Monday, May 30, 2005

Recomendations

As a result of this series of posts at Crooked Timber, I've been reading some China Mieville (the accent is beyond me, unfortunately). He's very, very good. King Rat, his first novel, a blend of life in the interstices of London and gothic fairy tale, doesn't quite reach the Gormenghast-esque descriptive heights of the later, more fantastically-set, novels, and isn't quite as compelling either, but is worth having a look at. The two of the three straight fantasy novels I've read, The Scar and Perdido Street Station, are quite stunning: the evocation of place, full of inventive and convincing detail, and above all the sheer narrative grip, done through clever plotting, the use of interestingly suggestive ideas, and intelligent and engaging characterisation, are wonderful. His debt to Mervin Peake is quite clear: the idea, so dominant in Gormenghast, of the accretion of byzantine, unintended structures, both physical and institutional, the result of series of uncoordinated yet comprehensible actions, on top of older, equally unplanned structures, resonates through his descriptions of New Crobuzon and the floating city of The Scar, and if anything, he does it better than Peake. The worlds his characters are embedded in are socially real, which is not something that could be said of every fantasy novel, and which may make it easier for those un-used to the idiom to get into the novels. He is violent and perhaps takes a little more pleasure than one ought to be comfortable with in that violence, so perhaps the squeamish might find him a bit much, but this is about the only reservation I would have about the novels. Read them.

Also, The Dancer Upstairs. John Malkovich's directorial debut, based on Nicholas Shakespeare's novel, which came out at the cinema about two years ago, it's somehow flawed - there's a disconnect between the two main strands of the plot, which is both suggestive and unsatisfactory, particularly perhaps at the end - but generally rather good. It's more or less uniformly well-acted, with Javier Bardem especially good, and Malkovich directs unobtrusively but well. Most impressive - but also, in a way, least so, because of the perhaps somewhat confused way in which they are asked - is the series of questions it asks about the relationship between the obligations of the political and the personal, especially in such an obviously corrupt state.

So, two things that weren't politics, philosophy or personal gripe. Be happy with that: it'll probably be months till it happens again.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Procedural Justice

Elizabeth Anderson has a post up at Left2Right about distributive justice, in which she argues that distributive justice should be seen as procedural, because patterned or outcome-focused justice requires excessive intervention on the part of whatever body administers it, or, to put it another way, the infamous claim of Nozick that 'liberty upsets patterns'. In particular, she argues, contra Nozick, that Rawls's theory of justice is consistent with the Hayekian injunction against patterned theories of justice. I think at least has a grain of truth in it, because, while there might be an argument about the difference principle, the other one and a half principles of justice are clearly procedural - the widest degree of liberty, compatible with equal liberty for all, and fair equality of opportunity do not mandate any outcomes at all, but merely tell us how any just outcomes will be produced - and the original position is one of the clearest expositions of the idea of procedural justice going.

Rawls himself draws a distinction between three types of procedure: pure procedures, procedures which require no idea of a just outcome in order to justify their outcome - tossing a coin or a lottery, for example; perfect procedures, procedures which always achieve an outcome which, independent of the procedure itself, we believe is just - the practice of having one person cut the cake, and the other choose the slice, for example; and imperfect procedures, procedures which aim at but do not always achieve an outcome which, independent of the procedure itself, we believe is just - criminal trials, for example. There may also be impure procedures - most team games would appear to be of this sort, because there is no independent standard of who ought to win, but we can intelligibly say that 'x didn't deserve to lose' - although Rawls doesn't mention them.

I'm a little skeptical about the existence of any genuinely pure procedures - one might describe a lottery as aiming at a distribution in which each ticket had an equal chance of winning, which would then make it an example of a perfect procedure, and I think that kind of redescription can be done for any putative pure procedure - which would mean that, whilst it may be true that 'liberty upsets patterns', no theory of justice can get by without some notion of how things ought to turn out. This is not to denigrate procedural notions of justice: personally, I think that the description of criminal trials as imperfect procedures is a little off the mark, because it seems to me that part of the outcome they aim at is specified in their procedure. It is not only that the guilty person be convicted, but that they be convicted by means of public evidence in a public forum, where public is clearly procedurally oriented: unless someone can be seen to be convicted, they should not be convicted, which is a matter of procedure, not outcome.

What both of these examples do is cast doubt on the idea that the requirements of justice can be easily articulated in a language either solely of outcomes or of procedures, or even in a mix of both those languages: they suggest that the distinction is not as sharp as might be thought. I'm not sure what the implications of this are for Anderson's discussion, because she doesn't make it clear what kind of procedure she is talking about when she describes justice as procedural, but it does seem to cast doubt on the libertarian idea that the market is a pure procedure, and justified because of that (that's not to say there aren't other possible libertarian arguments, of course).

Friday, May 27, 2005

Linkage

John Band digs up a rendering of 'Common People' (admittedly great, but not the greatest song of the 1990s: I can think of better Pulp songs) in graphic novel form, which is quite good.

