Happy birthday!

One year ago today I wrote the following words to kick off this weblog:

Welcome to the weblog! After a bit of fiddling with the code I think I’ve just about managed to make it work the way I want it to. Let’s see what happens now. (To see someone do this properly — and far better than I ever will — visit the excellent and thought-provoking bobblog.)

And here it still is, one year on.I worked out the other day that almost 60,000 words have been posted to this blog over the last twelve months, all available through the archives. That’s not a great deal by the standards of many weblogs out there, and many of them aren’t my words at all, but the words of people I’m reproducing in large chunks or the words of people who have usefully written in to contest or to supplement the opinions I’ve been offering in these columns. But it is still a pleasingly large number of words, and it’d be nice to think that the coming twelve months will produce a similar number. So — thanks to everyone who has clicked on the “comments” buttons below to send me their Objections and Replies, and apologies to all the hundreds of people who have visited this page over the previous year, and found that I’ve been scandalously slow to post anything new. More material will appear, I promise, eventually…


Josephine has just broken the shocking news (to me, at least) that the Italian word gattopardo, famous from di Lampedusa’s novel of the same name, does not, in fact, mean “leopard”. Hmm. And she’s quite right. Gattopardo means “serval” or”ocelot”, and the Italian word for “leopard” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, leopardo. Knowing this makes it easier to understand why the novel and the film were wilfully mistranslated as The Leopard: it’s a wonderful book (and a wonderful Visconti film, with Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale in the lead roles, with ravishing shots of the Sicilian landscape), but it’s hard to imagine crowds flocking to buy / read / see The Ocelot in quite the same way.

Attempting to come to terms with servals and ocelots is to learn that, splendidly, Buffon has much to answer for. (“Is it Aristotle? Is it Pliny? Is it Buffon? No, it is Robinson Crusoe“, wrote Rousseau, in �mile). The OED tells us that an ocelot is “a leopard-like feline quadruped (Felis pardalis) of Central and South America, about three feet in length; the prevailing colour is grey, beautifully marked with numerous elongated fawn spots edged with black; the under parts are white or whitish with black markings; also called tiger-cat, leopard-cat”, and the first citation offered is even better than the definition, “1774 GOLDSM. Nat. Hist. II. 148 The catamountain which is the Ocelot of Mr. Buffon”, encouraging us to turn straight to the splendid word “catamountain” on an earlier page. And the serval, relatedly, is “A name applied (after Buffon) to some Asiatic wild cat or lynx; also to an American animal resembling this. Obs.“, or, alternatively, “A carnivorous quadruped, Felis serval, native of S. Africa, having a tawny coat spotted with black, a short tail and large ears; the bush-cat.”

What excellent words. “Lozenge” is a good word, too, and I spent a happy few minutes in a class the other week looking up its etymology — but on this occasion, at least, I will keep you in suspense.


Week-end update of new material this week at The Voice of the Turtle: Marc Mulholland’s review of Roy Foster’s The Irish Story, and Ted Vallance’s thoughts on the new Star Wars film. (Both very positive, oddly enough).

Richard writes [20.5.2002] to recommend this article from The Weekly Standard, making the case for the Empire. (This is the Star Wars Empire, not the Hardt and Negri Empire, though people sometimes make the case for that one, too). Then he writes again, mere moments later, to “recommend a (politically better) version of much the same thing”, this time in Salon magazine. And then again he writes, to point me towards this one, which is really rather good, and which I hadn’t seen before.

Eye-Catching Initiatives

The drip, drip of poisonous US social policy from the US to the UK has been one of the more depressing features of British politics over the better part of the last decade. Ever since the idiots in New Labour decided that Being Like Clinton was the key to getting elected and governing the country, we’ve been exposed to a string of what Tony Blair once carelessly referred to in a confidential memo as “eye-catching initiatives“, which grab the headlines for a day or two and then drift out of sight to do their destructive work on the lives of British citizens and British society. Not everything that the ministers have recommended, of course, has been enacted. Local authorities have been reluctant, for example, to implement the youth curfews of which Jack Straw was so enamoured once upon a time, and the traditional right to a jury trial seems to be intact, for the time being.

