Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

I have read a lot of A.A. Milne’s work this year.  I have read his autobiography, original plays and adaptations, a children’s book, articles from his days at Punch, even wartime poetry…I have not so much sampled his work as attacked it, attempting to conquer as much as I could as quickly as possible.  It has been a delightful assault but none of it quite prepared me for Peace with Honour.  It is shockingly different from the rest of his work and I think that it is his best book – certainly his most important.

Published in 1934, Peace with Honour is Milne’s plea for pacifism.  None of his other books can come close to matching the passion with which he pleads his cause, his earnestness as he attempts to challenge his audience’s belief in the usefulness and inevitability of war.  He had been a pacifist even before his experiences during the First World War but his time in France certainly brought home the pointless wastefulness of it all and the contrast between the sentimental attitudes in Britain towards the war and its soldiers and the horrifying reality influenced him greatly.  As the 1930s began, with fascism and its accompanying militarism spreading in continental Europe, he wanted to challenge his reader’s notions about the purpose and value of war and ensure that the attitudes that had propelled them into the First World War were routed:

It is because I want everybody to think (as I do) that war is poison, and not (as so many think) an over-strong, extremely unpleasant medicine, that I am writing this book.

Milne argues clearly, intelligently and even amusingly in the best rhetorical tradition, laying out what he views as the obstructions to pacifism and then slicing through them with a blend of factual and emotional arguments.  There is nothing particularly calm or cool about his writing: you have no doubt that this is a book he poured his soul into.  It is literally a matter of life and death and it roused all his emotions.  He knew his aim was idealistic and ambitious, that it would upset people and be next to impossible to implement universally, but he had to try.  With the lives of future soldiers and civilians on his mind, with their deaths on his conscience, he had to try:

Nations fight in order to bring about the complete surrender of the conquered to the will of the conqueror.  That surrender is obtained by deliberate ‘slaughter and ruin.’  The last war involved women and children and the accumulated wealth of civilisation in slaughter and ruin.  The next war will involve them in a much greater slaughter and ruin.  This seems to be a good reason for making the next war impossible.  It does not seem to be a good reason for saying: ‘Can’t we agree to make the next war a nice war like the last war?’

Milne looks at the reasons nations go to war (material gain, honour, prestige, pride), the doubtful role of religion and morality, and, what seems to gall him most, the romantic conventions that surround war, even after the senseless slaughters of the First World War.  People wishing to commemorate their fallen heroes at sanitized memorials, ignoring the lingering deaths and crippling disfigurements that moved far beyond the battlefields, rouse all his anger:

We know […] that, of the casualties of the last war, not all were killed on the battlefield; that hundreds and thousands died painfully of wounds – in bed; that hundreds of thousands died slowly of gas-poisoning or disease – in bed.  Yet the sentimentalist, knowing this, still visualises death in war as something which comes cleanly and swiftly and mercifully, leaving its victim no more time for awareness than is necessary for a last message to his mother.

Milne is horrified that such thinking could have survived the war.  That people can still find ways to justify war as noble when they know how ignobly soldiers died less than twenty years before shocks him.  He has no time for the heroes these people speak of and no stomach for tributes to the glorious dead, who in death have been named as heroes through no act of bravery or impressive accomplishment, simply by virtue of their having died while in military service:

A man is indeed a hero if, longing for life, he accepts death of his own will.  How many heroes do we commemorate each year?  How many of the ‘immortal dead’ have deliberately died for their country?

Neither in its origins nor in its conduct is war heroic.  Splendidly heroic deeds are done in war, but not by those responsible for its conduct, and not exclusively and inevitably by the dead.  Of the ten million men who were killed in the last war, more than nine million had to fight whether they wanted to or not, and of these nine million some eight million did nothing heroic whatever before they were killed.  They are no more ‘immortal’ than a linen-draper who is run over by a lorry; their deaths were no more ‘pleasant’ and ‘fitting’ than the death of a stockbroker in his bath.

Milne is adamant throughout the book that there is no such thing as a just cause for war.  Ever.   Oh, the irony.  At the end of the book, Milne accuses the world’s leaders and opinion makers of lacking the imagination to envision a world where all the nations of the earth could agree to universal peace.  But Milne also lacked imagination: he could not conceive of circumstances under which he would condone war and yet by the end of the 1930s, his hatred of Hitler was so intense that he was a full supporter of war.

