Archive for the 'History' Category

Passover Seder

Passover-Seder




The old man

The actor Richard Burton famously played Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1953.    The following story is from a profile of Burton written by journalist John McPhee in 1963 for Time Magazine, and recounted in the current New Yorker  (“Elicitation”, 7 April 2014, p.57):

He [Burton] had completed about 60 performances and the box office was beginning to slide when the house manager came to his dressing room one evening and said, “Be especially good tonight.  The old man’s out front.”

“What old man?”

“He comes once a year,” said the house manager. “He stays for one act and he leaves.”

“For God’s sake, what old man?”

“Churchill.”

As Burton spoke his first line – “A little more than kin, and less than kind” – he was startled to hear deep identical mutterings from the front row.  Churchill continued to follow him line for line, a dramaturgical beagle, his face a thunderhead when something had been cut.  “I tried to shake him off,” remembers Burton.  “I went fast and I went slow, but he was right there.”  Churchill was right there to the end, in fact, when Burton took 18 curtain calls and Churchill told a reporter that “it was as exciting and virile a performance of Hamlet as I can remember.”  Years later, when Winston Churchill – The Valiant Years was under preparation for television, its producers asked Sir Winston who he thought should do the voice of Churchill.  “Get that boy from the Old Vic,” said the old man.

They got that boy from the Old Vic.




Go West, young man

BlueHighways

I was headed out down a long bone-white road, straight as a string and smooth as glass and glittering and wavering in the heat and humming under the tires like a plucked nerve. I was doing seventy-five but I never seemed to catch up with the pool that seemed to be over the road just this side of the horizon. Then, after a while, the sun was in my eyes, for I was driving west. So I pulled the sun screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor. And kept on moving west. For West is where we all plan to go someday. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: ‘Flee, all is discovered.’ It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.

It was just where I went.”

Robert Penn Warren [1946]: All the King’s Men.  Harcourt, Brace and Company.




Traffic safety for Zimbabweans

The Mail and Guardian newspaper of South Africa has compiled a list of prominent Zimbabwean politicians who have died in car accidents, here.   Of course, there are other ways to die, as Rex Nhongo found.




Vale: Molly Clutton-Brock

Only the other day, I was reporting on revolutionary communists in the Rhodesia of the late 1950s.   One of those alleged revolutionaries, a founder of a non-racial co-operative farm and of rural health clinics, Molly Clutton-Brock, has just died aged 101.   Her obituary is here.   Her late husband, Guy, is the only white Zimbabwean buried at Heroes’ Acre national cemetery, outside Harare.




Julia Gillard as manager

A description of former Australian PM Julia Gillard’s parliamentary and office management style, by former staffer Nicholas Reece:

Gillard is one of the best close-quarters politicians the Federal Parliament has ever seen.

As prime minister, she ran a disciplined, professional office that operated in much the same way as a well-run law firm – a product of her early career at Slater & Gordon.

Cabinet process was strictly upheld and the massive flow of administrative and policy paperwork that moves between government departments, the prime minister’s office and the prime minister’s desk was dealt with efficiently.

There was courtesy shown to staff, MPs, public servants and stakeholders – every person entitled to a view was given a chance to express it before a decision was made.

Gillard would diligently work her way through the detail of an issue and then patiently execute an agreed plan to tackle it.

She was generous with her time and did not rush people in the way busy leaders often do. She was never rude and never raised her voice, unless for humorous purposes.

She had a quick mind and could master a brief at lightning speed. She was a masterful parliamentary tactician and a brilliant analyst of the day’s events and the politics of the Labor caucus. She was a genuinely affectionate person and had a quick wit that could be deployed to lift the spirits of those around her.

At her instigation, birthdays were the subject of office celebration. This would involve Gillard turning up for cake and delivering a very personal speech to even the most junior staff.

Significantly for a national leader, Gillard had no major personality defects. She is probably the most normal, down-to-earth person to have served as prime minister of Australia in the modern era.

In a crisis, she was supremely calm. While others wilted, Gillard had a resilience that allowed her to keep stepping up to the plate.

She was good at remembering people’s names, knowing their story, understanding their motivations and being able to see a situation from another’s perspective.

These were attributes that were very well suited to the fraught circumstances of the 43rd Parliament.

In the negotiations with the crossbench MPs to form government, Gillard easily outmanoeuvred Tony Abbott. She better understood the independents’ motivations – she focused on the detail of how the relationship between government and the crossbenches would work and committed to serving the full term.

