Monday, September 18, 2006

The War of Cartoons

Since the Mahommad Cartoon saga, a lot of ink has been spilled around the world trying to understand what are the limits to the 'right to ridicule.'

In the last year we have seen cartoons about the holocaust and cartoons against the christian faith.

The last in time is the Ratzinger cartoon, following the recent debates surrounding the pope's speech in Regensburg. You can view the cartoon here.

Even if the taste of the cartoon is arguably open to disagreement to say the least, there is no reason to ban it or to stop circulation.

Most importantly, this idea should be understood in the framework of reciprocity. Different faiths owe to each other mutual respect. If the condition of mutuality is respected, then dialogue will be possible. Without mutual respect, no dialogue is feasible. This is what ratzinger was trying to say, but some people wanted to misunderstand the message.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ratzinger was sound!

This time Ratzinger is sound, those who criticized him misunderstood him (at times willingly). Ratzinger may be a conservative pope (I for one do not share his conservative values), but he is not a bully or a shallow thinker. He's an intellectual who expressed very complex thought and has been misunderstood by extremists in Islam and by liberals in the western world.

With his speech he wanted to stress various points, many of those were sensible; in particular the idea that the holy war is against the will of god.

Perhaps, misunderstanding was inavoidable --some people say in Europe. Their argument is that we are dealing with too sensitive topics to make deep quasi-academic comments. These ideas are bound to be misunderstood --they say.

I personally believe that some extremist people desperately want to misunderstand the message given by spiritual and political authority in the west. This gives them the necessary legitimacy to motivate people who do not have direct access, or enough education to understand the message sent from America or Europe.

There's hardly something Ratzinger can do about it. There's hardly something we can do about it. We are desperate to engage in a serious conversation with the Islam, but there are some extremists who want to prevent this from happening. They want to raise the voice and prevent the dialogue as they know that the point in all this is not to communicate with us; instead they want to provoke us into splitting into two or more factions, just for the sake of weakening our positions.

We don't have to fall prey to this strategy. We should refrain from condemning Ratzinger for taking a position and arguing in favour of it. We should try and understand what he says and engage in a further conversation with him and with the Islam in oder to further a more stable world.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Romantic Love

Browsing a second-hand bookshop recently, I came across a book by Denis de Rougemeont called 'Passion and Society'. I think it has since been re-issued as 'Love in the Western World'. De Rougemeont is an interesting figure - a public intellectual without any particular academic affiliations involved in the post-war advocacy of European Unity. This book, I have since learnt, made a deep impression on John Updike who has recently made something of a stir with his latest work 'The Terrorist'. The core thesis of the book is that the Western concept of Romantic love originated in Troubador poetry, which itself was an expression of the 'Cathar-influenced' culture of the 'languedoc'. The Cathars offered a Manichean interpretation of Christianity based on an opposition between an irredeemably evil world and a transendant hereafter. As (almost) eveyone now knows, thanks to Dan Brown, the Cathars didn't last very long - their beliefs directly contradicted one of the core doctrines of orthodox Catholicism: the idea of the incarnation and its partiuclar concept of love as agape. Troubador poetry, according to Rougemont's thesis, was an 'outlet' for 'cultural Catharism'. The idea of the unattainable lady, the notion of a 'pure' love unsullied by the terrestrial bonds of matrimony and most importantly the 'pain' of such love celebrated in this poetry and in the 'courts of love' established by the poets' atistocratic patrons can all be seen as, drawing for their symbolic power, on the underlying substrate of Cathar belief. Rougemonet then goes on make the case that these ideas found a further powerful expression in the Arthurian legend and in particular in the legend of Tristan and Isolde. The latter provided in particular the strongest expression of the idea of an unttainable love ending in the death of the lovers that was to prove an important trope in romantic literature and cinema up to the the present day; consdier, for example 'Romeo and Juliette', 'La Traviata'. The idea of the 'death of the lovers', so de Rougemont arguments goes, drew on Manichean cultural resonances that emphasized the imperative of transcending the transient, corrput and terrestrial world through death. The contemporary concept of Romantic love is then a secularization of this initial religious-cultural composite.
How should we assess de Rougmont's argument? First of all, it has to be acknowledged this is more a suggestive argument than anything else - evidence for the links he wants to make are obviously few and far between. I would argue, however, that it is useful starting point for considering the complex resonances that romantic love has for us in the West. Indeed, the full force of his argument cannot be appreciated until the reader has followed his historical narrative that takes us from the Arthurian legends to the latest Hollywood Rom-Com. Also interesting for us is the fact that de Rougemont highlights the way the Manichean world view is not the sole legacy of the Christian west. He indicates that the Manchean religions were developed largely in what is now known as the East and further that the Celtic religions of pre-Chrisitan Europe also contained certain manichean themes.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Il fare politica

