Is this a blog?
Not a new year’s resolution, but... Starting at the end of 2017 I felt I needed to make notes of interesting things I had read, as I feel the thoughts I had might disappear afterwards!
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Dictators and literature:
(From New Statesman, 6-1`2 April 2018): I really like the conclusion of the review by Lucy Hughes-Hallett of Daniel Kalder’s ‘Dictator Literature’ (2018): ‘Books... are, after all, he suggests, nearly impotent. By the time of his death Hitler owned some 16,000 books. They didn’t broaden his mind much. “Bad people read good poetry and remain evil, while good people read bad novels and remain good, and we all, anyway, forget most of what we’ve read.” ’
The book also slates Lenin for using his prose to attract people to his violent and antagonistic politics – something I’ve written about myself. See pp17socialismsincemarx1.htm #Lenin and Stalin
A new kind of totalitarianism? Review by Stuart Jeffries, Guardian 30th Dec 2017:
Byung-Chul Han, in Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, describes how Apple promised us freedom – the antithesis of 1984 – but in fact we have voluntarily surrendered/confessed by allowing all our personal information to be collected and used by these giant corporations. We have gone beyond Bentham’s panopticon, and Foucault’s biopolitics (the body disciplined as the means of social control) – big data now is a vast commercial enterprise, with personal data monetised and commercialised. People are treated as packages of data for economic use. Human beings have become a commodity.
[Not sure this is completely original?]
In Hegelian terms we have become master and slave in one. ‘unbounded freedom and communication are switching over into total control and surveillance.’ [See a later entry about Facebook...] All our information has been put onto the internet without our knowing who can see it or use it, or how.
Perhaps more worrying to me: politics has become impossible as a communal activity because we have become habituated to being consumers not citizens. Neoliberalism is the capitalism of Like (as on FB). All this has amplified the compulsion to conform – idiotisms are being suppressed.
Great article by Will Hutton: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/07/hungary-poland-had-enough-of-liberal-democracy-eu-must-act - criticisms of Hungary and Poland for moving away from liberal values. Includes the view that ‘the EU needs to allay its populations’ fears about freedom of movement. Every member state should have the right to implement an emergency lock on immigration. The presumption should be openness, but not without limit.’ ‘we are in the grip of an anti-Enlightenment populist right...’ Hungary and Poland back each other up because the EU can only take action against a country with unanimous support from the other members. Both say they are fighting for ‘the people’s will’, and an idea of national community.
And another excellent article from the same issue of the Observer: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/07/british-education-failure-white-working-class I especially like the point that it is dangerous to separate out the ‘white working class’ and complain about how they are left behind. This can only back up racist attitudes. Class is the problem.’ The Ofsted report of 2000 demonstrated that the impact of social class on school performance was more than twice as great as that of ethnicity.’
World War I, Lenin etc. Ian Walker has a piece on 1918: the year that failed the future, in the New European (Jan 4 – 10 2018), which makes some interesting points. Woodrow Wilson drew up 14 points for peace in a speech to Congress in 1918; Lenin also issued a Decree on Peace (for a truce, and the European powers to discuss the terms of peace). Wilson’s vision was derived from late 18th century ideas (national self-determination, free trade), and Lenin’s was new (emancipation of the working class, internationalism). Of course, both failed, and this was one reason the end of the war failed to bring about a new settlement.
The Bolsheviks were expecting revolution in Germany – and after the 1917 revolution they were fighting counter-revolutionaries, rival political factions, foreign soldiers (including Americans). This, says Walker, led to the strengthening of the Military Revolutionary Committee, which became the Cheka, then the KGB. ‘whose job was to ‘police’ political opponents (this included torture and murder)... By February 1918 it was murdering political opponents. By the summer it was responsible for the ‘red terror’... In August 1918, Lenin sent the following telegram: ‘Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers.’
[This quote reinforces my almost instinctive dislike of Lenin – I wish I had known about it when we in Solidarity were discussing Lenin...]