The achievements include: the national broadband network, putting a price on carbon, education reform, children’s dental care and the national disability insurance scheme.

In federal-state relations, there was the negotiation of health reform with the conservative premiers and in foreign affairs there was a strengthening of relations with our major partners, particularly China and the US.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that Gillard was well-liked, even loved, among her staff, the public service and most of her caucus.”

 




Ineffective imperalism

Rory Stewart Bluebells Bookstore Penrith 2009-12-15

British MP, Rory Stewart, has spoken in Parliament of our failure to deeply understand the cultures of the foreign countries we invade, with the consequence that invasion efforts are doomed not to succeed.   His view relates to an argument he has put before, about the failure of contemporary international aid organizations and personnel to reckon deeply with the cultures of their host countries, in a manner profoundly worse than that of 19th-century colonial administrators.   Colonial administrators may have typically been racist and exploitative, but at least they cared for – and sought to understand – the cultures and languages of the countries they administered, and were prepared to devote their working lives to those countries. 

Video here and Hansard Transcript here.  (Note that in his speech, Stewart refers to Gordon Brown by name, but the Hansard reporter has recorded this as, “the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)“.)




Czechoslovakian betrayals

Milada Horakova

Czechoslovakians have reason to resent their betrayal by Britain and France at Munich in 1938.  They were betrayed again, by the same nations, when Hitler’s invasion in March 1939 was not immediately resisted by the western allies.  Reading a fine new book by Igor Lukes, it seems these betrayals continued through the post-war period.  Here were three:

Prague was liberated by the Red Army in May 1945.  It could easily have been liberated by US forces, which were closer than Soviet troops, but allied forces were stayed.  Against the advice of the US State Department and the British Government, General Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, declined to liberate Prague, halting allied troops in Pilsen, western Bohemia.    Stalin, who had threatened dark consequences if allied forces advanced first on Prague, found that bellicosity achieved desired ends, a lesson the Soviets would take to heart.

Prior to Yalta, FDR had appointed Laurence Steinhardt (1892-1950) as ambassador to Czechoslovakia.   Steinhardt took months to arrive in Prague, and spent enourmous time out of the country:  From January 1947 to February 1948, he was away from his post some 200 days (Lukes 2013, page 182).  Most of this time, and even for much of the time he was in Prague, he was busy with his corporate law practice in New York, a business he continued all the time he was employed to represent the USA.  He also ignored many conflicts of interest as people and companies with Czech or Slovak connections used his paid legal counsel while he was Ambassador (!) to seek compensation or redress for various policy actions of the Nazi-era and post-war governments.   Steinhardt was rich and socially well connected, and mixed exclusively in similar circles on his apparently rare visits to Prague.  Despite having a good analytical mind, and despite knowing Stalinism well at first hand (having earlier been US ambassador to the USSR), he was singularly ill-informed about events on the ground in Czechoslovakia.   He was consistently and persistently optimistic in his reports back to Washington about the prospects for democracy against the ruthless thugs of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická strana Ceskoslovenska, KSC), and their Soviet masters. 

The US mission to Prague included intelligence-gathering agents and groups of various stripes, some of whom were employed by the US Military Mission.  These groups were apparently infiltrated by Czech and Soviet double agents.  (Some, of course, may have been triple agents – really, at heart, working for the US – but likely not all were.)  They were also spied on by all manner of local employees, contacts and passers-by.   Whether or not the US civilian or military employees were working for the other side, most were incompetent and negligent to the point of malfeasance.   As just one of many tragic examples, the key building occupied by the Military Mission had no late-night access, except through a police-station next door.  Late visitors to the mission were thus readily monitored by the Czech secret police, the StB.   Lukes’ book reads, at times, like farce – OSS and CIA meet the Keystone Cops. 

Even after the boost given to the KSC by the presence of the Red Army in Prague in 1945, the coup in February 1948 that took Czechoslovakia from a semi-free country to a police state was not ever inevitable.  The malfeasance and incompetence of US military and embassy officials helped make it so.

Notes:

Not everyone in the KSC was craven or a thug; the party also included some heroes

The photo shows Milada Horakova (1901-1950), brave Czech politician and social democrat, imprisoned by the Nazis and then again by the Communists.  After a show-trial alleging treason, she was executed by Gottwald’s regime on 27 June 1950.  Now in the Czech Republic, this date is an official day of commemoration for the Victims of Communism.

Reference:

Igor Lukes [2012]: On the Edge of the Cold War:  American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague.  New York, NY, USA: Oxford University Press.




