Monday, 29 September 2008

by Edwin Hesselthwite

"American protests that all this is wrong - that Mr McKinnon faces neither deportation to Guantanamo nor decades in jail - are pointless if probably correct. Through its actions, America has got into the position where such things are believed. Through its actions, America must now get out of this position. Its pursuit of Mr McKinnon for doing nothing more serious than damaging the egos of military top brass is no help at all." The Guardian editorial, 29 September 2008.
Free Gary.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

On National Mythmaking

by Edwin Hesselthwite

A long while back yours truly got into a heated web-argument (one must learn to hold one's temper) with an American Patriot about the sacred role that the pioneer/revolutionary heritage plays in their national identity... While ranty and opinionated, I've thought back on this pair of paragraphs as something worth saying, whenever the words "Revolution" or "Constitution" are raised. It's a slow day at The Little Man, so it seemed worth recycling.

Every country is allowed to have its national-founding myth, however preposterous they may sounds to those not indoctrinated in it. French schools are allowed to teach a history of the first modern European constitutional republic (actually it was Poland), Greece's education is allowed to dwell heavily on the ancient civilisation that existed roughly where their country is, while avoiding all mention of The Turks, British monarchists are permitted to discuss at length 1066 as if the founding of the royal bloodline were the starting point for the habitation of these islands (it's always baffled me that Magna Carta plays a bigger role in the American national narrative than it does in the British). These national narratives are convenient shorthand for teaching children your cultural values, and they make very good movies... But they are national founding myths. And the older and more inflexible they are, the staler they become.

Almost every country in the world has, at some point or another, had a large scale revolution/major exchange of power (I'm rather fond of Britain's Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the radicals of the English Civil War were a pretty impressive bunch too). I think it's fair to say that the Eastern Europeans who overthrew communism, the Africans who overthrew colonialism and the Indians who kicked out the British have every bit as much right to claim a rebel heritage (did I mention we kicked out The Romans? No, because it isn't relevant.). I don't want to get into an argument that smells of Anti-Americanism, so lets stop this one here... Suffice to say that I regard the pioneer people/broke the nefarious British 200+ years ago argument as intellectually bankrupt.

Normal service will be resumed when we can think of something interesting to say.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Two Genre Movies About Terrorism, a Discussion

by Edwin Hesselthwite

"You can't wipe them out... The British Army has been diving about, with shit flying at them from all angles, for the last ten years and you're not impressed? They can take over here any time they want. You won't stop them. To them you're nothing. Nothing. The shit on their shoes!" Derek Thompson as Jeff in The Long Good Friday
"You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do with all your strength." Heath Ledger, as The Joker in The Dark Knight
Batman, the biggest brand in comic books. Batman, a hero drawn on so grand a scale that all film interpretations risk delving into kitsch. And in The Dark Knight we see a Batman movie where he meets, and battles, his most legendary foe. If it couldn't manage to be brilliant, it would be terrible, but brilliant it is. And yet, for the entire length of the movie (minus the sections where the Dolby Digital was crushing all thoughts from my brain) I had a nagging feeling that I'd seen this before, that a bell was ringing in my subconscious.

I've long been a believer that genre-movies, when made by intelligent film makers, can be a far more accurate social and political commentary than their more highbrow brethren. In The Dark Knight the Nolan brothers have drawn The Joker as the ultimate demon of our age — a terrorist with a solid agenda within which random slaughter is just a stepping stone. By presenting us with the most implicitly New York-like interpretation of Gotham City (but then, it always has been New York) that has so far been set to celluloid, the films allusions to 9/11 cannot be avoided. In doing so they have been subject to an intermittant critical drubbing, from those who refuse to accept that a genre-movie must have two masters, allegory and genre rules, and in doing so they bleat foolishly "but, but, but, The Joker isn't Bin Laden" (well, duh!).

