Hope is overrated

The pursuit of hope becomes dangerous when it comes at the price of clarity.

A little over six months ago, the Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote that:

Perhaps there was a time when this counsel of despair made sense. No longer. The lamps are coming on all over Europe. As in South America, political shifts that seemed impossible a few years earlier are now shaking the continent. We knew that another world was possible. Now, it seems, another world is here: the sudden death of the neoliberal consensus.

The top item on his list of reasons for optimism was the rise of the Greek leftists Syriza. Now that same party appears poised to let down the electorate who they promised they would keep Greece in the Eurozone, The country has imposed capital controls. It’s shut down its bank for at least a week leaving the large numbers of Greeks without cash cards struggling to get the cash to pay for food. Syriza has turned the most modest of recoveries into the most nightmarish of potential crashes. In short, the party is giving Greeks very little reason to feel hopeful.

That I’m afraid is hardly surprising. Hope is a very poor basis on which to base your political calculations. Don’t get me wrong, my spine stiffens as much as the next liberal hearing a circa 2008 Obama speech. But even Mr-Hope-and-Change himself has been forced to become much less sunny. The man who aspired to bridge the gap with Republicans, has had to take them on in a deeply partisan battle using every tool at his disposal. Some might see that as betrayal but I’d suggest it rather reflects the president becoming wiser with experience.

There is nothing inherently desirable about politicians being optimistic. Naturally, they should aspire to make the world a better place. But achieving that means recognising which goals are realistic. It also requires having leaders who are wary of the dangers that could instead make things worse. Panglossians are precisely the wrong people to deliver positive change.

That’s not an excuse for cynicism or paranoia. One can be unduly pessimistic as well as unduly optimistic. But it is a warning against wishful thinking. Fear has played a big part in many of the worst moments of human history but so as delusional optimism: think of Soviet industrialisation collectivisation or the Iraq War.

We should not be seeking a politics that replaces fear with hope. Rather we should be seeking to balance the two. Humans evolved to feel fear because it is helped us to avoid dangers. Now we are political animals, we must also be attuned to political dangers. Sounding the alarm and in so doing making people afraid is often the only responsible course. To take an extreme example Churchill was fearful where Chamberlain was hopeful but he was still right.

Sadly among the dangers one must be vigilant for are those peddling hopes that lack foundations and dismissing real threats. And even more sadly such people appear to be leading Greece to disaster.

Velociraptors were actually pretty lame

They were the size of turkeys, had the brains of ostriches and probably could have been fought off with a good kick.

I’m pretty clearly in a minority on Jurassic World. Audiences seem to be lapping it up; it’s box office taking currently exceeds the GDP of Gambia by several hundred million dollars. Nonethless, I felt it’s human characters were lazy stereotypes there solely to deliver ‘well duh’ worthy exposition. Where the original generated genuine awe, this one keeps telling you that you are being awed before presenting you with something that looks like a so-so episode of Walking with Dinosaurs. And its gender politics are as bad as Our Lord Joss predicted they would be.

But one thing even I think it got right is maintaining the menacing appeal of the velociraptors, all the more heightened because this time they may be lulling the human characters into a false sense of security. They might lack the raw power of the T-Rex but they more than make up for it with cunning and the ability to work together to bring about our downfall.

Unfortunately (or if humanity ever does start bringing dinosaurs back, fortunately) the real things were rather less impressive. The New York Times spoke to a number of paleontologists who explained that raptors were about the size of a turkey with the feathers to match, lacked the facial muscles to snarl and had to contend with with overflexible wrists and tails. Indeed, the article quotes one paleontologist saying:

“If you had a good pair of work boots you could kick it in the head and it wouldn’t be frightening”.

Credit: Peter Minster

Our best guess at what an actual velociraptor would have looked like

As for their intelligence I’m not sure that’s quite up to what the Jurassic film suggests. An article on the Smithsonian website, says that based on their brain-body weight ratio they were probably among the smartest dinosaurs. Disappointingly, that’s not saying much and they’d only be about as smart as an ostrich.

I also found a post on a blog hosted by the University of Berkley commenting on the claim in Jurassic Park III that raptors were “smarter than dolphins, smarter than primates”. In fact:

They had modestly large brains but those brains were nowhere near as elaborate as the brains of mammals or even most modern birds. If relative brain size is any measure of intelligence, dromaeosaurs were just a little smarter than typical dinosaurs. Not geniuses by mammalian standards.

So the particularly chilling moment in the original film where human characters realise that the raptors pursuing them can open doors probably wouldn’t have happened. Indeed, it stands to reason that if your cat would struggle to figure something out, it would almost certainly have defeated a raptor.

[Spoiler] Hence it seems exceedingly far fetched to claim as Jurassic World does that because it has raptor DNA, the fictional Indominus Rex would be smart enough to: leave claw marks on its enclosure to make it captors think it has climbed out, then exploit its tree frog DNA to make its thermal signature disappear, then lie in wait for humans to open its enclosure, before finally clawing out its tracking implant and going on a rampage.

So in conclusion, velociraptors have been significantly overhyped and are much less impressive than generally thought. Rather like a certain summer blockbuster currently showing at a cinema near you.

The hypocrisy of flying the Confederate Flag

In a Team of Rivals, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H Seward predicting that:

“when the stars and stripes wave over [the confederate capitol of] Richmond…you will have to look mighty hard to a find a man who was a secessionist, or an aider of the rebellion”

Indeed such a turn had happened before:

He [Seward] recollected that when he was was a boy in the early 1800s, his parents had told of “the vast number of Tories” who opposed the government during the American revolution; yet, thirty years later, “there was not a tory to found in the whole United States”.

And we’ve seen similar things happen since; after WWII few people in France would have publicly expressed pride at having collaborated with the occupying Germans.

