Monday, December 27, 2004

 

Exile on Ukraine

The Exile has an incisive article on the Ukrainian elections (where it looks now Yuschenko is winning) and the response of (part of) the left. Quote:

The protesters in Ukraine did not travel to Kiev from every corner of the country because they wanted to hear rock concerts or to wave orange flags designed by American PR firm Burson-Marstellar. They came out because they are sick of living in a vicious kleptocracy. They came out because the election was blatantly stolen by Yanukovich. This is not an "alleged truth" based on American financed exit polls, as Steele would have it, but a fact. There are over 10,000 documented cases of violations, such as election observers being severely beaten and of districts where 103 percent of the population voted for Yanukovich.

Happy New Year,

Merlijn

Monday, December 20, 2004

 

Barbarism in Iran

B&W refer to this article dealing with the murderous misogynist travesty of "justice" in theocratic Iran. Currently, a nineteen-year old girl with a mental age of eight is awaiting execution for "actions incompatible with chastity" (she was sold in prostitution since early childhood). Another young women is awaiting execution by stoning for adultery, as is a thirteen-year old girl. As the article reports:


Even Iran's chief justice has seemed to recognise that, although stoning is prescribed by Sharia law as the punishment for women who have sexual relations with men to whom they are not married, pelting a woman to death with rocks counts as excessively cruel.

Two years ago, he ruled that, while stonings should still be the nominal punishment for adultery and pre-marital sex, that sentence should be routinely commuted to execution by hanging.

It appears from the fate in store for Zhila Izadyar, however, that his commitment to the de facto abolition of stoning was about as sincere as the Iranian government's commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There are no plans to change any of the provisions of the Penal Code that relate to children, and which state that girls as young as nine can be executed (boys have to reach the age of 14 before they can be killed).


More on the niceties of "divinely ordained justice" in Iran here, here and here, by Amnesty.

- Merlijn

 

Political correctness reaching new heights

The apex of political correctness gone mad must be the Sitzpinkler movement, an attempt to get men to sit down while peeing, instead of standing up. Here's
more, and here's a quote from Michael J. Bower's , an American rightist who nevertheless for once has excellent reason to have fun with Europeans:


A newspaper called The Australian quoted a young woman named Jessica, a biologist, from the Swedish city of Uppsala: "All my friends demand that their husbands or boyfriends sit down," said Jessica."I think it shows respect for the women who clean.

"My brother, for example, would not dream of standing up. Among the young, leftish intelligentsia, there is also a view that to stand up is a nasty macho gesture."


I suppose that's the problem in the nutshell. Because we European men are progressive, equality-minded, perhaps a bit feminist even - we must show respect for the women who clean the toilet. Unbelievable.

Of course, I for one know how to clean a toilet - but then again, I wouldn't be caught dead with what goes for the "young, leftish intelligentsia" these days.

(Link courtesy of Andrew Sullivan)

- Merlijn

Sunday, December 19, 2004

 

Ukraine, dogmatism and reality

I'm somewhat mystified by the standpoint of the British Workers Revolutionary Party about the events of the Ukraine. The link I posted earlier doesn't work - the webpage of their newspaper Newsline doesn't seem to have an archive of any kind - but their statement can be read here as well. Shortly, the WRP believe that the former East Bloc and Soviet Union states are still proletarian states, and that the fight between Yanukovich and Yuschenko is a fight between the stalinist bureaucracy and encroaching counterrevolution. I suppose it's a nice example of where dogmatism can lead you.

The clinch here is that Trotsky stated that restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union (and by extension the East Bloc states which would later come into existence) would not go about without a civil war: part of the Stalinist caste which presided over the bureaucratized but fundamentally working-class state would be moved to defend the socialized economy, and, of course, the working class itself would. The line of thought behind the WRPs standpoint is that since there has been no civil war in the former SU, there has been no counterrevolution: the East Bloc and former SU states are still working-class states.

First remark that should be made here is that, though there has been no all-out civil war on the whole territory of the SU and the East Bloc states, the political changes leading up to the restoration of capitalism in the early 1990s have been accompanied by armed conflict at various points. Ceaucescu and his apparatus did not go down quietly in Romania. Gorbachev attempted to smother independence movements in the Baltic States - which were really the first signs of the whole unravelling of the Soviet Union - by the use of force. In the former Soviet Union itself, both the coup attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991 as well as the defense of the Russian parliament by Rutskoy and Chasbulatov against Yeltsin in 1993 can be seen as desperate attempts by parts of the Stalinist bureaucracy (in case of the 1991 coup, a very pathetic attempt) to forestall an all-out restoration of capitalism.

Second, the Party leadership, and the Party bureaucracy, at the time of Trotsky was a slightly different animal than that of the East Bloc states at the end of the 1980s. In the 1930s, a rather big portion of the Soviet leadership consisted of people who had been active themselves in the October revolution - even as the "Old Bolsheviks" such as Bukharin and Zinoviev were killed off. A rather big portion of the bureaucracy consisted of workers. Yezhov, Stalin's secret police chief, was a former steel worker, and there were many like him. Decades later, the Party bureaucracy had turned more and more into a dyed-in-the-wool caste of its own. Where Trotsky could identify both a "Reiss" faction - which would, when push comes to shove - defend rather than sell-out the workers' state - and a "Butenko" faction which would throw in its lot with the restoration of capitalism, it's much more difficult to pinpoint a possible "Reiss" faction in the 1980s (Markus Wolf in the DDR, probably, but there were much too few Markus Wolfs in the DDR at the end).