What changed?  When Milne wrote Peace with Honour, he was thinking of and fighting against the idea of war as a way to resolve an argument between two or more nations, usually over territory or resources or – worse – a matter of pride.  These were wars where there was economic value at stake or emotional value but never anything of real worth – nothing that one could objectively judge as right or wrong.  One nation wanted something another had and so they tried to take it.  One nation wanted to appear stronger or become larger so they attacked another.  An oppressed group wanted freedom so they fought their oppressor.  Those were the only kinds of war the world knew and that was what Milne reacted against.  These were not causes worth dying for and, more importantly, they were causes that could easily (if perhaps more slowly) be settled by diplomatic rather than violent means.  If Hitler had just been another Napoleon, intent on creating an empire, I think Milne would have remained a pacifist.  But Hitler wasn’t another Napoleon.  For Milne, it became a battle of Good versus Evil.

Milne actually examines the rise of fascism here but his conclusions are very, very wrong.  He believed that fascism by definition requires a war-like mentality of aggression and absolute obedience – true enough – but he thought that Hitler’s intention was more to unite and control his population than launch attacks on other countries.  Instead, the only thing Milne was correct in thinking was that fascism in either Germany or Italy would not survive another European war:

…however completely Fascist leaders may seem to have forgotten the horrors of the last war, we may be sure that the supreme horror of war is vividly in their minds: the knowledge that those who lead their country to Armageddon have no chance of surviving defeat and but little hope of enjoying victory.  Nothing is more certain in the uncertain future of Europe than that, if Fascist Germany or Fascist Italy is involved in the next war, it will not  a Fascist Germany or a Fascist Italy which will come out of it.  Even if (which is unlikely) civilisation survives that war; even if Germany is still a nation and Italy is still a nation; it is absolutely certain that there will be no Hitler, neither will there be any Mussolini, who will direct their destinies.

Knowing the violence with which Milne opposed Hitler, it was fascinating to read this and attempt to reconcile Milne’s passionate pacifism with his later Churchill-esque zeal for war.  It is surprising how easy that is to do.  He lays out his arguments so clearly, illustrates them with such approachable examples and analogies, that you are never in doubt as to what he believes and what he thinks is right and it is easy then to see how he could have viewed the war against Nazism as just.

There were so many other passages I wish I could have quoted but that is the kind of book this is.  Milne’s arguments are extraordinarily well done, so passionate, so heart-felt and so well-written.  It is an idealistic and overly hopeful book, especially in light of what was going on elsewhere in Europe at the time, but it is persuasive.  If I could only pick one of Milne’s books to share with other readers, this would be it.

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"Zlata Ulicka in Winter, Prague" by T.F. Simon

I may be on holiday this week but I’m busier than ever, finishing up my Christmas tasks and getting together with all my friends who are briefly back in town for the holidays.  All I want to do now is curl up with a nice, long book (specifically, Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope) but with so many things going on (most recently, acting as shopping assistant for those with no idea of what to buy other family members and who are only just realising this with a few short shopping days left), this does not seem the time to savour that most fondly anticipated book.  No, it is clearly a time for short stories and essays, pieces that can be read quickly in the gaps between my other activities.

Following on from How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (which I loved), I picked up Café Europa by Slavenka DrakulićThis volume of essays focuses on post-communist life in Eastern Europe.  The book’s tone is very different from How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, which, as the title suggests, generally focused on the positives, on triumphs rather than failures.  Here, the essays are more cynical, more disappointed, written in the mid-90s when Drakulić was clearly frustrated by the lack of change in post-communist Europe.  The governments may have changed but people’s attitudes have not.  Whether it is people lying to and cheating the customs officials or the widespread apathy when a democratic government behaves with the arrogance and secrecy of a communist one, citizens mourning a dictator or Bulgarians grudgingly providing customer ‘service’ with a grimace rather than a smile, Drakulić’s observations are always intelligent and absorbingly personal.  She is not a disinterested observer but one who is deeply engaged with her subjects, often guilty of the very behaviours she believes are holding back these countries’ progress.  These are essays about nations and people trying to find their place in the world and, especially, in Europe, a place that only a few years before seemed impossibly glamourous and incredibly foreign to all they knew and had experienced.  I was most touched by Drakulić’s frustration at constantly being treated like a second-class citizen when abroad, coming up against the stereotype of Eastern Europeans as poor and dirty, cheats and thieves.

