One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Your Highness is like a cream bun...

I've come up with an aphorism.

Here's the background. I was talking to a small group of people last week. Most of them were university educated. But one guy was a rather down-on-his luck former caretaker, originally a trained printer. It was clear that he felt slightly out of place amongst all these other guys with their fancy words. was pretty clear to me that he was one intelligent guy. Sometimes he'd say something perceptive that really made me think. And unlike us others who dressed our opinions up in fancy cultural references...he'd just say it. The distressing thing is that I just couldn't get him to appreciate how intelligent he was. (And I promise you I didn't patronise him. I hope.)

In my life, I've met just as many bright people without degrees as with. And I've definitely met many, many people in universities who are thick as auld pigshite. They're usually in roughly the same proportions wherever you go.

So here's my aphorism:

Never confuse 'intelligence' with 'education'. Any fool can get an education. Many fools have.


Friday, November 17, 2006

The Iraq Body what?

I was going to talk about the Lancet's report on the Iraq body count anyway, but some of my gavourite bloggers have beaten me to it. See Dan's comments, and also the link to the Grauniad article that Polonius linked to in a comment on my earlier post. My starting point was a Slate article by Christopher Hitchens.

I like Hitchens. That's not a popular view on the Left at the moment because he's reckoned to have gone over to The Dark Side. I fear that's largely true... his moral stance against islamofascism* has blinded him to his allies' excesses...but he's a great entertainer (try this excellent podcast) and a puncturer of wooly liberal orthodoxies. These days I find that I can agree with about 90% of what he says...but the remaining 10% is a massive gulf. But we need to test our opinions by cross-checking against reasoned disagreement. Hitchens is my touchstone. summarise Hitchens opinion of the uses a flawed methodology, its production and peer review reflects left-wing bias and it's been too eagerly jumbed on by the anti-war faction as yet another example of Bush's evil. There's some truth in that, so let's allow it as valid opinion. However, he goes on, the anti-Bushites shouldn't bleat about the casualties. They may be uncomfortably high (if not as high as the report suggests), but that's not America's fault. Since the end of the war, the overwhelming mass of the slaughter has been of Iraqis (and their coalition force protectors) by Iraqis, and there the moral culpability lies.

First of all, let's deal with the casualties that have been caused by coalition forces. During the invasion there was, inevitably, a good deal of 'collateral damage'. Unless one is a pacifist (and I'm not) then provided one accepts Hitchens' position on the paramount necessity of the overthrow of Saddam, it's reasonable to argue that the means justify the end. (Yes, there's a countergument that the coalition was so reckless that they didn't even count the bodies, and certainly incidents like the blatant assaination of journalists in the Hotel Palestine, and the heavy-handed razing of Fallujah need to be accounted for). Also, there has been a series of casual excesses since the invasion (trigger-hapiness; beating and murder of captives; etc. etc.). But we shouldn't be naive about such things. This is how soldiers behave, especially when put in intolerable positions. If we're prepared to use military force, then we have to accept this kind of thing as the consequence (although it goes without saying that we should not condone it; discipline should be maintained, excesses punished). Incidentilly, Hitchens has stated (wittily, I think) that conditions in Abu Ghraib prison improved markedly immediately following the regime change. So, let's grant that the coalition mean well, but you have to be cruel to be kind.

Now let's go back to early 2003, when I was one of 2 Million+ in Britain who marched against the war. Various anti-war arguments were being put forward at the time. So let's have a recap:

  • "War is bad" Indeed. Thank you for that piece of sage insight.
  • "It's all about oil." Wellll...possibly there's a lot of truth in that. Not, I don't believe, that the Bush/Cheney oil intersts wished to grab Iraqi oil profits for themeselves. But re-connection the Iraqi supply would certainly have detabilised the OPEC cartel in an advantageous way. (And there's an intriguing argument- see this Rob Newman video - concerning the switch from Dollars to Euros as the payment method for oil which would have sent the Federal Reserve into meltdown). But if we accept the Hitchens view, the causus belli is unimportant, so long as there's a legitemate morale outcome.
  • "Ah, but why aren't we invading other bad regimes, like Burma" Vapid, liberal idiocy. Nuff said.
  • "We don't have evidence of WMDs, and we don't believe they're a threat." That was a pretty good argument at the time, and has since been proved to be right. And see the last point but one. But let's also take the related argument:
  • "We don't believe the government. We think Blair's trying to hoodwink us." Much though it may leave a nasty taste, let's allow that for Tony Blair, the case for regime change was so morally convincing that he had to find a means to make us buy into it. That's not what he's said, of course; "You can say I was wrong. But you can't criticise me for believing it." Well, yes, we can criticise you for not having gathered sufficient evidence (the UN inspectorate was asking for more time) or for interpreting it incompetently. maybe he was so sincere in his laudable desire for regime change that his bias influenced his interpretation - doesn't that sound faintly scary? But let's allow the odious man of the hook. Maybe he just God was telling to convince the public of the need for regime change 'by any means necessary'. Although a man of integrity would have put the regime change argument to the fore - as he's had to since.
Thus far it has been possible to reason that all the arguments fail to take into account the clear necessity of deposing Saddam Hussein's vile regime. We can ignore rhetoric such as "He's a monster of our own making." We can ignore our doubts on whether "Freeman Moxy**" is foremost in the mind of the American Right. Sometimes causes make strange bedfellows. In WWII (aka 'The Great Patriotic War'), moral necessity meant allying with one totalitarian murderer against another. In this conflict, the self-declared Trotsyite Hitchens is content to get into bed with the Neo-Cons. But there's one argument from the time that remains unananswered:

How sure are we that it will work?

It seems to me that support for the Iraq War could only have been justified if it would lead to improvements in the lives of the Iraqi people. Freedom. Security. Self determination. Living conditions. For these improvements it is reasonable to make the dismal but necessary tradeoff against the amount of suffering along the way. So...let's allow that a there is some worthwile price, measured in terms of the numbers of bodies directly attributable to the coalition.

Except...have there been improvements? One area in which life has definitely not improved is in personal security. whether the insurgents are responsible for the lion share of 650,000 or of some smaller number (although the official estimates of a tenth of that are utterly incredible and certainly wouldn't stand up to peer review), it is undeniable that more people are dying, being kidnapped, etc. etc. now than there were under Saddam***. The people live in a climate of fear. It is arguable whether the coalition has achieved - or will in future be able to achieve - any material or psychological improvement in the conditions of the Iraqi population.

One is forced to conclude that, even if...if...action was taken with the best of intentions, its results have been an abominable failure. I will accept, then, that there may be an argument for, as Hitchens claims to have done, throwing ones lot in with those who might have had their own reasons for invasion because whatever the motives, the outcome would have been desirable. But the outcome hasn't been desirable. Has it? So - could this have been predicted? I refer you back to the pre-war period:

How sure were we that it would work?

Maybe if you throw a pack of cards in the air, they'll land so that only the ace is right-way-up. But in the case of Iraq, it was a terrible gamble with peoples' lives. Humans are rather poor at making gambling-related decisions; they focus on the possible benefits ignoring their low probability and the negative consequences of losing. That is what - maybe with the best possible intentions - Hitchens has done. In this context, the argument about numbers isn't about whether he's wrong. It's about how much.

*Fluffy liberals are quite wrong to criticise Bush's use of the word. It may not be strictly accurate, but it works well enough. What is this? The Pedants' Revolt****?

**Grauniad If cartoonist Steve Bell's version of Dubya's pronuciation of 'Freedom and Democracy' (constantly refered to in his 'War Against Tourism' speeches.

*** Caveat: Apart from the period of their war with Iran...although the nations that supplied Iraq with arms and other support as a buffer against Iran are hardly in a position to comment.