Yet Seward was wrong. One might expect an attempt to build a racist state that upheld slavery and launched a war that killed hundreds of thousands to be universally reviled. Yet in the Southern States it is often valorised. It’s true that in the twenty-first century explicit support for racism, slavery and segregation is confined to an often violent fringe. Yet a milder form is surprisingly common.

Even as a tourist visiting historic sites in Richmond and Charleston, I was struck by how often the issue of slavery was sidestepped and the Confederacy’s ruinous decision to rupture the Union was presented in a sympathetic. Its symbols, especially its flag, are widely displayed. Streets are named for Confederate commanders and politicians, and large statues to them still stand. There is actually a High School in Tennessee named after the founder of the Klu Klux Klan. A clear majority of South Carolinians support having the Confederate flag displayed in front of their statehouse.

The last forty-eight hours have left this seeming especially distasteful. A racially motivated terrorist attack in Charleston has left nine dead. The church that was attacked was a symbol of the long struggle for black equality. It’s predecessor was banned during the time of slavery and was only able to legally exist because the Confederacy was defeated. Yet it is on a street named for a Confederate general.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates lays out the full ugliness of continuing to venerate such a dark legacy:

The Confederate flag’s defenders often claim it represents “heritage not hate.” I agree—the heritage of White Supremacy was not so much birthed by hate as by the impulse toward plunder. Dylann Roof plundered nine different bodies last night, plundered nine different families of an original member, plundered nine different communities of a singular member. An entire people are poorer for his action. The flag that Roof embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace, does not stand in opposition to this act—it endorses it. That the Confederate flag is the symbol of of white supremacists is evidenced by the very words of those who birthed it:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…

This moral truth—“that the negro is not equal to the white man”—is exactly what animated Dylann Roof. More than any individual actor, in recent history, Roof honored his flag in exactly the manner it always demanded—with human sacrifice.

This is clearly true. Indeed, it’s depressing that otherwise reasonable people disagree with it.

Nonetheless, while implicitly endorsing racism may be the most distasteful aspect of this phenomenon, it’s not the most surprising. That’s how oddly it sits with ideas about American patriotism.

The former Confederate States are the heartland of a brand of American conservatism that insists that people loudly proclaim not only America’s brilliance but its unique brilliance. It also has an expansive view of what one can do to out oneself as secretly not loving America: supporting gun control, believing in universal healthcare and being sceptical about using force abroad are apparently among them.

Yet staggeringly, somehow excluded from this list is flying the flag of a rebel group that tried to destroy the United States. One can apparently insist you are proud to be an American but also celebrate a movement whose success would have stopped you being American. On an innocent matter this would be massive inconsistency. On one as loaded as this it’s rank hypocrisy.

The tyranny of geography

A few weeks ago I wrote a long post setting out the core reason the Lib Dems had lost so many seats at the General Election. I wound up concluding the problem was:

…we became too defined by the local to operate effectively as a party of national government. Our spines stiffened too much when we heard people say that the only things that would survive a nuclear war were cockroaches and Lib Dem focus deliverers. We were too interested in the details of local government. And we too often spoke to the electorate not as liberals but as locals.

My proposed solution was that:

…in order to succeed we need to get better at mobilising voters around identities other than locality.

I was thinking about how the party relates to the electorate. But an interesting post by Mark Pack suggests the same could be said of how it interacts with its membership.

He observes that in the business world there’s been a shift away from supplying products through local branches. Think of how Amazon et al have battered Bricks and Mortar retailers. Yet there’s been much little change in the political world that he jokingly speculates that parties are perhaps taking Woolworths as their role model.

Some local connection clearly is…useful – as we saw by its absence in 2010 when a huge Facebook community grew up in the wake of Cleggmania but translated into very little extra vote-winning activity in marginal seats.

But is “some ” really “to such a great extent as to justify the dominance of geographically based local parties”? For example, new members of the party get welcomed by the central party – and welcomed increasingly well with the ramping up of membership cards, welcome packs, introductory events and initial phone calls over the last few years. Yet the only other element is to put them in touch with their local party even though we know that the quality of local parties when it comes to welcoming new people and getting them more active is not only highly variable but also often not up to scratch at all.

Imagine a world instead where the habits of geographic organisation didn’t grip minds quite so tightly and there was a dual structure: the local geographic party and a national (regional?) electronic social community with new people welcomed into both – and the latter picking up more of the work for people living in areas with weaker parties or for people who simply aren’t that rooted in the place they are temporarily living.

It’s instructive to see what happens if you don’t have a postal address to give the party. I moved out of a house in Oxford I was renting with friends back in July. I now live in another shared house but this one is in Hanoi. The corruption and inefficiency of the Vietnamese postal service means that the only way for the party to send me a physical letter would be to put an activist on a plane and have them deliver it themselves. This state of affairs seems to discombobulate membership services. A lot of processes are predicated on the fact things can be posted to you and that you can be assigned to a local party. However, in my case they can’t be and there isn’t one. So they’ve responded by pretending I still live in Oxford. I recently got an email telling me that my leadership ballot was going to be sent to my Oxford address, even though by this point they’d been told three times (twice by me and once by Royal Mail) that I’d moved!

Irritating members living overseas is not a big problem: we are few in number and assuming we don’t have the potential to be large donors there’s not much we can actually do to help. It’s more of a worry that a lot of volunteer energy is expended on sustaining local parties that don’t do a great deal. Producing accounts, holding executive meetings and the like takes time but only indirectly contributes towards campaigning. In many (perhaps most) local parties this kind of internal bureaucracy becomes an exercise in allowing people to feel they are being useful rather in actually achieving anything.

