ashthomas//blog: March 2004


Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Worst Album Covers.
You have to see this for yourself. My favourite is number 6.

Wood on Le Carré.
James Wood, who is probably my favourite literary critic, writes about the work of John Le Carré, and in particular his new novel Absolute Friends, in the latest issue of The New Republic. Wood places Le Carré in a no-man's land between literary and genre fiction. He is not in the same league as other, more literary, writers who have dealt with espionage (Greene, Conrad), but his writing is a cut above "the bald-faced illiteracies of a contemporary thriller writer". It is for this reason that Wood says that critics have been soft on Le Carré: he is better than your average blockbuster writer, but still short of qualifying as a literary artist. Le Carré is a guilty pleasure of the literary elite. He tells good stories, and he tells them well. As Wood writes, "it is the discourse of an educated man rather than the words-by-the-yard offered by contemporary sellers. But it is, all the same, genre-writing." Wood acknowledges that Le Carré is darker, more complicated antidote to the flashiness of Fleming, but Wood reminds us that while Le Carré may be the best of them, at essence he will always be a thriller writer.

"The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."
Glenn Gould was not only a genius pianist, but also a philosopher of the art. Michael Dirda reviews in the Washington Post a new biography of Gould, and reveals that the fascination with Gould goes beyond mere appreciation of his abilities. For some, Gould epitomises the half-mad solitary genius, dedicated to his art, oblivious to the world around him. Dirda describes Gould's Bach recordings as "the most pondered interpretations in the world, the keyboard meditations of a Zen master", and quotes Gould as saying, "One does not play the piano with one's fingers, one plays the piano with one's mind." And preferably with no one else around: "Isolation is the one sure way to human happiness."

"Just about every doorway in London has been captured and placed inside this cabin" The Guardian has a fascinating article by Jon Ronson about his chance to go through Stanley Kubrick's archives. There he finds the Causabon-like obsessive research that Kubrick did for all his movies. He writes about entering one of Kubrick's archive rooms:
Tony takes me into a large room painted blue and filled with books. "This used to be the cinema," he says.
"Is it the library now?" I ask.
"Look closer at the books," says Tony.
I do. "Bloody hell," I say. "Every book in this room is about Napoleon!"
"Look in the drawers," says Tony.
I do.
"It's all about Napoleon, too!" I say. "Everything in here is about Napoleon!"

Of course, Kubrick never got the chance to make his Napoleon movie, but his attention to detail in everything is shown even with something as seemingly trivial as a doorframe:
In one portable cabin, for example, there are hundreds and hundreds of boxes related to Eyes Wide Shut, marked EWS - Portman Square, EWS - Kensington & Chelsea, etc, etc. I choose the one marked EWS - Islington because that's where I live. Inside are hundreds of photographs of doorways. The doorway of my local video shop, Century Video, is here, as is the doorway of my dry cleaner's, Spots Suede Services on Upper Street. Then, as I continue to flick through the photographs, I find, to my astonishment, pictures of the doorways of the houses in my own street.

And this is for one scene in Eyes Wide Shut that lasts no more than a few seconds.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Shadow Cabinet. It may seem obvious to us in countries that have the Westminster parliamentary system, but over at Daily Kos, they are discussing whether or not John Kerry should nominate a shadow cabinet and who should be a part of it. When we have an election under the Westminster system, we elect a party, which usually has a leader who we expect to be Prime Minister, but we do not vote for the leader directly. In effect, we elect the team who we think will run the country the best. And we know the teams because during their term in opposition, a shadow cabinet has been responding to and criticising the government's policies. The same principle should apply in presidential elections in the U.S. -- the president is not going to run the country on his own, so his choice of cabinet members and other high-ranking officials is an important one. Kerry should announce his proposed cabinet as soon as possible. This will have two immediate effects -- it will take the pressure off Kerry himself to respond to every comment by the Bush administration, and it allow a more detailed discussion of policy. As Josh Marshall says, "Put Richard Holbrooke, not campaign flacks on every show that will book him. He wants to be Secretary of State. Make him work for it." Kerry should put together a team and send them out to go head to head against the people whose jobs they want to take, leaving Kerry free to debate grand strategy rather than the specifics of each issue. It will allow the public to make a more informed decision about which administration they want when it comes to the vote in November.