Letter from Finchley

The influence of Mrs Margaret Thatcher on British economic and cultural life is shown now, at her death, by the pages and pages and pages of newsprint devoted to her in every British newspaper, all day every day since her death.  Even the Gruaniard has joined in the chorus, although sometimes singing from the hymnal of another denomination, but still with pages and pages of text and images.  It is like the mass media psychosis that hit Britain the week after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. 

The praise heaped on Saint Margaret (Patents Pending) has stretched credulity to the limit.   Like some modern-day Bolivar, she apparently single-handedly liberated Eastern Europe from Communism, which if true would surely be news to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR (1989 membership), the Central Committee of the CzechoSlovak Communist Party (April 1968 membership), the Central Committee of the United Workers Party of Poland (1956 and 1989 memberships), and the millions of brave citizens of Berlin, Leipzig, Budapest, Gdansk, Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest, Moscow, and throughout the region, who actually did, through argument and protest and strike and resistance,  liberate their countries from tyranny.   Part of the justification given for her role in the freedom of Eastern Europe is the fact of her early meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, before his elevation to the General Secretary-ship of the CPSU, after which meeting she proclaimed that she could do business with him.  But why would this endorsement have helped him rise?  Surely such a public statement from one of the nation’s nuclear-armed enemies potentially lost him votes in the race to be General Secretary. 

And, by a certain class of people, she was then, and still is, seen as the Simon Bolivar of Britain.  Yes, like all politicians, she represented a particular economic class and indeed she represented their interests very effectively.  (It was not, by the way, the class of her parents or of her upbringing, but it was the class of her husband.)   But statesmanship requires a politician to decide in the national interest, not in the interests of a particular class.  With just one possible exception, I cannot think of a single major decision she took in which she decided in favour of the nation against the interests of her own sectional base.    The one exception was the decision to defend the Falkland Islands following invasion by the Argentinian military junta in 1982.

One could – and she did – defend such sectional decision-making on ideological grounds,  for example, using the so-called theories of trickle-down economics, of metaphysical entities (eg, invisible hands), and of magical thinking and  psychokinesis (eg, frictionless adjustment to free trade) that constitute the parallel, reality-free, universe that is neoclassical economics.  In other words, she argued that although the decisions she took seemed to favour one group over another, in reality all would benefit, although perhaps not all would benefit immediately.   But all economic policies have both winners and losers.   Mrs Thatcher rarely evinced any public sympathy for the losers of her policies, and her contempt for those who lost was always obvious.

Her last major enacted policy – towards the end of her 11 years in power – was the Poll Tax, which punished society’s losers with a most unfair and regressive tax, at the same time as giving manifest and immediate benefit to her sectional base.  This was not a policy of someone governing in the national interest.  This was not a policy of someone having personal compassion for the downtrodden, the ill, the unlucky, the old, and the unfortunate in our society.  This was not policy – and her dogged insistence on maintaining it against all evidence that it was not working epideictically reinforces this – that showed her approaching the challenges of governing in a reasoned or pragmatic way, with an open and rational mind, intent on balancing competing interests, or of finding the best solution for the country as a whole.  

Norm is correct to castigate those who have publicly rejoiced at her death.  Such rejoicing is quite understandable, even though wrong.   Mrs Thatcher’s condescension, contempt, and antipathy for those who suffered from her policies or from life in general was evident to everyone, all along.  She herself said there was no such thing as society.   She herself said that anyone using  public transport over the age of 35 was a failure in life.   It is no wonder that the worst riots in Britain in the 20th century happened under Mrs Thatcher.  It is no wonder that her party has no longer any support to speak of in Scotland (ground zero for the Poll Tax), and no wonder that support for Scottish indepencence is now so strong.  It is no wonder that punk and reggae developed in overt opposition to her.  Linton Kwesi Johnson named his famous song for her, conflating her with Inglan.   It is no wonder that people are organizing street parties in the cities of Britain to celebrate her departure.

In contrast to most of the reporting engulfing us now, here are two responses to show the historians of the future that not all of us alive at this moment welcome the sudden attempt at canonization.  The first is from a Guardian editorial on Tuesday 9 April 2013:

In the last analysis, though, her stock in trade was division. By instinct, inclination and effect she was a polariser. She glorified both individualism and the nation state, but lacked much feeling for the communities and bonds that knit them together. When she spoke, as she often did, about “our people”, she did not mean the people of Britain; she meant people who thought like her and shared her prejudices. She abhorred disorder, decadence and bad behaviour but she was the empress ruler of a process of social and cultural atomism that has fostered all of them, and still does.”

