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The Last Man struggles for the sake of struggle

Tuesday, 5 March, 2019

Francis Fukuyama is touring the world promoting his new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Sounds very much like the right book at the right time. Fukuyama is best-known, of course, for The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which grew out of an essay in The National Interest magazine in 1989, and in which he argued, controversially, that the global spread of liberal democracy and the associated Western lifestyle might herald the end point of socio-cultural evolution. Or, in his own words:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

As mentioned, this was, and remains, hugely controversial, but what’s been overlooked in all the heated debates since is the message of the fifth and final chapter of The End of History and the Last Man. Published almost three decades ago now, it anticipated so much of what we face today. Snippet:

“But supposing that the world has become ‘filled up,’ so to speak, with liberal democracies, such that there exist no tyranny or oppression worthy of the name against which to struggle? Experience suggests that if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, they will struggle against that just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and prosperity, and against democracy.”

The National Interest


The madness and eclipse of King Lear

Sunday, 20 January, 2019

Tonight, the moon will noticeably, progressively get darker as the sun, the Earth and the moon converge in an instance of perfect cosmic alignment to create a lunar eclipse. This only total lunar eclipse of 2019 will be visible in North America, South America, Western Europe and North-western Africa.

There were many superstitions in the Elizabethan period, one being that an eclipse was an omen of evil. Shakespeare may have witnessed the partial lunar eclipse of 27 September 1605 and the total solar eclipse of 12 October that year, and both may have influenced his King Lear, which was first staged on St. Stephen’s day 1606. “Nothing will come of nothing,” goes Lear’s warning. The raging monarch has endured so many indignities — doomed by his vanity, deceived by sycophants, abandoned to madness… The Bard’s tragedy is a bleak depiction of family and state breakdown.

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend
no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can
reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself
scourged by the sequent effects: love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there’s son against father: the king
falls from bias of nature; there’s father against
child. We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our
graves. Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall
lose thee nothing; do it carefully.”

William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act I, Scene 2

King Lear


Churchill: Walking with Destiny

Wednesday, 7 November, 2018

It was published in the UK last month and yesterday in the rest of the world. The Rainy Day copy will arrive today. Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts deserves to be called a contender as it weighs in at 1.5 kilogrammes. The index runs to 60 pages, the author’s notes to 37 and the bibliography to 23. No wonder Amazon is offering a 40 percent discount on the Kindle version. There have been more than 1,000 previous studies of Churchill’s life, the publisher helpfully warns us, so anyone intending to add another tome to the heap had better have something original to offer readers. By all accounts, Andrew Roberts has. His access to and analysis of previously secreted materials is what makes the difference. Then, there’s the historian’s depth of vision.

Why did Churchill loathe Hitler from the get go? According to Roberts, the young Winston had seen Islamic fundamentalism close up in India and the Sudan and this sharpened his senses for nihilism. What he experienced was “a form of religious fanaticism that in many key features was not unlike the Nazism that he was to encounter forty years later. None of the three prime ministers of the 1930s — Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain — had seen true fanaticism in their personal lives, and they were slow to discern it in Nazi Germany. Churchill had fought against it in his youth and recognized its salient features earlier than anyone else.”

Expect similar snippets from Churchill: Walking with Destiny in the weeks to come.

Churchill: Walking with Destiny


The known unknown Plantagenet House of Saud

Friday, 19 October, 2018

What Do We Really Know about Saudi Arabia? That’s the question posed by Kevin D. Williamson over at National Review. Good line: “It’s one of the few extant monarchies that seem serious about keeping the mon in their archy.”

Good point: “Khashoggi wasn’t just a troublesome journalist; he was, as the New York Times puts it, a man who had had ‘a successful career as an adviser to and unofficial spokesman for the royal family of Saudi Arabia.’ A businessman who has spent many years working in the Middle East says: ‘I don’t think the Saudis would send 15 assassins to chop up a ‘mere’ journalist, but they would send 15 assassins to settle some internecine family feud.’ He also cautions that the Middle Eastern tendency to resort to conspiracy theories to explain complicated relationships is likely to muddy the water.”