This all while Trotsky did not expect the Soviet Union and its leadership to survive the expected invasion by the Nazis intact. So, the Party leadership which would, in Trotsky's expectation, face the choice between capitalist restoration or a fight to defend the working-class fundaments of the state would be roughly the same that Trotsky knew in the 1930s. Instead, the Soviet Union proved more vital than expected against the Nazi onslaught and generations of Party bureaucrats would come before the Soviet Union would be finished. This of course created an immediate split within the Trotskyist movement - part of which believed Stalinism to be an essentially less transient phenomenon than Trotsky expected and braced for centuries and centuries of Stalinism to come, part of which believed Trotsky's analysis of the former Soviet Union to be fundamentally working-class to be mistaken and instead argued that they constituted a particular form of capitalism - state capitalism.

Either answer is quite healthy (though I personally disagree with both) in that if the theory does not predict or rule out event X, and event X obviously occurs, the theory must be modified. A less healthy reaction is to argue that event X does, in fact, not occur - and that anyone who says that event X has, in fact, occurred, must be a defeatist or a revisionist who has given up on the vitally necessary defense of the situation pre-event X. For examples of this, visit the newsgroup alt.politics.socialism.trotsky at Google Groups.

The most intelligent defense of the idea that the restoration of capitalism in the former Eastern Bloc might have been a somewhat gradual process, with various phaes of a pro-capitalist government and a socialist economic base in between, is this long article by Ted Grant and Alan Woods, The collapse of Stalinism and the Russian state. At the moment, I guess the only case where a debate on the class nature of the state is possible would be Belarus, whose economy the CIA factbook (granted, not the best of available sources), described thusly:


Belarus has seen little structural reform since 1995, when President LUKASHENKO launched the country on the path of "market socialism." In keeping with this policy, LUKASHENKO reimposed administrative controls over prices and currency exchange rates and expanded the state's right to intervene in the management of private enterprises. In addition, businesses have been subject to pressure on the part of central and local governments, e.g., arbitrary changes in regulations, numerous rigorous inspections, retroactive application of new business regulations, and arrests of "disruptive" businessmen and factory owners. A wide range of redistributive policies has helped those at the bottom of the ladder. For the time being, Belarus remains self-isolated from the West and its open-market economies


Another, perhaps more dodgy case might have been rump Yugoslavia until Milosevic's ouster in 2000 (if so, and I'm not saying it is so, this would have massive consequences for the position one would have to take, retrospectively, towards the Kosovo war). But surely no others. To argue, for example, that the former DDR, after having been incorporated into the German Federal Republic for some 13 years, is still a proletarian state - as I've seen supporters of the WRP do - flies somewhat in the face of reality. Likewise, the current conflict in the Ukraine is one of conflicting geopolitical orientations, rather than a question of the restoration of capitalism - when it comes to that, the cow has drowned a long time ago, and it's no use draining the canal anymore.

- Merlijn

Saturday, December 18, 2004

 
I'm sure that Bush, while speaking at the panel on "Financial Challanges for Today and Tomorrow", inspired the audience with a lot of confidance in America's futare. Of course, I know it's a bit childish to make fun of spelling mistakes - though I think it's a bit disconcerting that the many, hopefully educated, people involved in the preparation of the forum didn't correct this mistake. And really, a leader of the Free World who can't keep his zipper closed while meeting foreign heads of states, it's getting mighty embarrasing.

However, the sorry bastard award of the month goes to the British National Party, who accidentally hired a black DJ for their Christmas party. So the party was a bit disappointing since the gathered BNPers had to watch what they said in order not to offend the black guy. As a BNP spokesman said, quoted in the article linked to above:

"There was a bit of a cock-up. The chap who booked him didn't realise. The DJ sounded white on the phone."


You wonder what it takes to 'sound black' in these guys' books. Something like Jar Jar Binks, maybe? Which brings to mind, it seems Joan Baez is totally losing it. As Reason's Ron Bailey wrote, at a concert Joan Baez decided to let one of her multiple personalities speak, this time a fifteen-year old black girl from the Southern United States:

"Baez decided to share with us Alice's views on the election. Amazed and horrified I watched a rich, famous, extremely white folksinger perform what can only be described as bit of minstrelsy—only the painted on blackface was missing. Alice, the black teenager from Arkansas Baez was pretending to be, spoke in a dialect so broad and thick that it would put Uncle Remus and Amos and Andy to shame. Baez' monologue was filled with phrases like, "I'se g'win ta" to do this that or the other and dropping all final "g's." Baez as Alice made statements like, "de prezident, he be a racist," and "de prezident, he got a bug fer killin'." Finally, since Bush won the election with 58.7 million votes to Kerry's 55.1 million, Alice observed, "Seems lak haf' de country be plumb crazy." Since Baez was reading Alice's notes, it is evident that she thinks that Arkansas' public schools don't teach black children to write standard English"

The British interior minister Blunkett has resigned, which is welcome news for opponents of authoritarianism - though it is doubtful whether his successor will be any better, and, as Johann Hari points out, he resigns for the wholly wrong reasons.

One of Blunkett's latest moves was to propose making incitement to religious hatred a criminal offense. Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels has been blogging incessantly about this, pointing out, quite correctly, that religion is a body of ideas, which should be open to criticism. Race, sexual orientation or sex itself is not open to choice, deliberation or argument - but religion is. As Ophelia Benson noted in her latest post on the subject, it's not that simple of course - since religion can be extremely fundamental towards one's own identity. Nonetheless, I believe that the law should be opposed - even in case of crypto-racist or not-so-crypto-racist "critiques" of religions. First of all, I'm against banning even incitement to racial hatred (unless the question is about very specific threats against specific people which have a good change of being actually followed up, i.e. the populist equivalent of crying fire in a crowded theatre). Second, while such laws might be initially applied to quite odious views such as, say the BNP's or the Vlaams Bloks', they'll not remain restricted to them. Here is a good opinion piece by Rowan Atkinson about the subject, and here a good article by Nick Cohen in the Guardian, with thanks to B&W from whose newssite I grabbed them.