****Q. Who led The Pedants' Revolt? A. Which Tyler.
Q. What is the definition of pedanticness? A. Surely you mean pedantry?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Class War (and my Oscar nominations)

I detect an intellectual trend. Possibly class issues are on the verge of a comeback in British politics. Admittedly my evidence is drawn from just 2 Radio 4 programmes (and it would be faintly surreal to think of R4 as the vanguard of the proletariat) . Firstly, in Class Conscious, a series of programmes from retired political correspondent, John Cole (him with the Northern Irish accent who was invariably seen outdoors, at night, in the rain, in a beige gaberdene mack*), who is old enough to remember when British politics had a left wing. Then in R4's flagship 'Analysis' programme. Quote from the latter:

"New Labour said they were going to take Class out of politics. They've
certainly done that...if you mention it you're branded a dinosaur."

The programme refered to some facts which are well known to us brontosaurii: There is still a strong correlation between a child's parental incomeand any manner of factors from their educational attainment to their health; Social mobility has decreased over recent fewer people are climbing out of poverty.

Maybe those old stalwarts who've remained in The Party were right after all?...If they handg around long enough, New Labour might go away.

Changing topics entirely. .. I've always been wary of the urge to buy the latest models of gadgets. People are inordinately impressed by the number of megapixies offered by cameras, not realising that hi-end models are only really necessary if you intend blowing your photos of the kids up to the size of a tower block, and as for hi-fi reproduction...admit it...most of us have tin ears. So I read with ineterest Mark Lawson's comments on HDTV. He talks about the potentially distracting effect of detail. I was thinking about this when watching the superb 'The Departed' on a rare outing to the cimena. Two examples:

  • Scorsese (or his cinematographers) use some very clever lighting to hide Jack Nicholson's make-up which is used to take 10 years off him. It wouldn't have worked in HD.

  • In two-up shots, sometimes neither actor was in focus...yet it worked. Sharper doesn't always mean better! (remember all those 1970's US TV shows in which the focus would shift back and forth as each person spoke?)

I'm going to bore everyone to death on this for the next few weeks, by the way...but it really is an excellent film. There were outstanding ensemble perfomances from all. Nicholson was breathtakingly charismatic without phoning in his usual Jack Nicholson impersonation. Matt Damon starts out being...well...Matt Damon, and the beauty is in when that slides away and the character development comes through...Martin Sheene, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone - all playing at the top of their game and then some. But the Academy has to go to Lenny DiC. I think this is Scorsese's big film about Acting. Posible Spoilers From Here. He's the undercover cop, so is having to act all the time (as is Damon, who's Nicholson's mob plant in the police). He's seeing a police shrink, first profesionally, later as a friend. She says to DiCaprio: "You seem very vulnerable right now...or it just an act?" He slumps and says: "No...I don't think so..." - and for that slump alone he deserves the Oscar. Do you get it? He's stopped acting for a moment...only, of course, he's acting that he's stopped acting! OK. I'll shut up now.

Nicholson will walk Best Support - although he could be nominated for best actor. And I think you have to see this one in the theatre. The violence needs maximum impact. It's strange - I really don't get off on movie violence, but three of my favourite films are (now) The Departed, Goodfellas and Casino.

Giving Heavy Poddage to:

Polly Harvey (the new Peel Sessions album)
MC Solaar
Public Enemy
Yusuf Islam
Joanna Newsom.

*Old Joke: "Have you got a light, mac?" "No - but I do have a dark overcoat."

Monday, November 06, 2006

Beware of the Leopard

I got a letter from that nice 'Dave' Cameron the other day. He wanted to know my opinion on the Conservative Party. He even enclosed a pre-paid envelope. Naturally, I was happy to oblige:

"Since you ask...

I think that that the deceiving, opportunist bastard who was more than
willing to use racism in the service of Michael Howard can just fuck

Written with my best green crayon, of course.

There are fascists
To be humanitarians
Like cannibals on a health kick
Eating only vegetarians.
(Roger McGough. Or possibly Adrian Henri)

Currently giving heavy Poddage to:

Miles Davis (Porgy and Bess)
Talving Singh's compilation, 'Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground'.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Poop the Magic Draaa-gonnn!

More Halloween photies.

My reputation amogst coworkers for eccentricity was sealed when I sewed this costume at lunchtime:

And here's yet more pumpkins: