Here are one or two things I noticed over the weekend.
I'm sorry to say that Barbara Amiel compares the gaoling of her husband, Conrad Black, to the Dreyfus case. I admire Ms Amiel's skills as a columnist, but it's difficult to gainsay what Roy Greenslade says in The Guardian about this preposterous analogy.
In his Times column, Michael Gove comments on literature in translation:
I've always harboured the suspicion that reading great literature in translation involves a loss of nuance, a sacrifice of subtlety, which few will admit to. It is not in the translators' interests to acknowledge what's lost in the process, and neither is it in the authors', if they're still alive and earning. But surely the suppleness of language in the original doesn't come through in the same way as when we're reading our mother tongue.
We all know that the weight, cadence, rhythm, colour, connotations and allusions of Dickens's or Waugh's language must be, to an extent, sacrificed when they're rendered in German. So what am I losing when I pick up Thomas Mann? And if I am losing something is it better to revel in the work of a second division Brit (James Hogg, George Meredith) than persevere with a foreign classic knowing you're not getting the best out of it? Can readers help? Are there some foreign works that lose nothing in translation? And if so, why?
Michael is one of the best-read and most cultured men I know, and I hesitate to reach for the nearest brickbat. But it is, at best, a category mistake to talk about what is "lost" in a translated work of literature. A translated work of literature, done well, is a work of literature in its own right. I can certainly think of great writers - indeed, the very greatest writers - of whom this is true. You can't reasonably talk of "sacrifice" in the the Scott Moncrieff translation of Proust into English, and the Schlegel-Tieck translation of Shakespeare into German.
Here's a thoughtful review by Max Hastings of a new book on the Korean War. Hastings writes:
Those such as the British reporter James Cameron, who denounced Rhee's regime and UN support for it back in 1950, were wrong. Everything is relative. Rhee's rule was fractionally less ghastly than that of Kim Il Sung. Vindication for what the West did in that barren peninsula almost 60 years ago is to be found in the two Koreas today: one a thriving democracy and economic tiger; the other, one of the most wretched tyrannies on earth. Unlike most conflicts, the Korean war was worth fighting.
I'm certain this is right. Korea was a terribly unpopular war with immense humanitarian costs - 54,000 American lives, a million Chinese lives and 3.5 million Korea lives. And it was strictly necessary, to defeat a direct case of Communist aggression.
I must apologise that the site was down over the weekend, and it took me a while to realise both that this had happened and that I'd lost material from last week as a result. I'm not sure why this happened, and will be looking into it. But fortunately, this blog is migrating in the next day or two to The Times's website (link will of course be provided when it's all ready) and I believe that all the posts, comments and archives to date have already been exported to the new site, so nothing will have been lost.
The political editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, declares: "Obama needs a history lesson." The required lesson is that "America was moulded along Adam Smith’s lines while Scotland imported the disastrous ideas of the French Enlightenment which continue to dominate discourse today... Essentially, the Scots Enlightenment stood for individual liberty and small government while the French one stood for power, and big government."
The "essentially" is a nice touch. If this is your idea of a history lesson, then you'll probably also wish to consult the bio-energy expert Dr Karadzic for an exposition of recent advances in medical science.
The "disastrous ideas of the French Enlightenment" that so exercise Fraser were strongly influenced by admiration for the English (note: not the Scots). Consider Voltaire's gushing idealisation of England in his Lettres philosophiques ou Lettres anglaises of 1733, letter 8:
Voici une différence plus essentielle entre Rome et l’Angleterre, qui met tout l’avantage du côté de la dernière: c’est que le fruit des guerres civiles de Rome a été l’esclavage, et celui des troubles d’Angleterre, la liberté. La nation anglaise est la seule de la terre qui soit parvenue à régler le pouvoir des rois en leur résistant, et qui d’efforts en efforts ait enfin établi ce gouvernement sage où le prince, tout-puissant pour faire du bien, a les mains liées pour faire du mal; où les Seigneurs sont grands sans insolence et sans vassaux, et où le peuple partage le gouvernement sans confusions.
For the philosophes, England was the nation of liberty and free thought. It wasn't true, but Voltaire's starting point was the exercise of arbitrary authority in France. I fear that Fraser thinks the French Enlightenment is another name for Paris's revolutionary tribunal that sat a full 60 years after Voltaire wrote. If so, then that is an error.