The Empire is struck back. Chalmers Johnson has a profile up at AlterNet promoting his new book, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic. Johnson's position, which was considered alarmist pre-September 11 but is now becoming common thinking among the left, is that the "vast network of American military bases on every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new form of empire", and that the consequences of this empire will be continued violence directed against the United States and its allies. G. John Ikenberry reviews it at Foreign Affairs and concludes that "Johnson offers no coherent theory of why the United States seeks empire." Ulitmately, Ikenberry finds "Johnson's simplistic view of military hegemony misleading." Nonetheless, Johnson is raising questions about the international posture of the American military that need to be considered.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Muravchik on treason. While I was at the AEI site reading the Ferguson speech, I came across an article that was written by Joshua Muravchik for the March 4 issue of the Jerusalem Post called "The Betrayal of Democracy". Muravchik makes some claims that I took issue with. He writes that "In any society, nothing is worse than the deliberate exposure of one's countrymen to its enemies, for it not only amounts to attempted mass murder, but to the mass murder of those to whom one owes the fundamental obligation of fellowship."

And yet at the beginning of the article he says that "morally", traitors against oppressive regimes "would better be judged a noble spirit than a malefactor". He goes on to acknowledge that the argument leads itself to the conclusion that, for example, communist or fascist spies working to overthrow a democracy could be similarly be seen as heroes.

Here is where he makes his paradox: "such reasoning is not legitimate for citizens of a democracy," he writes. Traitors, in Muravchik's argument, are noble if they are democrats overthrowing communists, and villains if they are communists overthrowing democrats. These two traitors, hero and villain, are committing the same act. Muravchik ends his article by claiming, "in any society, there is nothing worse" than treason.

There is the inconsistency. First line: "Treason is often thought to be among the highest of crimes. But is it? Not always."
Last line: "In any society, nothing is worse than the deliberate exposure of one's countrymen to its enemies"

Other than that, he makes his interesting comments about the duties that one owes to one's fellow countrymen.

Ferguson speech at the AEI. The Oxford and Harvard historian Niall Ferguson gave a speech a couple of weeks ago at the American Enterprise Institute titled "The End of Europe?". Andrew Sullivan was there and wrote about it at his blog. The transcript is up at the AEI website and it worth reading for anyone interested in the state of the European Union and its place in the world.

Ferguson describes Europe as an "impire": "a political entity, instead of expanding outwards towards its periphery, exporting power, implodes--when the energies come from outside into that entity." The European Union, he argues, is an entity on the brink of decline and perhaps ultimately even of dissolution."

The solution that he offers is immigration and expansion. Only that way will the EU be able to rejuvenate its shrinking and aging population. But he recognises that there is resistance from within the EU to the sort of expansion that Ferguson feels is necessary, i.e. an expansion that will have to include large numbers of Eastern European peoples, and that resistance is largely a cultural bias: "that Europe is fundamentally a Christian entity; that the European Union is a kind of latter day secular version of Christendom". But as he says, that distinction is becoming less and less and relevant: "The reality is that Europeans inhabit a post-Christian society that is economically, demographically, but, in my view, above all culturally a decadent society."

I am not sure if I agree with Ferguson's thesis, but it is an interesting argument that needs to be considered alongside those of Robert Kagan and Charles Kupchan, each of who have a different interpretation of Europe and its relationship with the United States and the rest of the world.

She's no Ellsberg. I have just read through the so-called "New Pentagon Papers" by Karen Kwiatkowski published by Salon last week. First, the revelations contained in this piece do not warrant comparison to the remarkable act of courage of Daniel Ellsberg thirty years ago. The article is largely a rehashing of the well-known history of the Office of Special Plans and the biographies of the key-players within it. There are few surprises in this much-touted release. Much of the information is contained in the better researched and written piece in Mother Jones by Robert Dreyfuss and Jason Vest, "The Lie Factory". Granted, Kwiatkowski is one of the primary sources of information for that article, but that only reinforces the claim that "The New Pentagon Papers" is superfluous. Its purpose will be to serve as a primary source for journalists and historians who need an eyewitness to quote.