The film sits in an almost identical cultural space to a film I consider among the greatest ever to come out of Britain — The Long Good Friday (1980). Made five years after the 1974-1975 episode of IRA bombing/terrorist activity (often called The Year London Blew Up) there had been just enough time for a commentary on the IRA's campaign to become common-level, TLGF was exempt from the deference required of a recent tragedy. TLGF took the IRA threat and crafted it into a brutally realistic crime epic, a genre that was and remains among those Britain is most successful at pitching to a wide audience.

In terms of narrative arc, the parallels between the two films are striking. Both are conducted over a matter of days. In each we are presented with leads (In TLGF Bob Hoskins plays London's biggest criminal kingpin striving to bring his empire above board) whose personal identity has become interwoven with the well-being of an enormous metropolis. At the onset both leads are bent on a city-changing goal (destroying the mob, re-building The London Docklands), which becomes impossible when faced with an opponent willing to use acts of extreme public violence to undermine them. Punctuated by a series of explosions and executions, as each film progresses the lead is required to become ever more base and brutal, until they are stripped of all honour and cover to end the terrorist threat.

The most blatant parallels are in the two "Nothing" scenes quoted above. In each film an interrogation takes place in which the lead, torn by the invisible nature of his enemy's power, faces a voice for his opponent. I won't spoil either scene, but they hinge on the impotence of these physically powerful men in the face of the enemy within. Both are driven to uncharacteristic, unconscionable acts of rage.

The Long Good Friday is a masterpiece of Greek Tragedy, and when the summer's adrenaline wears off it will likely be remembered as a higher calibre of film than The Dark Knight. TDK has some serious flaws that serve to undermine the whole edifice. Christian Bale's Batman is far less substantial than it was in Batman Begins (he gets comprehensively driven off the screen by Ledger's Joker) and the entire third act of the film is pretty shaky: where the story arc requires a tragic ending the genre requirements need the villain to be defeated. There is both genius and fundamental problems in presenting us with a personification of terrorism who can be defeated. Further, the less said about the heavy-handed mobile phone gizmo/Patriot Act sub-plot the better.

And yet, TDK is intended as the biggest blockbuster of the summer, and thus it is tied far more than the low budget TLGF to the narrative requirements of such... As is so often the case with political genre movies aimed at a wide audience, the politics must take second billing during the barnstorming third-act, and as a genre movie this is superb action and adrenaline.

Are these parallels intentional? TDK is an American film with a very strong English team behind it. In the Nolan Brothers and Christian Bale we have some of Hollywood's favourite Englishmen, and in Michael Caine an actor who has starred in several (Get Carter, The Italian Job, The Harry Palmer movies) of the greatest British crime movies. Even further, Hoskins tried out for a role in the movie. Amongst this team, someone must have noticed the similarities. TLGF is an attempt to use genre conventions to illustrate the reaction of London to the IRA's threat, and this team has attempted the same feat in respect of 9/11 with TDK. It's an approach I respect, and I am surprised that these similarities haven't been commented on elsewhere.

1980 was right in the thick of The Troubles, released to the backdrop of the Dirty Protests that marked the earlier stages of The Hunger Strikes. In the years that followed the Troubles would climax with the Brighton Bombing, when the IRA almost succeeded in assassinating Britain's entire government. The Long Good Friday is one of those classic British films that has somehow been lost in translation to the international market, and I strongly, strongly recommend it... From the first moment of the film, to Hoskins' inevitable descent, this film is a triumph. The Dark Knight is a completely satisfying comic-book epic, and I'm impressed that the Nolan brothers have managed to draw so much political substance into it. To put so much ambition into a Hollywood blockbuster parallels the achievements of Tim Burton's earlier film, this is bound to bring a flawed product — that's almost the point.

Terrorism is a method, and will never go away... That films like this are being made is a sign that some of the burn of post-9/11 hysteria has passed. Unless there is a second surge of terrorist activity (as happened after The Hunger Strikes) then this film is another marker that 2008 was the year we got over worrying about terrorists, and started shitting ourselves about The Economy again.

"What I'm looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean?"