Shuggy finds a story about the theft of things you really, really don't want stolen.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

It's Not Fair...

when you stop watching a football match at half time because it's 3-0, and the side who are 3-0 appear to be in an unassailable position, tearing the other side apart at will, so that you can go and do some much-needed work for your finals, instead of watching what is after all a dead game, and then you find, an hour or so later, that the game has gone to extra time with the score at 3-3. That unfairness is significantly added to when the football match in question is the Champions League final, only about the most important game this season. Kudos to Liverpool for winning the Champions League, but a) how on earth did they come back from 3-0 down against a side who had one of the best defensive records in Europe, and, more importantly, b) why did they have to do it in a manner that meant that I couldn't be bothered to watch them do it. It is an injustice on a cosmic scale! I demand redress! Also, if anyone knows where I might be able to find highlights of the match online, I'd be really grateful.

Update: Not only were there apparently Liverpool fans who left at half-time, who are clearly suffering from the whims of a remarkably capricious God, but, via email, someone pointed out this Times article, the horribly poignant part of which is this:

One Hills internet client from Norway... staked £10,167 on Milan when they were 3-0 up at 1-100. He stood to win just £102.

I have no words.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Linkage And Schaudenfraude

Brad De Long digs up a little rant from Terry Eagleton - erstwhile champion of critical theory - on postmodernism.

Pearsall writes about the rise of communalism - his term, not mine - in British politics.

Manchester United lose the FA Cup Final to Arsenal on penalties despite having totally dominated the game. I loathe Manchester United - Alex Ferguson is a power-hungry, authoritarian, arrogant bastard, who believes he has a divine right to the Premiership title, and will violate the spirit of every law in the game to ensure it, while their players are dirty, cynical, petulant and just as arrogant as their manager: the less said about their perpetually sulky fans, probably the better - and quite like Arsenal - for all Pires's diving, and the periodical blindness of their manager, when not being hacked to pieces (let's not forget who started that, either) and consequently understandably, although not forgivably, losing their tempers, they play the most flowing, inventive, attractive attacking football I've seen in the Premiership - so this pleases me, especially after losing at Old Trafford earlier in the season to end their record-breaking unbeaten run, because of a) - and this was forgotten in the furore about Rooney - of Ferdinand pulling down Ljungberg when he was clean through, and not even giving away a free-kick, when he should have been sent off, at 0-0 and b) Rooney diving for a penalty for United to go 1-0. Maybe there is karma.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Morning Linkage

The Sharpener has a post up about the NHS, with which I disagree, but to find out why, you must go, and read the comments. Ha! Also, if there's going to be a discssion of the relative merits of various healthcare systems, Ezra Klein's posts on the Japanese, the German, the British, the Canadian, and the French systems should be required reading (I haven't read all of them).

John Band links to a report from the UN on excess deaths in Iraq hich apparently corrobrates the infamous Lancet report.

Matthew Yglesias discusses philosophical zombies (not zombies that are philosophical, but zombies that philosophers discuss). You know you love zombies, the shambling vicious little brain-munching buggers that they are. Also, philosophy of mind, but ZOMBIES!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Linkage

Tim Burke has a piece up on the Newsweek Qu'ran story, which points out that the problem is that, a) given the secrecy surrounding institutions like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, it's basically impossible to know whether the story is true or not, and b) given what we do know about what goes on in those institutions, it's really quite plausible that it's true.

Europhobia has up a rant about the proposed banning of religious hatred. I'm not sure how I feel about this in the abstract: incredibly carefully drafted legislation might be sensible - I emphasise might, but this will not be incredibly carefully drafted legislation, so it won't be sensible. Also, it's a good rant.

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Last Word?

Recently, a professor of mine recommended, in support of an epistemological thesis about the status of ultimate normative principles, a book by Thomas Nagel, 'The Last Word', which is a sustained and fairly vitirolic attack on what Nagel calls, variously, subjectivism and relativism. What Nagel means by subjectivism and relativism is any epistemological view which does not accept the transcendental and universally valid status of Reason. By his own lights, this not only includes post-structuralist thinkers like Derrida and Foucault or deflationary pragmatists like Rorty, but also thinkers who I had previously taken to have a relatively secure status within the Anglo-American philosophical canon: Bernard Williams, whose last book was 'Truth and Truthfulness', a sustained defence of the value of truth against thinkers like Rorty (in fairness to Nagel, this was written after 'The Last Word', even if it is perfectly compatible, in my memory, with Williams's other epistemological statements), Hillary Putnam, Quine and even Wittgenstein and Kant.

The book is interesting, not because it is right - I think the victories, such as they are, that Nagel manages to achieve over his philosophical opponents rest, at least in the case of thinkers like Williams, Putnam, Quine, Wittgenstein and Kant, on fairly basic misunderstandings and misrepresentations of what they were getting at - but because it illustrates a total and utterly gripping fear of giving up the God's-eye view on the part of a substanial portion of Anglo-American philosophers, which blinds them to the ways in which that view is neither tenable nor necessary. Nagel's argument essentially consists of the conflation of the Wittgensteinian view that we cannot get outside our language games to question them with the claim that there are universal truths, the link being that the claims at the base of language games must be taken as universal truths and so are universal truths.

