Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Euphemisms

Euphemisms are usually meant to deaden, smooth over, assuage outrage and yet have quite the opposite effect once we begin to see them as euphemisms. I hear the phrase 'extraordinary rendition' about five times a day. The phrase conjures up a virtuoso performance - an opera singer shrieking at the top of her voice. This is probably what a person who is having his fingernails pulled out sounds like. So the next time you hear the phrase 'extraordinary rendition', scream.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Meet the parents

From Sepoy via dear E comes this fantastic picture taken by the late Henri Cartier-Bresson in Delhi in 1948. I am feeling like the bastard child of a shared joke.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Biography

Start writing letters, just to give your biographer more to work with.

While on the subject, I have been reading Hemione Lee's brilliant brilliant biography of - who else? - Virginia Woolf. There is so much to say and quote. I am nodding vigorously, underlining things, scribbling names in margins, or running off to a housemate to read something every three minutes. I'll give you only the best:

On an encounter with the man who 'explains why people say the things they do - which is always a mystery even to the speaker...HJ puts in too much':

Henry James fixed me with his staring blank eye - it is like a childs marble - and said 'My dear Virginia, they tell me - they tell me - they tell me - that you - as indeed being your fathers daughter nay your grandfathers grandchild - the descendent I may say of a century - of a century - of quill pens and ink - ink - ink pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me - ahm m m - that you, that you, that you write in short.' This went on in the public street, while we all waited, as farmers wait for the hen to lay an egg - do they? - nervous, polite, and now on this foot now on that. I felt like a condemned person, who sees the knife drop and stick and drop again. Never did any woman hate 'writing' as much as I do. But when I am old and famous I shall discourse like Henry James (217).

And then, this in a taxi:

'Missing trains is awful' I said. 'Yes. But humiliation is the worst thing in life' he replied. 'Are you as full of vices as I am?' I demanded. 'Full. Riddled with them.' 'We're not as good as Keats' I said. 'Yes we are' he replied. 'No; we dont write classics straight off as magnanimous people do.' 'We're trying something harder' he said. 'Anyhow out work is streaked with badness' I said. 'Compared with theirs, mine is futile. Negligible. One goes on because of an illusion.' He told me that I talked like that without meaning it. Yet I do mean it (442).

The 'he' is Tom, that is to say T.S. Eliot.

But my favourite quote from the book has got to be this one, soon after the Woolfs bought a car:

I have driven from the Embankment to Marble Arch and only knocked one boy very gently off his bicycle (509).

Is this blog turning into the literary equivalent of Hello!?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Indira, Sonia

The disqualification of the last Mrs. Gandhi triggered an Emergency. This time it just set off a resignation. Maturity of Indian democracy or weakness of the Gandhis?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Syriana

George Clooney is supposed to have said of his latest film Syriana: ‘It’s ballsy, and we’re going to get into a lot of trouble for it’. ‘With whom?’, I want to ask.

Syriana is arresting, intelligent and well worth your movie-going while, but one thing it is not is political. This might seem an odd thing to say about a film that purports to be about US energy dependence and its impact on policy in the Middle East. Yet I am still trying to understand why a film that culminates in a US military strike in a Middle Eastern Emirate and that explains that event as the product of a thoroughly sleazy corporate-state nexus, failed to arouse the slightest glimmer of political outrage in me. This despite its resonance with recent political events that did outrage me and that I did analyse in similar terms.

One problem is that the plot is so fiendishly complicated that I left the film obsessing about how the trees related to one another, instead of reflecting on the woods. With five compelling storylines following a maverick CIA operative through the ruthless labyrinthine world of international espionage, a crafty Washington lawyer performing due diligence on a corporate oil merger, an idealistic and ambitious financial analyst advising an Emir-in-waiting, and two Pakistani labourers recruited for a suicide mission against American oil interests, Syriana demands several viewings if you are the sort who wants to understand everything. The film certainly does generate debate, but the debate seems to take the form that could easily follow a Robert Ludlum whodunit.