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Keeping Quiet About Going Back to the Dark Side

by Charles Pooter

I was responding to Ken McLeod's questions regarding a comment I left on his blog, but it was becoming quite long so I though I'd post it here instead.

Charles, why do you say that if I tried Linux I would go back to Vista?
I was just being sarcastic. My personal experience is that more than half of the defectors I've known end up going back to Bill's OS. I assume bloggers are not too different and yet we hardly ever see posts admitting their Linux experiment failed. The reasons people usually go back are usually: hardware incompatibility, displeasure at GUI inconsistency or the lack of particular specialised software they depend upon. By all means give it a try. Just don't feel too bad if you have to come back to the dark side, it happens more often than you think and there are plenty of ways you can make Vista less disappointing.

Friends I've known who have defected to OS X have had more luck, but then you'd get no political satisfaction from making the switch. Microsoft's tyranny is patchy, whilst a world dominated by Apple would be the proverbial boot stamping on the human face forever.
Two other questions arising from charles pooter's post: what's the matter with Norton? and is Windows Defender enough on its own?
Norton used to be respected brand name in the PC world. Every self-respecting DOS geek had a floppy disk containing Peter Norton's famous utilities. I used them many a time to undelete friends' files or sort out their dodgy hard drives. These tools were probably responsible for saving quite a few novelists from suicide in the 1990s!

In one of those tragedies of capitalism, the Norton company was purchased by Symantec, who have proceeded to take a big shit all over the Norton brand. They pay the likes of Dixons and Dell huge cash to bundle their shitty, ineffective, nagging "security suite" on the boxes they shift. This bundling is the only reason the software is on so many PCs. Of course, some would make the same argument about Internet Explorer. The difference is that Microsoft have been made to play nice regarding alternative browsers and have consequently resumed active development of IE to make it at least a bit better and retain market share. Norton depends on user inertia alone. Microsoft can't intervene in this bundling (which makes their software look bad) because that would be market interference. I can't imagine Apple ever standing for it though.

It is only slightly hyperbolic to saying that having Symantec's Norton software on your PC is more detrimental to performance and stability than having a few viruses on your hard drive. Seriously, get rid of it. You'll need to use their downloadable tool as the program is too shockingly terrible to respect normal Windows uninstallation etiquette.

As for an alternative, I rcommend Kaspersky Anti-Virus. It is consistently rated top for catching malware and has a refeshingly small footprint and nag-free interface. This and the built-in Windows firewall are all you need security-wise. Windows Defender isn't mature enough to depend upon and will slow your computer down if you install it concurrently with Kaspersky.

Elsewhere in the comments, Ken mentions IE 7's instability. I've been using Google Chrome as my main browser for a few days and am quite happy with it, but there's no harm in having multiple browsers installed, which isn't true of having multiple virus scanners.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Another Voice Joins the Chorus of Praise

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Last week, in one short sitting, I finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy...

Holy. Cow.

Let me give you some background: The Road, McCarthy's tenth novel, was published in November 2006. Before that I'd never heard of him, I have a strong suspicion that few people had. The book got ringing endorsements from the world's book reviewers (here's the rather pretentious Guardian review, here is Michael Chabon's take on it, I love that man), he bagged a Pulitzer Prize for it, and a slow rumble of praise has been building up to a roar ever since. So far this has peaked in the Coen Brother's film version of his earlier work No Country For Old Men, which won almost all the Oscars worth winning.

On a personal level, a friend whose opinions on books I trust gave him such a ringing endorsement while proclaiming his Blood Meridian a masterwork that I went out and bought it...


Unrelenting, uncompromising, unapologetic visions of hell spill from the pages of Blood Meridian; a book crafted in the most elegant prose I've encountered in years. This is not a horror story as normally described, there is no arc to this unpleasantness. Blood Meridian is simply page upon page of grotesque amoral violence in the Old West, as two repugnant characters are drawn in ever greater detail. I finished Meridian and then berated my friend for the recommendation, asking myself "Why would anyone choose to read this?"

And yet, less than a month after finishing it, I had somehow found myself lending it to two others friends. Both of whom had similar reactions.