I suspect that our present local branch-centric model is too ingrained to be changed quickly. So I wonder if as an interim measure, the party could waste less of its activists time by merging local parties.There’s surely no good reason that a group of five local parties that each have a membership of 20 or 30 people each have to find someone to dragoon into being their treasurer and producing set of accounts that mostly only show that they are neither raising nor spending much money. I gather this has already been done in some cities. I would suggest extending this by setting a minimum size for local parties and requiring any constituencies that fall below it to merge with a neighbour.

Praising Magna Carta, burying the Human Rights Act

How a mythical version of Magna Carta is being used to undermine real human rights.

Magna Carta – more often invoked than understood

The Onion, with its typical brilliance, once concocted the headline “Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be” for the satirical story of

self-described American patriot Kyle Mortensen, 47,….whose understanding of the Constitution derives not from a close reading of the document but from talk-show pundits, books by television personalities, and the limitless expanse of his own colorful imagination. “It’s time for true Americans to stand up and protect the values that make us who we are.

And thinks:

…the most serious threat to his fanciful version of the 222-year-old Constitution is the attempt by far-left “traitors” to strip it of its religious foundation.

“Right there in the preamble, the authors make their priorities clear: ‘one nation under God,'” said Mortensen, attributing to the Constitution a line from the Pledge of Allegiance, which itself did not include any reference to a deity until 1954. “Well, there’s a reason they put that right at the top.

In Britain, we don’t have a codified constitution to reimagine in line with our ideological prejudices. But we do have Magna Carta. And instead of Kyle Mortensen, we have David Cameron, who will say:

… the world was changed for ever when King John put his seal to Magna Carta. “The limits of executive power, guaranteed access to justice, the belief that there should be something called the rule of law, that there shouldn’t be imprisonment without trial – Magna Carta introduced the idea that we should write these things down and live by them.

But that:

“…here in Britain ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of human rights has sometimes been distorted and devalued. It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights – and their critical underpinning of our legal system. It is our duty to safeguard the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons. And there couldn’t be a better time to reaffirm that commitment than on an anniversary like this.”

The legal journalist David Allen Green dissects this peculiar British habit of praising Magna Carta whilst disdaining the human right instruments that are actually in effect. Drawing on a speech by Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption he observes that the document itself was toothless, irrelevant and short-lived. It was essentially forgotten until propagandists in the age of the Stuarts began using it as a basis for their contemporary claims:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right”.

It is heady stuff, and it should be read aloud, perhaps to Purcell or Elgar.

But read it again carefully, and you will see it says little which is concrete at all. For as Sumption and others have pointed out, its meaning is essentially circular: you shall only be treated by the law under the “law of the land”.  it tells you nothing about what that law should be.  And if the “law of the land” includes, say, an unfettered royal prerogative or other unlimited executive powers, then it offers no protection whatsover; and it didn’t.  It was – and remains – a platitude, a slogan.

And so, the advances in “liberal” protections for the individual in English legal history – the writs of habeas corpus or the rulings against unrestricted warrants – came in unrelated legal developments, none of which depended on Magna Carta.

In fact, for a supposedly fundamental document, there is little to see of its “fundamental” effect: few, if any, cases have ever turned on it.  Although it is often invoked in passing, it lacks the live and real effect of an actual constitutional instrument.  Compare this impotence with the entitlements in the US Bill of Rights, which make actual differences to US citizens every day.

But, but….

But, so what?  Magna Carta is symbolic, isn’t it? And isn’t symbolism important?

So used are many people to thinking Magna Carta is a Good Thing they are displeased at hearing anything about it other than praise.  Don’t you understand, they will ask, that Magna Carta is symbolic?

Symbolism is important. And what Magna Carta is symbolic of is not a great English constitutional principle, but the lack of one.  It symbolises the capacity of people to nod-along at being told they have fictional and non-existent rights instead of having rights which can actually be enforced.  It symbolises that people are content with believing in fairy tales.

Those with political and legal power know this.  It is safe for the government to want you to celebrate Magna Carta, which you cannot rely on in court, whilst it – for example – seeks to repeal the Human Rights Act, which you can.

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you, asked Tony Hancock.  Sadly, to the extent it matters, Magna Carta means almost nothing at all.

Now, one could be cynical about Cameron wrapping himself in Magna Carta; he has to talk about Magna Carta for the same reason communist East Germany had to call itself ‘the German Democratic Republic’. I’m inclined to be more generous and see it instead as an example of widespread naivety on the right. They think liberty is intrinsic to Britishness: just look at our history of respecting  freedoms that stretches all the way back to Magna Carta!

One can see this assumption that the British of all people don’t need need onerous human rights standards in the regularity with which opponents of the ECHR observe that it was originally intended to stop the rise of another Hitler and therefore should not possibly be affecting a country like Britain. Indeed, I once heard a Conservative friend argue that it was safe to scrap the Human Rights Act because “it wasn’t like we weren’t free before it passed”.

This is a supremely complacent reading of history. It arises from the conservative proclivity for reducing the word to simplistic binaries: there are free nations and then there are tyrannies. In fact, free nations can act most tyrannically. For example, the US Senate’s report on the use of torture found that amongst other atrocities, detainees had pureed food pumped it into their anuses.

Some of the victims of these cruelties found themselves in Black Sites due to collusion by British authorities. And lest we forget we used torture ourselves in Northern Ireland, in our colonies and even during our proudest moment: WWII.

Sadly, this is not an exception. Britain has a long history not only of freedom but also of oppression. We were the nation that invented concentration camps. British soldiers massacred hundreds of peaceful protestors on a single day in India. The victim’s relatives did not have the option that Baha Moussa’s family did of taking Britain to the ECHR. Or closer to home, we might note that marital rape only became a crime in Britain in 1991. There is thus nothing about being British that makes us impervious to the temptation to abuse and degrade.