This argument fails, even if I were to grant all its premises - which I wouldn't - because the fact that we have to take some things for granted implies nothing, in the abstract sense Nagel must mean, about their truth. This can be seen in a number of simply bizarre claims that Nagel makes in the course of making it. For example, he claims, talking about the irremovability of reason from our discourses and thought, that

“one cannot get outside it, and nothing outside of it can call it into question”

which is simply a claim of the baldest arrogance, if that is to mean that the deliverances of reason are, without any qualification whatsoever, true. If we can't get outside of it, then how on earth are we to know that its deliverances are, without any qualification whatsoever, true, in the sense of some absolute correspondence to reality? It is, of course, the case that we cannot help but take it to be true, and that in a certain sense, that is totally unproblematic and indeed required - it is only if we attempt to do otherwise, I take Wittgenstein to be pointing out, that we will run into really serious philosophical difficulties - but that is not equivalent to the claim that it is true in the absolute correspondence sense. How could it be, unless we had some guarantee that the deliverances of reason necessarily corresponded to reality, a guarantee which we patently lack?

The same problem emerges in Nagel's treatment of Kant's transcendental idealism. He says that to

the proposal that the order we appear to discover is just a framework we impose on experience, the inevitable, unexciting reply is that that does not seem a particularly likely explanation of the observed facts – that a more plausible account is that, to a considerable extent, the order that we find in our experience is the product of an order that is independent of our minds.

I find this mind-boggling, as a claim in support of the total correspondence of the deliverances of reason to a mind-independent reality. It may well be that the order that we find in our experience is the product of an order that is independent of our of minds, but what reason do we have to suppose that the relation between the two is one that reason could uncover, and then deduce the nature of the underlying order from?

Although I have read other things by Nagel before, and disagreed with him, I've always thought that he's a fairly good philosopher, so I find 'The Last Word' really wierd: how can such a generally thoughtful thinker ignore such a gapping hole in his argument? The only conclusion I can come to is that Nagel believes that any step away from the God's-eye is a step towards the epistemological chaos that is much post-modernist thought, but the epistemological chaos of the post-modernist view only makes sense in light of the God's-eye view: it is only because the false hopes offered by the God's-eye view have been disappointed that the epistemological chaos of the post-modernist view makes sense, and if God's-eye view is shown to have always been chimerical, that disappointment can be disapated. In one sense, Nagel and Derrida have more in common with each other than I do with either of them: they both believe that unless we can redeem our claims absolutely, absolutely anything goes.

This can be put in another way. The proponent of the epistemological thesis in which Nagel was, indirectly, invoked in defence of has agreed that, on the view they defend, they cannot know how it is that they know the ultimate moral principles they claim to know. Nagel is, in effect, because of his unwillingness to give up the idea of an absolute, God's-eye view, committed to the same claim. I find this bizarre: if we cannot know how it is that we know something, if we cannot explain what it is that grounds some knowledge claim, that cannot be knowledge. Neither has any reply to the skeptic, and that cannot be right, yet both views are persisted in.

Linkage

Lenin, in his Tomb but still not dead (insert your own bad Michael Howard comparison jokes here), has the latest Carnival of the UnCapitalists. I have not had - or am likely to have - time to read all of pieces linked to, but Lenin's own piece is good - I particularly like the lengthy quote from the Communist Manifesto, which is a wonderful example of writing if nothing else - if, well, shall we say, on the far left, which clashes somewhat with my at-best (or worst, depending on your view) fellow-traveller status.

Paid-up academic Marxists, however, seem unable to read a relatively interesting article exploring why suicide bombing is generally regarded as more terrible than other bombing as anything other than a lengthy champagne socialist-style apologia for anti-American terrorism, simply because, it would seem, they have convinced themselves that a bunch of crazy Texan oilmen have replaced the proletariat as the engine of history. Talk about ideology blinding you to the truth. John Band has a fair go at pointing this out - the stuff about it not being an apologia, not that stuff about the replacement of the proletariat with crazy Texas oilmen - or else I'd have done it myself.

Oh, and Nick Barlow thinks it's a good thing that Glen Hoddle's got a new contract at Wolves. At the risk of being smacked in the face with crazy opinions about the disabled and faith healing, I'm going to agree.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Links

Chicken Yoghurt and What You Can Get Away With are both reproducing the text of an Evening Standard article by Andrew Gilligan claiming that the MoD are using an embargo-breaking, terrorist-supplying arms-dealer to ship equipment to troops. Apparently, it's disappeared from the Standard's website. Don't seem to remember anything like that happening before.

Nick Barlow also has a well-judged piece about Manchester United fans' proposal to start up an alternative team in light of Glazer's takeover of the club. Well, it amused me.

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Drug Laws

Had I ever felt the inclination to write a post on the drug laws, this is probably - with some, but not many, 'even wholly self-regarding actions are sometimes the legitimate site of state action' caveats - what I would have said. Jim Bliss's response to commenters is also very good: just because he's a bit of a pothead, it doesn't mean he can't work up a thoroughly righteous ire.

