Saturday, 31 March 2012

Robert McNamara and the Fog of War

Highly recommended watching for anyone with the remotest interest in 20th century history, politics, foreign affairs etc etc. In this documentary, former US Secretary of Defense (sic) Robert McNamara gives an illuminating and highly emotive glimpse into some of the most intense instances of the Cold War: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam conflict. McNamara was one of the most influential men in the White House during both crises: His recollections give a fascinating account of the mentality of the US government elite as they succeeded in empathising with their Russia counterparts to prevent nuclear war, but were guilty of severe misperception and misunderstanding of the situation in Vietnam. The title is a battlefield reference to such confusion, when there are so many variables that it is impossible for a rational human being to take account of all of them.

The film expertly positions the crises within the Cold War context and traces their origins to the closing of the Second World War. This is both a very accessible and fascinating film that everyone (including myself) will benefit from watching!

Friday, 30 March 2012

Boris digging hole in mayoral race

Running for re-election as London Mayor in May, Boris Johnson is playing a dangerous game by threatening to veto the proposed third runway at Heathrow. The Tories had previously ruled out the possibility of an expansion at Heathrow in their 2010 manifesto but lobbying by both domestic and foreign business interests has put the controversial issue back on the agenda in this year’s budget.

Johnson has consistently portrayed himself as a green-friendly mayor and has vowed to reject a new runway on the grounds of the pollution it would cause over West London. Instead he has reiterated his support for a new airport on the Thames Estuary. In doing so he is at risk of losing support from many in the capital, especially considering the current economic climate. An expansion of Heathrow would be a cheaper and more effective answer to the clear need to increase Britain’s airport capacity in the Southeast, which is being aggressively challenged on the continent. The question is adding more strain to the coalition partnership, since the Liberal-Democrats had previously promised to oppose a capacity increase at Heathrow.

With the mayoral election looming, Boris needs to assess the kind of message he wants to put to voters. Pledges made by former mayor and Labour candidate Ken Livingston to make London more ‘New York-esque’, based around an increased independence from the rest of the country, may appeal to those worried about the capital’s competitiveness on the world stage. Boris may be playing into the hands of his opponent by seeming to not put London’s needs as seriously.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Granny Tax was a surprise that should be welcomed by young people

So far those who were ‘late to the party’ have been hit hard by the economic downturn; sharing the burden is the right thing to do.

One of the biggest surprises of George Osborne’s budget, and certainly one of the biggest political risks, was the decision to freeze tax allowances for pensioners. This was certainly a controversial move: the reaction of the right-wing press exemplifies the scorn Mr Osborne is facing from one of his core support groups, who also happen to be much more likely to vote.

The decision will mean that pensioners will lose money in real terms (the Evening Standard estimated the average London pensioner will be £83 shy annually), and in other parts of the country this could have a harder impact. But the measure has not proposed a cut to allowances, and with growth estimated for 2012-13 to be around 0.8%, a freeze was the right thing to do. The elderly already rightly receive other bonuses, such as free travel passes, and have arguably borne a relatively small burden from the recession.

The under-25s on the other hand, with slightly over a million unemployed and that first rung on the housing market still impossibly high, have been hit by hard times. With the next generation of graduates set to exit higher education with debts nudging £40,000 (including maintenance for a 3 year course), it seems to me that a freeze on a tax exemption seems like small change. This is especially so considering the main source of wealth for many older people: property. Particularly in the Southeast, property prices over the last 40 years have skyrocketed (the highest have been in Brighton, where prices have increased 40-fold), meaning that those in their prime during the boom times were able to ride the property bubble to relative affluence.

This is not without qualification; the elderly deserve to live in comfort and to enjoy what they have earned in retirement. Similarly it should go without saying that those dependent on the state should receive as much as can be afforded. However as one weekend commentator put it, being under-25 in the 2010’s is the equivalent to turning up to a party to find the house trashed and everyone being thrown out for being too drunk. The baby-boomers in particular, have had it far too good.