Incidentally, Nick Cohen refers to a bizarre hit piece on Theo van Gogh, in, of all places, the Index on Censorship, which, one would think, opposes censorship. Nonetheless, one Rohan Jayasekera succeeded in penning down the following bile:

Van Gogh's juvenile shock-horror art finally led him to build an exploitative working relationship with Somalia-born Dutch MP Ayann Hirsi Ali, whose terrible personal experience of abuse has driven her to a traumatizing loss of her Muslim faith.

Together they made a furiously provocative film that featured actresses portraying battered Muslim women, naked under transparent Islamic-style shawls, their bodies marked with texts from the Koran that supposedly justify their repression. Van Gogh then roared his Muslim critics into silence with obscenities. An abuse of his right to free speech, it added injury to insult by effectively censorsing their moderate views as well.

Fortuyn and van Gogh freed the Dutch from responsibility to rationally debate the country's cultural crisis. So without fear of further disturbing already ravaged public sensitivities, applaud Theo van Gogh's death as the marvellous piece of theatre it was.

A sensational climax to a lifetime's public performance, stabbed and shot by a bearded fundamentalist, a message from the killer pinned by a dagger to his chest, Theo van Gogh became a martyr to free expression. His passing was marked by a magnificent barrage of noise as Amsterdam hit the streets to celebrate him in the way the man himself would have truly appreciated.

And what timing! Just as his long-awaited biographical film of Pim Fortuyn's life is ready to screen. Bravo, Theo! Bravo!


Notice the patronizing description of Ayaan Hirshi Ali - "traumatized" by her loss of religious faith - and the bizarre description of what Van Gogh did as "abuse of free speech". The article rightfully drew enormous criticism, to which the Index on Censorship board responded here, and Rohan Jayasakera responded here. Neither responses are particularly satisfying - of course it is wholly within Jayasakera's free speech rights to demand limitations of free speech, but on a website supposedly dedicated to free speech? I, for one, believe it is wholly within someone's free speech rights to call for a reintroduction of slavery, or for a fascist police state, or for Christian or Islamic theocracy - but neither I, nor no-one else, is thereby obliged to provide that person with a platform. This all notwithstanding, Jayasakera makes one good point in his rebuttal:

I do though regret making presumptions about Ayann Hirsi Ali. The film Submission was probably the best thing that van Gogh ever did, provocative or not, so that should be taken into account. To me something seems not right about her association with a political party with policies that are so inimical to her fellow Somalis in the Netherlands, as well as to so many others. But in speaking for her for the purposes of my own argument, I think I was treating her no more fairly than van Gogh did.

I have wondered about the association between Ayaan Hirshi Ali and the VVD, which is a political party I quite intensely dislike myself. This notwithstanding, Hirshi Ali has taken a generally very independent position inside Dutch parliament.

As for a case in point what defending free speech should be about, take the ACLU's defense of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. As the ACLU states:

It is easy to defend freedom of speech when the message is something many people find at least reasonable. But the defense of freedom of speech is most critical when the message is one most people find repulsive. That was true when the Nazis marched in Skokie. It remains true today.

Hats off.

Some new links in the sidebar: the Plaid Adder, a leftist feminist serpent with a good sense of humour and an excellent taste in movies; Long Road to Paradise, containing "comments on politics, technology and current events from a vegan transhumanist socialist perspective" (I'm a hopeless carnivore, but I like the "socialist" and "transhumanist" parts. "J" is at least a vegetarian, though); Karin Spaink's website, mostly in Dutch but with English material as well (Karin Spaink is an eminently reasonable Dutch writer, as well as one of the most eloquent opponents of censorship in the Netherlands); and a few smokers' rights sites, namely FORCES, FOREST, another American pro-smoking site, Smokers United, and Smokinglobby.com.

- Merlijn de Smit

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

 

Trudging towards a police state...

After the murder of Theo van Gogh early November, it seems the Dutch government wants to start its own sandbox version of the War on Terror. Minister of Justice Donner has announced that the Dutch secret police, the Algemene Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdienst, will endeavour to sabotage "extremist" websites. Link in Dutch. In the magazine Web Wereld, the opposition social democrats have made it clear they're not going to be seen as soft on this issue, with some idiot MP arguing that the government should hire hackers to sabotage these sites. Quoting, my translation:

"The PVDA MP does not believe that shutting down websites constitutes a threat to freedom of speech. "It is more a question of protecting society against the poison of wrong ideas.""

He actually says that. I'm not kidding here. Sounds like our MP just came back from a fact-finding mission to China or North Korea, and got all inspired, doesn't it?

Oh, and the social democrats have taken their diversity training, and make clear that itä's not going to be just Muslim sites: "The PVDA would like to broaden that. We must fight other forms of terrorism as well as islamic terrorism."

So, what's an 'extremist' site, then? Left-wing extremist? Right-wing extremist? Islamic extremist? Extremist atheists? People who believe that such measures are only going to be employed against people "who really deserve it" are naive. Government bureaucracies have an unpleasant tendency of over-employing any powers and privileges that are put into their hands.

I'm not surprised that the social democrats are all over this. After all, all old European social democrats are looking towards New Labour as a model, and New Labour is probably the worst nanny-state dystopian political outfit on its hemisphere. I'm more disappointed (though not very surprised) that the Green Left seems to be howling with the wolves on this issue, and am waiting anxiously to see what the Socialist Party will do.

- Merlijn de Smit

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

 

Iraq news roundup

The US seem to be serious about "pacifying" Fallujah. As Dahr Jamail reports:

"Another example of the winning of hearts and minds of Iraqis is being formulated for the residents of Fallujah. The military has announced the plans it is considering to use for allowing Fallujans back into their city.

