The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Excuse me, but did part of America just fall off and drop into the Third World?

Maybe I'm missing something, but from here there seems to be a gulf between the news reports and the framing of them. What it looks like is an ever-expanding disaster that could eventually have a body count in the thousands. Lack of clean water and electricity could do that on their own. The rescue efforts look awfully piecemeal, brave though each one is. In New Orleans the water is still rising. Thousands are still stranded. Tens or hundreds of thousands in the Gulf coast states are homeless and without electricity or communications. The news networks are maintaining a remarkable calm. The reporters sound stressed, the anchors sombre but unfazed. It's unreal.

To stop this from turning into major national catastrophe would seem to require a massive mobilization of ... oh, never mind.
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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

1688 and all that

Nicholas Whyte has replied to my reply. To take this further would, pending further research, be likely to descend to nit-picking or ascend to a contest of grand narratives. (At least, that's how I would be inclined to go, to nobody's profit or pleasure.) This not being Usenet I'm happy to leave the historical question to the judgement of the wide and discerning body of enlightened opinion that undoubtedly makes up the readership of both our blogs.

The question this all started as an aside to is something neither of us has pursued, and it's this: if you are going to limit free speech at all, is it more illiberal to do so by making the proclamation of certain specific and narrowly defined doctrines illegal, or by making administrative decisions based on broad and vague provisions? Which - if pressed to choose - would you prefer as a precedent in the hands of your political opponents, whoever they may be, who are of course much less wise and just than you and your friends? Which, for that matter, would you trust your side to use wisely? That too I leave as an exercise for the reader.
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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Glorious Indeed

In the previous post I referred to the Iraq-based Iranian MEK and the KLA as 'jihadists'. A couple of emails have flooded in to call me on this. And yes, in this instance I can only put my hands up and say this was unjust and I retract it. Thre is plenty to be said against both organizations but calling them jihadists only confuses things.

Nicholas Whyte, a very intelligent guy and so influential that his name has been mentioned in conspiracy theories, has kindly overlooked my trespasses on his own patch and taken me to task for my historical references below:
I'm going to detach this completely from the context of present day argument because I think Ken's history is wrong (or, perhaps, I have failed to see the joke). I'm frankly surprised by his blithe acceptance of a) the 1688-92 revolution being a Good Thing and b) the "international conspiracy of religious and feudal reaction" which lasted "for centuries". I realise that this is because I come at this from an Irish Catholic perspective, from which the Penal Laws appear as a crucial instrument of suppression of the rights and powers of the majority of Ireland's inhabitants in order to entrench the power of a minority, with assistance from England. (And that's the moderate version; the more hard-line version would deny that there was any "real" Irish person who benefited from the Penal Laws at all.) I don't know much about Scotland at this period, so it may just be that Ken and I are talking past each other. But I've met enough otherwise sensible people from across the water who don't, for example, realise that Cromwell was a Bad Thing, that I think it's worth expanding on why I think Ken's history is wrong.

Let's indulge in a little counterfactual speculation. What if James II had not been overthrown? I carry no particular brief for him; he was obviously not the greatest king England (or Scotland, or Ireland) ever had, and was largely the architect of his own downfall; but before you start to rejoice at his overthrow, just bear in mind that the straw that broke the camel's back was his enactment of the Declaration of Indulgence - ie that Catholics and Dissenters should have the same civil rights as Anglicans. Shocking, eh? The argument at the time was that this was part of the slippery slope to a Catholic absolute monarchy, but really, any leftist should find this about as convincing as Pinochet's justification for overthrowing Allende in Chile in 1973. In fact, it's difficult to believe that a continuing Jacobite regime would have done anything other than summon a new Parliament, which would this time have had significant Catholic and Dissenter membership, ie been more representative of the people, and come to a modus vivendi between the three groups based on rights rather than repression. (See for a supporting argument the Catholic Encyclopedia's interesting nuances on the Revolution.)

Sure, under my scenario James would probably have continued to mismanage his politics, and may very well have ended up forced to abdicate later rather than sooner, if he didn't die first. But it is absurd to argue that that he could have reversed the Reformation, and I don't believe that was ever his plan. (if it had been, he certainly could not have kept the loyalty of invaluable aides like Samuel Pepys, who was a conforming Anglican and whose wife was a Huguenot refugee.)

I realise that part of the reason I don't see much worth celebrating in the events of 1689-92 is that the people who I did see celebrating it as I grew up gave me every reason to believe that I personally had lost rather than gained as a result. I think my views have now moderated, to the point where I can relatively calmly argue that it didn't make much difference, rather than that it was an actively Bad Thing. (My views on Cromwell, however, have not moderated.)

