ashthomas//blog: March 2006


Monday, March 13, 2006

Bernard-Henri Lévy on Politics à la Carte

Bernard-Henri Lévy is worth quoting from this conversation with Francis Fukuyama in The American Interest, "It Doesn't Stay in Vegas":

My greatest bone of contention with your neoconservative friends and perhaps with you, as well. I can understand how free-thinking intellectuals would line up with some aspects of a president's policy, including his international policy. Furthermore, I can understand that, not content with just offering support, they set out to shift the emphasis, inspire and prompt the policy of an administration that everything had separated them from up until then (after all, that's exactly what I did at the time of the Bosnia crisis). And I find nothing shocking—though this time it was not my personal choice—that people like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle or Bill Kristol, who are, broadly speaking, Wilsonians—have been found for some years now treading along the lines (with regard to Iraqi issues) of the Jacksonians surrounding George W. Bush. But what I don't understand is that in the process they decided to accept everything else. What I don't understand, and what upsets me, is that just because they came together on one issue—granted, a key issue—they felt compelled to line up on every other issue and to endorse the Administration's entire agenda. What I won't accept—and what I see as a big mistake—is this way you decide, just because you agree on Bosnia, Afghanistan or Iraq, that you also have to agree with the ethos on the death penalty, on abortion, on gun control, on the neurotic fixation on gay marriage, and on all sorts of other issues. When I met Bill Kristol in Washington, I asked him: "When you go to a restaurant, do you order a dish or the whole menu?" He looked at me quizzically. Yet the problem is right there. When I go to the restaurant I choose a dish, maybe two. He takes the entire menu. And that's absurd, even dangerous, for at least three reasons.

First, it's an insult to intellectual freedom. An intellectual is someone who never puts himself or herself at someone's service. An intellectual is no one's puppet. An intellectual may join the powers that be on a specific issue, but nevertheless continues, with regard to the other issues, to defend not only his or her colors, but also the different hues of those colors.

Second, when neoconservative intellectuals took the full-package approach, they took the risk of compromising a beautiful concept we had in common, and I'm not sure in what state it will emerge from this venture. That concept is the "right to intervene" or "duty to step in." This is a key concept, a genuine enhancement of applied Western political philosophy. But to see it associated with pathetic attacks on Clinton's privacy, with absurd religious crusades or to confuse "reasons of state" with lies of state, is a sad sight. It raises fears that this cherished concept might emerge deeply corrupted and weakened from all this.

And third, by eating the entire menu, they diminish American intellectual and political life; they soften whatever sparkle, diversity, conflicting or contradictory nature it might have. Diversity will send a wake-up call on the very day when the true Bushites realize they have nothing in common with idealistic and adventurous neoconservatives and drive them out—which, in my opinion, will come soon. But for the moment, that's how the matter stands. And neoconservatism, which once invigorated the ideological debate in this country, is now rarifying and simplifying it instead.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Presidential Diseases

Health in Plain English has an interesting site about the diseases suffered by each of the Presidents of the United States. I found it fascinating that so many were depressives:

John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
Andrew Jackson
Franklin Pierce
Abraham Lincoln
Calvin Coolidge
Dwight Eisenhower
George H.W. Bush

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Robert Fisk at Writers' Week

Controversial journalist Robert Fisk is in Adelaide for Writers' Week, promoting his new memoir/exploration of the history of Middle East, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.

Fisk is an impassioned and inspiring public speaker, and during the Q&A could have spent another hour answering each of the questions from the audience. His sessions (I think he did three in total) were always packed -- Rebecca arrived more than hour before the start in order to make sure that we got good seats.

Fisk read three extracts from his new book, and then opened the floor to questions. The first reading was a scene from the Iran/Iraq war, a description of being flown in on a helicopter to the frontlines. The second described living in Beirut, and about being there when his father died. And the last was a first-hand account of the burning of books and archives in Baghdad in the immediate days following the Iraq War, and the apathy of the American authorities towards doing anything about it.

In the questions section, the issue of why Fisk continues to return to the most dangerous parts of the world and witness the worst situations of conflict. In essence, Fisk feels that the dead would want him and other war correspondents to tell their stories. He mentioned that Middle East cultural tradition tends to seek to demystify death and tragedy by wanting to address it and tell the story.