Of course in giving us this complexity, the filmmakers were only trying to do justice to what is in fact a complicated and inter-connected world. Yet the more insidious problem with the film is that politics – and particularly American politics – gets very little airtime. In comparison with Connex and Killen (the two oil companies hoping to merge) and Sloan-Whiting (the law firm performing the due diligence for the merger), the Department of Justice and the ‘Committee to Liberate Iran’ are mere sideshows. Even the CIA is portrayed as a relatively autonomous government agency, its links to authorities that are accountable to the American people remaining relatively obscure. Politics, as portrayed by Syriana, is an entirely elite-driven, specialist game in which there simply are no access points for ordinary people. Audiences watching this film could be forgiven for forgetting that there might be ways to hold power to account for outcomes such as those depicted in Syriana – and not simply in the meta-whistle blowing fashion of a Hollywood film made after the fact.

Perhaps the makers of Syriana did in fact want to make a cynical statement about US politics as an arena closed off to democratic participation. Yet, curiously, they seem to expect it to have a politicising impact on its viewers. The film is co-produced by Participant Productions, a company that ‘believes in the power of media to create great social change’, and whose goal, as proclaimed by its website, ‘is to deliver compelling entertainment that will inspire audiences to get involved in the issues that affect us all.’ Courtesy Participant Productions, Syriana is linked to a campaign called ‘Oil Change’, which among other things, urges participants to lobby the US Congress and executives of automobile companies (!) to reduce dependence on oil. These are highly worthwhile endeavours - but it is difficult to see how a film like Syriana that seems to accord so little agency to the US political process, can inspire people to invest time and energy in it.

There are two other ways in which politics is restricted in this film. First, the motivations of virtually all the characters are materialist. Lack of economic opportunity motivates Pakistani immigrant labour to serve themselves up as jehadi cannon fodder; material interest is the universal lingua franca in Washington, D.C. (there is space for Cheney and Rumsfeld in this story, but not for Wolfowitz, Kagan, Kristol or Pearle); and even the ‘progressiveness’ of the Emir-in-waiting is articulated primarily in the form of his support for liberal capitalism and the efficient allocation of resources. There is little space in this story for the independent force of ideas and ideology, religion or culture. On the one hand, this might be seen as a progressive move (no ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are all basically the same, driven by the same motivations). But it does make for a very simple world indeed – and not one that seems at all persuasive to me.

Second, politics seems to drop off our radar because none of the constituencies on whom political bads are externalised in the plot (the politically disenfranchised population of the Emirate, the American people who will think they're paying lower gas bills but forget that in reality they're paying through their noses via military expenditure and the soon-to-be-felt effects of corporate collusion, price fixing, etc.) - none of these constituencies are dramatised in the film. They cannot be objects of empathy that will give shape, meaning and a point to our outrage because they do not even figure, except as abstractions. Thus we can only feel compassion in little unconnected doses - for the woman who loses her child, the man who might have been a better ruler, the secret agent who is tortured - and of course a massive sense of impotence in the face of a structure of incentives that we simply cannot change.

This suggests to me that Syriana founders on the reef of what social scientists would call the structure-agency problem. It is very often the case that the things that bother us about the way the world works are the consequence of micro-level decisions taken by vast numbers of actors. Syriana is a valiant and creditable effort to represent this complexity. It does so by distributing agency in such a way that there are not only no clear heroes or villains, but also no access points for political accountability and change. The result is a gripping, but bewildering and politically enervating film.

Separation of Powers II

Close on the heels of Sandra Day O'Connor's speech warning about the implications of right-wing sniping at the US federal judiciary, comes this revelation from Justice Ginsberg that both she and O'Connor have received death threats in response to their occasional citation of foreign laws or rulings in interpreting US constitutional law. There is a Republican angle here too - Ginsberg suggests that the threats (posted on some unnamed website) might have been prompted by the introduction of Republican-sponsored bills in Congress seeking to prohibit the citation of foreign law in US judicial decisions. (Both judges appear pretty wary of speaking out - Ginsberg made her remarks in far away friendly South Africa, and O'Connor in the relative obscurity of a gathering not covered by the press. If judges can't speak fearlessly...)