Cognitive Dissonance

Battle has been joined on the Guardian comments pages. Stephen Pollard gets his turn today. It is hardly surprising that I disagree with his normative claims, although the extent to which he agrees with Glenda Jackson about the way Blair has governed from outside the party is interesting. The one thing I do find puzzling though, is that it is very difficult to understand how someone can claim this:

I believe that the state has no business running schools or hospitals. I trust competition and the efficacy of markets more than any politician or bureaucrat

and have done this:

joined Labour in 1986.

Stephen Pollard, what on earth were you doing?

I should also say that Robin Cook's piece is much more sensible.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Spheres Of Value

This Academic Life has a post up which applies Weber's typology of the vocations of science and politics to his experience of academic politics. It's interesting, as he almost unfailingly is. The point of particular interest is the emphasis on the way that the normative commitments of one particular practice - validity, in the case of science, construed in Weberian terms to include almost all academic activity, for example - despite inevitably being penetrated by the normative commitments of other practices, can be corrupted by those normative commitments. The relevance of this to my experiences of student politics should be immediately obvious.

On The Warpath

Glenda Jackson has a piece in the Grauniad today which is astoundingly vituperative in its assessment of Blair. She claims that his entire leadership has been based on distancing himself from the party at large, and that this is to blame for the loss of seats last week, both because of its policy implications, and because of its effects on the willingness of the membership to go out and get involved in the hard slog of canvassing, with the consequence that he has to go, now. Indicative of the general tone is this quote:

Of course, it may well be that Tony Blair and those around him will be able to reach out to the disaffected. David Blunkett's savage attack on "the self indulgent" voters who expressed disquiet over trivial issues like the death of 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians may well herald the dawn of a new progressive centre-left consensus - but I have my doubts.

Now, Jackson has, in the last parliament, been a fairly consistent rebel against the government on issues like tuition fees, the war, and PFI, but she isn't really a member of the angry brigade: she was a minister in the first Blair government, and uses freely in the article terms like 'progressive' and 'centre-left' which are strongly associated with the reformist wing of the Labour Party. Her vote did collapse in Hampstead and Highgate, with the LibDems picking up large proportions of it, so we might put this down to wanting to shore up her position by appealing to the kinds of concerns which probably resulted in that loss of support, but the openness of this condemnation, the disgust which drips from every word, was hardly necessary to achieve that end. This is a scathing attack on the Blairite project as a whole, not as it has manifested itself in particular decisions, from someone who I am fairly sure it would be seriously misleading to describe as Bennite, and if it is remotely indicative of the feelings on the backbenches, the government could soon find itself in very hot water.

Update: Backword Dave points out, no link. Link created (although, it's not that hard to find things on the Guardian's site).

Monday, May 09, 2005

Student Politics Sour Grapes Ranting

There was another post here. I have removed it, because it was fairly f*cking juvenile. I got rather angry at an MCR open meeting. Fortunately, given this is inevitably what happens, there aren't any more before I leave. The major issue at hand was that MCR funds were stolen whilst under the control of the executive committee, and that the theft was, because of actions not taken by the executive committee, much larger than it need have been. Specifically, a cashbox containing bar-takings was not emptied by the MCR committee for over a month, and so, when it was stolen at least £290 were lost, rather than the hundred odd quid that should have been in it. It also seems possible that some other money may have been stolen from the box before then.

I argued that since the executive had had ample opportunity to empty the cashbox, they were responsible for the loss as a result of the theft to the extent that loss exceeded what it would have been reasonable to have in the cashbox, and so liable for it. I don't like them personally, because of things which have happened at past MCR meetings, and that influenced me to bring the motion which would have made them liable. A group of MCR members, who have never been my favourite people, a feeling which is probably reciprocated, disagreed, for whatever reasons, and the meeting degenerated into a slanging match, which, by virtue of there being more of them, my side lost. Whether or not the principle in question was a good principle to apply in the case in hand is effectively irrelevant, because it was significantly the continuation of a personal feud, and in circumstances which meant that it could only ever be a personal feud. I now find the whole thing rather depressing. Righteous ire gone, lesson learnt, Sunday evening wasted.

In particular, the lesson learnt - so this isn't just an example of what has amusingly been termed masturblogging - is that in seeking to approximate an ideal speech situation - which is genuinely what I believed I was doing - it is not enough to approach the situation with what seem like principled arguments. It is also important to approach the situation with good-will, with the intention of convincing all those present, even if you do not believe that all others engaging in the forum are likely to do so. The unforced force of the better argument cannot operate unless the argument is meant to be accessible to all, and that is what I failed to do: the argument was aimed at achieving vengenance of some sort, an intention which was writ large across its face, and so it is unsurprising that it led to the rhetorical violence that it did. An argument which was not aimed at achieving vengenance would not have been the same argument, and so a desire which could never be public, because it aimed at the humiliation of some members of the public in question, shaped what were supposed to be my public arguments, rendering them private and sectional.