That means we need those instruments that entrench a culture of human rights. It is good that we that through the ECHR, we are part of a community of nations that challenge each other to uphold human rights. And it is desirable that the Human Rights Act makes it easier to bring challenges by allowing them to be heard in British courts rather than a massively backlogged one in Strasbourg. Neither Magna Carta specifically nor our history generally gives us any right to imagine we are above such things.

Christopher Lee reads ‘the Raven’

It’s quite hard to find a pithy way to sum up the late great Christopher Lee. Such a long and busy life resists being boiled down to a few words. What expression sums up a man who was variously a thespian, musician working in a number of genres including heavy metal, soldier, national treasure, spy, nerd icon, the definitive Dracula and Frankenstein, pilot, Bond villain, hunter of Nazi war criminals, linguist and Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John?

It’s probably better to let his work speak for itself. In the clip below he lends his wonderfully gothic voice to a gothic classic, Edgar Allen Poe’s the Raven.

7 reasons why English is a messed up language

While the amount I write here might lead one to imagine I do nothing else, I do in fact have a day job. I teach English as foreign language.

That’s forced me to think about my own language from the point of view of an outsider (more specifically that of a Vietnamese ten year old). And that brought me to a realisation of just how strange it is. Indeed, in some regards it is positively sadistic.

Don’t get me wrong it could be worse. For starters, we don’t use tones or grammatical gender and we have an alphabet where letters (somewhat) correlate with sounds rather than having a different character for each word as Mandarin does. The result is that we have 26 letters rather than the thousands. And there are only really five ways to conjugate a verb in English.

But what English gains through the simplicity of its rules, it loses in their inconsistent application:

IRREGULAR VERBS – not a peculiarly English problem by any means but it’s annoying nonetheless. There is no reason beyond inertia that the past tense of build should be built rather than builded. As irregular verbs by definition lack an internal logic, pretty much the only way to learn them is by rote.

HOMOPHONES – speaking of which why should rote and wrote have the same sound? They are different words with different words, so why in English do we have to guess which one the speaker means from the context? That particular example is pretty niche but there are some more problematic ones. I recently heard my boss ask a student she was placement testing “what do you wear at school?” and he kept trying to tell her the name of his school because to him the question sounded like “where do you go to school?”. This also makes spelling harder: consider how often even native speakers get to, too and two confused.

PRONUNCIATION THAT’S ALL OVER THE PLACE – Homophones exist in part because in English spelling and pronunciation are only weakly correlated with one another. The most obvious example is that c can sound like an s or a k.  There are, however, more subtle ones that I didn’t even notice before I had to start teaching them. My favourite is that in the sentence ‘I ate a pizza in Pisa’ you say the ZZs as an s but the s as a z. My least favourite is that despite both starting with ‘th’, think and the don’t actually rhyme.

POOR S HAS FAR TOO MANY JOBS – If you want to pluralise something in English you generally add an s to the end. But you also do the same to indicate possession. And, an awful lot of the contractions like it’s and let’s result in a word with an s as the final letter. This is in addition to words like James and analysis that naturally end in s for no functional reason.

This gets especially confusing when two of those functions are required simultaneously. Its really ought to be it’s but can’t be because that’s also the contraction of it is.

WE MOVE THE STRESS ALL OVER THE PLACE – No less an authority than the British Council states: “There are patterns in word stress in English but, as a rule (!), it is dangerous to say there are fixed rules. Exceptions can usually be found.” This matters more than one might initially think because wrongly stressed words can be hard to decode and in some cases (like export) it actually changes the meaning.

OUR VOCABULARY IS PRETTY BYZANTINE – On this point let me quote a rather good post I stumbled across on a teaching blog: “In terms of vocabulary, English is like a patchwork. It is a mixture of (mostly) Middle French, Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek. As a result, there are often different words to express the same idea. For example, one doesn’t speak of “touchy feedback” but of “tactile feedback”, and not of “smelly system” but of “olfactory system” (the system in the body that perceives smells). If you do something using your hands, you don’t do it “handily”, you do it “manually”, and the “green” electricity you may be using doesn’t come from “sunny plants” but from “solar plants”.

This process results in vocabulary size that is somewhat larger than necessary. This is not a bad thing per se; it adds some expressive power to English and makes it a good starting point for learning other European languages. However, in combination with English pronunciation and spelling problems, this can be a huge nuisance to learners, especially since spelling of such words usually reflects the original spelling in the language of origin, not their contemporary English pronunciation.”

IT’S NOT CLEAR WHAT CORRECT ENGLISH ACTUALLY IS – Any widely spoken language will have multiple variants. What is frustrating about English is that there isn’t an obvious default for learners to go to. It would be odd for someone without a good reason to learn to speak German like they were from Bern rather than Berlin. Yet learners can have strong and contradictory preferences regarding whether they want to learn American or British English. If they move schools or teachers they may go from learning one to the other. The obvious differences in vocabulary and pronunciation are relatively simple to paper over. It’s the less noticed differences in grammar and idioms that are fiddlier to sort.

This is a problem that’s likely to get more complicated in the near future because there’s a good chance that people may soon want to start being taught Indian English or Globish.

I feel rather differently about these final two points than I do about the first five. English’s labyrinthine vocabulary and its global subsets are not just annoyances that could theoretically be jettisoned without harm; they are an indispensable part of its richness. They make English harder to learn than some Esperantoesque construction yet they also make it far more worthwhile to do so.

When 1984 came true

During the Khmer Rouge’s nightmarish rule of Cambodia Thought Police, the abolition of the family and even a version of Newspeak were all instituted.