They will set up “processing centers” on the outskirts of the city and compile a database of peoples’ identities by using DNA testing and retina scans. Residents will then receive a badge which identifies them with their home address, which they must wear at all times.

Buses will ferry them into their city, as cars will be banned since the military fears the use of them by suicide bombers.

Another idea being kicked around is to require the men to work for pay in military-style battalions where these “work brigades” will reconstruct buildings and the water system, depending on the men’s skills.

There will also be “rubble-clearing” platoons."

More here
on Dahr Jamail's blog, and here
in the Boston Herald. As Dahr Jamail points out, making Fallujah into a model city is all good and nice, but meanwhile guerillas seem to roam freely about in Baghdad killing suspected collaborators:

"They executed a man they suspected as being a collaborator in Tahrir Square, and then they moved on to Mathaf Sqare, just 3 blocks from the “Green Zone” where the interim government and US embassy are located." More about that here.

In other news, the Pentagon has published a frank and bleak report, conceding that the "war for hearts and minds" in Iraq has been lost and that the invasion in Iraq has broadened support for radical islam. Kos has a link to the PDF file up and running. As the Sunday Herald reports:

"On “the war of ideas or the struggle for hearts and minds”, the report says, “American efforts have not only failed, they may also have achieved the opposite of what they intended”.

“American direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature of, and support for, radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single digits in some Arab societies.”"

Paradoxically?

The CIA isn't any more cheerful either. A report by a field agent states that the security situation is likely to deteriorate.

In case some draft-age American progressives are secretly gloating at this news, David Hackworth has bad news for you. The army is overstretched and undermanned, and Hackworth is sure that: "Unless a miracle happens and the new Iraqi security force decides to stop running and start fighting, we’ll be in Iraq for a long time. Most likely with a draftee force."

For the sceptics among you, the US military has recently called up a 53-year old Vietnam vet to serve in Iraq. Apparently setting your life on the line in one senseless war wasn't enough.

Meanwhile, it seems the US Army is not just short on men. Here's
an article about a National Guard training camp in Mexico. Quoting:

"Members of a California Army National Guard battalion preparing for deployment to Iraq said this week that they were under strict lockdown and being treated like prisoners rather than soldiers by Army commanders at the remote desert camp where they are training.

More troubling, a number of the soldiers said, is that the training they have received is so poor and equipment shortages so prevalent that they fear their casualty rate will be needlessly high when they arrive in Iraq early next year. "We are going to pay for this in blood," one soldier said.

(...)

Members of the battalion, headquartered in Modesto, said in two dozen interviews that they were allowed no visitors or travel passes, had scant contact with their families and that morale was terrible.

"I feel like an inmate with a weapon," said Cpl. Jajuane Smith, 31, a six-year Guard veteran from Fresno who works for an armored transport company when not on active duty.

Several soldiers have fled Doña Ana by vaulting over rolls of barbed wire that surround the small camp, the soldiers interviewed said. Others, they said, are contemplating going AWOL, at least temporarily, to reunite with their families for Thanksgiving."

So, if you're an American and of draftable age and condition - which apparently means between eighteen and sixty and being able to walk - well, I've heard that Pitcairn island suffers from an acute shortage of labour. Hint.

Oh, did I forget to mention that November has been the bloodiest month so far in Iraq for US soldiers?

As National Review editor James S. Robbins grumbled at the beginning of last month - why don't we see more good news from Iraq? For fairness' sake, Andrew Sullivan - who has tenaciously blogged in recent weeks about torture abuses by US forces - still finds reason for optimism in the New Republic.

In other Iraq-related news, a Dutchman was arrested today for having delivered tons and tons of the raw materials for mustard gas and other chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. He's being charged with war crimes and being an accessory to genocide. Good riddance to this dealer of death.

Of course, there's another sinister figure from about that time who hush-hushed news about Iraq using chemical weapons against the Iranians, in order not to disturb lucrative arms deals.
Guess who.

- Merlijn


Sunday, December 05, 2004

 

Short book review

Hans Mühlestein: Die Verhüllten Götter. Neue Genesis der italienischen Renaissance. Verlag Daniel Andres, Biel 1981 (First edition by Kurt Desch, München, 1957).

In this fascinating and ambitious book, the Swiss art historian Hans Mühlestein attempts to trace the roots of what is basically the idea of the autonomy of the human mind - the humanist conception of there being no authority, religious, moral, political, above individual reason, the modern birth of which Mühlestein sees in the Italian renaissance of the 14th century. In Mühlestein's own words (p. 27):

"Wenn wir also tief genug zu den Ursprüngen des gewaltigen Genie-Ausbruchs von Kunst und Dichtung vordringen, der bislang den so gut wie aussliesslichen Gegenstand der Renaissance-Forschung gebildet hat (selbst Jacob Burckhardt greift, wie gesagt, nie hinter das Jahr 1250 zurück!), so stossen wir zuletzt auf das oberste Prinzip aller revolutionären Sekten des Mittelalters, das mit der Kunst- und Literaturgeschichte direkt überhaupt nichts zu tun hat (obwohl es indirekt auch darin natürlich ein grosse Rolle spielt) - um so mehr aber mit der Moral und Geisteshaltung der ganzen Renaissance-Epoche. Es ist das Prinzip des "inneren Lichtes", d.h. die - wie wir sehen - bis zur Todesbereitschaft entschlossene Überzeugung, dass einzig das eigene Gewissen und die eigene Einsicht darüber zu entscheiden haben, was wir glauben und was wir wissen dürfen und was wir offen bekennen sollen."

