-Sarko" pacing, no time was wasted in making the romance official. By February, the couple had married in a discreet ceremony in Paris. Their honeymoon was spent dodging the paparazzi in the grounds of Versailles. Not everyone was impressed.'

However, given that 'The Guardian' is ostensibly a friend of the Georgians, surely they should praise him for organising a cease fire between Georgia and Russia. In fact this achievement is summed up as follows:

'During France's frenetic presidency of the EU and its immediate aftermath, when the "hyper-president" crisscrossed the globe from Tbilisi to Ramallah, his approval ratings shot up. The true success of some of these diplomatic missions is debatable, but the French seemed to appreciate that at last they had a president who was building bridges instead of burning them'

So securing aceasefire is a debatable success? I wish there could be some 'debate' as to Britain's recent foreign policy 'success'.

But if you know a bit about Brit journalism, their denial of Sarkozy's achievement is quite funny. Our middle aged punditocracy were getting into a lather about the 'post-modern' EU values being assaulted by Ivan. From the sounds of things, the Grauniad's own double barelled (ahem) 'leftist' Timothy Garton Ash wanted to take on the bear for daring to encroach upon our 'post-modern' paradise.

But as the British punditocracy and political classes fumed with John McCain (whom they expected to win the American election) the French through careful and non-ideological work managed to secure peace. As someone who loathes violence and the killings of Georgians, Russians and Ossetians I was very grateful when war ended, largely thanks to Sarkozy. Of course, no-one outside of Britain really cared what the British political classes thought.

This is why I think my Central European friends could pay more attention to the dynamics of Western politics. I feel great affection for the Georgian people, which is why I think as a state they would be better off without Ossetia. The John MacCain/ Timothy Garton Ash, Red-Brown coalition by contrast would prefer to shed Georgian blood if it meant bringing the great bear into a perpetual conflict.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

An Excercise in Futility

One strange paradox of my immersion in Orthodox culture is that I have befriended numerous people from central/ eastern Europe who are politically anti-Russian whilst I still have hopes for Russia to return as a Christian superpower. Yet I live in a country full of insular people, who do not care that we are heading for an extremely stupid and counter-productive course of action in encircling Russia. It is not that they love Russia's neighbours (or even know their names) but that they would rather watch Big Brother or football than think about what our government is doing.

Of course, even in these countries there are many who do not like their own governments and there was a Georgian mutiny ahead of NATO exercises. I read yahoo news headlines (you know the objective news source), taking Saakashvilli's claims that Russia was responsible at face value. Sadly the side photo did not show him mauling his tie with his face like Goya's Saturn, but heroically berating his troops (who hanged their heads in shame).

NATO really is an idiotic organisation. There is absolutely no reason left for it to exist, except to dishonour its own promises. Gorbachev was promised that it would not move into any former Communist states (such as East Germany), but now it is moving into Russia's borders.

Presumably if the tie-chewing loon Saakashvilli decides to provoke Russia, we will be called in to help. NATO said that they would speed up Georgia's application after he triggered a war (that he lost) in Ossetia. Rewarding a loser would normally be a stupid thing to do, but not for the NATO kleptocracy. As no one is threatening the titular 'North Atlantic', they have to go far afield to find someone dumb/ mad enough to give them a rationale for the money that is poured into the organisation. And Saakashvilli has. Saakashvilli in this case is a real golden fleece. A tyrant who uses any excuse to call himself a democrat, whose idiotic actions over Ossetia have given NATO a good excuse to expand military operations.

What I find oddest about this is that Saakashvilli will claim he embodies 'democracy'. Whilst sending opposition to prison, shutting down TV stations and using riot police to disrupt protests. What is democracy anyway? Getting to choose who leads your country into war? Choosing someone who will do the will of the bankers and industrialists?

Democracy is possibly the least bad form of government but feel sickened by the way in which it has become a religion in its own right. Like the Frankish Popes who were regarded as Christian purely because they were recognised as Christians, Saakashvilli is a 'democrat' because people choose to call him one. But few democratic East Europeans see the flip-side to this. As the Georgians are allies to NATO because they embody an idea, the idea is more valuable (in the eyes of our 'democrats) than the Georgians themselves. Just look at the Iraqis who were praised as a secular, educated people under a nasty dictatorship. When the Iraqis proved not so democratic or enlightened, they were bombed with white phosphorus. The Georgians may be praised as 'democracts' but cannot be surprised if they are bombed if they dislike how 'democrats' treat their country.

And as for the supposed assassination attempt on Saakashvilli: presumably the fact that his own people would murder him is an article in favour of coming to his help.

The people of central/ eastern Europe are lucky that Christianity is still a strong presence in these regions. I would have thought that they'd know that if you exchange Christianity for secular paradise, you will end up losing both. Hopefully the Orthodox Church will come to play a greater role in the east and help re-unify the Orthodox Countries because we need an Orthodox 'bloc'.

I do not see Empire as good or bad, but as a historian I can see that Empires did have brakes on their potential stupidity. Usually they had economic and power incentives. Whilst this was far from ideal, in our fallen world I think it may be the best that we can hope for. Unlike Britain or Germany, Tsarist Russia was a multi-ethnic, multi-racial state that had a largely peaceful existence. It was only when people came with a message of peace, democracy and equality that 20,000,000 people were killed. Epictetus said 'do not tell the world that you are a philosopher, but if you are wise show it in actions. A sheep does not vomit its food but puts it into producing wool'. The same goes for any humanist ideology. If you have an idea for exporting freedom, equality and fraternity then put it into action without sending people to the guillotine for opposing it. If democracy is so wonderful then surely we do not need to send high explosives to Georgia, and Saakashvilli does not need to close down TV stations. Whilst it is all very well for us to be smug about the Jacobins and Bolsheviks, NATO may be seen by future historians as a tragic symbol of secular humanist hubris.

My Romanian friend Bogdan said that people from his country had been victims of the bear's claws. By this he meant the multi-national secular humanist USSR. Given how NATO members America and France have treated those who reject their values (with white phosophorus and high explosive) I do not see them in such a positive light. I fear that Central/ Eastern Europeans may be seeking refuge from the bear's claws by leaping into the mouth of a secular humanist dragon.