The most interesting part comes at the end, where Kwiatkowski concludes by saying:
War is generally crafted and pursued for political reasons, but the reasons given to the Congress and to the American people for this one were inaccurate and so misleading as to be false. Moreover, they were false by design. Certainly, the neoconservatives never bothered to sell the rest of the country on the real reasons for occupation of Iraq -- more bases from which to flex U.S. muscle with Syria and Iran, and better positioning for the inevitable fall of the regional ruling sheikdoms. Maintaining OPEC on a dollar track and not a euro and fulfilling a half-baked imperial vision also played a role. These more accurate reasons for invading and occupying could have been argued on their merits -- an angry and aggressive U.S. population might indeed have supported the war and occupation for those reasons. But Americans didn't get the chance for an honest debate.

On this point, I agree with Kwiatkowski. However, unlike her, I do not have a problem with the real reasons behind going to war. I think that Saddam was a dangerous threat to his people and the region and that Western states have a moral obligation to punish and, if need be, remove, such dictators (and if you choose to call that imperialism, so be it). The democratisation of the Middle East can certainly begin with the replacement of the Ba'athist regime with a republic based on a liberal constitution (democracy may have to wait a while). Where I am torn, however, is on the question of the gap between what the government knows and what the government admits. Liberal empires can be a good thing - they can benefit all within the empire. But you can't sell a war on that argument. Americans used to go to war on principle, but that attitude changed during the twentieth century. Now, Americans only go to war when they absolutely have to, i.e. when they are themselves in danger. I do not like being lied to, and I blame the lack of international support for the war on the Bush administration because of their policy of duplicity and the misleading emphasis on certain aspects of the truth and the omission of other aspects. Ideally, they would have told the truth and the people would have supported them. Unfortunately I do not know if that is a realistic scenario. It raises important questions about the rights of an administration to pursue a war that a majority of its citizens do not support. Those are the hard decisions that a government must make for the good of the nation and the world. I believe in ideological transparency - a candidate or a party should say what it believes in and then unashamedly seek to implement that agenda. Hopefully the nation's citizens and the international community would follow. That is where I have my complaints with the Iraq War - the way it was done, not why it was done.

Friday, March 12, 2004

No one is unworthy of a pounding. Jack Shafer in Slate writes about what two sites that I love, Gawker and Wonkette, and what he considers their relentless and ultimately civilization ruining snarkiness:
Why do Gawker and Wonkette leave me sick at heart? Because despite the demonstrable talent that goes into both sites, they insist on handing out rote poundings to their subjects with a monotonous sadism that makes few distinctions among worthy and unworthy targets.

Which is exactly what I love about them.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Gelber Prize.The book that is currently on my nightstand, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy by Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay (Brookings Institution Press, 2003) has just won the 2003 Gelber Prize for the best book on international relations. My review of the book will be up in a week or so.

Tim Robbins' Embedded. I hadn't heard about this until I read Lawrence Kaplan's review in the TNR, but Tim Robbins has written and directed a play about the so-called neo-con conspiracy. Kaplan awards Robbins the mantle of making the dumbest reference to "neoconservatism". His play, Kaplan shows, is filled with misunderstanding of Leo Strauss and blatantly conspiracy theories, depicting Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle planning out the war on their calendars for maximum political effect. Kaplan also refers to a number of reviews where Robbins reveals his ignorance through facile simplications and less than nuanced politcal analysis. And apparently the intial inpiration for the writing of the play was Robbins having an invitation to a party withdrawn. We can't fault anyone for having an opinion, and as Kaplan writes, "I do not think that Robbins deserves condemnation for his vocal opposition to the war--anymore than I think Britney Spears deserves credit for her vocal support of it." But when the opinions are poorly supported and the motivations are trivial, then you have to laugh when someone as self-important as Robbins starts his pontificating.