The title of the book, Die Verhüllten Götter, "The Hidden Gods", refers to the Etruscan religious concept of an anonymous council of hidden, unpersonalized deities, metaphorically used for the main subject of the book - the historical processes by which Mühlestein regards the principle of human autonomy to have survived from its ancient (Ionical) Greek and Etruscan precursors until the renaissance itself. The book itself consists of four main chapters. In the first one,Neues Weltbild - Neues Geschichtsbild, Mühlestein sets the stage for the rest of the book, departing from the modern conception of time and space, and tracing the roots of a scientific worldview to the work of the Pre-Socratic natural philosophers, such as Anaxagoras, Anaximander and Heraclitos, whom he compares to Plato and Aristoteles (a comparison extremely unfavourable to the latter). The second part, Die Verhüllten Götter concerns itself with the genesis of Etruscan culture in Italy - the last large non-Indo-European culture of the mediterranean area. The third part, Das "Innere Licht" deals with the Christian "underground" of the first and early second millenium A.D., and the influence from various dualistic Iranian religious currents which Mühlestein regards as crucial in their formation. The fourth part, Der Genie-Ausbruch Der Renaissance, finally, deals with the great cultural revolution of the renaissance itself.

When dealing with the genesis of the naturalistic/scientific worldview of today, and the concept of the autonomy of human reason, Mühlestein does specifically not differentiate between religion and science, rather, he contrasts an individualist audacity to think and conceptualize - both in religious and early scientific issues - a Traumkraft to use Mühlestein's words - to a dogmatic acceptance of ideas. Notably, Mühlestein regards this Traumkraft exemplified particularly in the dialectical philosophy of Heraclitos (influenced, according to Mühlestein, by Iranian Zoroastrianism), which he compares to the idealistic and static worldview of Parmenides and particularly Plato, in whom he sees a precursor of the ecclesiastical dogmatism of the medieval Catholic Church:

"Diese völlig irreale Tautologie des Parmenides, diese "logistische" Simplifizierung aller Weltprobleme, ein rein logistischer Traum, hat denn auch den ungeheuerlichsten Erfolg in der Weltgeschichte bis auf unsere Tage gehabt: es ist zum Geburtshelfer der Ideenlehre Platos geworden, in der zwar dieses Traumgenie die kosmische Dynamik des Heraklit nicht etwa vergass, sie aber vom Diesseits resolut ins Jenseits transzendierte, in die angeblich absolute "Entelechie", d.h. in die "Selbstbewegung der Ideen" nicht nur hinter aller Naturwirklichheit, sondern auch hinter allen logischen Begriffen, mittels derer der Mensch dieser Ideeen (natürlich vergeblich) habhaft zu werden trachtet - so dass alles Leben, im Kosmos wie hienieden, nur ein vom allein "seienden" Ideenspiel der selbstbewegten Ideen geworfenes "nichtseiendes" Schattenspiel wäre. Sowohl in dieser Form Platos, wie aber auch in der Form der ganz ebenso idealistischen, nur mit zahlreichen "realistischen" Exemplifikationen versetzten Logik des Aristoteles, unterwarf sich das späte Griechentum die ganze intellektuelle Welt des Abendlandes: es wurde zur Amme aller Ontologien, aller wissenschaftlichen und religiösen Dogmatik und Scholastik. Aristoteles wurde direkt zum Kirchenvater des Mittelalters, von dem jahrhundertelang die Rede ging: "Die Logik des Aristoteles ist die Logik Gottes" - und auf dessen Autorität hin noch Galilei verurteilt wurde. Und Platons Mystik hat alles freiere Denken der Renaissance verdorben, bis hinauf in die kühne Kosmologie Giordano Brunos, den der leidenschaftlich unternommene Versuch, aus der ungefährlichen platonischen Traumwelt in die gefährliche Welt der astronomischen Wirklichheit (der "Millionen Sonnen") durchzubrechen, auf der Scheiterhaufen brachte..." (p. 53-54)

Mühlestein's emphasis on a, so to speak, metareligious attitude - of audacity and curiosity rather than dogmatism - rather than a non-religious naturalistic worldview itself as a basis of the concept of individual reason which defines the Enlightenment may make today's defenders of that Enlightenment - both against religious attacks on science, for example "Intelligent Design" and creationism, and postmodernist attacks on the concept of scientific objectivity - somewhat uneasy. Nonetheless, I am with Mühlestein here: what is at stake, currently as probably as well in Plato's time, is basically the position of man itself as either a subject slowly gaining control over the natural forces surrounding him as well as over his own history, or as a prisoner of culture, worldviews or religious dogma, rather than the existence or non-existence of God.

The second part of the book deals with Etruscan culture of central Italy, which Mühlestein regards as the last protagonists of a pre-Indo-European matriarchal meditterranean cultural complex. The issue whether, and to what extent, pre-IE Europe was "matriarchal" or not is a very controversial one, nonetheless there seem to be indications that pre-Indo-European meditterranean cultures were, at least, somewhat less patriarchal than the extremely patriarchal ancient Greeks and Romans. Mühlestein makes an extremely bold move in locating the primeval homeland of the Etruscan homeland. The current consensus,defended recently
by for example the Dutch linguist Beekes, is that the Etruscans are not indigenous to Italy but have originated from Asia Minor.Evidence for this is for example found in the existence of some identical Etruscan and Lydian/Hittite deities (mentioned by Mühlestein on p. 152). Mühlestein, however, goes further and regards Northern Africa, more precisely, the Shot-Dyerit basin of central Tunisia, as the original homeland of the Etruscans. The original inner sea of the basin has been thought to have slowly dried out after a catastrophical earthquake in the mid-2nd millenium BC, and, according to Mühlestein, the Etruscans would have pushed westwards in a coalition with other tribes to Egypt, where they appear as the tursha. Also, Mühlestein believes the city of Tartessos mentioned in Greek legend was located in central Tunisia rather than in Southern Spain (where it is currently thought to have been located). Though I am somewhat sceptical, the often tantalizing bits of evidence and indicators that Mühlestein succeeds in collecting for his hypothesis are certainly interesting.