The second is an impassioned speech from Glenda Jackson MP, given in the House of Commons yesterday, about the pain Mrs Thatcher’s policies wrought.  The speech was given against and over the top of much noise and shouting from the Yahoo Henrys who still, apparently, sit on the Conservative Party Benches.  I say thee, Yay, Ms. Jackson, Yay!




The Yogyakartan Candidate

An explanation of Bam’s aloof style and strategic cunning in terms of the idioms of traditional Javanese kingship, by Edward Fox in Aeon Magazine, here.   Fox could also have mentioned the first-term Cabinet of Rivals as another example of this idiom, absorbing one’s enemies.

An excerpt:

The Javanese have a word for this kind of bearing. They call it halus. The nearest literal equivalent in English might be ‘chivalrous’, which means not just finely mannered, but implies a complete code of noble behaviour and conduct. The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who wrote some of the most important studies of Javanese culture in English, defined halus in The Religion of Java (1976) as:

“Formality of bearing, restraint of expression, and bodily self-discipline … spontaneity or naturalness of gesture or speech is fitting only for those ‘not yet Javanese’ — ie, the mad, the simple-minded, and children.”

Even now, four decades after leaving Java, Obama exemplifies halus behaviour par excellence.

Halus is also the key characteristic of Javanese kingship, a tradition still followed by rulers of the modern state of Indonesia. During my period of study in Indonesia, I discovered that halus is the fundamental outward sign or proof of a ruler’s legitimacy. The tradition is described in ancient Javanese literature and in studies by modern anthropologists. The spirit of the halus ruler must burn with a constant flame, that is without (any outward) turbulence. In his classic essay, ‘The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture’ (1990), the Indonesian scholar Benedict Anderson describes the ruler’s halus as:

“The quality of not being disturbed, spotted, uneven, or discoloured. Smoothness of spirit means self-control, smoothness of appearance means beauty and elegance, smoothness of behaviour means politeness and sensitivity. Conversely, the antithetical quality of being kasar means lack of control, irregularity, imbalance, disharmony, ugliness, coarseness, and impurity.”

One can see the clear distinction between Obama’s ostensibly aloof style of political negotiation in contrast to the aggressive, backslapping, physically overbearing political style of a president such as Lyndon Johnson.

Traditionally, the Javanese ruler triumphs over his adversary without even appearing to exert himself. His adversary must have been defeated already, as a consequence of the ruler’s total command over natural and human forces. This is a common theme in traditional Javanese drama, where the halus hero effortlessly triumphs over his kasar (literally, unrefined or uncivilised) enemy. ‘In the traditional battle scenes,’ Anderson notes:

“The contrast between the two becomes strikingly apparent in the slow, smooth, impassive and elegant movements of the satria [hero], who scarcely stirs from his place, and the acrobatic leaps, somersaults, shrieks, taunts, lunges, and rapid sallies of his demonic opponent. The clash is especially well-symbolised at the moment when the satria [hero] stands perfectly still, eyes downcast, apparently defenceless, while his demonic adversary repeatedly strikes at him with dagger, club, or sword — but to no avail. The concentrated power of the satria [hero] makes him invulnerable.”

Even to seem to exert himself is vulgar, yet he wins. This style of confrontation echoes that first famous live TV debate in the election of 2012 between Obama and Romney, in which Obama seemed passive, with eyes downcast, apparently defenceless (some alleged ‘broken’) in the face of his enemy, only to triumph in later debates and in the election itself.

Like a Javanese king, Obama has never taken on a political fight that he has not, arguably, already won

But such a disposition is not just external posturing. Halus in a Javanese ruler is the outward sign of a visible inner harmony which gathers and concentrates power in him personally. In the West, we might call this charisma. Crucially, in the Javanese idea of kingship, the ruler does not conquer opposing political forces, but absorbs them all under himself. In the words of Anderson again, the Javanese ruler has ‘the ability to contain opposites and to absorb his adversaries’. The goal is a unity of power that spreads throughout the kingdom. To allow a multiplicity of contending forces in the kingdom is a sign of weakness. Power is achieved through spiritual discipline — yoga-like and ascetic practices. The ruler seeks nothing for himself; if he acquires wealth, it is a by-product of power. To actively seek wealth is a spiritual weakness, as is selfishness or any other personal motive other than the good of the kingdom.”