Death during Masonic ritual. Reuters reports the story of a man who was accidentally killed during his intiation to the Freemasons:
47-year-old William James was accidentally killed when Albert Eid, 76, confused a loaded .38-caliber semiautomatic pistol with another gun during the induction ceremony in Patchogue, on New York's Long Island, on Monday night. "During the ceremony, an inductee was shot and killed when a lodge member used a real gun instead of a blank pistol," Suffolk County Detective Lt. Jack Fitzpatrick said in a statement. Police officer Heidi Cummings said Eid pointed a gun at James' head while another member beat a garbage can like a drum as part of the rite in the basement of the suburban Southside Masonic Lodge.

While not a member myself, I have some familiarity with the Masons, and as far as I know, there is not usually a gun (or a beaten garbage can, for that matter) in the intiation ritual. A sword or dagger is pointed at the bared breat of the inductee and he is made to repeat an oath. I don't know why this Lodge would be using a gun with blanks, let alone having a loaded gun nearby to confuse it with.

More on Sopranos. The Prospect has a piece on The Sopranos. Short, but worth reading.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Salon beefing up its political writing. Salon is opening a Washington D.C. news bureau to headed up by former Clinton insider, Sidney Blumenthal, according to Blumenthal is spearheading what Salon is calling new "editorial intiatives", which will also include partnerships with The Guardian and

The piece goes on to refer to two articles that will appear in Salon this week which sound quite interesting:
Salon will publish on Wednesday an inside account of how intelligence was twisted in the rush to the Iraq war. The author of the article, "The New Pentagon Papers," is a retired lieutenant colonel, Karen Kwiatkowski, a Near East specialist, formerly assigned to the Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon. On Thursday, Salon will publish the first of several advance excerpts from "House of Bush, House of Saud," a new book by Craig Unger "that explores the relationship between the two dynasties."

I am eagerly looking forward to seeing what Salon has planned. I liked Blumenthal's last book, and I hope he can inject some life into Salon, which has been disappointing me lately. It is still reliable for arts and culture, but it has slipped far behind Slate, in my opinion, for being the best overall web-only magazine.

Sopranos, Season 5. Slate has a couple of mafia experts commenting on the new season of The Sopranos. Last year they had psychologists, and this year they have Jeffrey Goldberg, formerly the organised crime reporter for New York magazine and now with the New Yorker, and Jerry Capeci who writes about the mafia for the New York Sun and his own webpage, dissecting the new series each week.

This is a treat for me, since we probably won't get to see the new season of The Sopranos in Australia for a few more months, unless I can download the episodes from the net somewhere. This comes a few days after the Salon article that looked at whether the show is a feminist tract in disguise, which was merely a conceit to discuss the first four episodes of the fifth season in a different way.

The guys at Slate only discuss the first episode, so they bring up a few questions that the Salon piece clears up, since it is privy to the next three hours of the storyline. Nonetheless, their discussion, digressing into anecdotes about the real life mafia and the similarities between it and the show, has me salivating. I love The Sopranos; I think it is the smartest, most engaging drama series on the air (possibly of all time). And comments like this are making me impatient to see its return:
First, it's clear that David Chase is bringing mob intrigue back front and center, which is a good thing for our purposes. And second, I think it's fair to say that The Sopranos is most definitely not jumping the shark.... The Sopranos writing remains fresh and disjointed and dread-filled, and that Lily Tomlin is not making guest appearances, and that my favorite characters are still the same sociopaths they were last season, only more so.

Not sleeping well. I didn't sleep well last night. I found it hard to get to sleep and then the sleep I did get was nightmareful. As I was lying in bed reading last night, my wife was asleep next to me and she started to make quiet snoring noises. She used to sleep on her stomach until a physio told her it was not helping her bad shoulder/neck. On her back, her breathing makes sounds. Not disturbing or enough to keep me awake or anything, just normal person sleeping sounds. But then she made the exact same sound my father made when he was lying naked in the shower, as I tried to revive him. An unnatural choking/gurgling sound, a strain for breath from a blocked throat. The sound he made as he looked into my eyes as his clouded over, the sound he made seconds before I started giving him mouth to mouth. The sound he made as he died.