Imagine a documentary film that took more than twenty years to make. Couple of nights ago, here in Brussels, I went to see “Il Fare politica” of a Belgian author Hugues Le Paige. The movie was showed in the cultural centre “Espace Marx”, in collaboration with the “Association Antonio Gramsci”. “Il fare politica” is a story about 4 Italian communist party activists in a small Tuscan village of Mercatale also known as “little Russia”. The movie follows the story of Fabiana, Carlo, Claudio and Vincenzo who are members of the Italian communist party at the local level. The story starts in 1982 and follows the lives of these authors, their experience of the fall of the Berlin wall the end of a dream and transformations. The story ‘ends’ in 2004. I must say this is one of the best documentary films that I have ever seen, so emotional, real to the extent that it becomes an illusion, the story tells about a dream of a classless society, but not aggressive militantism of Italian urban extreme left of the 1970s ‘led years’. The film starts with a conversation with a mother of on of the main actors, the Belgian journalist asks her:

-when you say little Russia, is this something positive for you.

-yes – she replies, and continues – we used to applaud to Stalin, like this…

The film starts with a funeral of Enrico Berlinguer

Memorable Italian Communist Party leader, one of the main promoters of the so-called ‘historical compromise’ that sought to form a governing coalition between the Demochristians and the communist but it never happened…Enrico’s brother Giovanni (when I entered the room I saw the pannel and could not believe my eyes I though I saw Donald Rumsfeld, I saw an amazing similarity between two people, then I realized that he is the brother of the historical leder of the Italian Communists and a contemporary european politician), at present an MEP from the Italian Democrats of the Left (ex Communist Party) was present at the discussion after the film.

‘Il fare politica’ is a typically Italian expression that could be approximately translated as political activism, but one of the main personalities from the film Fabiana defines it much better then me. Asked how would she define ‘il fare politica’ she answers, after a short, timid reflection, “do not stand by and idly observe, participate, understand the reasoning of the others.” The film partially wishes to demonstrate how political activism of the 1970s, 1980s in the Communist party, constant debates, demonstrating, slowly dies out with the Great political transformations that occurred with the fall of the Berlin wall…it is certainly at the personal level highly nostalgic, but also at the political level. At a certain moment during the film one of them 4 says, “we are not the same as the Communists form Eastern Europe”, but why I wandered and asked was it because there was something profoundly different in the historical development of the two parties or was it merely because the Italian communist Party stayed in the opposition and was forced to act in a hostile capitalist environment that essentially made it better…If they came to power in 1945, if the decision made at Yalta was different, if the Red army was faster, would they be still different than the Polish, Czech communists? The director of the film answered that he indeed belives that the Italian Communist Party was different, because “Gramsci was not a Leninist”. Berlinguer added that the Italian Communists were in fact socialists but they did not fully realize this. Another person from the audience asked an interesting question, he generally objected to the nostalgia of the film, he rather saw the changes political and personal of the main personalities as a positive thing, as if they became more mature and started demanding more from the politicians. He asked Berlinguer why didn’ t they (the Italian Communists) change a name, much earlier, ay in 1982, this way the entire crisis of the Italian politics of the 1980s and early 1990s could have been avoided. Berlinguer, said that they feared that they would lose many voters and activists…but that he still does not know whether they did a right thing to maintain the old line until the very end…Il fare politica is a truly wonderful thing and once again I got convinced that Cinema Forums, discussing films in group after seeing them (in an organized manner) is a truly entertaining exercise…thanks to "Espace Marx" and "Assotiation Gramsci".

Republicans and Misappropriated Intelligence, Part 2?