Mühlestein regards the non-anthropomorphized, secret "council of hidden gods" of the Etruscans as a remnant of the anonymous, female Cretan Potnia, the symbol of which is the labrys. Another remnant of a matriarchal religious conception, according to Mühlestein, is the ruling Etruscan triumvirate of Gods: both Tina (identifiable with Zeus or Jupiter) as well as Uni (Juno) and Menrva (Minerva) are armed with lightning bolts. Mühlestein traces his concept of Traumkraft particularly in Etruscan fresco art as well as in the political, egalitarian tendencies found in some Etruscan cities: notably, the nascent Roman Republic founded by the Etruscan Servius Tullius, and the last Etruscan cities of central Italy, surviving as republics after the Etruscan monarchy and priesthood were wiped out by the Roman onslaught. Mühlestein contrasts these tendencies with the scraps of Etruscan culture that survived during Roman times - namely, as superstition and a strongly hierarchical priesthood (which itself survives, partially, until this day in the organization of the Catholic Church). The line Mühlestein then draws - from the last, free Etruscan city-republics of central Italy in the final centuries BC to the cities where the renaissance first takes root, is a very bold one.

The other "strain" Mühlestein follows up is one departing from the Christian mystics and heretics of the first millenium BC to the great heretical movements of medieval times - the Bogomils in the Balkans, and the Cathars in Southern France. Mühlestein emphasizes the influence of various Iranian schools of religious thought - from Zoroastrian dualism to, particularly, Manicheanism, on the heretical movements of the middle ages.

The sheer timespan Mühlestein thus deals with - from the neolithic Pre-Indoeuropean mediterranean to the Italian renaissance, in about 450 pages is enormous, and sometimes he seems to be charging ahead a bit too quickly for my taste. This notwithstanding, the book is monumental if merely because of Mühlestein's extremely powerful, clear and often simply beautiful writing. That alone makes it a fitting monument to the very subject he is dealing with: that of the emergence of human reason as the sole determiner of what it truth and what is error. And, though published first in 1957, the book is far from obsolescent: though Mühlestein regards the great scientific breakthroughs of the past four centuries as a continuous triumph - science, and the mindsets and attitudes necessary for science and human progress, does not lack challenges.

- Merlijn de Smit

Saturday, December 04, 2004

 

Curricula Cuts, Rightless Students and Censorship, oh my!

The educational realm has quite a bit of problems, from the belief that once a pupil enters the schoolyard he surrenders his rights to curricula cuts to legislated textbook censoring. These woes are no secret and I'm not entirely convinced things were worse (or better) in days passed. Regardless, education is certainly a hallmark of any society and how much intellectual independence students are left with speaks volumes.

In the United States, a pupil has few rights on the school campus. Handbooks detailing all the things that are not allowed are passed out within the first few days of class and the student and his or her parents must sign a slip agreeing to abide by all that is written therein under threat of punishments (e.g. repetitive detentions, etc.) It was not until 1969, and it took a Supreme Court case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, that students were guaranteed their First Amendment rights inside the school's gates. A student's right to privacy is not guaranteed: his or her belongings may be searched and atheletes may be subjected to mandatory drug tests.

The United States leaves education, for the most part, to the counties - the subunits of the states. This minute division makes for a very varied educational spectrum across the country. Students are often allowed to take harder classes in the subjects they excel in and easier classes in those they are horrible. This selection creates widely different educational experiences for the students. It is hard to generalize, therefore, but I will be so bold as to say that the US seems to focus, clearly, more on mathematics and English than it does on any of the other subjects and that foreign languages are probably the weakest point of all in American secondary schools.

German schools grant their students many more rights, from being able to leave the classroom without asking permission to an open-campus policy. Students generally stay in one place and their teachers come to them.

However, students take the same classes as each other and it is not until the the last two years, for Gymnasium students, that they actually have a say in their schedule beyond deciding which Sport class they'll take or whether they want to have an Art, Music or Theatre class. There also exists, so I'm told, a North-South gradient: schools in the north are not as academically challenging as those in the south. One person who attended school in the rich Bundesland Bayern (Bavaria) was told by her teachers that Bavarian pupils were ready to pass the Hamburger Abitur in the 11th grade--two years early.

The major problem with German schools, at least here in the North, is their exclusive curricula, especially in mathematics. Students in the 11th grade here have not yet learnt how to factor out something like x²-5x+4 into (x-4)(x-1), they will never learn how to work with imaginary numbers according to the mathematics teacher, they need not be taught synthetic polynomial division. In the US all of those things are normally taught before or during the 10th grade. In their Religion class, which is taken by all student except those who "have no religion", i.e. are not Lutheran or Catholic, Judaism and Islam and other world religions are skimmed over. A German teacher had no idea what Hannukah was and what most people know of Islam comes from Turkish friends or brief news blurbs about Ramadan in the Middle East.

Whatever failings the Germans have in mathematics, they make up in foreign language instruction. English is beaten into most students for 7 years and soon students will be beginning English studies as young as 3rd grade. In addition, they must take a second foreign language for certain number of years, the exact number I haven't worked out since some people are beginning Spanish in the 11th grade but others have been taking French or Latin for 5 years already. Compare this to the mere 2 years required in most American high schools.

The United States is also leading the way in recent censorship and censorship proposals when it comes to educational materials. From the recent proposal by Gerard Allen on banning materials mentioning, referring to, etc. homosexuality from public libraries to the new health books to be used in Texas classrooms. Textbook errors seem to keep popping up as well. Frighteningly enough, many parents are the origin of such censorship measures.

On the same topic, here's a link to a the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books between 1990 and 2000.

Until parents, school administrators, textbook publishers and politicians can step back and let the students of the world learn unhampered there will always be a stain on education where intellectual freedom was not allowed to prosper.