Another question dealt with last year's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Fisk, who knew Hariri personally, was so close to the scene of the crime that he was knocked to the ground by the force of the explosion. He described his first-hand witnessing of the tampering with evidence by plain-clothes police. Fisk then detailed the attempts at intimidation and threats that he endured while covering the story.

Fisk is one of the most courageous and honest, and therefore both vilified and honoured, journalists in the world. It was a real thrill and privilege to meet him and hear him speak this week.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Michael Cunningham at Writers' Week

Pulitzer Prize winning author of the The Hours and Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham, gave a very entertaining session at Writers' Week today. Seeming to sense that most of the audience would be more interesed in The Hours than his most book (which he admitted was not doing very well commercially), Cunningham spent most of the hour talking about the influence of Virginia Woolf on his life and work. It was inspiring to hear one writer talk about the way that another writer had literally changed his life. Woolf opened the world of serious literature to a boy from the suburbs of Southern California, and he described how he thought that Virgina Woolf was doing with language what Jimi Hendrix was doing with a guitar, expanding its potential and redefining the way one looks at the art. He also described how Woolf brought the suburbs to literature, showing, in Mrs Dalloway most especially, that every single one of us, no matter how mundane, is the potential subject of an epic novel.

Interestingly, Cunningham inscribes his books: To Ashley, Peace, Michael Cunningam.

Lyndall Gordon at Writers' Week

Lyndall Gordon is the author of T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, which is one of the books that I have drawn on extensively for my dissertation. It was, therefore, a huge honour to meet her at Writers' Week. Gordon, besides being the author of the Eliot biography, has also written on Charlotte Bronte, Henry James and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Gordon had some interesting comments about the nature of biography. Despite (or perhaps because of) being one of the premier artists of the genre, she still believes that there is room for the art of the biography to grow. Gordon described the challenge of biography to be able to incorporate the intensity of poetry, the drive of drama and the narrative structure of fiction.

At her book-signing table after the session, Gordon seemed genuinely interested in my project of looking more closely at Eliot's politics, and wrote a lovely inscription of encouragement in my copy of her book.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Oscar Reactions

Obviously Crash's win as Best Picture has shocked quite a few people. Brokeback Mountain was clearlythe favourite, and when it won for Adapted Screenplay and then Director, I thought it was a lock-in. It was a huge surprise when Crash won.

I do think that Crash is a better film than Brokeback Mountain, although I think that Good Night, and Good Luck was the best of the nominees. Crash is certainly more ambitious n theme and narrative scope , and unfortunately it is that excess of ambition over ability that leads it to be a flawed film. Good Night, and Good Luck is like a perfectly crafted short-story compared to the sprawling social novel of Crash.

I was very glad that George Clooney won for something, although I would have liked it to be for Best Director as well.

And I wished Syriana would have won best original screenplay over Crash; I think it handled the inter-connectedness of the characters in a more subtle and challenging. and therefore more rewarding, manner. Where Crash's criss-crossing of lives sometimes felt forced, Syriana never condescended to the audience.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Staying in Print Panel Discussion at Writers' Week

The next event at Writers' Week that I attended was a panel discussion about the state of literary journalism and journals.

On the panel were Nicholas Spice of the London Review of Books, Olivier Barrot of Senso, Mark Danner of the New York Review of Books, James Bradley, and Malcolm Knox of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Bradley made some interesting comments from an Australian point of view, noting that Australia, with a population of a mere 20 million, fields the second largest Olympics team, yet cannot seem to maintain a quality review of books. It is a problem of both Government funding and also public taste that more money and time is spent on sport than the arts.

Mark Danner noted that most of the "thought leader" publications in the U.S. are bankrolled by wealthy patrons who know that the magazines and journals are going to run at a loss, yet continue to fund them as a form of philanthropy. The major exception he noted was the New York Review of Books, that is self-sustaining, largely due to keeping printing and editorial costs down.

The panel also discussed the move in book review papes away from the literay towards the topical, that current affairs are now more closely covered than before. Danner noted that the climate in the media is one of confrontation rather than contemplation -- ideas are put up in opposition, rather than examined dispassionately.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Oscar Predictions

My predictions for tomorrow's Oscars are in bold below. These aren't necessarily who I want to win, but who I think will win based on the public and critical receptions of the films. If I had my druthers, Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck would share them all.

