I’m trying to understand power – what it means, how it’s wielded, how it affects us. Big topic. But I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the culture of suspicion without grasping the power of power (and its abuses).
This has drawn me to someone who has been a bit of a hero, but whose writings I’d only dipped into. Reading Václav Havel‘s masterly and vital 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless has blown me away. Written in the dark days of Czechoslovak communism (only 10 years after the false dawn of the Prague Spring), it is a profound analysis of what it was like to live under a regime built entirely on lies. The only response, the only subversion of the regime, therefore, is to live in truth. Read more
It has its gainsayers (eg Steven Poole is pretty disparaging, though unfairly in my view) but George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (the whole essay is online), is prophetic. Of course some of his linguistic concerns are matters of taste and fashion (as Steven Poole rightly notes). But written at the close of the Second World War, this article exposes the sham sincerity and dissembling motivation behind so much political speech and writing. That is the essay’s great virtue. And it has not gone out of date at all. Read more
I have just finished Kofi Annan’s fascinating memoir Interventions. Annan is clearly a man of great stature and influence, who strained every sinew to bring about peace and dialogue during his 10 years as UN Secretary-General but tragically often failed. For all kinds of reasons. But as one might expect (and indeed hope), he has great wisdom to share, even if he cannot claim a string of personal triumphs.
I’ve got a problem. But it’s not the sort of problem that you’re going to have much sympathy for. In fact, it’s not the sort of problem that you’re allowed to have much sympathy for. Because my problem is that i’m far too privileged – for my own good or for anyone else’s good. Which is why, in this day and age, anything I say or claim will be subject to greater suspicion than what practically anyone else on the planet will say or claim. If you don’t believe me, check this succinct quote out from Gene Veith: Read more
I guess this book will initially appeal only to politics junkies and West Wing devotees (which is probably why I read it). But I suspect many others may well enjoy it despite that – it’s pacey, readable and insightful. And actually, surprisingly relevant to all kinds of other walks of life.
A politics professor and former Democrat party campaign consultant (from McGovern through to Gore), Samuel Popkin has sought to expose the arcane and often dark arts of US presidential campaigning in The Candidate. The results are fascinating. Here are just a few windows into this bizarre parallel world. Read more
This is important. Bishop Zac Niringiye used to be my sort-of boss for the 4 years we worked in Uganda. He was the secretary of the trustees of the college I taught in and had actually been someone I consulted about life there before we moved in 2004. His advice to me was simple then. “Don’t try to be a Ugandan, Mark. You’re not. You’re a Brit.” Superb – of course cultural sensitivity is essential – but it is only works if it is accompanied by authenticity and integrity. Zac is a strong character with strong passions and a good mind (he was a Langham scholar, doing his theology PhD in Scotland). He’s not always easy! But he’s someone with real integrity and gospel concern. Read more
It could have been at a rather upmarket fancy-dress party. The dress was certainly fancy; the guests well-to-do; the event evidently unusual. But as well as being a deeply solemn occasion, and even a family occasion, it was an era-defining moment. Read more
Many bloggers have touched on this subject in recent years, but here’s a little thought to throw into the mix. And it all revolves around the ambiguity of language. People often exploit it, whether intentionally or not; because at the very least, such ambiguity gives us wriggle room, or even a place to hide.
I’m talking about the problem with ‘saying sorry’ Read more
A real gem this week. It’s on display in the painting studio at Chartwell, Churchill’s much-loved home in Kent. I couldn’t resist getting down his points verbatim when we paid a return visit over the summer.
Well, the US presidential election is in its final month at last. Will any of us sleep safely in our beds again?
History has been full of people who have hedged their bets and emulated the venerable Vicar of Bray. And in smaller ways, politicians are doing it all the time. Saying things that don’t actually say too many things in case they be accused of actually saying things they don’t want to be heard actually to be saying. Read more
The presenting issue behind the article was the hysteria whipped up against Obama’s healthcare proposals in the US – something which those of us with ‘socialised’, crypto-communist medicine in the UK find hard to understand. I do realise that many on the US right are no fools, that the British NHS is far from perfect, and that there may well be many good grounds for the position(s) they took. But that’s not my point here. My main concern is how politics (left and right) throughout the West now (has to) operates. This was the object of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker investigation a couple of weeks ago, The Lie Factory. Read more
Here’s a Friday Fun with a bit of a difference. I read Jeremy Vine’s recent tome this week, It’s All News To Me. It was simply hilarious. Laugh-out loud funny, in fact. And he says it’s all true. So I guess it must be. He is a BBC journalist, after all. It’s not to say that it’s all light and fluffy – there are moments of necessary reflection and poignancy along the way (especially in the account of his years in Africa), as well as real insight as he reflects on what actually constitutes news. Read more
One of power’s cruel ironies is that after craving it for years, its attainment brings a deeply bitter (if addictive) taste. At the heart of the problem is that deep sense of isolation that comes of sitting at the top of the tree. No one can truly understand what it feels like… apart from one’s predecessors. This is the subject of a gripping new take on the US Presidency, Gibbs and Duffy’s The Presidents Club (surely there needs to be an apostrophe in there somewhere!?). There is an irritating proliferation of books about all 44 White House inhabitants, but this is a genuinely interesting addition. Read more
Having taken a look at the big picture, political issues of the Hunger Games trilogy in the first part of my Damaris review, it seemed to me that the heart of the books lies in their exploration of the private. In fact, it’s very unlikely that the books would be anything like as successful as they have been were it not for this. For we really get to know Katniss, in all her doubt, confusions and even less attractive qualities. She is not a cardboard cutout heroine, which is perhaps why so many (both male and female) relate to her so well. After all, there are not many female protagonists who appeal across the gender divide. Read more
Over the Easter break, we enjoyed a first in our family – we all read the same books together (or to be more accurate, competed with each to be able to start the next instalment before one of the others got to it). We all devoured Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and it was a lot of fun, leading to a number of great chats. We didn’t it feel appropriate for our 10 year old to read the third instalment (‘Mockingjay’) because there were parts that were genuinely scary for that age (and in fact, had to get her to skip around 20 pages of the 2nd, Catching Fire). But Rachel, my 13 year old and I read all 3 and thoroughly enjoyed them. There’s so much in them, quite apart from being gripping yarns. Read more
John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation last week, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. Read more
Just read a spine-chiller in the latest New Yorker about PACs, SuperPACs and the growth industry that is behind political attack ads. Jane Mayer’s Attack Dog - The creator of the Willie Horton ad is going all out for Mitt Romney is depressing stuff. For the uninitiated, and unless you follow US politics closely, there’s no reason at all why you should be initiated, PACs are Political Action Committees. Read more
It is not just the victims of imperialism who easily identify its sins and blindspots. Those who have wielded and then lost empires are quick to spot the parallels in others’. Perhaps that was partly why Graham Greene was such a caustic critic of what he perceived as the twentieth century’s new imperialist incarnation: the United States. Of course Greene had strong left-wing sympathies and was openly anti-American, which provided convenient filters by which the right could ignore his perspectives. It’s no surprise that he was under FBI surveillance from the 1955 publishing of The Quiet American until his death in 1991. Read more
Last week saw the final instalment of the little 1 Cor 1 series in the undercroft chapel in Westminster. Unfortunately, we had the slight inconvenience of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement happening on the same day, and as this had been brought forward to 12.30, there were few who were able to come. No worries though. We happy few had a happy time.
And how nice it was to have a Christmas tree in the centre of Westminster Hall. No thought of winterval here… yet. But give it time I suppose. Now, was it my imagination or does this tree look as though it is leaning to the right…? I’m sure that can’t be significant, can it?