Dystopias of fact and fiction

Even amongst all the dystopias that have been conjured since there remains something uniquely horrible about George Orwell’s. Somehow even the darkest vistas like children killing each other in gladiatorial games, can’t match the utter bleakness of what he foretold. Take this passage of a Party apparatchik outlining its vision:

“There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

Such nightmarish predictions arose not ex niholo but from Orwell’s observation of the totalitarian regimes of his day. Yet like the fictional universes conjured since, these actual regimes could never fully realise their totalitarian ideals. “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” might have been a slogan of Mussolini’s but it didn’t describe how his regime actually worked. The state might be highly invasive of private life but it could not actually abolish it. Religion, private property and above all else the family remained. The same was true of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Tojo’s Japan.

Take Orwell’s most notorious creation: Newspeak. This was a new language the rulers of Orwell’s nightmare state had created so it would be impossible to express ideas of which they disapproved. This was inspired by the way language was bent for political purposes. It was easier to justify “elimination of unreliable elements” than it was to argue for people to be “imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps.” The shroud of euphemism protected people from considering the true horror of what was occurring.

But this was far short of Newspeak: it was the creation of new words and phrases rather than a new language. The basic grammar and the vast bulk of the vocabulary of the language infected with it. It served not to make it impossible to think of certain things but to provide a means by which one could avoid thinking of them. In language as in many other spheres, the totalitarians of the 1930s and 40s were able to intrude more widely than any state before but total control still remained beyond their grasp.

If one wants to find a regime most closely approximating the nightmare of IngSoc, then one would not look to the mighty totalitarian regimes of Orwell’s day.  Instead, you would find it thirty years later in a small corner of South-East Asia.

Apocalypse Then

It is a strange twist of history that the nation that suffered the most as a result of the war in Vietnam was not Vietnam (and certainly not America) but Cambodia. For most of the conflict it was under monarchical regime that tried to avoid choosing sides in the Cold War.

To this end, they struck a bargain with the Communist government of North Vietnam. In exchange for Hanoi postponing efforts to spread the revolution into Cambodia, they would not be prevented from establishing supply routes through Cambodian territory. The resulting ‘Ho Chi Minh trail’ was a vital link between the Communist North and guerrillas in the South.  Its existence predictably infuriated the Americans. They eventually deposed the monarchical government and replaced it with a republican government led by a Right-Wing general called Lon Nol.

As a move designed to undercut communism this failed spectacularly. The urban Cambodians who formed the support base of the new government had largely lost faith in the monarchy but it remained popular in the countryside. An unlikely alliance between the ousted King and the Cambodia’s previously small indigenous communist movement, set the stage for the peasantry to begin joining the Party in big numbers. And what was more Hanoi’s incentive not to back them was gone.

Seeing its new ally, imperilled by these so called ‘Khmer Rouge’ (Red Cambodians), the Americans became more directly involved in fighting in Cambodia. But this proved as ineffective as it did across the border in Vietnam.

It did, however, ‘succeed’ in making the Cambodian people suffer. As America pulled out of Vietnam, it ramped up its involvement in Cambodia. Nixon hoped that if America could be shown to be holding back the communism in Cambodia, then that would mitigate the embarrassment of an impending defeat to it in Vietnam. His efforts to achieve this became increasingly desperate and culminated with having B-52s carpet bomb swathes of the Cambodian countryside. But as was becoming commonplace with American efforts in this part of the world it had the opposite. All this violence weakened rather than strengthening Lon Nol’s position: he was now held to be complicit in the slaughter of his own citizens.

Riding the resulting wave of patriotic anger, in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took the capital Phnom Penh, a full month before their Vietnamese communists took Saigon.

Mad New World

What happened next might have been expected to follow a familiar. Since the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, dozens of capitals had fallen to communists. Instead right from the beginning Khmer Rouge rule was quite unique.

They believed it was the peasantry who toiled and that urbanites were parasitic upon their efforts. They also believed city living was inherently corrupting. Therefore, they took the simple but nonetheless extraordinary step of putting an end to it. The more than two million inhabitants of Phnom Penh were told to leave their home and possessions and return to their home villages on foot.

Such marches out of the cities were replicated on a less dramatic scale across the country. The result was that at one point as much as a quarter of the country may have been walking into the countryside.

Launching a mass exodus that left millions destitute was to be only the beginning. The collectivisation of the economy was more obsessive than anything Stalin or Mao had tried. State control of the means of production encompassed not only factories and farms but also cooking implements. Families were forced to surrender these and instead of preparing their own food they had to eat in communal cafeterias.

The Khmer Rouge also took a step that even the North Koreans had stopped short of and abolished money. The Democratic Republic of Kampuchea (as it became officially known) would never print nor recognise an official currency.

The extermination of such supposedly bourgeois ideas as money, private property and individualism would move in tandem with the extermination of the bourgeoisie themselves. Many former city dwellers died during the force marches out of the cities. Other were ill equipped for life as farmers and perished from the hardships of rural life. But many others were deliberately murdered at a network of ‘Killing Fields’ across the countries.

The middle classes were not to be the only one to make the one-way journey to these benighted places. People with connections to the former government, ethnic minorities, those who uttered criticism of the regime, those who had broken rules by for example by taking more than their ration of rice, those who wore glasses and those who had been accused in one of the ‘confessions’ the regime tortured out of its victims were all killed. Generally these executions were conducted with farm implements or other improvised weapons because the regime wished to conserve bullets.

Perhaps the most horrifying element of Khmer Rouge is that they did not just target individuals for execution. If it was decided you were to be executed, then the rest of your family would be killed as well. This would as a matter of routine include babies and toddlers, thousands of who would perish at the Killing Fields.