I suppose this has some implication for the status of all-things-considered moral judgements, because in the particular case it would have been impossible to justify what could be plausibly presented as justice - the repayment of the part of the theft for which the MCR executive members were, through their negligent failure to empty the cash box, which would have been the fulfillment of their obligations to the MCR, assuming that no obligation of the MCR to them would have been violated in holding them liable. If it would have been just to make them compensate the MCR, but that could never have been justified - because making the argument, as long as I made it, would have always, in this situation, been sectional - then justice can't be equivalent to our all-things-considered moral judgement, even in cases like this which are explicitly public. That's interesting, because justice is often taken to be the virtue on which all other virtues rest - in the absence of justice, there can be no other virtues - whereas in this case, achieving what is ex hypothesi justice would have undermined the possibility of the institution instantiating any other virtues: even attempting to achieve justice has probably done that. To put it another way, being nice matters more than being right sometimes.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Bleneau Gwent

Backword Dave Weeden thinks the election of the independent Peter Law in Bleneau Gwent is good. Chris Brooke disagrees. My, rather more lengthy than you'd get for tuppence, tuppence worth: if there's anything wrong with the imposition of an external all-women shortlist, it's because it's external or because the potential candidates on it are crap. If we're about being gender-blind, then the fact that the shortlist is full of women is irrelevant and so what matters is either that the local party didn't get to choose, or that the potential candidates are not good potential candidates. The local party choice argument was not the one explicitly made by Peter Law - his objection was that it was an all-women shortlist, not that it was an external shortlist - and in a constituency which has traditionally had candidates shipped in from outside, it wouldn't be very convincing.

This leaves the 'potential candidates are all crap' argument as an argument against all-women shortlists. I'm assuming that Peter Law's objection wasn't that the specific members of this all-women shortlist were all crap, because if that's the case, it's unclear why he inveighed against all-women shortlists in general, rather than this particular crap one. It might be argued that the potential candidates are not good potential candidates because the deliberate policy of creating all-women shortlists has meant scraping the bottom of the barrel, but this is a bad argument. Assuming that political aptitude is roughly equally distributed across genders, since women are currently under-represented in parliament, if anything, there ought to be a larger reserve of highly talented female potential parliamentarians than of men. The alternative to believing that political aptitude is roughly equally distributed across the population, which would justify the barrel-scraping claim, would seem to be the belief that women are generally crap as MPs. I assume this is an unacceptable sexist belief, and so Peter Law's candidacy and subsequent election, by his statements, is sexist and unacceptable.

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Considered Judgment

Right, I've done my trawl of blogs and news sources, and so now I think I have some kind of half-decent perspective on what happened last night. I am not a psephologist, and I haven't looked at every single election result, but the the impression I've got from the coverage I've seen makes it look to me like there has been a kind of reversion to non-national politics. By this, I mean that rather than the electorate voting according to a more or less national set of characteristics - socio-economic class would be the prime example - for national political parties, as was generally the case from 1945 at least onwards, the electorate has voted according to local conditions. To put it another way, whereas one would have once expected people with similar socio-economic status - in England at least, which does contain the vast majority of the British population - to vote for the same party regardless of which constituency they lived in, that hasn't been the case this time round. Swings have not been uniform nationally, and quite specific regional patterns seem to be appearing.

Linton's near-loss actually seems to be typical for a certain kind of London seat, where there is a sitting Labour MP, and the area has both pockets of wealth and of deprivation. In such seats, the sitting Labour member has lost ground to both main parties, something in the region of 8-10%. The effect of the MP's voting record seems to be fairly small, as a matter of fact, which I find disappointing. For example, Glenda Jackson in Hampstead and Highgate haemorrhaged votes to the LibDems, presumably the challengers for leftish votes in these kinds of constituency, despite the fact that she has fairly consistently opposed the government on the kinds of things disillusioned Labour supporters don't like. Especially in the poorer of these seats, the LibDems are increasingly becoming the second party, which might be a good thing by dragging Labour to the left, because they wouldn't have to compete against the Tories, although on the other hand, it could drag Labour to the right, in order to pick up the now-useless Tory votes.

Looking at Linton's result in detail, what has caused him to nearly lose his seat is, assuming consistent voting preferences, roughly the same electorate, and so on, the loss of votes to parties to his left. From 2001, there has been a 4.5% increase in turnout - around four thousand more voters. The LibDems and the Greens each gained about one and a half thousand votes, the Tories gained about three thousand, and Linton lost about two thousand. Assuming that switches from Labour to the LibDems and the Greens are more likely than from Labour to the Tories, and those who could be bothered to vote for Linton last time probably voted this time, the two thousand votes Linton lost probably made up most of the LibDem and Green gains. The Tory gains, on this logic, are people who probably didn't vote at all last time. Thus in this case, if these assumptions hold, Labour nearly lost the seat to the Tories because it - whether at the national level or that of the candidate - was insufficiently left-wing. A look at other, similar, London constituencies indicates a similar pattern. Putney, which Labour did lose, saw the Labour candidate Tony Colman's vote drop by around two thousand, and the LibDems and the Greens gain about two thousand, while votes cast rose by a bit more than two thousand, and the Tories gain about that.

Whether my impression that a kind of non-national politics in the sense I mentioned earlier is true depends on whether the kinds of trends I've hypothesised in a couple of London seats are consistent with results elsewhere. To be honest, I haven't got the patience to do the legwork to find out, so that's your lot for the time being.

Amusing

Shot By Both Sides links to this automatic Tory speech generator. A tribal hatred of the Stupid party may be helpful in enjoying it.