And so I had trouble getting to sleep last night.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Weekend of movies. Posts have been light on the ground since last week as I have been getting things ready for the class that I am teaching this semester, Modern France: Revolution to Resistance. Preparation for my first class, as well as trying to finish a chapter of my dissertation meant that I spent the weekend at home while my lovely wife hit the town with her friends. As I can't work in silence, I had a constant flow of films in the background and as diversions/sources of procrastination.

Finding Nemo A cute enough flick, excellent graphics, but the story didn't really grab me. Sure, I am probably twenty years older than its target audience, but I really don't think it is all that the media has made it out to be. The Lion King is still the best animated kids' film, in my opinion. The Australian accents, especially the dentist's, were caricatures, and I really hope that the rest of the world doesn't think we speak like the Crocodile Hunter.

The Pentagon Papers The story of Daniel Ellsburg, played by James Spader, and how he changed from RAND and Pentagon analyst to leaker of top-secret documents. It was interesting, but it would have been moreso if there were less of the hand wringing and more of the politics behind the war. The Vietnam War has produced many great war films, but I think that there is a fascinating political story to be told as well.

The Gathering Storm An HBO biopic of Winston Churchill in the thirties, when he was considered to be washed up and a minor embarrassment to the Conservative Party. Too short and too much of his private life, although Albert Finney is fantastic. The historical inaccuracies and the historical exclusions (how can a film about the lead-up to the Second World War and how Churchill was the only one warning of the dangers of Germany not include Chamberlain as a character or have any mention of Munich?!)

Gods and Generals I was expecting an exciting, emotional depiction of the ambiguities of the start of the American Civil War. What I got was a slow, laboured movie that had Stonewall Jackson praying every 8 minutes. I turned it off after 45 minutes and watched the documentaries instead.

American Pie 3: The Wedding More than the last two, this was a series of sketches hung loosely on the plot line of preparations for Jim's wedding. Hit and miss. Stifler is again the standout -- somebody give this guy his own show, he is hilarious.

Buffalo Soldiers A depiction of the amoral world of a peacetime army base in Germany - boredom, drugs and corruption. Joaquim Phoenix and Scott Glenn are the whole show. Phoenix is turning out to be a very talented actor (his performance in The Yards is his best) and I have liked Glenn since his role as the drug dealer in Training Day.

High Fidelity One of the best rom-com movies of the nineties. Cusack is amazing, but the standout is the star-making performance from Jack Black.

State of Play (part one) A BBC mini-series that is going to have us glued to the ABC every Sunday night for the next six weeks. After the first episode of this ten-hour series, I am already hooked. A gripping story of politics, journalism and crime. Not a superfluous minute in it. Fantastic.

"Within five years, the top blogs will become worth as much as $5 million," claims Jason Calacanis, propietor of Weblogs, Inc. in this New York Metro story about the rivalry between Weblogs and Gawker. Nick Denton, owner of the Gawker stable of sites, denies that blogs will be worth that much, replying "no one’s going to get rich off blogging any time soon". Both acknowledge that blogs are increasingly becoming relevant, especially in the media and political worlds, and that blogs are an invaluable way for a young writer to become noticed and develop name recognition.

I am a dark, insidious force pushing Bush toward war and confrontation. VP Dick Cheney cracks them up at the annual Gridiron dinner. As the Standard notes, his remarks are off the record, but worth reading. Obviously his office can't be too worried if someone has the good humour to pen such a self-effacing and funny speech. My fave:
We have dispatched Dr. David Kay . . . to search for the bio-warfare agents we believe hidden in Senator Kerry's forehead. If Senator Kerry has used botox as part of a wrinkle enrichment program, he is in violation of U.N. Resolution 752. Upon receiving Dr. Kay's report, the weapons of mass destruction that Senator Kerry so adamantly insists do not exist . . . may well be above his very nose.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

"My only international rival is Tintin", said General Charles de Gaulle. The Guardian Unlimited has a piece by fellow aussie Peter Conrad on the Tintin phenonemon. Tintin, already one of the most popular comic strip characters in the world, and along with Hercule Poirot, probably the most famous literary Belgian, is set to be embossed upon a new commemorative euro coin. It is nice to see that my love of Herge's adventures of Tintin is shared by other adults.