In this society gone made, even a form of Newspeak began to emerge. In his biography of the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, Philip Short recounts how:

Language was stripped bare of incorrect allusions. Instead of ‘I’, people had to say ‘we’. A child called its parents ‘uncle or aunt’ and other grown-ups, ‘mother’ or ‘father’. A child called its parents ‘uncle and aunt’ and other grown-ups, ‘mother’ or ‘father’. Every relationship became collective; words distinguishing the individual were suppressed or given new meanings. Terms denoting hierarchy, like the dozen or so verbs ‘to eat’, whose use depended on the rank and social relationships of those involved, were replaced by a single verb previously used only be peasants. Nuon Chea, who masterminded these changes, devised neologisms, often based on scholarly Pali terms  to convey political concepts for which no equivalent existed in Khmer. Other new coinages were taken from peasant slag: bokk rukk, to ‘launch an offensive’ meant literally to ‘ram a stake into a hole’, with the sense of violent buggery. The sexual connotation was odd in such a puritanical regime, but it conveyed well enough the idea of an elemental, brutish struggle to overcome material obstacles and bend nature to man’s will. Nuon, as the final authority, other than Pol himself, in all matters concerning propaganda, also supervised Radio Phnom Penh. At his insistence, words conveying lyrical or ‘bourgeois’ sentiments, like ‘beauty’, ‘colourful’ and ‘comfort’ were banned from the airwaves.”

Short states that neither Pol or Nuon had read 1984, so there was no conscious imitation. Yet the similarities between his fiction and the nightmarish reality the Khmer Rouge created became evident in other areas:

“The family continued to exist but, as Orwell had imagined, its primary purpose became ‘to beget children for the service of the Party’. Ties between individual family members were diluted within the larger community. ‘Mothers should not get too entagled with their offspring,’ Pol told the Central Committee. Similarly, if a man felt a sentimental attachment developing with a woman, he should ‘take a collectivist stand, and resolve it…To do otherwise is to have a strong private stance.’ Marriage – not merely between Party members, as Orwell had envisaged, but between any two people – was a Party, not an individual affair. Khieu Samphan married in Decemeber 1972 because Pol told him he should and personally serviced as his go-between. Traditionally, in Khmer society, marriages had been arranged between families. Now Angkar [the state] played that role. ‘Free choice of spouses’ was explicitly condemned. To underline the social aspect, weddings were celebrated collectively for a minimum of ten couples. After a marriage had been consummated the couple often lived apart.

Illicit love affairs were punished by death. Women wore their hair short in a regimented Maoist bob with shirts buttoned to the neck. At work the sexes were segregated, regardless of age. Sport was banned as ‘bourgeois’. So were children’s toys. There was no free time. The only reading materials were two Party journals, which were exclusively for cadres, and a fortnightly newspaper, Padevat (Revolution), which circulated with the ministries in Phnom Penh. The Buddhist wats, formerly the centre of village life, were closed. Some were demolished, as the Catholic cathedral had been, to recover the iron struts that reinforced their concrete frames. Others were turned into prisons or warehouses, much as Cromwell’s New Model Army in seventeenth-century Britain had turned the churches into stables. Because they lived on charity, the monks were regarded as parasites: in Khmer Rouge terminology, they ‘breathed through other people’s noses’. Along with expatriate intellectuals and officials of the republican regime, they were designated a ‘special class’ – a singularly un-Marxist category – and within a year had been defrocked and put to work in co-operatives or on irrigation sites.

In short, everything that had given colour and meaning to Cambodian life was comprehensively suppressed.

Hiding behind Big Brother

These were not the only ways in which Khmer Rouge was Orwellian.

Despite being a Party member, 1984’s protagonist, Winston Smith, is unaware of its true ideology and nature. It is only revealed to him during his interrogation for Thoughtcrimes. In the context the novel was written in. Far from trying to hide who they were and what they believed, Stalin and Hitler made every effort to inveigle themselves and their ideas into every aspect of their subjects’ lives.

Yet for all the theorising about centrality of charismatic leadership to totalitarianism, the Khmer Rouge did just about everything they could to obscure who was really in charge. Years of evading detection by the secret police meant the Khmer Rouge came to prize secrecy. The flow of information around cadres was kept to an absolute minimum. Hence the rather sinister sounding system for identifying Party members under which Pol Pot became known as ‘Brother Number One’. This became such an obsession that the men who captured Phnom Penh were not officially agents of the Cambodian Communist Party.  Instead they supposedly owed their allegiance to a shadowy organisation known as Angkar. It was not until two years into their rule, that it was publically acknowledged that Cambodia was now under communist rule and that Pol Pot was its head of government.

Delusions of grandeur

One can also find echoes of Oceania’s militarism and especially it’s abruptly changing targets.  At one point:

…. during a Party Rally against the original enemy Eurasia, when the orator suddenly switches enemy in midsentence, the crowd goes wild and destroys the posters that are now against their new friend (Eurasia) and many say that this must be the act of an agent of their new enemy (and former friend) Eastasia. Even though many of the crowd must have put up the posters before the rally, they now say that the enemy has always been Eastasia.

The about turn the Khmer Rouge performed regarding their erstwhile Vietnamese allies was only somewhat less brazen.

True, there had always been tension in the relationship between the two communist movements. The Cambodians tended to regard the Vietnamese as ancestral enemies: the nation that had forced them from a glorious past containing the mighty Khmer Empire that built the great temples at Angkor to a modest present. For their part, the Vietnamese Communist Party was almost comically inept at handling Cambodian sensitivities. Their own resentment at being lectured and pushed around by their Chinese comrades seems to have taught them little about how their junior partners might perceive them. Party General Secretary Le Duan seemed to have a particular talent for making Khmer Rouge figures feel patronised. There was also the inconvenient fact the VCP had been prepared to trade the nascent Cambodian revolution for sake of the Ho Chi Minh trail. This all did little to dispel Cambodian suspicions that the Vietnamese intended to create a united Indochina with themselves at its head.