(Worried Intake Of Breath)

I don't know very much - if anything of any real substance, in fact - about Barking, but that the BNP came less than thirty votes from second place is really rather perturbing.

Paxman Vs. Galloway

My tuppence worth on this, which I didn't see.

It was a legitimate question to ask, because of the way that Respect has positioned itself as a party attempting to represent a particular, allegedly under-represented, group. Ergo, asking whether it pleases a Respect MP that in achieving representation for one allegedly under-represented group they have denied representation to some other apparently under-represented groups is reasonable. Galloway, however, dealt with it well.

That is all.

Update: my judgement that Galloway dealt with it well is based on the transcript, and he might have come across badly on the TV itself. I suppose I meant he dealt with it well partly in the sense of this discussion of him here, and partly that he managed to deflect it in conventional politician manner, by talking about other things. Paxman also buggered it up by asking the question first, rather than congratulating him or something, as that would have prevented his first reply. Galloway's speech at the count - which I can't find a transcript of - however, is another matter. Insulting returning officers is not done.

Electoral Reform Link

Sign this petition.

A note on what's going to be happening here today: random and haphazard linking until I manage to get my head together to say something cogent myself.

General Election Results

So, Blair's got back in - on a reduced majority, but he's got back in. I suppose this about the ideal feasible result for me: New Labour's legislative power is now a hostage to the left wing of the Parliamentary party, which hopefully drag it to the left. Martin Linton, the sitting Labour MP in Battersea, had what must have been an awful night. There were apparently two recounts, and a seat he had held on a majority of almost fourteen percent returned him with a majority of 163 or 0.4%. His vote fell by 9.9%, whilst every other party made gains, to the extent that the Tories very nearly won the seat 120th on their list of seats they needed to take, which would have, I think, given them a parliamentary majority . To my mind this is, from what I can tell of the results this morning and sitting up till around four yesterday, archetypal of the election as a whole, in that, particularly where they are not protected by a name, Labour MPs have been judged by Labour supporters in part on their adherence to a social democratic and anti-imperialist agenda and that has meant, where that standard has not wholly been lived up to, seats being lost and MPs getting a fright. I'm not long up, so I've not had a chance to collect either much more information than provided by the BBC News website's front-page or my thoughts, so there's likely to be a bit more here later.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Morning Linkage

Majikthise has a nice piece on relativism here.

Lenin of the Tomb has an unsurprisingly hard-left history of the Labour party here, which is more or less historically accurate, even if I would take issue with most of the normative judgements made on the historical events contained therein.

Crooked Timber has a piece on educational disadvantage here.

35 Reasons...

not to vote Labour, most of which are good. It doesn't even mention immigration, the systematic failure to attempt to shift the political consensus out of the realms of the money-grubbing inheritance of Thatcherism, cowardice over the EU, the lack of serious consititutional reform, and the cosying up to the big breweries, to come up with a list off the top of my head, either. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

More Linkage

Crooked Timber has a post up linking to an article talking about a sociology journal article about why some countries play cricket and why some don't.

Russell Arben Fox is going to be teaching a course on film and politics and wants suggestions for films.

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Sgrena Report

I have now read the report. The parts which were classified relate to American operational procedure in Iraq, so far as I can tell, and since it does not include the annexes which contain the basis for the substantial findings and recommendations, it is difficult to assess its accuracy. The essence of the account is that the driver, Angela Carpani drove towards the road-block, which was in place to prevent access to the road to Baghdad airport so that an unnamed VIP – who I believe was John Negroponte – could travel from the Green Zone to the airport safely, with the intention of getting on to the road to the airport, believing that the warnings given by the soldiers manning the check-point were likely to be an ambush, until the car was fired upon. When the car was fired upon, he swerved, and then stopped.

The report however does confirm that a number of rounds fired by the vehicle manning the road-block entered the car from the back and side. This seems to have been because, when the car was first hit, Carpani swerved, although it does cast some, by no means conclusive, doubt on the claim that the shots were fired with the intention of disabling the car rather than injuring or killing its occupants. The conclusion that these shots entered the car from the back and side because it swerved is, it should be noted however, based on the testimony of those involved, rather than ballistics evidence. This is because of the difficulty of assessing the scene in light of the car and the vehicles manning the road-block having been moved in the aftermath of incident – in order to clear the road and to take Sgrena to hospital – and the danger of insurgent attacks, and problems relating to the incident itself: the road conditions – it was raining – Carpani having swerved and so on. Although the report states that no shots were fired into the car after it had stopped, this is based, in part, on the testimony of the soldiers who would have come under criminal investigation had it been found that the car had been fired on after it had stopped. In fact, all the evidence there is in the report for the car having been first hit in the front – where shots would have disabled the car – rather than the back is that the soldier in question claims that he shot at the front first.