In general, however, it remains a safe assumption that the Straw – Blunkett – Blair axis will be inclined to smile favourably on any policy which was dreamt up by neoconservative sociologists (Banfield, Herrnstein, Wilson, Murray) in America in years past and then embraced by the US ruling class in the 1990s. A fondness for prison-based “solutions”, ideas of “zero tolerance”, mention of “broken windows”, flirting with “three strikes” rhetoric, and championing a general get-tough attitude against anti-social undesirables (“yob culture”, “street crime”, “mobile phone theft”, “leopard skin accessories”, and so on) — the transatlantic origins of the British Government’s attitude is palpable. And one of the many vital contributions of Nick Cohen to understanding the present, of course, has been his refusal to stop writing articles about the social authoritarianism and punitive instincts of our supposedly progressive lords and masters: his essay on “The Punishment Boom” in his collection, Cruel Britannia [pp.114-122] may be the highlight, but the lowlights are pretty good, too, and he remains far and away the best reason – perhaps even the only reason – for continuing to read the Sunday Observer.

Understanding the uses and disadvantages of US social policy, therefore, is an important task for those of us interested in the government of the UK. To this end we are now extremely fortunate to be able to benefit from the wisdom of Bernard E. Harcourt of the University of Arizona Law School, in his new essay “Policing Disorder” in the current issue of Joshua Cohen’s excellent publication, the Boston Review. “Zero tolerance” police tactics have become overwhelmingly popular on both sides of the American political “spectrum”, the falling violent crime rates in New York City providing all the justification an office-seeking politician could want for vindicating the tactics of the Giuliani NYPD. This excellent article combines a careful, critical survey of the empirical evidence which has been used to justify the so-called “Broken Windows” approach to policing, with a useful discussion of the shared philosophical assumptions which underpin both this approach to fighting crime and the mass incarceration policy the US has followed over the better part of the last 30 years, with the result that a phenomenal two million people are now in federal and local jails. It is a fine article, thorough and learned without being technical or unpleasantly social-scientific, and it is on the side of the angels.

Switching gears from the political to the personal, I should say that Bernard is an old colleague from my days in the graduate school at Harvard, where we both studied political philosophy in the Government Department there, and that this is, among other things, a plug for the work of a friend. The first time I came across his unique talent for combining theory and practice was the day in 1996 when he wasn’t able to turn up to make a presentation at a Harvard social theory seminar on Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. He had been appearing in a death penalty appeal case before the Tennessee Supreme Court earlier that day, and his flight back to Boston was delayed. Although he couldn’t be there in person, he faxed his notes for his presentation through to us for the course professor, Tom Ertman, to read aloud in his absence. It is still the best excuse I’ve ever heard for not turning up to a class, and I doubt it will ever be beaten.

Images of the Week, #13

One of the many pleasures of a recent trip to Sicily was a visit to see the magnificent cathedral at Monreale, a short bus ride from Palermo, with its wonderful mosaics depicting Old Testament scenes. So it was a special pleasure to visit (thanks to a link at andrewsullivan.com) the Brick Testament, which has much the same idea, but with lego-bricks. The respective Towers of Babel appear at left and right. (Traditional values in a modern setting!)

The breaking news that matters

From the BBC:

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has won a court case against a news agency which reported allegations that his dark hair is dyed. A court in Hamburg upheld an injunction taken out by Mr Schroeder to prevent the DDP agency repeating the allegations, originally made by an image consultant.

DDP appealed against the injunction, saying it had serious implications for all journalists, who cannot always get their information from first-hand sources.

The news agency says it intends to appeal again against Friday’s ruling.

Serious implications indeed.

It’s Your Region

I commented a few weeks ago on the extent to which age has not withered the excellent early 1990s Chris Morris radio show On The Hour in the slightest. A friend remarked to me the other day about the way in which today’s headlines (“Arafat Released From Three-Month Siege of Office”, that kind of thing) sound as if they have come straight out of OtH. But the best Morris moment came last week when John Prescott launched his daffy new schemes for regional government, at a press conference with a large slogan printed behind him, “It’s Your Region”. Do you remember the jingle to introduce the “regional news” segment of OtH?

“It’s your region, it’s your region, it’s your region
It’s your region, you know where it is and how to spell its name”.

For satire to remain topical is always impressive, but for politicians to construct heffalump traps for themselves that have been spotted and ridiculed ten years in advance is quite remarkable.Here in Oxford we are considered part of the South East. Except for legal affairs, when we used to be a part of the Oxford and Midlands circuit. And on maps of Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex”, Oxford (aka “Christminster”, Jude the Obscure, etc.) makes it into the top right-hand corner. For policing purposes we’re ensconced in the Thames Valley. Sometimes Oxford feels like an appendage to London, since the buses are fast, regular and cheap — but we never get to be considered part of the metropolis, on any of the Government’s blueprints. And for many people, of course, we’re off in a world of our own.