Another unsavory story about apparent Republican twisting of intelligence to support ideological goals - as many Bush administration critics claim occurred prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – is making headlines. The Washington post reports that officials from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency have angrily disputed some of the central conclusions in a report recently released by the U.S. Congress’s House Committee on Intelligence, which claims that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is more advanced than either the IAEA or U.S. intelligence agencies will admit. Democrats on the House committee reportedly did not contribute to the final draft of the report and characterize it as badly flawed. The Committee chairman, Republican Peter Hoekstra, has yet to respond to the IAEA’s criticism. However, when the Committee report came out last month Hoekstra announced that, “This report is aimed at providing information for the American people to use in understanding the very real threat our nation faces from Iran.” In recent months many conservatives have become increasingly impatient with the Bush administration’s continued support for diplomatic efforts to convince Iran to abandon the covert nuclear weapon program that everyone thinks it has. This report seems to be part of an ongoing effort to convince the American public of the need for - and to force the Bush administration to embrace – a tougher policy. This would presumably entail an immediate push at the U.N. Security Council for sanctions. If that were to fail, as might well be the case given Chinese and Russian reluctance to vote for sanctions in the Security Council, then conservatives would then either push for U.S. military action or support for an Israeli attack. However, proponents of this tougher line have yet to explain how the U.S. would carry out an effective attack on Iran, given that its military is already overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan and that Iran has been careful to hide, disperse and protect the various components of its program. The latter obstacle would also apply to an Israeli strike. Stay tuned for further developments....

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Is there a Japanese Threat for peace in Asia?

After spending few weeks in Japan, I became quite worried at what Japanese International Polics may become in the near future.
Japan's Prime Minister, Mr Koizumi, will step down next week.
In pole position for his place, we find Mr Abe, an highly suspicious political figure who will try to reassert Japan's role in Asia with the use of force.

Mr Abe is planning to revise the Japanese Constitution. In particular, he's concerned with article 9 of that Constitution which has limited Japan's military interventions since the end of WW2.

In an interesting contribution to the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma explains why Japan is still very much hated by China and North Korea; the move in the direction of Abe will not do much in the improvement of Sino-Korean-Japanese relationships.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Bush's 9/11 Address: A Deconstruction

President Bush addressed the nation last night to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Surprisingly for some, perhaps, the President chose not to simply eulogize those who died. Instead, he offered a vigorous defence of his national security policy and sought to persuade a skeptical American public that his policies are the best way to keep the nation safe. In doing so, Bush sought to frame the conversation in the next two months before the mid-term Congressional elections in a way favorable to Republicans. An analysis of Bush’s remarks offers a wealth of information about the President’s worldview and how he is trying to sell that worldview to Americans.

First, Bush and his speechwriters are trying to mobilize the strain in American culture that the historian Frederick Merk has called “Mission.” This is the idealistic impulse to improve the world, bolstered by the conviction that America is uniquely good and uniquely equipped for the task. Thus, Bush argued that, “Throughout our history, America has seen liberty challenged, and every time, we have seen liberty triumph with sacrifice and determination.”

Bush also emphasized a distinction between civilization and barbarism, with America and her allies (though the emphasis was definitely on the U.S. and its “distinctly American” virtues) representing civilization and “the terrorists” representing barbarism. This dichotomy is reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt, whose worldview, according to historian Frank Ninkovich, was deeply influenced by a similar vision of the international system. Bush went further than Roosevelt did, however, in trying to rally Americans to his side. He depicted the current problem with radical Islamic terrorism as nothing less than a war to the finish between two diametrically opposed ideologies, democracy and Islamic extremism. He argued that, “The war against this enemy is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation….[The terrorisists] know that given a choice, people will choose freedom over their extremist ideology….it is a struggle for civilization….And we're fighting for the possibility that good and decent people across the Middle East can raise up societies based on freedom and tolerance and personal dignity.”

In presenting this apocalyptic vision to Americans, Bush drew parallels with past successes in American foreign policy in an effort to connect Iraq in Americans’ minds with something good and invoked the names of mythologized Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. “Do we have the confidence to do in the Middle East what our fathers and grandfathers accomplished in Europe and Asia?”

He also defended his record in the fight against terrorism. Answering a common criticism, he acknowledged that Iraq had no connection to 9/11 but then, without skipping a beat, conflated Iraq, Iran, al Qaeda into one big “evil” that he claims threatens America and that demands nothing less than total victory in Iraq. “If we do not defeat these enemies now, we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons. We are in a war that will set the course for this new century -- and determine the destiny of millions across the world….On September the 11th, we learned that America must confront threats before they reach our shores, whether those threats come from terrorist networks or terrorist states. I'm often asked why we're in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat. My administration, the Congress, and the United Nations saw the threat -- and after 9/11, Saddam's regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take. The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power….Al Qaeda and other extremists from across the world have come to Iraq to stop the rise of a free society in the heart of the Middle East….The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad. Osama bin Laden calls this fight "the Third World War" -- and he says that victory for the terrorists in Iraq will mean America's "defeat and disgrace forever." If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened; they will gain a new safe haven; they will use Iraq's resources to fuel their extremist movement. We will not allow this to happen. America will stay in the fight. Iraq will be a free nation, and a strong ally in the war on terror.” In blurring the differences between Iraq, Iran and al Qaeda the President continued what seems to be an administration strategy of simplifying, at least for the public, the threats in the Middle East.