The French Revolution was not caused by the Enlightenment. It gave office to those who had been influenced by the Enlightenment, such as Lafayette and La Rochefoucauld. These were not agents of "power and big government" - indeed Lafayette had given military service and substantial funds to the American Revolution, which Fraser is concerned to claim for Scottishness. The reforms enacted by the Constituent Assembly from 1789 to 1791 were quite limited, but went in the direction of secularism and the removal of the hereditary principle. Those who believe, crudely, that the American Revolution was good and the French Revolution bad might explain why the sainted Thomas Jefferson, as ambassador to Paris, saw these causes as consistent. (Conor Cruise O'Brien, one of the great polymaths and statesmen of our time, does in fact have an explanation. In his book The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1998, he argues that Jefferson - Jefferson! - was inconsistent with the American Revolution, and should be regarded as an ideological forerunner of Pol Pot. That really is his thesis; Pol Pot is his own analogy. At least O'Brien recognises the problem, even if his solution is bizarre.)
Fraser - as I'm addressing him - might explain also why the revolution of 1789 was so admired throughout Europe, including Britain (and I do mean Britain) and particularly in Germany. This was not a "disaster": it was, like the American Revolution, a historic moment for the cause of reform, secularism and (I use the term without irony) progress. The turning point was war with Austria and Prussia in 1792. This precipitated a second revolution and all that followed: regicide, terror, and the reassertion of autocracy and nationalism. There was no reason that European governments should have sought to undermine the movement of 1789, and in doing so they became steadily more authoritarian at home.
Here's a more recent analogy. Most of my readers will probably hold Lenin responsible for the repressive character of the Soviet state and what turned into the horrors of Stalinism. I certainly do. But I do not hold Alexander Kerensky responsible for them. He stood for the principles of democratic government against reaction. Likewise the notion that the French Enlightenment was a force for repression and arbitrary authority is baloney.
I suspect I know what's behind this historical revisionism. The American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb's book The Roads to Modernity was recently published in the UK, with a foreword by the prime minister. The book is a sustained attempt to distinguish the British and American Enlightenments from the French tradition. There is a clear subtext here about modern politics that takes precedence over the history, and that I don't in any case find as appealing as some of my fellow Atlanticists do. I'm still less convinced by the preposterous message inferred by the political editor of The Spectator: "That so many people in Europe still believe the French principles (government virtuous, masses selfish) shows how this continent never could quite shake off the hierarchies."
The comments underneath Fraser's post are obviously not his fault. But there's one who signs himself with the self-explanatory moniker "TGF UKIP", and who is enthusiastic about the "fascinating and illuminating post and series of comments". I quote him not to embarrass Fraser but because I think he's understood Fraser's point very well, more's the pity.
The BBC reports on Labour's woes: 'Former home secretary David Blunkett told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that unlike the Conservatives, Labour was not a "hatchet job" party which would ditch a leader at the "drop of a hat".'
I do think this is right. Labour does not dispense with leaders as readily as the Tories do. Unlike Blunkett, and writing as a Labour supporter, I do not consider this is anything to be proud of. So extended was the Tory death wish after the 1992 election that it's been easy to overlook the Conservative Party's distinctive historical characteristic. It is an astonishingly efficient vehicle for attaining public office by constant adaptation. This is what's happening now. The most repellent aspects of modern Conservatism - plainly racist rhetoric from MPs; hostility to single parents and homosexuals; distrust of foreigners - have not been eradicated but they have been confronted.
Labour, by contrast, operates by mythology rather than electoral logic. Prime Ministers, Chancellors and Foreign Secretaries who deal with the world as it is - with external threats that need to be deterred, and financial markets whose trust needs to be won - rather than with the world as party activists would like it to be become hate figures. Leaders who are plainly not up to the job but whose hearts are judged to be in the right place are indulged. This no way to run a mollusc franchise, let alone a government.
On Labour's strategy, I recommend today's main leader in The Times (not written by me). There will be a temptation for the Government now to abandon the principles of effective governance, and pursue a populist strategy in the hope of holding on as long as possible. It would be a terrible political legacy for the party and the country if this happened:
It was Harold Wilson's ambition to make Labour the natural party of government. Under the leadership of Tony Blair, this ambition came close to becoming a reality. There was a good reason why it did so. Mr Blair's combination of moderation, free markets, social justice and Atlanticism is electorally potent and a good governing philosophy.
For Gordon Brown, the challenge of staying alive and hoping for the best may tempt him to squander that mandate in acts of politcal expediency. The task of tomorrow's Labour leaders is to protect the competence of the Government. Not just in the interests of the country, but their own.