Best motion picture of the year

“Brokeback Mountain”
“Good Night, and Good Luck.”
Achievement in directing
“Brokeback Mountain” – Ang Lee
“Capote” – Bennett Miller
“Crash” – Paul Haggis
“Good Night, and Good Luck.” – George Clooney
“Munich” – Steven Spielberg
Adapted screenplay
“Brokeback Mountain” by Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
“Capote” by Dan Futterman
“The Constant Gardener” by Jeffrey Caine
“A History of Violence” by Josh Olson
“Munich” by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
Original screenplay
“Crash” by Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco
“Good Night, and Good Luck.” by George Clooney & Grant Heslov
“Match Point” by Woody Allen
“The Squid and the Whale” by Noah Baumbach
“Syriana” by Stephen Gaghan
Performance by an actor in a leading role
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”
Terrence Howard, “Hustle & Flow”
Heath Ledger, “Brokeback Mountain”
Joaquin Phoenix, “Walk the Line”
David Strathairn, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
Performance by an actor in a supporting role
George Clooney, “Syriana”
Matt Dillon, “Crash”
Paul Giamatti, “Cinderella Man”
Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain”
William Hurt, “A History of Violence”
Performance by an actress in a leading role
Judi Dench, “Mrs. Henderson Presents”
Felicity Huffman, “Transamerica”
Keira Knightley, “Pride & Prejudice”
Charlize Theron, “North Country”
Reese Witherspoon, “Walk the Line”
Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Amy Adams, “Junebug”
Catherine Keener, “Capote”
Frances McDormand, “North Country”
Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardener”
Michelle Williams, “Brokeback Mountain”

Val McDermid at Writers' Week

Val McDermid, in her charming Scottish accent, started the session by giving some details about what brought her around to becoming a crime novelist. In essence, it was her childhood reading patterns, in particular a healthy dose of Agatha Christie, that led her to an early conclusion that all good books should have a dead body in it.

Talkng about her experiences as a student at Oxford, she noted that she often spied detective and crime novels amongst the more scholarly tomes in her tutors' rooms, which signalled to her that while crime fiction might not always be considered "literary" by the establishment, it was nonetheless an intellectually respectable pleasure.

I found it interesting that McDermid said that she has no interest in "true crime" professionally. The main reason that she does not want to draw on real life is that she would hate for a victim of a tragedy be further hurt or upset by encountering or recognising themselves or their loved ones in a supposed work of fiction. I think that it is a very noble position for a writer to take.

McDermid also commented on her writing techniques. Usually she says that she writes to a very detailed synopsis, that the entire plot is laid out and she knows exactly what has to go where. However she revealed that her last two novels came much more difficultly--she knew the beginning and end, but found the middle to be a great unknown. McDermid referred to what E.L. Doctorow calls the "driving by night" method of writing: you know where you are leaving from, and you know where you want to end up, but the road ahead is dark.

In a piece of Wire in the Blood trivia, McDermid revealed that the character of Carol Jordan will be leaving the series, which is a huge loss to the show.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

We saw Brokeback Mountain tonight, and while it is, admittedly, a very well acted film that looks great, it is not, I think the marvellous script that everyone seems to think that it is.

My main problem with the script is that we are told that Jack and Ennis are in love, yet we are hardly shown it. There are little expressions of tenderness (touching of the face, comfortable spooning under the stars), but I didn't take away any sense of romance or deep love from them.

I understand that they are two men from a more conservative time and place, that they are fighting their own preconceptions of how a man should act and feel. I accept all that, and I was moved by the predicament of lovers separated by society and their fear of the reaction of their family and community. And I don't doubt that they loved each other. I just didn't feel that the love between them was shown as well as it could have been.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Fukuyama's "After Neoconservatism"

Please accept my apologies for my deliquency in the upkeep of this blog. I can assure you that it has been nothing more than laziness and ennui that have kept me from updating.

One recent article has snapped me out of my idleness and inspired me to write again. I refer to a piece from the New York Times Magazine from a couple of weekend's back by Francis Fukuyama.