With the retirement age ever increasing and the debt-to-employment ratio horribly disproportional, it seems to me only fair that those who have already made their money should take a small hit in these times.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The White Man's Burden: More on the Kony 2012 campaign

Our treasured national poet, Rudyard Kipling, infamously referred to the welfare and development of the African people as the 'white man's burden'; something that as a superior race, was an obligation to the white Europeans who were busy 'scrambling' for Africa 150 years ago.

As mentioned in my previous post, the Kony2012 campaign is not without a hint of neo-colonialism: Its liberal and altruistic motives are no different in many ways from the justifications used by British pro-imperialists during the inter-war period. Emerging from WWI as a declining industrial power and with souring unemployment, British policy makers advocated the development of the colonies in order to stimulate British exports and alleviate the depression. This was accompanied by a second, supposedly 'selfless' line of argument that formed Britain's 'Dual Mandate' policy. With the League of Nations' blessing, Britain framed itself as the 'benevolent imperialist' who would manage the development and civilising of these new states until they were ready to do so themselves.

Assumptions of racial superiority, prevalent in earlier colonial discourse, had certainly not faded entirely by this time. More generally such arguments were premised on the assumption that Africans were unwilling or incapable of developing themselves. To make a direct comparison between the Kony2012 campaign and European colonialism is perhaps unfair; the Invisible Children campaign are certainly not suggesting a general development of Africa in order to stimulate US exports and thus ease unemployment. However it is my suspicion that many of the celebrities endorsing the campaign (whether they are black or white) assume that the west is superior to Uganda and therefore that intervention there will be beneficial. 

As an example, the video makes no mention of the success Uganda has had in forcing Kony out of the country (I have already slandered the claim that the campaign's pressure caused Kony to 'change tactics' and go into hiding). By choosing to hide this fact, it has chosen to emphasise its own success over that of the Ugandans themselves, and thus only perpetuates the belief that Africa is incapable of its own action.

Moreover it seems to claim that its intervention would appear as some sort of magic bullet to the problems of those who have been affected. I am sure that many at the Kony2012 campaign have an intricate understanding of the complexities of such issues, particularly around development; so why sell it in such a simple fashion? Those watching the video might be fooled into assuming that the propagation of western influence is always a good thing. They might become convinced that Ugandans are helpless without their support.
They will therefore be disappointed to find that, like the most benevolent of the early Christian missionaries to Africa, that western development and welfare is not universally accepted as a panacea for improving quality of life.

To condemn too much is dangerous: The possibilities of popular pressure can be harnessed by noble campaigns; holding governments more accountable for morally bankrupt policies. But this is not the place to do it. Improving the terms of trade for Africa vis-a-vis the west, or tackling corruption there would have a far bigger impact to the welfare of Africa. But such issues are too divisive and complex for popular support to agree on a decision. Conflictingly, they would serve to undermine the interests of many ordinary people in the west; so what then? The answer apparently is to stick to the black and white issues.