As for the "international conspiracy" lasting for centuries - well, when James lost the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, a Te Deum in thanks for William's victory was sung in Vienna and the Vatican was lit up in celebration, so it looks to me as if the agents of the international Catholic conspiracy won rather than lost the war! Especially since the French recognised James' overthrow as early as 1697; and I'll bow to any Scot's superior knowledge of the events of 1715 and 1745, but would be surprised to learn that an international conspiracy of feudal and religious reaction was the sole cause of conflict in either case. Certainly the British government doesn't seem to have thought so; the Penal Laws as applied - especially in England - were clearly designed more to entrench the monopoly on legitimacy of the Church of England than to root out loyalists of foreign powers.

No fair-minded person could dispute that in England the various laws against Catholics and Dissenters were prolonged by popular prejudice and Anglican interest well beyond any point where they could be justified by reasons of state; nor that they were an instrument of oppression against the majority population of Ireland. To say that they 'worked' in England wasn't on my part any considered historical judgement, merely to note that the auto-da-fe never became one of the crowd-pulling entertainments of London. Maybe they weren't needed. The Jacobite conspiracies were real and produced two uprisings. Possibly with a less severe repression against Catholicism the uprisings would have met with more success.

Nicholas makes two points which I hope he won't take offence if I call debating points. The first is that the immediate occasion of James II's overthrow was his Declaration of Indulgence. The second is that the Pope was on the same side as William of Orange. Now nobody, from Macaulay to the author of the Catholic Encyclopaedia article cited, allows that James was a sincere convert to toleration. He had been, right up until that point, a relentless persecutor of Presbyterians and other Dissenters. The Declaration of Indulgence was indisputably unconstitutional. James had no authority to annul laws, however odious, that had been passed by Parliament and accepted by the courts. It didn't take long for the Dissenters to be persuaded that the risks to them from an arbitrary Catholic monarchy far outweighed whatever temporary relief it might bestow. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was hot in the memory. (If, to take up the Allende analogy, the (counter-factual) constitutional Marxist president of a neighbouring state, say Argentina, had withdrawn previous solemn guarantees and used great violence against the Argentine middle classes, and Allende was in the meantime busy promoting hard-line revolutionaries to positions of power, Pinochet would have been even more widely hailed than he was.) Indulgence was a tactical manouevre, and as Macaulay shows it was recognised as such in widespread debate at the time.

My counter-factual speculation is this: If James II had succeeded in drawing Catholic and Dissenter into a pincer movement against the Established Church and the limits placed on the monarchy, it is doubtful to say the least that he would have established religious pluralism. (And, let me say again, the Catholic Encyclopaedia produces no supporting argument for this.) More likely there would have been a Catholic monarchy (now with a guaranteed succession) and a immense increase in Catholic power in the state. That after all had been his consistent course and aim. He had used his limited prerogative to place Catholics in every key position he could. What he would have done with an unlimited prerogative was expected to be more of the same. He might not have reversed the Reformation or even aimed to but there is no doubt at all that most of the population would have suspected him, with good reason, of such a design. James might well have had to rely on aid from France to hold power. A second Civil War seems a likely consequence. Defeat for the Protestant majority would have meant national subjugation; victory, a massacre and expulsion of Catholics. It is as well for England that it was spared either.

That the Pope celebrated William's victory at the Boyne may for a moment nonplus an opponent who has never heard of this (and we've all met them), but it won't wash as a serious historical argument. The Pope was allied with the other European powers, Catholic and Protestant, against the overweening ambition of France. That does not at all affect the point that William's victory advanced the Protestant interest, and that his defeat would have favoured the Catholic interest. The Orangemen are no more deluded on that than the Irish Catholics were who supported James.

Was the Glorious Revolution a Good Thing? I'll try to emulate Nicholas's candour and admit that I come to it from a perspective of having heard from childhood of the sufferings of the Covenanter martyrs, and later finding the same martyrs extolled in Marxist and Liberal histories. All the same, I find that I agree with the final 'nuance' of the Catholic Encyclopaedia:
But on the other hand we can now realize that the Revolution had the advantage of finally closing the long struggle between king and Parliament that had lasted for nearly a century, and of establishing general principles of religious toleration in which Catholics were bound sooner or later to be included.
These achievements seem glorious enough.
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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Send them to Guantanamo then give it back to Cuba

'They're thinking of using the treason laws against seditious clerics,' I said over breakfast last Monday, catching up with the news. Then I had one of those mind-catching-up-with-my-mouth moments: how very seventeenth century that sounded! As it turns out, it was just another Blairite trial balloon. (From 'joined-up government' to 'Post-It Note government' in eight years. Another first for New Labour.)