So I picked up The Road.

The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel on the grand scale. The story of a nomadic father and son surviving on the finest of margins after after some never-explained catastrophe has left their land almost completely lifeless. Ash and clouds are the main repeating image.

The Road's total lack of background information throws a real contrast against other post-apocalyptic books I've read. Where Stephen King's The Stand's has a first third telling in detail how the world ends, or Earth Abides concentrates on the irrelevance of human life to the big picture, McCarthy has decided to ignore concept (which is often the main point of science fiction) and concentrate entirely on living. He focuses on a very specific month (although I'm not exactly sure of the length of time) in the life of this family. There have been horrible events before, and there will be more afterwards, but this is now.

It's an approach shared by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (which I adore) and the earlier parts of Stephen King's The Dark Tower (I read six and a half out of seven huge books in that series, then gave up), but McCarthy is far more sparing with information than either. In The Road it really doesn't matter what caused the world to end, it's how the father and son deal with it that makes us care. And the influence on this relationship of the nightmares surrounding them is what gave me that "beaten up with a shovel" feeling that no book has left me with in years.

Thinking back, it's a series of revealed moments that stand out. A masterful horror writer, McCarthy paints a string of viscerally memorable scenes (the most infamous being a baby rotating on a spit, but the first sight of The Ocean is equally dramatic) that stay with the reader long after the book is put down. Where the rich language and concern for the characters draws the story along, it is these hammer-blow scenes that serve to punctuate the story and deliver the key information.

In Post-Apocalyptic fiction McCarthy finds a way to use his skills at drawing hellish landscapes without the need for the sympathy arc required in normal horror. Part of the reason Blood Meridian comes across as such a smack in the face is the lack of context for these nightmares. Post-Apoc removes this, and allows McCarthy to dwell on his ongoing themes of base humanity, struggle at the very limits of life and the American Epic. It's a very literary book, but much like Michael Chabon's (these two fill a similar role in American literature) The Yiddish Policeman's Union, it demands equal respect as both literature and genre fiction. This is better than being either.

But it is these literary elements that make it difficult to recommend as a work of genre fiction. McCarthy uses a number of very showy tricks (like minimal punctuation), and a dense but minimalist style to set the tone, and it is this tone that holds it together. There are a number of regular readers of this blog that I have so far avoided recommending McCarthy to for this reason. It's well worth a go if you can get past this.

In my reasonably extensive reading of Post-Apocalyptic fiction, I've never come across a world that has been destroyed quite so thoroughly as the America left behind by Cormac McCarthy. Buy it, buy it now, buy it from this link (we get a tiny tiny amount of money if you do). Outstanding.

Soon to be made into a film with Viggo Mortensen, probably not a good idea.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

£1000 Libertarian Essay Competition

by Charles Pooter

Are libertarians just apologists for big business? Would a truly free society be unrecognisable when compared to the modern corporate state?

The Libertarian Alliance is offering £1000 (about $1,800) to the author of the best essay answering these questions:

The Libertarian Alliance, the radical free market and civil liberties policy institute, today announces the title for its 2008 Chris R. Tame Memorial Essay Prize competition.

This Prize is funded by a generous grant from The PROMIS Unit of Primary Care and is in honour of Chris R. Tame (1949-2006) Founder and first Director of the Libertarian Alliance. The Prize is worth £1000.

The essay title for 2008 is:

Can a Libertarian Society be Described as Tesco minus the State?

Essay Length: 3,000 words excluding notes and bibliography
Submission Date: 10th October 2008

Full details here.

Mention of the Libertarian Alliance reminds me that Liberty 2008 is coming up soon. The UK's premier libertarian conference looks to be unmissable this year. Speakers include:

Aubrey de Grey
(Evangelist for immortality)
David Friedman (Son of Milton, author of the Machinery of Freedom)
Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Controversialist and author of Democracy-The God That Failed)
Guy Herbert (British civil liberties campaigner)
Sean Gabb (Author, media commentator and tireless libertarian champion)