The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Friday, May 16, 2008


Here's an argument you don't see very often, from Tony Judt's introduction to his new collection of essays, Reappraisals:
Moreover, and here the memory of war played once again an important role, the twentieth-century "socialist" welfare states were constructed not as an advance guard of egalitarian revolution but to provide a barrier against the return of the past: against economic depression and its polarizing, violent political outcome in the desperate politics of Fascism and Communism alike. The welfare states were thus prophylactic states. They were designed quite consciously to meet the widespread yearning for security and stability that John Maynard Keynes and others foresaw long before the end of World War II, and they succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. Thanks to half a century of prosperity and safety, we in the West have forgotten the political and social traumas of mass insecurity. And thus we have forgotten why we have inherited those welfare states and what brought them about.
You should - but you don't.


Elsewhere in the same piece Judt writes about the role that the intellectual used to play in public life and doesn't anymore; he cites among many others
Arthur Koestler, whose life, allegiances and writings established him for many decades as the intellectual archetype of the age, is no longer a household name. There was a time when every college student had read - or wanted to read - Darkness at Noon. Today, Koestler's best-selling novel of the Moscow show trials is an acquired, minority taste.
I think this last sentence is pushing it a bit. If we want to be mock-pejorative, call it a museum piece, no longer relevant, which might go some way to explaining why it's no longer widely read. We watched Smiley's People on BBC4 a while back, and it was like another world. I tried to imagine explaining the milieu to someone born after 1989. It would take you ages.

Nonetheless, though I haven't read Darkness at Noon I've had it mentally earmarked since I was at university in the early '90s. I kept coming across references to it, and the tones in which Koestler's name was mentioned clearly implied he was heavy-duty, significant. I hardly think he's disappeared from the public mind - or at least I did until I asked a couple of colleagues, "Who wrote Darkness at Noon?" and drew a blank. Each of them has not only a degree but a master's in history.

Well, shit
, thought I.

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A nice quote:
Of course, chasing halfway across the world after a married woman, of whose affections he was uncertain, in very bad health and with little money, was typical not of RLS's character but his condition. Every man in love is an heroic fool.

- James Rebontier (1873 - 1907)


Thursday, May 15, 2008


Listened to Radio 3's Night Waves tonight, particularly for Philippe Sands talking about his new book Torture Team. The skinny on it is: in December 2002 Rumsfeld's lawyer drew up a list of proposed interrogation techniques which breached the Geneva Convention. Rumsfeld approved the list and this led to use of said techniques, including the now-infamous waterboarding, in Gunatanamo and Abu Ghraib.

Two very interesting points came out. The first was that an episode of 24 where Jack Bauer uses torture somehow had a big effect not only on popular, but official opinion of what was acceptable practice. Nice to know the US government is taking advice from the best minds in, uhr, television. Second, Alan Dershowitz wrote an article, which I vaguely recall hearing about, in which he said that certain forms of torture might be permissible in certain instances, for example the so-called "ticking bomb" scenario (which has always seemed to me to be on a par with the question, "And what if you came upon a German soldier raping your sister?" i.e. so restricted that it bears no relation to anything one might actually encounter in reality). Dersh's leetle contribution, which at least has the virtue of demonstrating that even Harvard professors can be nitwits, all of a sudden made it very difficult indeed for those in the Guantanamo administration opposed to the use of torture to carry on arguing their case effectively. The door, as Philippe Sands notes, had been opened, and once opened is nigh-impossible to close.

Incidentally, if like me you've never been quite clear just what waterboarding involves, or why it's effective, take a look at the wikipedia article. Among the merry pranksters who've used it are the Spanish Inquisition and the Khmer Rouge. One can only hope that those who believe it isn't torture (step foward, Rudy Giuliani) one day have the opportunity to experience it first-hand.


The second segment was more disappointing. Apparently there's a new film out claiming that RFK's assassination was down to a CIA plot involving mind-control, multiple gunmen and a cast of thousands. Well, we've been here, in JFK and The Parallax View and god knows how many books and broadcasts. Presenter Rana Mitter and his guest Scott Lucas, American Studies prof at Brum Uni, dismissed it as tosh and had a brief and unenlightening chat about the mind control/assassination meme in fiction and reality, with reference to The Manchurian Candidate and Project MK-Ultra, nothing those of us with our flying saucers parked out back haven't come across already. But then, then, Mitter asks, what is it about America, that when a political figure gets assassinated, there is positively a public demand for a conspiracy to blame, instead of the lone crazed gunman? (This from the country which has spent god knows how many millions proving three times in court that Princess Diana died of the bleedin' obvious.) Lucas gave a reasonable-sounding answer but didn't challenge the premise underlying the question: that a conspiracy is never to blame and all arguments to the contrary are intrinsincally pooh-poohable (despite his having earlier given several examples of CIA conspiracies to assassinate Castro).

Now, clearly, sometimes nutters strike. John Hinckley and Arthur Bremer are examples (although, weirdly, Hinckley acted out of an obsession with an actress in a film based on Bremer, who was, in turn, inspired by Sirhan Sirhan and Lee Harvey Oswald. If that isn't a meme out of control, I don't know what is.) And just because JFK and RFK both died by assassination doesn't mean the two incidents are connected. Not least because there is an important disctinction to draw between them.

RFK was assassinated by a man who was caught at the scene, tried, convicted and imprisoned. Regardless of why or even whether he did it, it's comprehensible.

JFK was assassinated by a man who was subsequently caught, arrested, then himself assassinated by a man who dies in prison a few years later. That stinks. The thing is, if it happened in Italy, though it wouldn't stink any the less, one wouldn't be at all surprised. One would think: business as for the past several hundred years. In the white-picket America of the early sixties, only then does it become bizarre, in need of exegesis. Gore Vidal has put it more succinctly: JFK's send-off was "purest Palermo".

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