Along with the failure of both Wilson and Lenin’s plans – and the subsequent revolution in Russia, with Lenin (as Walker argues – and I must agree) paving the way for Stalin, Walker identifies other events that led to the disastrous mass slaughter of the early 20th century:
Throughout this period, and after of course, peace and stability were undermined by the continuation of imperial interests (especially France and Britain in the Sykes-Picot treaty, to carve up the Middle East – which contributed to the collapse of the League of Nations, an institution proposed [?] by Wilson).
The Versailles treaty which emphasised punishing the Germans was a ‘second corner stone’. Then Hitler himself, who had only taken part in the final phase of the war (he was in the List regiment, which took part in an assault (the last ‘pointless, stupid offensive) in March 1918 – when American troops were pouring into Europe, and the Prussians were lacking in equipment and food).
The rise of Hitler, who – as Walker sees him – was an inadequate who longed for war, and who, of course, blamed the Jews and communists for everything. He was in a part of Germany which was ‘the heart of European political turmoil – there was a socialist revolution taking place in Munich – but he did so just to cling to a job [working as a guard in a prison camp] that no-one else really wanted’. [How he came to power, and what this says about the devastation caused by the war and the state of German politics and culture, is another story of course].
What to make of Dr Jordan Peterson...
https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/jan/21/jordan-peterson-self-help-author-12-steps-interview - the emphasis seems to be on individualism, and against ‘ideologies’.
https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/putting-monsterpaint-onjordan-peterson/550859/ worrying how the interviewer distorts what Peterson is saying...
He has had to hit back at misogynists who attacked the interviewer, and he has a strong following among the ‘alt-right’ – but I’m not entirely clear why they think he is saying things they believe.
Brilliant review by Hari Kunzru (Guardian Review Sat 20 Jan 2018:
He has no truck with a range of ideas associated with social justice movements, e.g. white privilege, cultural appropriation. He is reluctant to use the personal pronouns that trans people want. He regards political correctness as a pathology. He seeks to understand political and religious belief in terms of the so-called ‘big five’ personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism.’
Gender is not fluid. Chaos is the realm of lies, of the language of persuasion, of Derrida and ethnic studies and boys who think they’re girls. A lot of the language is theological (Christian viz. the devil).
‘What makes the book so irritating is Peterson’s failure to follow many of the rules he sets out with such sententiousness. He does not ‘assume that the person he is listening to might know something he doesn’t’. He is far from ‘precise in his speech’, allowing his own foundational concepts (like ‘being’ and ‘chaos’) to slide around until they lose any clear meaning. He is happy to dish out stern injunctions against straw-manning, but his ‘Postmodernists’ and Marxists are the flimsiest of scarecrows, so his chest-thumping intellectual victories seem hollow. He appears sincere, and in some ways admirable in his fierce desire for truth, but he is much less far along his journey than he thinks, and one ends his oppressive, hectoring book relieved to be free of him.’ Enough said!!!
Excellent article by George Monbiot – have we reached a point where society is so complex it is unstable, and no-one can control it?
Brilliant review by my Facebook Friend Sandy Irvine of the new film about Churchill:
Yesterday, we went to see the movie 'The Darkest Hour' about Churchill's battle to keep Britain in the war against Nazis. It is not as good as the two previous films we saw, 'Three Billboards…" and 'Hostiles' but is still worth seeing. The main reason is the quite outstanding performance as Churchill by that great actor Gary Oldman. [Apparently he had to have surgery because of all the cigars he had to smoke during filming]
The movie has been cited as yet more proof (films such as 'Dunkirk' etc) of Britain's unhealthy obsession with World War Two and of a deluded faith that we Britons were exceptionally great and, post-Brexit' can be really great again, a veritable world class big hitter. The reality is rather different.
We live on a grossly overcrowded island, with limited resources and even less real influence in the world. It would be far better to have a much more modest but actually more secure and worthwhile vision, learning from small countries such as Denmark and Norway. There could be a 'happy ending' but it would involve far greater honesty about the real world, past and present.