"After Neoconservatism" is Fukuyama's more public pronoucement on his thoughts about the current state of neoconservatism in the United States. He has written elsewhere, in particular in The National Interest, but the NYT article is a more blunt exposition of his thoughts and in a more widely read forum. "After Neoconservatism" is an extract from his forthcoming book America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, reviewed in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

Fukuyama's position regarding neoconservatism is confusing. While ostensibly distancing himself from the movement (or ideology or whatver one prefers to call it), Fukuyama nonetheless does acknowledge the legitimacy and worth of many of neoconservatism's ideals, albeit in a roundabout way. In fact, in many ways it seems to be a capitulation to the likes of Charles Krauthammer, whom Fukuyama engaged in a heated debate in the pages of the National Interest over the content of neoconservatism and the right to use the term "neoconservatism". While Fukuyama seems to continue to believe much the same as he has over the years, he now seems willing to give up on the word "neoconservatism", abandoning it to a faction of the right that is more correctly called democratic nationalists. Thus his "After Neoconservatism" is a curious document. It makes much the same arguments as real neoconservatives have been making for some time, yet refuses to call itself neoconservative.

Fukuyama begins by outlining the fundamentals of the so-called Bush Doctrine, which many believe to be an orthodox neoconservative statement:

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, America would have to launch periodic preventive wars to defend itself against rogue states and terrorists withweapons of mass destruction; that it would do this alone, if necessary; and that it would work to democratize the greater Middle East as a long-term solution to the terrorist problem.

These are, and Fukuyama admits this, noble and worthy goals. They are the heart of the neoconservative vision. The problem, and this is what Fukuyama emphasises, that to be able to carry out this vision requires reliable intelligence and honest and diligent men and women to carry out the necessary arrangements to see out the goals until their end. This is where the Bush Administration has failed. It is a failure to successfully meet the ends sought. This does not, however, invalidate the theory. It is a theory that will require a lot of work, time and patience to implement, and failures to put the theory into practice should not discredit the theory itself.

One of the dangers in the Bush Administration's inability to be able to effectively realise the aspirations of a neoconservative foreign policy is that it has created a backlash against any interventionalist policy. It has led to widespread popularity to a strain of conservative foreign policy thought that was somewhat on the wane. Isolationalism is a regressive response that plays to people's fears and does nobody any good. Fukuyama knows this, and agrees that neoconservatism does have its merits:

The problem with neoconservatism's agenda lies not in its ends, whichare as American as apple pie, but rather in the overmilitarized means by which it has sought to accomplish them. What American foreign policy needs is not a return to a narrow and cynical realism, but rather the formulation of a "realistic Wilsonianism" that better matches means to ends.

If a political theory is both goals and methods, then Fukuyama is arguing that goals of neoconservatism are valid, and that is merely the methods that are used to bring about those goals about that need to be revised.

The failure in the method comes done to what Fukuyama has called an "overoptimism" in the ability of the United States to use military power to initiate spontaneous democratic change in Iraq and the greater Middle East.

This overoptimism about postwar transitions to democracy helps explain the Bush administration's incomprehensible failure to plan adequately for the insurgency that subsequently emerged in Iraq. The war's supporters seemed to think that democracy was a kind of default condition to which societies reverted once the heavy lifting of coercive regime change occurred, rather than a long-term process of institution-building and reform.

I would quibble here with Fukuyama's portrait. Certainly many of the war's supporters within the adminstration, and in particular within the civilian positions of the Department of Defence, may have been overoptimistic, however this is not the case for the war's supporters at large. Many, especially those from without the United States, and especially from those Commonwealth countries that have had relatively benign and beneficial experiences from colonialism and imperialism, argued that any occupation would be by necessity long; that building a stable democracy within the Middle East would take decades of institutional change and cultural transformation; that liberal ideals would take a generation or more to become widely accepted, and that democracy is more than the holding of elections.

All this is not, I would argue, inconsistent with the neoconservative programme. Nonetheless, Francis Fukuyama, who had the potential to be a high-profile advocate of a school of neoconservatism that is line with his idea of "realistic Wilsonianism", a neoconservativism that would be supportable by a bipartisan coalitition of centrist Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, Fukuyama, while not abandoning the ideals, has abandoned the label and declared that:

Neoconservatism, as both a political symbol and a body of thought, has evolved into something I can no longer support.