A Dangerous Method
What is immediately obvious, during David Cronenberg’s latest Period set, Psycho-sexual three-piece drama, is the astoundingly provocative and not completely successful Keira Knightly performance. As one of the three central characters occupying the screen for the majority of this 100 minute exploration of the well known rivalry and frustration between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Knightly’s orgasmic cries and jutting, angle-fish jawline distract rather than immerse the audience, creating an uncomfortably laughable presence in an otherwise stoic and po-faced literary adaptation.
Indeed, in every one of her scenes she is seen to be desperately straddling the line between unintentionally comic and intensely manic, with early interviews between the Dr. Carl Jung (Fassbender) and Knightly’s severely traumatised Sabina Spielrein, threatening to escalate into uncontrollable farce, her unnerving performance, continually thrust forward at any sign of her childhood traumas, provoking a smattering of uncertain giggles, that only progressed into all-out knee-slapping guffaws at the modestly attended screening your humble reviewer convened. Of course, ultimately one must attempt to get past this jutting extremity and engage with the other facets of the performance, but then again, Knightly doesn’t quite hold up in these departments either. The choices inevitably come down to Cronenberg himself, whose decision to allow Viggo Mortensen, a Danish/American actor, to play the very Austrian Sigmund Freud as British, to allow Michael Fassbender, a German/Irish actor, to play the Swiss Dr. Carl Jung as British, whilst inexplicably having Keira Knightly, incidentally the only British actor actually involved in this production, struggle painfully with a particularly tricky Russian accent, is puzzling to say the least.
Above and beyond the miscast Keira Knightly, the general direction and cinematography are reliably assured, the period details nicely observed and the performances of Fassbender and Mortensen, utterly superb. The script, however, is unfortunately much less convincing. Early exchanges between Jung and his rather fertile wife are gratingly false, laden with exposition and often laughably sincere. The only regular reprieve from clumsy dialogue and melodrama comes in the form of Jung and Freud’s rivalry, the former played with frustrated earnestness by the seemingly flawless Fassbender, the latter with stolid arrogance and delightfully dry humour by method-actor Mortensen, which begs the question, why weren’t these exchanges kept central to the plot? They emerge late-on and are further intensified by the arrival of the wonderful Vincent Cassell, whose roguish performance as the sociopathic nymphomaniac Otto Gross, more than lives up to the promise of his characters surname and inflects a much needed light-heartedness to proceedings.
Ultimately, the overshadowed strengths of this production lie in two incredibly assured performances and an endlessly interesting true-story of rivalry and misunderstandings between two great Psychoanalysts, though having endured what felt like a gruelling cinematic journey, one is left with the overall impression that they have just been spanked furiously for two hours by Cronenberg’s rough palm, though, unlike Knightly's character, without the compensation of a trauma-induced orgasm.

In Short: 
A slight return from Cronenberg, whose previous two releases have heralded a masterful new direction for the once master of body-horror creepiness. Two superb performances from Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen can’t atone for the clumsy script, a poorly cast Keira Knightly and a general lack of ambition. All in all - a wasted opportunity.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Viral media has formed policy makers' out of the online community.
·         The Kony 2012 project is  sparking a debate on how much collective power, through social networking, can be used to influence or make policy.

Firstly,  it is only the threats posed by the method of the Kony 2012 that  is the danger, obviously not the honourable sentiment.

Objectivity and logic  are the champions of  policy making, but now the emotionally inspired zeitgeist of social networking is playing a bigger part. The argument is not that there is no need for this type of  emotional blackmailing,  policy making should have an overture of humanism. Even so, the choice to go to war should not be for mere  public consumption. This approach may see the beginnings of a slippery and dangerous path to lynch mob-ism. Before this is disregarded as overly cynical and bleak, let me explain.

The danger is that people could be coerced by emotion and not objectivity, by playing to our heartstrings. Out of the 30 million supporters of Kony 2012, did all of them read up on the poor credentials of Invisible Children, or delve any further into the Ugandan situation? Perhaps. But the sheer numbers would cry out that they did not. So here is the risk, the people have been emotionally urged to go on a crusade against evil for reasons unselfish and admirable, but without proper consideration.

The Invisible Children run under the banner of ending war,  yet the campaign is advocating  a kind of war, a war of policing the world. All the while, they help supply the Ugandan military, and pursue a cause that would inevitably  see more military intervention all over the world, and on a moral basis rather than the 'finite' reason of self-protection. As Gordon precluded, it smacks of neo-colonialism, in a  sense  a mandate, based on the idea that the relatively few have a moral authority over the rest.

And if it is a force for good, which I think Invisible Children is, then I think that is brilliant. Nevertheless, the power of viral media may have taken over from TV as the best  controlled indoctrination tool.  The internet audience must be ever self-vigilant and critical of what they experience online, especially if it concerns decisions as significant as going to war. It makes me grumble to think that people need to see the tragic events of  Jacob juxtaposed to a cute kid doing sand angels to appreciate the horrible situation in Uganda

The Invisible Children are false advertising; in reality they are not  anti-war; emotion has betrayed the audience from investigating this. This is not a slant on the Invisible  Children's integrity, I support their noble cause, and hope that Kony is punished. However, if one man's NGO can persuade people to put aside their objectivity , and indirectly and unknowingly insight  war because of emotional propaganda, this is  a danger. "The world is not ruled by reason, but by passion, and when a man is driven to despair he is ready to smash everything  in the vague hope that a better world may arise out of the ruins." Kock-Weser Foreign Affairs Journal.  When a war is for public consumption it can be as temperamental as its people are, if it is for public protection it has some limiting factors, the perceived parameters of self defence.