Much though there is to enjoy in the film (and there is far more humour than I expected), it is worrying that it plays so fast and loose with the actual historical record. Indeed, it thereby diminishes Churchill's very real achievement. Contrary to the plot, there is no evidence that he was wobbling over whether to sue for peace with Hitler. It is risible as well as false to suggest that Churchill's backbone had to be stiffened by what he happened to hear from members of the public on a mythical tube ride.
Though Churchill did at times go out for walks and presumably conversed with members of the public, his mind had long been made up: Nazism had to be fought and destroyed. By contrast, in May 1940 large sections of the public were confused and dismayed. Churchill persevered nonetheless. Indeed, throughout the war, a fair few people skived and/or used the opportunities provided by air raids and by rationing to commit crime (TV's 'Foyle's War' is quite frank about 'bolt holes', racketeering, bureaucratic incompetence, and so forth)
As in 'Dunkirk', the myth of the 'small boats' rescuing the BEF is recycled whereas, in reality, it was the navy's destroyers that evacuated the bulk of the troops (including many French soldiers, again contrary to mythology). Also recycled in the myth that the British, Belgians and French faced a far superior foe, whereas, in terms of both numbers and weaponry, the allied forces were both stronger and better armed than the Germans (James Holland's 'War in the West' is very readable example of a new crop of 'revisionist' histories of the German war machine and Blitzkrieg).
The film follows the fashion of damning Chamberlain. To be sure, Churchill's assessment of Hitler was far sounder than that of both Chamberlain and Halifax. Yet 'appeasement' in 1938 did buy time to rearm the RAF with Spitfires and strengthen Britain's real ace, a coordinated air defence system without equal in the world at that time.
Quite contrary to the film's narrative, Labour would have served in an administration led by Halifax. The film repeats Churchill's sneering dismissal of Labour leader Attlee. Yet most serious histories suggest that the solid spadework done by Attlee and other Labour ministers in the new coalition really kept things going, Churchill not being a man of details.
Without belittling what was achieved in the summer of 1940 (with Britain removed, Hitler could perhaps have actually beaten Stalin, ushering in a new and truly dark age), 'The Darkest Hour' perpetuates the illusion of Britain 'standing alone' (a particular Brexiteer fantasy). In reality, the country had powerful naval and merchant fleets connecting it to the combined resources of Canada, the West Indies, various African colonies, India and Australasia, all then, of course, part of the British Empire.
In its depiction of Churchill as defender of democracy, the film rather overlooks the fact that he was a militant imperialist (something that subsequently made the alliance with the USA rocky). Indeed, in some ways Churchill was a ruling class Arthur Scargill (the film alludes to his role during the 1926 General Strike but nothing is made of it)
Churchill's 'back story' underline how misleading is the final on-screen text. To say Churchill was ejected from office is, of course, factually correct but the impression is given that British voters were ungrateful. Yet many people remembered his track record in the inter-war years, a militant enemy of the trade unions and a financial incompetent (something actually mentioned in the film with reference to the Gold Standard). Many service personnel and their families also had cause to remember Churchill's many blunders during the war (and, for that matter, World War One).
Despite various mistakes (Norway, Greece, Singapore, the mythical 'soft underbelly of Europe and equally mythical 'Llubjana Gap', etc), Churchill certainly played a leading role in winning the war. But there was widespread awareness that he would be no good 'winning' the peace'. That is why Labour won in 1945.
So, 'The Darkest Hour' deserves a viewing but take its story with a big pinch of salt. I have to be report that most of the audience at the Tyneside Cinema when we saw it appeared to be buying into the myths that it endorses. Ukip may be in terminal decline and the Tories in trouble but faith in Britannia and British Lion still lives on. For all their merits, films such as 'The Darkest Hour' and 'Dunkirk' still feed some dangerous delusions.