From there, I moved on to Prague Tales by Jan Neruda, which was perfect in almost every way.  I adored this book and couldn’t bear to put it down.   For one day at least I ignored all the other calls for my attention and read this straight through, even though I had picked it up specifically because it was a volume of stories that could be read in bursts.  There are 13 tales, varying in length from only a few pages to the 100-page long novellas “A Week in a Quiet House” and “Figures”, which bookend the volume.  All set in the Malá Strana district of Prague (coincidentally, my favourite part of the city), the stories were originally written in the 1860s and 1870s before being collected and published together in Czech in 1878.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before I started reading.  Neruda is primarily remembered as a poet and these are certainly not what I would expect from a poet.  Tender and sharp, witty and sympathetic, each story reveals Neruda’s skill as a realist.  There are simply, brilliantly told everyday tragedies (“A Beggar Brought to Ruin” and “How Mr Vorel Broke In His Meerschaum”), a rather eerie tale of passion (“The Three Lilies”, the story that inspired Pablo Neruda to adopt his pen-name), wonderful comedies (particularly “How It Came to Pass”, about the ill-fated plans of several schoolboys to overthrown their Austrian rulers) and excellent domestic dramas dealing with the intertwined lives of neighbours (“A Week in a Quiet House” and “Figures”).  What is particularly striking is how different the tone is from anything that was being written in English at the same time.  There is a clarity and crispness to his prose, as well as a confidently satirical style, that reminds me more of books written in the 1920s and 1930s.  It is no surprise to find that Karel Čapek used Neruda as a model.  Neruda was also a passionate Czech nationalist.  At the time he was writing, German was the language of business and literature, of serious people, while Czech was left to the peasants.  It is fascinating to read the many comments in these stories relating to that, whether it be a manager demanding his employees cease speaking Czech in the office (our rebellious young narrator refusing to: “I speak Czech long and loudly.  My colleagues avoid me like the plague”) or a group of soldiers chatting away about a visit to the Czech theatre, which was performing a German play.    I cannot praise this book highly enough and my only concern now is how to obtain a copy of my own (having read a borrowed copy from the library).

After being so delighted by Prague Tales, I decided to move on to something very different, since any other fiction book would do poorly in comparison.  Facts Are Subversive by Timothy Garton Ash seemed an excellent contrast, a collection of political essays written between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2009.  With sections devoted to still-evolving Eastern European countries, the idea of Europe itself as a collective (including the excellent “The Perfect EU Member”, an entertaining argument for why Canada represents the EU ideal), Islam, the US (with a historically fascinating essay written directly after 11 September 2001 outlining what Garton Ash saw as the US’s options at the time), Asia, as well as essays on specific writers, books, and films, there is more than enough variety here to choose from.  I did pick and choose somewhat, skipping a few of the essays that appealed to me the least or which I had already read when first published.  I particularly enjoyed “The Brown Grass of Memory”, Garton Ash’s response to Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion.

And then, feeling the need for something light, I picked up Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress (of Austenprose) and promptly wished I hadn’t.  A collection of stories inspired by Jane Austen, I found only a handful of these to be worth reading and my enjoyment of those few was certainly hampered by having to wade through the others to get at them.

I’ve now worked through all the volumes of short stories and essays I had out from the library and find myself longing for a good novel or biography, something cohesive.  So on I go, to read about Tommy Douglas and finally try Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, knowing that at the end of this week, with my commitments filled and these two short books most likely finished, I will be able to pick up Trollope unhindered and escape into Barsetshire in time for Christmas.  What bliss!

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First published in English in 1992, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić is an extraordinarily good collection of essays about women’s lives under and immediately after the end of communism in Eastern Europe.  Drakulić, a Croatian journalist and author, does an amazing job of presenting these deeply domestic glimpses into the lives of women and she and her personal experiences are very present in each essay.  Although this was written twenty years ago, I was astonished by how informative I found it, how many of the essays brought new details to my attention that have never been mentioned in the histories or even memoirs that I’ve read covering the same area during the same time period.  I may be astonished by that, but Drakulić would not be.  She knows that the lives and stories she is concerned with, those of normal, unexceptional women, are the ones most easily ignored and most quickly forgotten.  And yet by lacking any kind of political power, they were the ones whose lives most clearly mirrored the politics of the day:

Growing up in Eastern Europe you learn very young that politics is not an abstract concept, but a powerful force influencing people’s everyday lives.  It was this relationship between political authority and the trivia of daily living, this view from below, that interested me most.  And who should I find down there, more removed from the seats of political power, but women.  The biggest burden of everyday life was carried by them.  Even if they fully participated in revolutionary events, they were less active and less visible in the aftermath of those events.

After the revolutions women still didn’t have time to be involved; they still distrusted politics.  At the same time, they deluded themselves that the new democracies would give them the opportunity to stay at home and perhaps rest for a while.  There was something else, too: somebody had to take responsibility for finding food and cooking meals, a task made no easier – indeed, in some countries made more difficult – by the political changeover.