Williams says this GUBU (Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented) Saudi spectacle is “a platinum-plated Shakespearean succession drama in the desert, with schisms within the royal family and between the royal family proper and other centers of power.” Sadly, the Saudi’s don’t have a Shakespeare, but neither does the rest of the world right now. Still, the template is there because the 14 Plantagenet monarchs who ruled England from 1154 to 1485 inspired Shakespeare to write eight “Plantagenet plays,” from Richard II to Richard III via the two parts of Henry IV, Henry V, and the three parts of Henry VI. In Plantagenet England, murder was the order of the day, and it’s no different today in the land ruled by the House of Saud.


John McCain: warrior, Senator, patriot, man

Sunday, 26 August, 2018

The gallant old warrior, John McCain, who served America with such distinction and honour, is no more. He died yesterday aged 81. Senator John McCain was a patriot who believed in his bones that America was exceptional, and it is exceptional because of people like him.

In the coming days, it will be instructive to study the waves of admiration that wash over the legacy of the man who fought Hanoi Jane Fonda’s hero, Ho Chi Minh. And if we fast-forward from 1967 in Vietnam, where he was a prisoner of war, to 2008, when he was running for the presidency of the USA, we can learn a lot from how the media treated John McCain then and how the media operate today. Consider the role of that bastion of liberal ideals, The Atlantic.

Its October 2008 cover story was titled “Why War is His Answer – Inside the Mind of John McCain” and the author was one Jeffrey Goldberg. But because a picture is worth more than ten thousand of Goldberg’s words, the role of the snapper hired to do the (hit) job on McCain tells us as much as we need to know. The operative was Jill Greenberg, who styles herself as @jillmanipulator on Twitter, and here’s how she deployed her manipulative skills to take the photo that so tarnished the McCain campaign:

When The Atlantic called Jill Greenberg, a committed Democrat, to shoot a portrait of John McCain for its October cover, she rubbed her hands with glee…

After getting that shot, Greenberg asked McCain to “please come over here” for one more set-up before the 15-minute shoot was over. There, she had a beauty dish with a modeling light set up. “That’s what he thought he was being lit by,” Greenberg says. “But that wasn’t firing.”

What was firing was a strobe positioned below him, which cast the horror movie shadows across his face and on the wall right behind him. “He had no idea he was being lit from below,” Greenberg says. And his handlers didn’t seem to notice it either. “I guess they’re not very sophisticated,” she adds.

So, when you hear any of this lot eulogising the late John McCain, take note that they were again him before they were for him.

John McCain


Grace and Graceland

Thursday, 23 August, 2018

Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder and Yolanda Adams will perform at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, which is set to be a four-day event in Detroit, with public viewing on 28 and 29 August at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History before a religious ceremony at Greater Grace Temple.

Talking of Grace brings us to Graceland, where Elvis Presley died 41 years ago this month. Songs like Hurt and Mystery Train cover a range of emotions, from the elation of his early days to the pain of his final days as, unhinged by pharmacopeia, he sought for answers where there are none. As Dave Marsh wrote in Elvis:

“Somewhere, out of all this, Elvis began to seem like a man who had reached some conclusions. And so he was made into a god and a king. He was neither — he was something more American and, I think, something more heroic. Elvis Presley was an explorer of vast new landscapes of dream and illusion. He was a man who refused to be told that the best of his dreams would not come true, who refused to be defined by anyone else’s conceptions.

This is the goal of democracy, the journey on which every prospective American hero sets out. That Elvis made so much of the journey on his own is reason enough to remember him with the honor and love we reserve for the bravest among us. Such men are the only maps we can trust.”


Christiaan Barnard and the beating heart

Sunday, 3 December, 2017 0 Comments

It’s one of those milestones that demands the time traveller must halt before it for a while and ponder the nature of life and death. We’re talking heart transplantation. On this day in 1967, the South African cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant. Despite the absence of the internet, the news reached the four corners of the world in quick time and McLuhan’s global village was electrified by the implications.

Looking back, the most significant aspect of what Christiaan Barnard did on that 3 December morning in the Groote Schur Hospital in Cape Town was not the insertion of a beating heart in the chest of Louis Washkansky but the removal of a beating heart from the chest of Denise Darvall. She was the donor, he was the recipient and the two were united as never before in human history. The medical innovations and breakthroughs that enabled Barnard to risk the transplant had been done in the United States by cardiac pioneers such as Thomas Starzl, Norman Shumway, Richard Lower and James Hardy, but what these scientists and surgeons had not done was remove a beating heart from the body of a one human being and transplant it into the body of another human being. Christiaan Barnard They were not allowed to do so by the ethics of their profession and the laws of the land.