Nonetheless, the two parties had fought alongside each other for years, supposedly shared a common ideology and arguably owed their victory to each other efforts.

But that uneasy relationship quickly turned to barely concealed hostility. The initial trigger was that the maritime borders between the two countries were disputed. This resulted in a violent but contained class over some islands in the Mekong Delta. However, behind this were deeper issues.

The Cold War was now pitting communist against communist. By this point Nixon had visited Mao in China and formed an anti- Soviet alliance between the two countries. During the War, Hanoi had been careful not to choose between Moscow and Beijing because it needed material support from both of them. Freed from that constraint it now shifted firmly into the Soviet camp. That put it at odds with the Khmer Rouge, who felt a greater affinity with Mao’s regime which shared their rural, third world roots and radical outlook.

Another problem was that ethnicity mapped imperfectly onto state boundaries: there were ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia and Khmers in Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge found such ethnic diversity difficult to deal with, it didn’t really fit with their notion of a people all absorbed into a single harmonious whole. As a result, the Vietnamese Cambodians suffered repression even worse than the general population. This sent refugees pouring across the border into Vietnam.

Then the Khmer Rouge began something that was even by their standards pure insanity; they extended their campaign of anti-Vietnamese violence into Vietnam itself. As little as a hundred years before the Mekong Delta had been Cambodian territory and there was still a substantial Khmer minority residing there. Pol Pot seemed to envisage that if these areas could be ‘cleansed’ of their Vietnamese population then Cambodian rule could be restored.

The nature of the Khmer Rouge more or less demanded like such militaristic visions and the projection of rage outwards that it permitted. It was a movement that very much rested on “the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless.” Its fighters were mostly young men (and in many cases boys) traumatised by the US Air Force’s devastation of their villages and Lon Nol’s brutal oppression. It offered them the balm of conquest and domination. First, that was directed against the ‘new people’, the decadent inhabitants of the cities. With them dispersed and ground down, the Vietnamese became the next targets for glorious conquest. Angkar it was promised would restore the days of Angkor.

This was a misjudgement of a similar nature to Hitler deciding to invade the Soviet Union. But its magnitude was even greater. The Germans were at a three to one population disadvantage and had a better disciplined and more technically sophisticated military. By contrast, the Cambodians were attacking a country with seven times their population and their armed forces lacked the heavy weapons its adversary had in abundance. Pol Pot and his acolytes assured themselves that when Nixon had sent the most powerful military in the world to fight them they had defeated it and that therefore they would do the same again. This was a fantasy; they had survived their confrontation with the Americans and then later on defeated a puppet government largely abandoned by its sponsors. And they had managed that only thanks to assistance from the Vietnamese, who let us not forget actually had beaten the Americans.

Yet such is the nature of a totalitarian society that the evident stupidity of this decision was able to be ignored. Pointing it out would have betrayed a treasonous lack of faith in the revolutionary project. This attitude was as pervasive as it was destructive. Implausible agricultural production targets were set and no one dared point out their absurdity. Instead in an effort to meet them local cadres pushed labourers, who were little more than slaves by this point, beyond their physical limits. A failure to perform due to illness, exhaustion or a lack of agricultural knowledge was treated as a sabotage and left the ‘perpetrator’ open to execution. And in a bitter irony, while an increase in rice output was achieved, the workers responsible had been pushed to such astonishing exertions that they nonetheless still did not have enough food. This combination of starvation and forced labour resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians.

It was this exhausted and emaciated nation on the verge of starvation that was now to attempt to defeat its much larger neighbour through sheer will power. Waves of Cambodian soldiers were sent on incursions across the border to massacre Vietnamese civilians. This predictably resulted in the Vietnamese sending their own forces in the opposite direction and quickly capturing chunks of territory. It took a diplomatic storm to force them to retreated. Rather than taking this as an indication its plans were unrealistic, the Khmer Rouge continued their incursions.  A process of shadow boxing continued for around a year as the Vietnamese tried to engineer the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge by discontents within its own ranks. Then in December 1978, they lost patience with the slow progress of this strategy and they launched a full scale invasion of Cambodia. Such were the horrors the Khmer Rouge had unleashed on their people that few of them would take up arms to defend their government even against their traditional enemy. A mere fortnight later Vietnamese forces entered Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge’s leaders fled into exile in Thailand.

What Orwell didn’t predict

What I find so chilling about 1984 is that it is written with so little hope. One can see no chink in Big Brother’s armour. The nefarious forces controlling it have immense power and a cold calculating sense of how to use. It is implied that the regime has existed for some time and, despite the epilogue that implies the regime does eventually fall, it is hard to see it not continuing to subjugate its people for a very long time.

This is I believe Orwell’s primary misapprehension about totalitarianism. He envisaged it as a uniquely formidable form of government.In fact, far from being ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’, real totalitarianism proved to be the most fragile form of government.

There are monarchies that have ruled for centuries. The US has had the same republican constitution for more than two centuries. By contrast, Nazi rule lasted only a little more than a decade. Soviet Communism was more resilient but moved from revolution to glasnost in less than seventy years. The high drama of Maoist China lasted just thirty; the Communist Party has now evolved from a totalitarian past to an authoritarian present. North Korea is alone amongst the totalitarian regimes in showing signs of longevity.

Iit is probably not a coincidence that as the Khmer Rouge, the most extreme totalitarianism of all, the Khmer Rouge was fastest to lose power. It didn’t even last four years; its total rule briefer than a single term for a US president.  It appears that societies are not generally able to exist in such a state of terror and delusion for very long.