-J


Friday, December 03, 2004

 

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group

A week or so ago I linked to this report on the second round of the Ukrainian presidential elections by the British Helsinki Human Rights Group. The report seems to have caused some hubbub over the internet - for example, this discussion at Harry's Place and this one at Reason's Hit and Run blog. Then in last Tuesday's Guardian, David Aaronovich weighed in with this column, mainly focusing on John Laughland, one of BHHRG's trustees, who is at the same time connected to Sanders Research Associates, and BHHRG co-founder Christine Stone, who used to be a columnist at Antiwar.com, which, as Aaronovich seems to be surprised to find out, "was not a leftwing site opposing the Iraq war. It was a rightwing site set up to oppose the Kosovo intervention in 1999." (in fact, some people opposed both wars...). Aaronovich finds these connections mighty fascinating.

I've never heard of Sanders Research Associates, and their articles seem to come with subscription only. This said, ridiculing Sanders Research Associates for predicting a massive John Kerry win, as Aaronovich does, is a bit rich, really - most people believed John Kerry would win the US presidential elections.

I have occasionally read Laughland, though, am a big fan of Antiwar.com, and have occasionally read the BHHRG's reports, so I'm going to make a few small comments.

1. I'm not going to get into the issue of Kosovo, at least not for now - I might do so in the near future, but it'd take a long time. Suffice to say for now that I do not know whether Laughland is an all-out Milosevic supporter in the way that some latter-day Stalinists seem to be, rather than someone who has merely opposed the Kosovo war and Milosevic's indictment. You don't need to be a Milosevic supporter to do either: both Antiwar.com's Justin Raimondo and Nebojsa Malic have strongly opposed both without having shown much in the way of personal sympathy for Milosevic - at least not to this reader.

2. I would hesitate even to call Antiwar.com right-wing, even if its main political thrust is libertarian (which is quite some miles way even from the anti-imperialist paleoconservatism of Pat Buchanan, not to speak of the the likes of the John Birch Society which did at the time oppose the intervention in Kosovo as well. And an acerbic radical leftist like Alexander Cockburn used to have a regular column on the page.

3. At Antiwar.com, Justin Raimondo has responded to Aaronovich in typical Raimondo style - which is something like the rethorical equivalent of an all-out armoured assault, with lots of hyperlinks. Justin Raimondo makes much of Aaronovich's communist past in a way that makes this NOT-ex communist here extremely uneasy. However, he makes one extremely important point, which is, that, quoting Laughland:

"We are told that a 96 per cent turnout in Donetsk, the home town of Viktor Yanukovich, is proof of electoral fraud. But apparently turnouts of more than 80 per cent in areas that support Viktor Yushchenko are not. Nor are actual scores for Yushchenko of well over 90 per cent in three regions, which Yanukovich achieved in only two. And whereas Yanukovich's final official score was 54 per cent, the Western-backed President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, officially polled 96.24 per cent of the vote in his country in January. The observers who now denounce the Ukrainian election welcomed that result in Georgia, saying that it 'brought the country closer to meeting international standards'. We have become dangerously tolerant of blatant double standards in media reporting."

Raimondo helpfully links to a map of the election results.

Whatever Laughland's or the BHHRG's political loyalties may be, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If the stalinistic support figures for Yanukovich in Donetsk are suspect, then so are by extension similar support figures for Yuschenko in the West, not to speak of the massive 96.24% victory for Saakashvili in Georgia.
Instead of casting suspicion on the BHHRG for reporting issues like these, perhaps some slight consistency would be asked for?

4. I generally take the BHHRG's report with a grain of salt, especially since they seem so much at odds with what is generally reported in the media. But then again, I try to take most things I read with a grain of salt. Aaronovich's attempt to make the BHHRG look like some extremely nefarious organization doubtlessly depending on sinister funding sources: "So what on earth is going on here? I know nothing about BHHRG's finances, but the ideological trail is fascinating." seems not particularly convincing to me - since at least one of these ideological trails leads to antiwar.com, a rather innocuous organization.

That does not mean that the BHHRG is above criticism. For one thing, they seem to have presented an extremely rosy report on the situation for Roma in the Czech Republic some time ago - strongly criticized by the European Roma Rights Center here. But their election report on the Ukraine definitely deserves to be read.

- Merlijn





 

Galloway Follow-Up

Johann Hari reminds his readers of some of the charges against Galloway - not that he accepted money from Saddam Hussein's regime, but that he was extremely supportive of said dictator. Nonetheless, Media Lies argues that the quotes Hari provides are, seen in their context, considerably more nuanced than they would seem at first sight. I don't believe this disproves the points I made below - it does prove, though, that the issue may be more complex than it seems.

- M.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

 

Censorship daily digest

Apparently, a number of Dutch muslims have hired a lawyer, R. Moszkowicz, to try and ban the planned sequel to Ayaan Hirschi Ali and Theo van Gogh's film Submission - the first part of which criticized violence and oppression of women in islamic culture, and was probably the reason why the filmmaker, van Gogh, was shot and stabbed to death by an islamic extremist early this month. Also, the idea of the lawsuit is to prohibit Hirschi Ali to make "offensive" statements about islam.

I expect the judges to laugh this lawsuit out of court immediately - the Netherlands have never been really big on censorship ever after a christian bid to censor the writer Gerard Reve for a passage in a novel in which the protagonist has sex with God in the guise of a donkey failed some decades ago. And banning a film before it is even made is of course the height of pre-emptive censorship.

Then again, nothing really surprises me these days.

Let's not forget, of course, that there are not only muslims in support of censorship. In the US, a republican representative from Alabama, one Gerald Allen, is preparing a law proposal to ban books with gay protagonists and textbooks suggesting that - horror! - homosexuality is natural from libraries.