Women’s lives, by no means spectacular, banal in fact, say as much about politics as no end of theoretical political analysis.  (“The Trivial is Political”)

All of the essays are fascinating.  The most political of the essays – “A Chat with My Censors”, for instance, which recounts how Drakulić’s state censor asked to meet for a friendly chat, making no threats but terrifying her merely by announcing his presence – are important and insightful but, for my part, I found the essays that dealt with the day-to-day details of life of the most interest.  “Make Up and Other Questions” discusses fashion and cosmetics and their importance and scarcity in communist countries, where vanity items are deemed worthless for its equal citizens and so not widely produced.  Fashion, as a joyous thing, a celebration of individual style and perspective, does not exist here:

To avoid uniformity, you have to work very hard: you have to bribe a salesgirl, wait in line for some imported product, buy bluejeans on the black market and pay your whole month’s salary for them; you have to hoard cloth and sew it, imitating the pictures in glamourous foreign magazines.  What makes these enormous efforts touching is the way women wear it all, so you can tell they went to the trouble.  Nothing is casual about them.  They are over-dressed, they put on too much make-up, they match colours and textures badly, revealing their provincial attempt to imitate Western fashion.  But where could they learn anything about a self-image, a style?  In the party-controlled magazines for women, where they are instructed to be good workers and party members first, then mothers, housewives, and sex objects next, – never themselves?  To be yourself, to cultivate individualism, to perceive yourself as an individual in a mass society is dangerous.  You might become living proof that the system is failing.  Make-up and fashion are crucial because they are political.

Sometimes the simplest essays are the best, like “On Doing Laundry”, reflecting on how that most mundane task has and has not changed over the decades and through the transition from communist government to democracy.  And of course, the almost farcical “The Strange Ability of Apartments to Divide and Multiply”, on the complex maneuverings each growing, shrinking, aging, or divorcing family went through during the housing shortage.

Then there are the essays on viewing the outside world through communist eyes.  Of course, she always buys western goods when abroad and takes them back to friends and family (most disturbingly, distributing tampons throughout Central Europe where feminine products of any kind were impossible to obtain) and there is the hoarding instinct that comes to the front when exposed to unlimited goods at unheard of prices, whether that item be needed or not (“Some Doubts on Fur Coats”).  But there are also upsetting things about the West, about capitalism, and “A Communist Eye, or What Did I See in New York” is an interesting reflection of that.  In New York, Drakulić is shocked and disturbed by all the beggars and homeless people, having grown up in a country where, excepting Gypsies, that was unheard of:

Caught between two sets of values, one where beggars are not allowed at all, and the other where beggars are the consequence of capitalism, we simply are not sure how to deal with them.

Each essay had something insightful or entertaining to offer.  Overall, a incredibly powerful, engagingly written, important book, presenting fascinating glimpses into the recent past.

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Oh, where to start on this one?  If ever a book captured the spirit of 2011, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones must surely be it.  Filled with indignation and outrage over the selfish, capitalist indulgences of the British middle and upper classes, Jones passionately champions the suffering masses against the largely derogative and dismissive image of them presented by the media and politicians.

I admire Jones’ enthusiasm for his subject.  He is clearly fully engaged with his topic, but, also clearly, does not feel it is remotely necessary to even pretend to offer a balanced examination, which can make this book incredibly frustrating.  As much as I agree with some of Jones’ basic and obvious complaints – private sector executives receiving salaries hundreds of times greater than their average worker’s salary, employee exploitation in non-unionized workplaces like call centres – I ultimately lost sympathy and patience with him because of his bias.

There is not a lot of room for subtlety in this book: everything is either black or white with no allowance for shades of grey.  One major, and I would argue false, assumption is that middle class people believe all working class (i.e. the majority of the population) people fit the chav stereotype, which, clearly, Jones does not have a difficult time refuting.  Defining the facts to suit your arguments is a persuasive framing device but it rarely holds up well when people are given any time to consider them, which they clearly do have in this case.  The broad generalizations at each class level over simplified the issues and are part of what made the arguments so unsatisfying.  If more than 50% of the population is working class, how can they possibly all be this way or that?  Certainly Jones is supportive rather than critical of the class that he portrays as victimized and downtrodden, robbed of their dignity and political power by harsh economic changes under Thatcher, but he also doesn’t allow for any dissent with this favoured group.  And as for everyone else…All middle class people are presented as loathing the working class, apparently disgusted by and unwilling to acknowledge never mind speak to salespeople, cleaners, and other menial labourers.  He also has a tendency to view the middle and upper classes as interchangeable, equally guilty of the crimes he chooses to lay at their (apparently shared) door.