Whether for good or bad,  the internet has allowed for the privileges once only bestowed on  governments and authority's to decide to go to war, to everyone online. And this everyone can be blinded by emotional propaganda. The Kony 2012 project is a good use of this emotional propaganda, but it could be used for more sinister causes. The people are blinded by emotion in this campaign, this time it is a good thing; but the new collective power of the internet, combined with  good spin doctoring can lead to people putting aside their objectivity and  picking up their pitchforks.  

Friday, 9 March 2012

Why the 'Kony 2012' campaign is doomed to failure

The recent explosion online of Invisible Children's 'Kony 2012' video has brought to the fore the possibilities of social networking in changing the political landscape. The video links itself with the use of social networking in triggering the uprisings of the recent Arab spring and its ongoing use in Syria. But the American NGO has also come under much criticism for its lack of transparency in its allocation of donor's money.

There are perhaps bigger problems still. The cause itself is admirable, and the possibility that people power can influence the course of American foreign policy and therefore the world is optimistic: Its success in bringing the Obama administration to send a task force of 100 US special forces to help train the Ugandan military is creditable. But the campaign is doomed to fail and therefore also to disappoint the thousand that have gotten involved on the back of such a possibility. Half a decade ago Kony was forced from Northern Uganda into the impassable jungles of the DRC, one of the least governed and governable regions on earth. If he wants to remain hidden there, he will do. The video claims that it was its involvement that forced Kony to 'change tactics' and go into hiding, but in truth he has been in hiding long before the American military assistance was sent.

The DRC means little, currently, to America. Though its vast untapped mineral wealth may indeed bring it to prominence in coming decades, there is no chance, no matter how much popular lobbying power, that the US will involve itself in any larger military campaign there as the video has called for. The US has little regional interest there, no real allies, and no interest in stirring conflict in another part of the globe. What is more the DRC is significantly larger then Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, and I doubt the US military will ever try to claim, as it has done historically, that it can win a campaign there. Such a likely failure is unfortunate and will only lead to the disappointment of those who have pinned on the Kony 2012 campaign their hopes of a more effective role for popular pressure in policy making.

Moreover the campaign asks broader questions as to where to draw the line in the sand. Kony is undeniably a monster who has earned his position at the top of the ICC's list. But a campaign asking for US government intervention smacks of neo-colonialism, albeit with liberal rhetoric. When the campaign fails, what then? Do you move onto number 2 (Sudan) or number 3 (Bosco Ntaganda, also at large in the DRC)? The chasing of these criminals is morally sound but technically impossible and not in America's wider interest. The Iraq war was first justified on the removal of a comparable monster, who not only murdered thousands of Kurds but was allegedly acquiring nuclear weapons. The more likely hidden explanation for the war, based ultimately on the threat Hussein posed to regional  oil, was far more within the American public's interest than the removal of Kony, who has no oil and no large conventional weaponry. My prediction is that many within the Invisible Children NGO (a charity motivated towards ending war) were against the intervention in Iraq.

Furthermore as one observer has pointed out ( the video makes not one mention of Uganda's president-come-dictator Yoweri Museveni, who came into power at roughly the same time as Kony emerged. Since then Museveni has succeeded in overturning Uganda's democratic system to keep himself in power. Perhaps if he was more accountable to the Ugandan people then he would have felt more of a need to ensure the safety of tens of thousands of children in the North of his country. American efforts could be far better placed in encouraging the re-structuring of the Ugandan democratic system. As P.Bryan will point out, such an end unfortunately is far more complex and un-emotive than the black/white picture painted by the Kony 2012 campaign (and is less effectively juxtaposed next to American kids making sand-angels.)