Incidentally, a measure of how useless the Parliamentary Labour Party is comes from the quoted views of one Glasgow Labour MP, according to the BBC report I've linked to: "Mohammad Sarwar, Labour MP for Glasgow Central, said he was 100% behind the prime minister, and blamed the world economy for the government's unpopularity."
Here are some things worth reading. Richard Dawkins is interviewed in The Times about a forthcoming television programme he's made about Darwin. He is very good at conveying the scale, excitement and beauty of Darwin's intellectual achievement. I have problems with Dawkins when, like so many public intellectuals, he imagines his political opinions are of such depth that they merit being aired in public (see this article, half-way down, and the problem will immediately be apparent). But as an advocate of science and its methods against irrationalism he is a public resource.
My colleague Bronwen Maddox writes in the Wall Street Journal about European attitudes to America. She says:
The question is whether, in gratitude that the next U.S. president is not George W. Bush, America's critics will forgive him for decisions that are in the U.S.'s interests and not their own, or whether they will be disappointed and angry, expecting a radical transformation that was never going to happen, whichever candidate wins. In the new mood of worry, about the economy, as well as security, I'd bet on the first: that the America-bashing of the past two decades will seem like a luxury best now discarded.
I hope her wager is right, and I suspect it is. Anti-Americanism is not deep-rooted in the European psyche; it's merely a constant recycled piece of fabric in the reactionary and nativist elements of European left and right. It won't be affected by anything the US president does, because for these intellectual currents anything the US president does is, ex hypothesi, wrong.
One of my regular correspondents, the military historian D.M. Giangreco, has an interesting article on History News Network entitled "Was Dwindling US Army Manpower a Factor in the Atom Bombing of Hiroshima?" It's a valuable corrective to the notion, so common among anti-nuclear campaigners though which ought to be irrelevant to their case, that estimates of huge casualties in the event of a conventional invasion of Japan in 1945 were a postwar invention to justify President Truman's A-bomb decision. Dennis concludes:
[F]or many years, various individuals critical of Truman's bomb decision regularly maintained that estimates of massive casualties during an invasion of Japan were a post-war creation, and when the copious documentation that they were wrong began to come to light a decade ago, then switched to the line that the estimates must certainly have been developed and seen only by "lowly subordinates" when, in fact, far from being considered by obscure officers tucked away in the recesses of the Pentagon, this vital--and highly secret--matter was being examined by some of the finest minds this country has produced from Henry Stimson to Michael DeBakey. Moreover, Truman had not simply seen the genuinely huge numbers, but reacted decisively to them by calling the June 18, 1945, White House meeting in which the invasion of Japan was given the go-ahead in spite of their frightful dimensions.
July has been an arid month for this blog, as you may have noticed and for which I apologise. I joined The Times this week, but am continuing to update this site, about which we'll be making an announcement at some point. Here are some things I've noticed in the last few days.
One of the interesting but less surprising things about the economic malaise of the UK and the euro area is the emerging criticism of the notion of inflation targeting. This has been compounded by the surge in inflation in the UK in June. There must be a temptation for the government to do one of two things: either change the inflation target, or change the inflation measure that is being targeted (for example, to core inflation, which excludes the volatile components of food and energy prices). Either of those courses would undermine not just the government's economic achievements but also the entire concept of New Labour.
The point of the monetary framework that was literally the first decision of Tony Blair's government was to replace discretionary intervention with a framework of rules. I'll have more to say about the value of inflation targeting in public policy. (I recommend a highly informative volume about the theory and practice, published in 1999, which retains its relevance, called Inflation Targeting: Lessons from the International Experience, by Ben Bernanke, Thomas Laubach, Frederic Mishkin and Adam Posen.) But there were particular historical reasons for Labour to adopt this policy, namely that some economic interventions by previous Labour governments had had serious inflationary consequences. The Wilson government of 1974-76 indeed has some claim to being the worst period of economic management since 1945, though my choice would be the entire Heath government of 1970-74 and its disastrous "dash for growth".
Nick Cohen has an excellent post at Harry's Place on the issues at stake in liberals' tolerance of Islamist reaction. I've previously argued that Nick has identified a disturbing phenomenon that is far more extensive than his critics allow for.
I try not to be needlessly sectarian, but this sort of flannel about science and religion never fails to irk: "They may be separate disciplines. And yet, as Lord Robert Winston recently put it: 'In reality, both religion and science are expressions of man's uncertainty.' To put it another way, through greater knowledge, we can deepen the mystery of life."