Here are few basic things that the book will set you straight on, repeatedly, some of which I agree with, some of which I do not:

  • Individualism is bad.
  • Rent-to-buy home ownership schemes are Very Bad.
  • Free market economics and currency speculation are so bad as to be catastrophic.
  • Politicians, obviously, are Very Bad, especially ones with privileged backgrounds who dare to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities presented to them to establish successful political careers and become Prime Minister (I am endlessly fascinated by this very common complaint.  Should children of privilege squander all their advantages and become dissolute wastrels?  Is that a more acceptable option?  Why are they resented for seizing the opportunities presented and making the very most of them?)
  • Thatcher is VERY Bad

On the other hand,

  • The working class are good.
  • Unions are good.
  • Strong, radicalized unions ready to do battle with the government to ensure the rights and political power of the working class are Very Good.
  • Socialism is Very Good (though I don’t believe Jones’ ever directly says this, it is most certainly the gist of his argument)
  • A progressive personal income tax (which rises by income level, placing the highest rates on the rich) and a lower VAT (which disproportionately impacts low income earners) are Very Good.
  • Working class communities pre-Thatcher, particularly centred around heavily unionized industries, are Very Good Indeed with their strong sense of community, close families and no problems whatsoever (at least in Jones’ heavily romanticized vision of the past)

It is interesting to note what Jones doesn’t include.  There is practically no information on pre-Thatcher Britain.  The golden age of the union was not exactly an era without societal problems, but you wouldn’t know it from this book.  Just about the only pre-Thatcher reference is to Enoch Powell and hints of some racist sentiment floating about.  There’s a vague attempt to deflect accusations of working class racism onto the middle and upper classes instead, arguing that statistically the working classes are the people most likely to live, work and socialize in multicultural settings.  I am perfectly content with this conclusion but shifting blame to other classes without supporting statistics or meaningful examples – save referencing Prince Harry’s antics and some casual stories from Jones’ acquaintances – is sloppy.  While Jones’ is good when discussing the appeal of the BNP, particularly their community-based initiatives, I don’t think he ultimately makes the point he’s trying to on that count.

But the most notable absences are of any international or historical context.  The breaking of the unions, the deindustrialization of Britain, the modern reliance on temporary, poorly paid, over-worked staff, none of this is ever viewed in the context of globalization.  There is no hint that these things were happening all over the Western world.  But, given Jones’ protectionist leanings, it is not hugely surprising that he glossed over these things.  What he seems to long for most is the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s.  It may have been internationally insignificant and economically stagnant, but, with its outrageously high taxation rates and booming social programs, it is also arguably as close as modern Britain has ever come to having a flat society.  Ultimately, I think the lack of context makes the book harder for me to respect and relate to but, at the same time, may be its cleverest framing device of all in helping to spur other readers to action.  The problems of today are presented as a result of successive government’s actions since 1979.  In his conclusion, Jones basically calls for a return to many of social policies of the pre-Thatcher era: building up state-run housing, unionizing poorly paid industries, etc.  All we need to do, he seems to say, is press the reset button and all these problems will go away.  We must erase Thatcher’s legacy of individualism and all will be well.  It’s certainly a tempting vision.

One of Jones’ major complaints is the lack of representation for the working classes in government, particularly at the highest levels, and rightly so.  But his solution is to build the unions back up, band them together, and essentially recreate the lobby that existed pre-Thatcher, which he rather failed to convince me was healthy thing to replicate.  What unions did do magnificently well in the workplace was to give individuals the platform to develop political skills and confidence.  And yet I still don’t have sympathy with the argument that, by breaking the unions, the working class was forcibly silenced.  They lost their main channel, absolutely, but the normal channels afforded by the democratic system were and are still open.  If you want to be represented, stand as a candidate, vote for the candidate who will champion your issues or simply get involved with your current MP who, regardless of party, is accountable to you.  It is a democracy.  Work the system rather than abandon it.  The working class is the majority and those numbers are powerful, if not muted by apathy.

Despite some issues with Jones’ basic arguments, I had a huge amount of fun reading this book.  It appealed to so many of my sides: economics geek, history geek, and, of course, politics geek.  Jones writes like a young journalist on a tear, passionate, outraged, and absolutely convinced of the moral rightness of his arguments.  I have no doubt that many of his readers will come away equally convinced, equally outraged.  Indeed, this almost seems like required reading for the ‘Occupy’ protestors.

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