Bush world vision, of course, is linked to the Republican Party’s election strategy for the November mid-term elections: scare Americans and make them focus on national security (the only issue where voters trust them more than Democrats) to the exclusion of all else. Thus, Bush wants voters to think that, “Today we are safer, but not yet safe” This is a perfect pitch for the campaign: I am doing a good job but you still need to be scared. “Thanks to the hard work of our law enforcement and intelligence professionals, we have broken up terrorist cells in our midst and saved American lives. Five years after 9/11, our enemies have not succeeded in launching another attack on our soil, but they've not been idle. Al Qaeda and those inspired by its hateful ideology have carried out terrorist attacks in more than two dozen nations. And just last month, they were foiled in a plot to blow up passenger planes headed for the United States. They remain determined to attack America and kill our citizens -- and we are determined to stop them.” Bush also wants support for his continued efforts to legalize his use of wiretapping without judicial approval and the use of torture in interrogating suspected terrorists: “We'll continue to give the men and women who protect us every resource and legal authority they need to do their jobs.”

While critics of Bush will find little in this speech to applaud, no one can deny the skill with which he and his speech-writers address the American public. They hit on all the key buttons that Americans respond to: a clear definition of good vs. evil, with America as the protagonist; the superiority of American virtue; the memory of the “Greatest Generation” that triumphed over the Nazis and the Japanese in World War Two; the existence of a powerful evil that threatens the American way of life. As it stands, the President and his policies continue to be unpopular. The President’s speech, although dressed up as a commemoration of the attacks on September 11, was obviously the opening salvo of the White House’s attempts to stabilize public support for Bush’s Iraq policy and to frame the terms of the election debate on the only ground favorable to Republicans. The next few months will show whether or not this strategy will pay off, as it did in the 2002 and 2004 elections.

Monday, September 04, 2006

In Search of a Democratic Foreign Policy

Justin Logan’s post last week on the American Prospect online edition addresses the continuing struggle by the Democratic Party to formulate a post-September 11 foreign and national security policy. Concluding his analysis of the divide between Democratic Party grass-roots activists, who are fiercely critical of all aspects of the Bush administration’s foreign and national security policy and seem to largely favor a rapid end to American involvement in Iraq, and Democratic Party policy makers and intellectuals, who are also critical of Bush and Co. yet still fairly hawkish on Iraq and national security, Logan warns that, “The danger is that casting a ballot for a Dem in ’08 will yield a reheated, squishier version of the Bush doctrine.” This is a silly conclusion. Can anyone see President Hillary Clinton invading Syria, a la the Bush doctrine’s call for preventive war? However, Lamont’s broader (implicit) point, that Democratic Party leaders are not wholly responsive to activist concerns about foreign and security policy, is trenchant. In fact, this is a fundamental problem that Democrats have yet to solve. Traditionally, Democratic Presidential hopefuls have responded by talking tougher than Republicans, like John F. Kennedy in 1960. However, Kennedy had the luxury of talking tough about the Soviets while still appealing to Democratic voters on domestic progressive issues, like fighting poverty and addressing civil rights issues. Plus, the fact that Democratic voters were not nearly as critical of Republican foreign and national security policy prescriptions left Kennedy plenty of room to take a hawkish national security stance. Party leaders today must appease a base that is animated first and foremost by its rejection of some or all of the Bush administration’s foreign and national security policy. Current Democratic grass-roots voters seem to either take progressive domestic policies as a given or place secondary importance on them. Party leaders must therefore address the following conundrum: how do they reconcile the concerns of this base with the need to craft policy positions that appeal to centrist Democrats, independents and even some Republicans? Republican reaction to leftist Ned Lamont’s recent defeat of centrist Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary offers a case in point. Conservatives gleefully highlighted Lamont's victory as proof that Democrats are out of touch with the concerns of mainstream voters. Democrats dismissed such talk and still speak of regaining the House and possibly the Senate in November’s mid-term elections. However, their success in November and in 2008 will rest in no small part on their ability to craft a message that gets its base to the voting booth and appeals to centrists.