So much for our strong sense of regional identity. Still, if the people of Kent and Surrey and Sussex — areas with which we have almost nothing in common, but who may more understandably have a sense of belonging to “the South East” — want to gang up on us in a referendum, they will get to abolish Oxfordshire County Council and replace it with direct rule from Guildford or somesuch. And from the Government’s point of view this will count as replacing “bureaucracy” with “democracy” and “returning power to the people” as part of their ongoing programme of “devolution”. The idiots; the fools.

Martin wrote [15.5.2002]: My own view on Oxford is that it has missed a number of regional boats, and sits at the strange interstices of English life. It is the North-western-most bit of the ‘Home Counties’, the Eastern-most bit of the West Country, and the most Southern bit of the Midlands. Its car manufacturing past puts it in line with the Midlands, its preponderence of rich white folk lines it up with the Home Counties, and its natives’ accents make it sound like the West Country. I never quite managed to reach a satisfactory solution to this problem, and am glad to see that I’m not the only one.

Tom wrote [15.5.2002]: re. On The Hour‘s ability to predict the future, the most excellent Need To Know runs a semi-regular “Life Imitates Onion” feature. All of the links I can find now seem to be dead, apart from the matched pair of Christoper Walkens here and here. Not the finest…

Image of the Week, #12

A jaw-dropping, gob-smacking image.

I had no idea anything like this existed. It’s a daguerrotype image of barricades on the rue St-Maur in Paris on 25 June 1848, during the insurrection of the Parisian working class against the Provisional Government. It was taken from a rooftop shortly before Cavaignac’s murderous assault, whose aftermath is recorded in a second image, taken the following day. As reported in the Guardian and the Times, the original plates – one of the oldest quasi-photographic images from news reporting in the world – have just been sold at auction for £180,000, and, happily, the Musée d’Orsay has acquired them.

What a good time to read again Karl Marx at his incendiary journalistic best, from the pages of the Neue Rheinsiche Zeitung of 29 June 1848:

The workers of Paris were overwhelmed by superior strength, but they were not subdued. They have been defeated but their enemies are vanquished. The momentary triumph of brute force has been purchased with the destruction of all the delusions and illusions of the February revolution, the dissolution of the entire moderate republican party and the division of the French nation into two nations, the nation of owners and the nation of workers. The tricolor republic now displays only one color, the color of the defeated, the color of blood. It has become a red republic. …Order! was Guizot’s war-cry. Order! shouted Sebastiani, the Guizotist, when Warsaw became Russian. Order! shouts Cavaignac, the brutal echo of the French National Assembly and of the republican bourgeoisie.

Order! thundered his grape-shot as it tore into the body of the proletariat. …

We may be asked, do we not find a tear, a sigh, a word for the victims of the people’s wrath, for the National Guard, the mobile guard, the republican guard and the line?

The state will care for their widows and orphans, decrees extolling them will be issued, their remains will be carried to the grave in solemn procession, the official press will declare them immortal, the European reaction in the East and the West will pay homage to them.

But the plebeians are tormented by hunger, abused by the press, forsaken by the physicians, called thieves, incendiaries and galley-slaves by the respectabilities; their wives and children are plunged into still greater misery and the best of those who have survived are sent overseas. It is the right and the privilege of the democratic press to place laurels on their gloomy threatening brow.

Next week, of course, marks the 131st anniversary of the bloody destruction of the Paris Commune by Cavaignac’s heirs and successors. Plus c’est la même chose.

Katherine wrote [12.5.2002]: Did you realize that the place where we ate enormous steaks in a café was right there in that street? The final barricade of the Commune was in the neighbouring street to mine [rue du faubourg Temple], and there is a plaque commemorating that, and every now and then one sees flowers laid there — not the official wreaths of elected officials but just something someone has put there in passing. I refused a leaflet from a Chirac supporter recently, and she told me I might just as well have spat in her face. I shall try to do just that next time.

Chris replies [13.5.2002]: I had not realised that this was the place where we ate enormous steaks, but this is excellent to hear. I trust that the café’s weekly “Philosophy for Kids” classes are still going strong…