His solution: "I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them."

I fear that the only reason Mr. Allen proposes this is his frustration at not being able to dump gays and lesbians themselves into that hole. Mr. Allen seems to be quite a dangerous fellow to me.

Aside from this, of course this ban is pretty much an all-out assault on human civilization itself. As a librarian reports in the article linked to above: "Half the books in the library could end up being banned. It's all based on how one interprets the material."

I am deeply ambivalent about anti-war MP George Galloway's victory in a libel case against the Daily Telegraph today, which accused him for, among other things, being in pay by the Saddam Hussein regime. When these charges became known, it seemed to me to be a smear against the anti-war movement as a whole. It may well have been so.

This notwithstanding, socialists, or people interested in free speech in general, have no reason to cheer the court decision - as the British Socialist Workers Party, currently in an extremely odd alliance with Galloway and islamic religious groups, of course does.

The British libel laws are pretty draconic, and only a few years ago, the British magazine LM, quite possibly the best political magazine on the left of the past one-and-a-half decade (archives linked to in sidebar), was gagged in a libel suit by media giant ITN. The outcry among the socialist left that should have been there during that time was, well, eeriely absent. Of course, a number of leftists, Noam Chomsky being one example, principledly defended LM. There were however also individuals mistakingly regarded as part of the left - green reactionary George Monbiot one of them - one rather toxic example here, who made a career out of going after LM in top conspiracy-theorist fashion.

This aside, going to the bourgeois court to repress someone else's speech - even if that speech is, indeed, libelous - cannot but strengthen those libel laws themselves.
Perhaps next time they'll be employed against the left again.

Anyway, George Galloway is the last thing the anti-war movement, or the socialist movement in general, needs: a deeply conservative stalinist, who strongly opposes a woman's right to choose and who visited Saddam Hussein, greeting him with the words: "Sir... we salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability... We are with you. Until victory! Until Jerusalem!”"

Excuse me - to Jerusalem!!?

I am not a very good Marxist, to be honest. I would like to be a good one - but I'm way too wobbly with my own politics (which is one of the reasons I am building the PSSST(KA)). But I much prefer principled Trotskyist opposition to both the imperialist war as well as Ba'athism and islamic fundamentalism - say, the line taken by the ICL:

"As revolutionary Marxists, we have a side in the current situation, against the U.S., its allies and Iraqi lackeys. Our starting point is to demand the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. troops, and their allies. We defend the peoples of Iraq against any U.S.-led attack and repression. Insofar as the forces on the ground in Iraq aim their blows against the imperialist occupiers (including the over 20,000 private mercenaries operating in the country), we call for their military defense against U.S. imperialism. Every blow struck against the imperialist occupiers is a blow struck against the enemy of workers and the oppressed all over the world.

But we do not imbue the forces presently organizing guerrilla attacks on U.S. forces with “anti-imperialist” credentials and warn that in the absence of working-class struggle in Iraq and internationally against the occupation, the victory of one or another of the reactionary clerical forces is more likely to come about through an alliance with U.S. imperialism. We are intransigent opponents of the murderous communal violence against other ethnic, religious and national populations oftentimes carried out by the very same forces fighting the occupation armies. And we condemn the kidnappings and executions of foreign civilian workers in Iraq.

We are external to the situation inside Iraq and our task at this point in time is therefore necessarily largely propagandistic, but no less crucial. While making clear that the main enemy is U.S. imperialism, a revolutionary party with roots and influence in Iraq today would mobilize against the reimposition of sharia, against communalist sectarian attacks, for organizing the vestiges of the workers movement and the legions of the unemployed on a class basis through strikes and workplace occupations against the thieving imperialist occupiers and parasitic clerics."

Or the AWL:

"In the event the American forces met less resistance than they expected from the political Islamist “insurgents” in Fallujah. Although pockets of fighting continue, operation Phantom Fury was over much quicker than we (or they), expected. Many of the Islamist/Ba’athist fighters seem to have deserted their “stronghold” before the attack. They will regroup and may fight in other Sunni cities. Right now the US forces are in Mosul “clearing” what they call “pockets of resistance”.

The fact that less damage was done than might have been will be very little comfort to the people of Fallujah when they return to their bullet-ridden homes and a city devastated by the Americans and the “resistance”. Or who stayed inside the city, who are living with dead bodies in the streets, the threat of snipers, and the lack of food and water.

Reports of civilian casualties are only just beginning to come out. In true Ba’thist fashion Prime Minister Iyad Allawi claimed that no civilians had been killed in Fallujah!

(...)

What do those on the left who back the occupation, who put their faith in the big powers, think now? No matter how much we want to see reactionary militias marginalised — forces that would annihilate the fledging workers’ organisations — we cannot rely on, trust or back forces with such a lack of care for civilian life, those who are concerned essentially with their own “big power” strategy to secure Iraq for “normal” capitalist plunder and not with the needs of the Iraqi people.

The US and British are trying to bring into their fold “mainstream” Islamism in the form of Sistani and SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). Moqtada al-Sadr could be part of a Sistani-led grand coalition. These are not friends of the working class.

As to those on the left, the SWP and others, who back the “resistance” — the events of the last weeks flatly contradict their position. The people of Fallujah did not “resist”.

By and large they fled the city or stayed in their homes. There is probably a lot of passive support for the armed resistance and much misery and discontent, but most of the people of Fallujah seem to have regarded themselves as victims of the Islamic militants."

(even if the two of them probably don't want to be mentioned in the same post) - anyway, I much prefer nuanced socialist analyses like the two linked to, above cheering for islamic fundamentalism or Ba'athism as the latest reincarnation of the fight against Empire - if we have to rely on the liked of Galloway, that fight is in dire straits, indeed.

- Merlijn

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