But if totalitarianism is less persistent than Orwell feared, while it was lasted it proved worse than even he imagined. The clear eyed calculation that underpins the activities of Orwell’s Party may seem horrific but it contrasts favourably with the dark and ignorant passions of real totalitarians. Cynicism appears in this regard preferable to sincerity. Big Brother does not appear to have brought about famines or exterminated ethnic groups. Yet these horrors, amongst the worst humans can endure, are de rigueur for totalitarian regimes. And nowhere was this was worse than Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge might only have ruled that poor country for a short period of time but that was long enough for them to leave two million of their countrymen dead. That represented a loss of somewhere between a quarter and a third of Cambodia’s population, a significantly higher proportion than even Hitler, Stalin or Mao had ‘managed’.  Comparing Orwell’s nightmares with Cambodian history, it appears that not only was fact often stranger than fiction but in many regards it was even more hellish.

Two cheers for franchises

The insane majesty of Mad Max: Fury Road is an unanswerable riposte to those who assume franchise cinema lacks originality.

A lot of commentary around films takes as its premise that the assent of franchise cinema represents a clear case of Hollywood sacrificing creativity for commerce.  That film would be so much better if only Hollywood would be more original.

I’m sceptical about both parts of this equation. I blogged yesterday about the how the financial case is not as formidable as is often supposed. Today, I want to suggest the artistic indictment is also weaker than generally assumed.

The impetus for doing so comes from Mad Max: Fury Road. It looked to have emerged from Studios ongoing process of fracking their intellectual property: they blast, shake and pump apparently arid territory to yield up new, though generally not fresh, material. For example, you make a fourth instalment in a series that’s third instalment was released thirty years before but do so without its star. Could there really be any plausible reasons besides money to do so?

Surprisingly, there turned out to be plenty. I saw it a week ago but have not yet been able to write a review of it. Sitting down and writing what I think of it would require me to have digested it. Yet it’s so vast, visceral and strange I’ve not been able to. But I can say, applying the labels often slapped on franchise cinema – safe, predictable and interchangeable – to Fury Road would be unthinkable. We’ve seen plenty of visions of dystopian futures lately but nothing this disturbing and regularly putridly revolting. The action scenes go not only big but aptly crazy without losing coherence or humanity. And it looks, astonishing, the Namibian desert is a sumptuous background to shots that will soon feel familiar as filmmakers rush to copy them but which at the moment are bracingly different. It’s raw, undiluted cinema and even if I’m not sure I liked it, I know it I was awed by it.

It is not just an exception to the rules; it is a stark demonstration of how wrong it is to suppose there is a rule that says franchise films must be lazy or unoriginal.

For starters, term ‘franchise films’ has come to encompass a vast array of movies. If a film is a sequel, spin-off, remake, adaptation of a popular novels or some combination of those it seems to count. By that definition The Godfather, Exorcist, Jaws and Gone with the End were franchise films rather than original ones. Even the most apparently cynical pieces of franchise stretching of recent years, resemble things that have produced classic films in the past. Silence of the Lambs was not only both an adaptation and reboot, it was a reboot that came just five years after the previous attempt to bring Hannibal Lector to the silver screen. That’s the same length as the gap between Spider Man 3 and a reboot in the form of the Amazing Spider Man.

Even if we talk confine ourselves to the films more often spoken of as franchises there still a pretty diverse bunch. One may be able to observe similarities between Fury Road and the Nolan Batman Films or the Hunger Game but probably not with Twilight or the Hangover. One can point to franchise films across the whole range from light to gritty and from innumerable genres. Just about the only common denominator is that they tend to be made for sizeable budgets with a large audience in mind. But even there are exceptions to that rule, for example, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. So it is wrong to imply that working within franchises forces filmmakers to make films that are interchangeable. It still leaves open a huge number of different avenues for them to take. If you want an illustration of this compare (or rather contrast) Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan’s massively different takes on the Batman mythology.

It is also worth considering the fact that the existence of a franchise is largely determined by the character and story. So working within the ‘confines’ of one should not constrain filmmakers from experimenting with the other aspects of their film. If the ending of X-Men: Days of Future and Captain America: the Winter Soldier look more or less the same to you, and they do to me, that says something about directors clustering around certain visual styles not about franchises breeding conformity.

There also seems to be a mistake made as to what kind of films would be getting greenlit in a world with fewer franchises. In a speech accepting his Independent Spirit award for Nightcrawler, director Dan Gilroy proclaimed that “Independent film, the foundation and everybody here today, I think are holdouts against a tsunami of superhero movies that have swept over this industry”. The implication was that independent films like his were threatened by big franchises of which superheroes are talismanic; that they have to struggle against them in order to survive. Whilst it may be true that independent cinema is struggling to survive, it is not by and large struggling with franchises. They are threatened by their block busting rivals to about the same extent that a Michelin starred restaurant is by a KFC. Stripped down to its essentials they may deliver the same product but they are doing so for such different markets that they don’t really compete. If not Fast & Furious 8 never makes it to the screen, the fourteen year old boy in a city in inland China that it’s targeted at is not going to go out and see a documentary shot with hand held cameras instead. The tsunami’s path has not taken it towards the most obviously worthy films.

What is has destroyed are the kind of blockbusters that predominated in the eighties and nineties. These were very often original only in the sense of creating a new fictional continuity. They had exactly the same pressures to maintain a broad audience as modern blockbusters do and did it in the same way: by cleaving to familiar styles and tropes. Where they differed was in the familiar faces they used to draw in audiences: they leaned more on stars than on classic characters. I’m not convinced that was such a great loss. Certainly I’m not sure that more films of the ilk of Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun would be worth sacrificing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the Dark Knight or, yes, Fury Road for.