The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, February 28, 2005

Freedom fighters of the SS

Yesterday's Scotland on Sunday reveals that in the late 1940s the small East Lothian town of Haddington was the base for nearly a thousand members of the SS recruited by MI6 for anti-Soviet operations. According to Douglas Macleod, author of a forthcoming book on the subject:
"Between 1948 and 1951 they worked as agricultural labourers but all the time through the Scottish League for European Freedom a number of them were being screened and trained as agents.

"As agents they were dropped into the Soviet Union to take part in a civil war that had been raging between the Ukrainian nationalists, many of whom had thrown their lot in with the Nazis during the Second World War, and the Soviets."
These "Western-minded, disciplined, honourable and loyal men", as the British government called them, may not have met quite the welcome they expected. Their missions were organised by Kim Philby.

Beyond the forests

Imagine a remote part of Europe. Its very name is associated with a superstition so gross that bigotry itself would scoff at it. Suppose that, centuries ago, a public debate among scholars converted the king and people of the region to a rationalistic, tolerant, liberal and humane Christian heresy, and that this heresy persisted as the people's faith despite the persecutions of church and state, of nationalists and communists. Imagine this heresy - with its own churches and seminaries, clergy and congregations, saints and martyrs - being the unquestioned creed of generations, and surviving to this day.

It sounds like some alternate-history invention, but it's the true story of the Unitarians of Transylvania.
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Monday, February 21, 2005

Phil Agre: voice of reason

Speaking of conservatism, Phil Agre has a famous analysis of that much-misunderstood outlook, and a remarkable deconstruction of certain rhetorical techniques that will be painfully familiar to anyone who has read much of Usenet or (these days) blog comments. It's a fine training-mat for learning intellectual self-defence.

He's also very sound on cheap pens.
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Sunday, February 20, 2005

The forces of conservatism

An uneasy feeling, nothing more: This country is sleepwalking towards a Tory government. A new Tory government would not be more of the same - Blairism with a less human face. It would be as different from the governments of Thatcher and Major as theirs were from those of Edward Heath. It would resemble Thatcher's only in its capacity to astonish. The Left would spend the next ten years beating their heads against questions like How can they get away with that? and Where did we go wrong?

Better to figure out where we're going wrong now. We're going wrong in two ways, which are two sides of the same mistake: identifying the Labour Party with Blairism. One part of the Left is busy defending New Labour, and another part is saying there's no difference between the Labour Party and the Tories, and is busy building electoral alternatives to the Labour Party. It doesn't matter whether these alternatives are the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the SSP or Respect. In a General Election under the British first-past-the-post system, any non-Labour vote or abstention anywhere but a rock-solid safe seat is a Tory vote.

Better, too, to figure out now how the Tories can get away with that. Just as Blair learned from Clinton, the Tories are learning from Bush. It's a two-track approach. They'll spout a lot of emollient guff and sensible criticism of the government, which you can even find yourself nodding along to when they're on Question Time. At the same time, they'll dangle plenty of red meat in front of their base. The suggestion that immigrants be screened for HIV and TB is a good example. Immigrants and infectious diseases! The last time I saw that connection made was in a National Front leaflet in the 1970s. Labour sometimes inexcusably panders to such prejudices. Many Tories believe in them.

One reason why the long-awaited rise of an overtly nasty, right-wing populist party on Continental lines in UK politics hasn't happened is that Britain already has a natural home for overtly nasty right-wing populism. It's called the Conservative and Unionist Party. On the Continent, war and Nazi occupation separated conservatism from the traditionalist and nationalist Right. Christian Democracy, Gaullism etc are in this respect different from the Conservatives, who have their colonial colonels and dapper Islamophobes safely inside the big tent.

The recent contrived outrage and ostentatious offence-taking at supposed anti-semitic vibes in two draft posters floated by the Labour Party doesn't contradict this in the slightest. It's a bid to inject US levels of venom into UK politics. The posters attacked Tory promises on public spending. One poster played on the cliche 'pigs will fly' and showed flying pigs with the heads of Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin. The other showed Michael Howard as a stage hypnotist, waving a watch on a chain in front of wavy, spooky lettering spelling out 'We can spend the same money twice.' It took the sort of laboured semiotics that Tories rightly deride in Cultural Studies to detect anti-semitism in that. Labour, needless to say, folded at once.

Thatcher succeeded in destroying the bones and sinews of the British post-war settlement: heavy industry and the industrial public sector. She left altogether too much of the nervous system and connective tissue relatively untouched: the NHS, the BBC, the education system, a welfare system that handily hides mass unemployment in a haze of benefits. John Major preferred the quiet life. A new Tory government wouldn't. Much as I detest New Labour's imperialism and its civil authoritarianism, I'd rather have it in government, where we can fight it, than in opposition, where it's in our trench against a worse enemy.

This take on the matter is only held by the tiny Labour left and the even tinier Communist Party. The rest of the Left is in the Stepford tendency or following after strange gods. Hence the uneasy feeling.
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Friday, February 18, 2005

Inside Fallujah

You may think you know what happened in Fallujah. But the truth is worse than you could possibly have imagined.

The British left weekly Socialist Worker has an eyewitness account of what refugees from Fallujah say happened to them and their families, and of what the eyewitness in question found in the wrecked city. Some of this material is due to be shown on Channel 4 News this week. An Iraqi cameraman who has worked with Channel 4 has another interesting story.
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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Fame at Last

My short-short story Undead Again has been published today by Nature as part of its new 'Futures' series. (Vampires and cryonics. There's a novel there somewhere. Hmm ...)