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Kids

'An immense sadness - he believed himself beyond such irritants - had risen up in his soul. He and the beloved would vanish utterly - would continue neither in Heaven nor on Earth. They had won past the conventions, but Nature still faced them, saying with even voice, "Very well, you are thus; I blame none of my children. But you must go the way of all sterility." The thought that he was sterile weighed on the young man with a sudden shame. His mother or Mrs. Durham might lack mind or heart, but they had done visible work; they had handed on the torch their sons would tread out.'

- E. M. Forster, Maurice

'O how blessed it would be never to marry, or grow old; but to spend one's life innocently and indifferently among the trees and rivers which alone can keep one cool and childlike in the mist of the troubles of the world! Marriage or any other great joy would confuse the clear vision which is still mine. And at the thought of losing that, I cried in my heart. 'No, I will never leave you - for a husband or a lover', and straightaway I started chasing rabbits across the heath with Jeremy and the dogs...Shall I ever bear a child I wonder? [If marriage and children were not for her, her role, as she was acutely aware, was fixed (she wrote to her favourite spinster) as] a virgin, an Aunt, an authoress.'

- Virginia Woolf, various

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Hath not a playwright rent?

Playwright Fin Kennedy responds to Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke's challenge: 'Shakespeare was daring. Why aren't new writers?'

"Today's playwrights are a motivated, opinionated, highly intelligent, politically aware group of angry young men and women. It's not that we don't want to write big, demanding plays. It's that we're so often frustrated in our ambitions. And why? One reason comes up time and again: money...hath not a playwright rent? Hath not a playwright bills? Fed from the same supermarket, subject to the same council tax, warmed and cooled by the same central heating? Is it fair to starve us to death and then complain that your pound of flesh looks malnourished?"

Monday, March 13, 2006

Separation of powers

Former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warns that right-wing Republican sniping at the judiciary portends a slide into dictatorship. Only one journalist was present at the event (an address to a bunch of corporate lawyers at Georgetown) - see here for her report. (Most reader comments say this is too little too late from one of the Republican appointees who infamously ordered the Florida state election authorities to stop a recount in that fateful election of November 2000.) Amazingly, none of this has made it to the NYT.

In other separation of powers news, watch South Dakota's abortion law (too lazy to blog). What is the best way for pro-choice advocates to proceed? A challenge in the Supreme Court (with all the risks that entails) or collecting enough signatures for a state-wide referendum?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Why you should read this blog

Because, apparently, I can read the zeitgeist.

We are the world

This is a little late, but worth it I think. My sister has been tailing George and Laura in Delhi and filed this story a few days ago. I have always been fascinated by the link between popular culture and politics, but now politicians are making the connections themselves apparently. Here's my crude lunch-break effort at reading between the lines.

We are the world (because we're so big),
We are the children (because we're both liberal democracies),
We are the ones who make a brighter day (because we both burn so much fossil fuel)
So let's start giving (lectures, not money)
There's a choice we're making (neo-liberalismo!)
We're saving our own lives (damn right)
It's true we'll make a better day,
Just you and me (so give us that damn Security Council seat, welcome us into the nuclear club - and leave Pakistan out for god's sake)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Miscellaneous offerings (under construction)

Hilarious and highly believable - how another Ganguly controversy knocked Bush off the news. I can just see NDTV running its silly little polls in the bottom right hand corner of the screen: 'Do you think what Chappell said...'

When you see BP, think Anglo-Iranian, the concession, the nationalisation, the coup, the revolution and everything ever after.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans (in pictures) after Katrina.

British media reactions to the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.

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