Some post-Revolution precedents for dealing with seditious clerics are suggested by Mike Macnair, an erudite Marxist who reminds us how the anti-Catholic Penal Laws successfully defended Britain's bourgeois revolution against an international conspiracy of religious and feudal reaction for centuries. He holds overt but strictly delimited religious persecution and public trial a superior alternative to secret administrative decision. It's not entirely clear whether he's speculating how our once and future republic might defend itself, or giving tips to the present state. Either way, he might be onto something. The Penal Laws worked against the Jesuits, but will something like them work against jihadists? It's an interesting suggestion. Not Mill or Milton would have rejected it out of hand.

A war on Islamist terrorists, jihadists, or whatever the hell we are supposed to call them this week would be a very good idea. The war we actually have, an open-ended imperialist war, the forever war, tends to undermine this in two ways. The first is that it gives the jihadists plenty of legitimate gripes to flourish before potential recruits. The second is that the US and its allies keep on backing on-side jihadists: the Iranian MEK, the KLA, the Chechen freedom fighters (the beasts of Beslan). These good on-side terrorists have a way of popping up elsewhere. It's like pumping oil into a pipeline. The US and its allies must know this. Why do they do it? Islamism originated in wars against movements and regimes of the left, and it remains too useful a weapon to drop, as does terrorism in general. Any government that acts as an impediment to the free flow of investment - nationalist, socialist, or ex-socialist-but-not-yet-willing-to-roll-over - can expect terrorist attack, and can expect its offers of intelligence and military assistance against anti-Western terrorists to be, as in the Cuban case, rebuffed.

Meanwhile, as all the online world has reason to suspect by now, Iran may be being set up for attack following a mass-casualty terrorist outrage in the US. One or more of these is expected very soon. I have a bad feeling about this.

Update, Monday 15 Aug: The now-famous American Conservative article by ex-CIA man Philip Giraldi on the Iran contingency plans is here. Svein Olav Nyberg has reminded me of a good summary of the war on terror's origins in US-backed terrorist wars, by Juan Cole, who in turn directs us to some online excerpts from Steve Coll's book on the secret history of the Afghan counter-revolution, its aftermath and blowback, Ghost Wars.
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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Is Serious the New Fannish?

Last weekend I was at Interaction, the 63rd World Science Fiction Convention (the Worldcon) in Glasgow. The venue was the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre with its associated hotels. Constructed on a formerly derelict stretch of Clyde shore, the SEC and the Science Park across the water from it look some spaceport of the future.

If you want links to blogs by people who were there, Cheryl is rounding them up. (If you're reading this much after it was written, go here and scroll down.) My own impressions are limited by the fact that I was on thirteen programme items from Thursday through Sunday, and had neither time nor energy to go to any others apart from the opening ceremony and Christopher Priest's Guest of Honour talk.

The opening ceremony was fun and I was pleased to see that it used part of a greeting to the con by Edwin Morgan, the poet laureate of Scotland, which I and Ron Butlin had recorded some months ago. (The rest of that DVD, including two readings and an interview, may be available to any serious fannish or academic panel that may want it. Ask me sometime.)

Almost every panel was packed out. The SEC concourse looked a lot quieter than it had ten years ago at Intrsection, the previous Glasgow Worldcon. This was almost certainly because most of the con was at panels. The programming had a strong backbone, and the discussions were mostly sensible, though I had a qualm at one point when I found myself citing SF stories in evidence. Is serious the new fannish? There seemed to be fewer people in the sort of costumes that the media like to equate with SF fandom. This may well be because I've grown blase about them in the last decade.

Also in the past decade I've made a number of friends in fandom. I met quite a few of them there, and I hope I made some new ones. Carol and I thoroughly enjoyed the various bid and fandom parties that swirled around the balcony of the Hilton stairwell. Patrick Neilsen Hayden took us out to dinner. Orbit threw a fine party. I talked to my editors and agent about the next book. Charlie won a Hugo, as did Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Farah and Edward wangled an invite to the Hugo nominees' party for contributors to their winning volume, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. So Carol and I got in. For that and all other hospitality, much thanks.

The Dealer's Room trade seemed steady rather than busy. The NESFA people were pleased to see me, and I them. They gave me a book and discussed my forthcoming NESFA collection (for Boskone in February 2006). I bought Parietal Games, the new collection of essays by and about M. John Harrison, from the Science Fiction Foundation stall. It looks good and I will no doubt blog about it later. Ever the sucker for space movement memorabilia, I bought badges of Gagarin, Koralev, and a pioneer cadre of cosmonauts from the Russian fans' table (manned by the same guys as ten years ago, selling the same commie kitsch). Their Worldcon bid is for Moscow 2017. I wouldn't rule it out.
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