As I have already said, because of this lack of material evidence, it is rather hard to assess the accuracy of the report of the actual incident. However, it seems incredibly unlikely that there was any deliberate attempt to harm Sgrena, if for no other reason than the road-block was only there because of a communication breakdown which meant the unit organising the road-blocks along the whole road was unaware that the road had been used, and the road-blocks were no longer necessary – although now I write that... Additionally, the report claims that no American military personnel were aware of the specifics of Sgrena’s rescue, which largely seems to have been the result of Italian unwillingness to tell them anything about it. The officer liaising with the Italian in overall charge of the operation knew that agents had gone into Baghdad, and had been told not to be surprised were Sgrena to arrive at the airport, but had apparently also been told not to tell anyone about this.

Exactly why this was is not made clear by the report, although the implication is that it was a matter of Italian foolishness, rather than any concern, perhaps with how and by whom the information would be used. There also seems to have been a failure on the part of the Americans to communicate with the Italians. It is not clear, for example, whether any Italian officials were aware that the main road from Baghdad to the airport would likely be used at some time that evening by Negroponte, and hence have access to it closed. Certainly, Carpani and Calipari were not aware, as they had no alternative route planned, despite the fact that Carpani had been working as a driver in Baghdad for some time, and must have been aware that the road was sometimes closed.

In a way more interesting than the substantive conclusions of the report relating to the incident is the information it contains on the number of insurgent attacks in Iraq. In the nine months leading up to the incident, there were 15,257 attacks against Coalition forces in Iraq. In the four and a half months before the 12th of March this year, there were 2400 attacks on Coalition forces in Baghdad alone. 135 of these were on the road between the airport and the city centre. The site of the road-block had, when being used as a check-point, been attacked 13 times, twice with car bombs, in that time period. The insurgency is clearly dying down then. It may also be worth noting that all of those manning the road-block were members of the National Guard, rather than full-time soldiers.

Update: the Today Programme had as one of its leads today that the Italian report into the incident has been published, and it disputes the conclusions of the American report. The BBC website has a round-up of it here. I may try and get the better half to translate it, but she, as I am, is rather busy with finals, and 52 pages of translation may be a bit much.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

More On Sgrena and Calipari

Repubblica, a left-wing Italian daily, has discovered that the American report into the death of Nicola Calipari, an Italian secret service agent and the wounding of Giuliana Sgrena, an Italian journalist, and of Andrea Carpani, another Italian secret service agent, on a Baghdad motorway by American soldiers during the rescue of Sgrena from Iraqi kidnappers, can be viewed with the sections blacked out put back in. This is apparently because of some cock-up with the transfer of the original document to PDF for public consumption. The document is here, and I will save a copy so as to be able publish it should it 'disappear'. My better half is translating the Repubblica article, and I'll add the translation once she has finished it. I haven't read the report, as it is more than forty pages, and I need to do some work, but I will do later, and summarise the contents.

Update by the better/other half. Have removed the article explaning just how the full text of the report became available - if you're really dying to know, email me at ardief AT gmail DOT com. But here is a much juicier article, also from Repubblica, discussing the omitted bits. Apologies for the slightly dodgy translation, did it in a hurry and am not very au fait with military terms. The article in Italian is here

The article begins by giving the names of the soldiers at the checkpoint and revealing they are all national guard/policemen normally. Then it says:

one of the most crucial passages [of the document] regards the communication problems the americans had that evening, unacceptable in the light of the delicate moment it was, with Negroponte in the area. The report says that normally communication occurs via VoIP, but there were hitches that evening. The commander of the 76th company [?] who was in charge of co-ordinating the whereabouts of the US amabassador was not able to communicate them to the check-point patrol. Nor did he attempt to do so via radio.

The result was that the order to dismantle the extra checkpoints set up for Negroponte's visit didn't get to them. This is why the men at the 69th company [?] checkpoint were still at highest alert level.

This is all in a rather long omissis. There is also another which specifies that the company in question was new to the area having only arrived in Iraq on February 21.


Then the article explains that the report also gives stats about the road on which the attack occurred - 135 attacks between nov 2004 and 12 march 2005 - and about attacks in Baghdad in general - 3306, of which 2400 against coalition forces - and that these figures, too, were obscured.

The report also describes the guerrilla techniques and weapons used by the insurgents, and the army troops and divisions stationed in the area. It also mentions that the US soldiers learn things such as how to search cars 'on the field', receiving no previous training for it.

The article concludes:

Finally there are reccomendations to improve the check-point control procedures to avoid other episodes like that involving Calipari. Among these, is 'to take into consideration the use of further non-lethal means', and not being in the situation where just one man is responsible for both shining the lights used to identify people and for opening fire. An admission of responsibility of sorts, or at least an acknowledgement that something more could have been done to avoid that death. But it was all covered in omissis.

A Little Reminder

Since the election is only four days away, and although I have firm views on it, I have not said anything much about it recently, I am republishing a post on why I have not voted for (I sent my postal ballot last week) the sitting MP for Battersea, Martin Linton. I was told by someone last night that people I know who live in Battersea are getting a heavy dose of the 'a vote for anyone apart from the Labour party is a vote for Howard' argument, which is frankly crap. In the particular case, I remember being told that Linton might lose the seat last time around, when he won it quite comfortably. In the general case, this, rather lengthy, post here explains exactly why the chances of the Tory party winning the coming election are vanishingly small.