Elsewhere, my novel The Star Fraction has been included in China Mieville's list of Fifty Science Fiction and Fantasy Works That Socialists Should Read. (Via and thanks, Joe). China's too modest to include his own Perdido Street Station, but it should be there.
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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Forgotten Enemy

The October issue of Socialist Viewpoint includes a troubling piece by US Marxist historian Mike Davis on Avian flu.
Ironically, in our ‘culture of fear’ - with Ashcroft and Ridge ceaselessly ranting that the terrorist apocalypse is nigh - the least attention is given to the threat that is truly most threatening.

On September 14, Dr. Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) regional director for the western Pacific, tried to shake complacency with an urgent warning that human-to-human transmission of avian flu was a 'high possibility.'

Two weeks later (28 September), grim-faced Thai officials revealed that the dreaded viral leap had already occurred. A young mother, who had died on September 20, most likely had contracted virus directly from her dying child.

A crucial threshold has been crossed. Of course, as Thai officials hastened to point out, one isolated case doesn’t make a pandemic. Human-to-human avian flu would need a certain critical mass, a minimum initial incidence, before it could begin to decimate the world.

The precedent always invoked to illustrate how this might happen is the 1918-19 influenza pandemic: the single greatest mortality event in human history. In only 24 weeks, a deadly avian flu strain killed from 2 to 5 per cent of humanity (50 to 100 million people - including 675,000 Americans) from the Aleutians to Patagonia.

But some researchers worry that H5N1 is actually an even more deadly threat than H1N1 (the 1918 virus).
We've all read about the flu menace, of course, but this article is a stark summary. And it raises a curious question. Why is it that 'the single greatest mortality event in human history', which took place within living memory, has left no discernible trace therein? No doubt you've read about the 1918 pandemic - but have you ever heard about it?
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Sunday, February 06, 2005

Longer Sharp

Ellis Sharp has set up a new blog for his longer pieces. He kicks off with a look at Slaughterhouse-Five, and asks to what extent it is undermined by the historical revising of the revisionist history that gave it its factual foundation. A likewise explicit checking of the political cards on the table informs his discussion of Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday. Sharp was on the march that McEwan (and his hero) weren't. This gives him a different perspective from any of McEwan's broadsheet reviewers I've so far seen. Perhaps it's also what enables him to fish out dripping clumps of clunky expository dialogue and internal monologue that would get a science-fiction writer carpeted by the infodump inspectorate.
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Friday, February 04, 2005

The Greatest Generation

One of the last survivors of the soldiers who liberated Auschwitz tells his story here. What he says between the lines comes through. It's a lot. Via.
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Mrs O'Connor, meet Saint Clive

Kind readers: Kevin pointed me to two interviews with Professor Michael Hudson, applying a Georgist analysis of privatization to Russia and to broadcasting. Money quote:
Finance is inherently rent-seeking. It searches out all the areas of the economy that can siphon off the fruits of economic growth as a monopoly charge. These are the best opportunities for lending money, because so many buyers want to obtain rent-yielding resources because their price rises as population and prosperity grow.

Farah tipped me off to the remarkable collaboration that produced Aslan Shrugged.
"My cosmetics are too good for them," says Susan. She's only 12, but already her cosmetics empire rivals Avon. "They want me to live as a slave so that they can be beautiful. Edmund, John Galt is right."

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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Legends of the Fall

'It's a disgrace,' Margaret said. 'All this about one man!'

'He was a great man,' I said.

She gave me a look of pitying scorn: 'He was a Tory.'

We were talking about the death of Winston Churchill. We were ten years old. I had read a Reader's Digest collection of adulatory articles about the great man. It honoured his finest hour, of course. It lavished attention on his bulldog recklessness - turning up with a tommy-gun at the Seige of Sydney Street! What a guy! - and his common touch - saving his cigar butts for his chauffeur to smoke in his pipe! What a gent! I can't swear they weren't mentioned, but the names of Tonypandy, the Dardanelles, Gallipoli and Dieppe weren't ones the book left burning in my mind. I doubt they were on Margaret's mind either.

Some months earlier a Labour canvasser had driven into the village, stopped where a gang of us were playing, rolled down the window, handed a sheaf of election leaflets to us, and driven on to the next village. He didn't need to knock on doors. In our house, I suspect, the Labour leaflet went straight in the trash. My parents may have voted Liberal, which was something of a tradition in the areas where they came from.

'They couldn't vote for the Tories,' my mother said, decades later, 'because the Tories took their land.'

No Highland minister ever turned down a poacher's gift of salmon or venison. They would never have touched anything stolen. They respected property. They just had the Highland theory of it.

'The land shall not be sold for ever; for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.' Leviticus 25, 23.

In classical political economy there were three factors of production: land, labour, and capital; which begat three sources of income: rent, wages, and profit; upon which subsisted three classes: landlords, labourers and capitalists; which in the fullness of time give rise to three parties: Tory, Labour and Liberal; and then the Tarriff Question arose, and tempted Churchill, and he crossed the floor, and he did eat; and poor Adam Smith was driven from his garden, and had to live by Labour.

Well, something like that. Enough like it to put steel in the voice of a little old lady, and a sharp little girl.
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