Science and religion are not separate "disciplines", because religion is not a discipline. It is a set of dogmatic beliefs. That is not to dismiss religion: it is merely to insist that it's an exactly different approach from that of science, which has no dogmata. Religious doctrines change when scientific findings, such as the age of the Earth, or our moral understanding, such as acknowledging the rights of homosexuals, make them untenable as they stand. I don't regard religion as an inherent enemy of social and intellectual advance; I do consider that it contributes literally nothing to that cause.
A reader has posted a comment below this post cordially asking me to leave alone "the tired old business of Neil and Christine [Hamilton]". Fair point.
Sorry once more for the delay in posting. As stated in the post below, I'll be joining The Times on Monday and there will be an announcement in due course about this blog.
Robert Fox has an astute and worrying piece on "Comment is Free" about Iran's imprudent ambiguity on its nuclear programme. The important point is this, it seems to me:
This week Professor Peter Zimmerman, former scientific adviser to the Senate foreign relations committee and emeritus professor of science and security at King's College London, has spelled out just how dangerous the game of strategic ambiguity can be. In an article in the International Herald Tribune, Zimmerman points out that there are such peculiarities about the Iranian nuclear programme, particularly at Natanz, that suggest they can only be aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons, and this is happening in very short order.
The plant at Natanz, he points out, is too small to be the cornerstone of a nationwide nuclear civil power programme. There are aspects of the known work, such as the use of high explosive to implode a hemispherical shell of heavy metal, which can only be for lightweight nuclear projectiles. Continuing work on nuclear detonators points to the same conclusion. Natanz could produce enough high-grade material for some 100 small nuclear warheads (roughly the power of the Hiroshima bomb) within two years.
That enrichment facility at Natanz, which the Iranian regime initially concealed, is seriously worrying. There is no reason that the regime should seek to enrich uranium for a civil nuclear programme rather than buy it on the open market. My fear is that the ambiguous diplomatic stance that Iran has adopted reflects uncertainty about the purpose of the programme. If the mullahs see an opportunity for military applications, then they will take it.
The task of western diplomacy is to impress upon the regime that there will in that case be very heavy costs. I have confidence that the EU-3 under the present political leaderships of the UK, France and Germany will give that message. I have no such confidence in the case of Russia. It need hardly be added, but I'll add it anyway, that the self-proclaimed anti-war movement is an obstacle to a pacific resolution of this crisis, to the extent that it portrays Iran as behaving reasonably. The regime is not behaving reasonably: it is deceitful, it is fiercely antisemitic, and it explicitly anticipates the extinction of a member state of the UN. We can't and mustn't accommodate this.
Sorry again for the paucity of posts. But here are some links I found interesting.
Robert Lieber of Georgetown University has an article in the forthcoming issue of World Affairs called "Falling Upwards: Declinism, The Box Set". The magazine's sub-editor may have chosen a Delphic title, but the article itself is a clear and convincing critique of the theorists who argue that America is an enfeebled superpower.
You have to admire Hitch - at least, I do - for doing this, and for the conclusion he infers from the experience.
"Comment is Free" carries a bizarre exchange between two Muslims on evolution. There is a public service in drawing attention to the fact that Creationist mumbo-jumbo is a force in modern Islamic intellectual life, and not only among the evangelical Protestants who are the more usual figures of deserved derision for their hostility to scientific inquiry. But the other protagonist in this CiF debate is Inayat Bunglawala, a man who continually demonstrates that it's possible to be a frivolous demagogue.
On his own admission, Bunglawala in 2001 circulated material written by Osama bin Laden. (He did this before 9/11 but of course three years after the bombings of the East African embassies, in which hundreds of African civilians were killed.) With a passionate intensity that outstrips his sense of irony, Bunglawala reserves such epithets as "warmongering bastard" for, well, me. In the CiF exchange, I particularly relish his complaint that "with their strident atheism Dawkins and co have undoubtedly prevented many believers from taking evolution seriously" - as if public acceptance of scientific method were a reward to be bestowed on scientists if they're sufficiently accommodating to the sensibilities of the faithful. I have my own problems with Richard Dawkins - specifically in his social critiques - but I'm obdurately on his side against obscurantists such as these.
Alice Fishburn at The Timesraises the problem of how to deal with remorsely expanding numbers of books. Having just moved home, I have no doubt that the second economist Alice quotes is right: to live sensibly, you have to accept the necessity of regular culls of books you've accumulated. You will inevitably find later that you want to refer to a book you've jettisoned, but it's just a cost to weigh against the greater benefit.