Tactical Voting

Although I'm currently mostly living in Oxford, I'm likely to vote at home in Battersea at the next general election, the consensus about which is that it'll be held on the 5th of May. This is largely because at the last general election, in 2001, when I was also mostly living in Oxford, I was told that Battersea was at risk of being lost to the Tories: it wasn't, with the sitting - since 1997 - Labour MP Martin Linton getting a majority of votes cast and having a margin of nearly fourteen percent in the end, albeit on a very low turnout. Still, I duly registered for my postal vote, and voted for Linton, knowing that Battersea had been Tory since, I think, 1983, is now, in parts rather wealthy (google the phrase 'between the commons', and half the links appear to be to posh looking estate agents' sites), and could well be Tory again.

This time there is no way I am voting for Linton. Either I'll vote in Oxford West and Abingdon, where Evan Harris, who appears to be a reasonably good thing, is the sitting Lib Dem MP, or I'll vote Lib Dem at home, even though the Lib Dems appear to have absolutely no chance of winning the constituency, having got around twelve percent last time round. Linton is an awful MP: he never speaks - 440 out of 659, but he always votes - 12 out of 659 - with the Labour front bench; he is the 576th most rebellious MP in a parliament full of craven backbenchers. I wrote to him urging him to protest the war in Iraq, and got back a letter full of pro-war platitudes like "I will never apologise for supporting the removal of Saddam Hussein", as if Saddam had just been magically disappeared, by a mere act of will, rather than by invading and occupying a country which is now a complete mess. The only time I've seen him in the media was on Channel Four news, talking about proposed changes to the drug laws - he's on the Home Affairs select committee - coming across like David Blunkett was a dangerous social liberal. I cannot, in good conscience, vote for this man because he appears not to share any of the political goals that I do.

I'm mentioning this because there's been a couple of posts by British bloggers - here and here, the second by someone who apparently lives in Battersea - on the prospect of internet-organised tactical voting. Obviously I don't want the Tories to get in: 'something of the night' is about the nicest honest thing you could say about Michael Howard. Equally obviously, I find New Labour more than a little trying: their commitment to the market is ideological, their foreign policy gives liberal internationalism a bad name, and their failure to even attempt, despite two landslides, to shift political discourse in Britain out of the money-grubbing individualism and social authoritarianism of the Thatcherite era, to create, as the Attlee government did, a consensus around a set of values which outlasted the government itself, is both depressing and damaging. A social democratic party which refuses to contemplate taxing any incomes at above forty percent, which takes it as a virtue that it will not do that, is a social democratic party in name only.

I want a Labour party which believes in social justice and individual liberty at home, and military force as a method of absolutely last resort to achieve those goals abroad. This is my prime concern in deciding how to vote. I want the Labour party heirarchy to be forced to pay attention not just to the agenda of the Daily Mail and the Sun, and traditional Tory voters in marginal seats in Middle England, but to a genuinely progressive, social democratic agenda. To the views of people like my Dad, who was a member throughout the hard times of the seventies and eighties, who fought tooth and nail to protect the values of a social democratic party against the cheap radicalism of Militant when others wouldn't, who canvassed, who leafletted, who got the vote out, who went to branch meetings, who have been resigning their membership in disgust en masse. When people who split the Labour Party because they feared it was becoming unelectable because it was too left-wing are to the left of a Labour government on more or less every issue, something has gone seriously wrong.

The best way to my mind of achieving this goal of dragging Labour back to the centre-left is to punish Labour not by defecting to the Tories, but to the Lib Dems. If erstwhile Labour supporters vote Tory, that's a mandate to shift further to the right, a mandate to argue that lies about crime, immigration and the EU work, and that the Party should betray everything it holds dear to ensure that it gets to implement the policies based on those lies rather than the Tories. So no Labour voter who thinks the current government is too much like a Tory government should be voting for the Tories to teach them a lesson, because, even if you have had a irony bypass, voting Tory isn't going to make Labour any less Tory. They should vote for a party which stands for the things they stand for, or is at least on the proper side of the political spectrum. They need to make it clear that the Labour Party cannot take them for granted, that they want to vote for a party who takes seriously their values and concerns, and that if Labour is not the party closest to those values and concerns, they will desert them.

Personally, I'm not particularly concerned about which party it is that takes social justice and individual liberty seriously. If the Lib Dems end up being the guardians of the values of the Beveridge Report, then the Lib Dems end up being the guardians of the values of the Beveridge Report. However, the Lib Dems are not yet a potential party of government, and are unlikely to become one under the current voting system, so the centre-left needs the Labour Party: specifically, it needs it back on the centre-left, and that means letting it know that it cannot continue to be dragged to the right by a dubious strategy of triangulation without risking losing the support of the core that kept it alive in the dark days. So, Backing Blair and So Now Who Do We Vote For both have it wrong: Backing Blair says just vote for whoever will keep Labour out, which will mean voting for the Tories a lot of the time, which doesn't make sense, and So Now Who Do We Vote For is only advocating voting against Labour where other centre-left parties might win, which means no protest votes in seats where the contest is Labour-Tory, which means Labour can ignore most of its supporters views as long as they're no quite as bad as the Tories.