Christiaan Barnard could do what he did because no one prevented him from doing so. The real revolution that he sparked, however, was not clinical but moral. It set in train a vital debate on the definition of life and, especially, death, which had centred on the notion of the beating heart. And, especially, it gave the concept of organ donation a relevance that continues to resonate. Christiaan Barnard was standing on the shoulders of giants when he conducted the first human-to-human heart transplant in 1967, but he was that man who did it and everyone in possession of a beating heart should pause for a moment today and think of his courage.

“For a dying man it is not a difficult decision [to agree to become the world’s first heart transplant] … because he knows he is at the end. If a lion chases you to the bank of a river filled with crocodiles, you will leap into the water convinced you have a chance to swim to the other side. But you would not accept such odds if there were no lion.” — Christiaan Barnard (1922 – 2001)


Silence encourages the tormentor and the bully

Monday, 4 July, 2016 0 Comments

Elie Wiesel, who died on Saturday in New York City, survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps and devoted the greater part of his life to writing and speaking about those horrors. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and this part of his acceptance speech is as necessary as when he delivered it in Oslo 30 years ago:

“And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

It is said that silence is golden, and maybe there are times when it is valuable, but silence loses all its lustre when it means accepting bullying, especially the intimidation of the weak, the elderly and the defenceless. We should name and shame the oppressor and the tormentor, loudly and publicly in memory of Elie Wiesel.

Elie Wiesel


Angelus Novus on the Somme

Friday, 1 July, 2016 0 Comments

Thousands have gathered for a ceremony in northern France today to mark the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July 1916. More than a million troops were killed and wounded in the battle, one of World War One’s bloodiest. Despite the progress of the Industrial Revolution in producing ever more deadly weaponry, all sides proceeded to hurl human fodder out of the trenches and at the canons for five months. The storm of war irresistibly propelled them into the future.

Angelus Novus is a 1920 print by the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. The radical German-Jewish theorist Walter Benjamin bought it in 1921 and in his 1940 essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, he wrote:

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

The storm continues to rage. The lessons of the Somme must never be forgotten.

Angelus Novus


Word of the Day: amain

Thursday, 30 June, 2016 0 Comments

On this day in 1666, the English poet Alexander Brome died. A lawyer by profession, he wrote satirical verse in favour of the Royalists and in opposition to the Rump Parliament. Following the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Brome published Songs and other Poems, which contained ballads, epistles, elegies, epitaphs and epigrams.

“Then I’ll fall to loving and drinking amain” is how Brome’s poem The Mad Lover ends. In this context, the archaic word “amain” means with great haste.

The Mad Lover

I have been in love, and in debt, and in drink,
This many and many a year;
And those three are plagues enough, one would think,
For one poor mortal to bear.
‘Twas drink made me fall in love,
And love made me run into debt,
And though I have struggled and struggled and strove,
I cannot get out of them yet.

There’s nothing but money can cure me,
And rid me of all my pain;
‘Twill pay all my debts,
And remove all my lets,
And my mistress, that cannot endure me,
Will love me and love me again, —
Then I’ll fall to loving and drinking amain.

Alexander Brome (1620 – 1666)


The poetic game

Sunday, 23 August, 2015 0 Comments

The Scottish Lowland League football club Selkirk FC has hired a poet in residence. Thomas Clark, 35, will be the team’s wordsmith for the season, with his verse appearing in match day programmes and an end-of-season anthology. His published works include Intae the Snaw, a collection of Chinese poetry rendered into Scots, and a Glaswegian retelling of Alice in Wonderland. This is the business.

Take Shelter

It’s Scottish Cup day in Selkirk
An aw things are richt;
The redness on the leaves like yon,
The shinin on the watter like yon.
Och, it is a perfect day,
A joke for the guyin o the cynic an the pessimist
Wha woke up sure it would be comin doon;
An no a clood in the sky, nor a drap on the breeze,
Hints at the troubles aheid.

Thomas Clark

Facts: The people of Selkirk are known as Souters, which means cobblers (shoe makers and menders). Selkirk is twinned with Plattling, a town in Bavaria that was the home of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler. On 1 May 2011, Plattling hosted veterans of the US 65th Infantry Division, who joined local people for the dedication of a memorial to the Division’s role in liberating the Plattling concentration camp in April 1945.