Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Quiet American (book review)

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was published in 1955. It was a major critical and popular success in Britain. In the United States it provoked outrage. This was Greene’s Vietnam novel.

Thomas Fowler is an English reporter. He insists that he is a reporter, not a journalist. A reporter merely reports. He is not involved. Thomas Fowler does not wish to be involved in anything. He likes Indo-China because he thinks there’s a better chance of dying there than in England.

Alden Pyle is an earnest young American. He’s not one of those noisy Americans. He is a quiet American. Pyle supposedly works for an American Economic Aid Mission although everyone knows that he is an intelligence agent for the CIA. Pyle is the ideal choice for such a mission. He knows nothing whatsoever about Indo-China, or about anything else. But he does know that freedom and democracy are important. He doesn’t know why they are important, but he has no doubts. The French are clearly fighting a losing war to retain their Indo-Chinese colony but if the French lose the communists will take over and freedom and democracy will be threatened. If only there was a Third Force which could be backed by the Americans then freedom and democracy might yet be saved. That is Pyle’s job.

Pyle is an innocent which is why Fowler fears him so much. Fowler knows that Pyle’s meddling is going to get a lot of people killed for nothing but he knows that there is no way to convince Pyle of this.

There is one thing that Fowler does care about - his Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong. And Pyle is likely to be a menace on that front as well.

The novel does not reflect well on the Americans. It also does not reflect well on the French. Or anybody else for that matter.

For this is Greeneland. It’s a world in which failure is not merely inevitable, it is to be welcomed. Thomas Fowler is a typical Greene hero - he longs for death, he longs for oblivion, he believes in nothing. He loves Phuong but he never really believes he can keep her. Love is just another form of betrayal anyway.

But this is not just Greeneland. This is postwar Greeneland. Even in the Thirties Greene saw hope as a foolish illusion. The Second World War rekindled his interest in the world but it did not restore his faith in human nature. And it did not restore his faith in Britain. He was certainly not the only Englishman to experience post-WW2 disillusionment. The difference is that for Greene disillusionment was his natural state of mind so the failures and miseries of postwar Britain came as no surprise. It was simply what he expected.

Thomas Fowler is not just a typical Greene hero, he is a symbol of the new post-war Britain - pessimistic, morally and spiritually adrift, cynical and apathetic. Alden Pyle is the very symbol of postwar America - naïve, ignorant, well-meaning and terrifying dangerous. Pyle is a man with a mission. He’s going to win Vietnam for freedom and democracy. The fact that he understands absolutely nothing about the country or the situation is not going to deter him from his mission. The fact that he might be horribly and disastrously wrong never even enters his mind.

This was the beginning of America’s Vietnam disaster. The disaster was inevitable right from the start. Greene had his faults but he was remarkably clear-sighted about postwar politics. Everything Greene feared, not just in Vietnam but throughout the Third World, eventually came to pass. Innocent illusions were going to lead to a great deal of misery.

Greene was not exactly a cheerful man but he had  sense of humour. There’s a lot of black humour in this book. Greene of course was a Catholic, but perhaps not a very orthodox one. He was also a leftist, but also not a very orthodox one. Greene probably could never have been an orthodox anything. There’s a central conflict in this novel between engagement with the world and non-engagement. Fowler wants to avoid engaging with this world which is probably not healthy. Pyle is very engaged with the world, which is even less healthy.

The Quiet American is a spy story of sorts. It’s a love story of sorts. It’s a mystery story of sorts. It’s a political novel of sorts. It’s a satire, of sorts. Mostly it’s a Graham Greene novel  with all the idiosyncrasies, ambiguities and complexities that that entails. It’s a great book. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 20, 2019

politics - the reality and the appearance

What matters in politics is not the reality but the appearance. For example we hear a lot about how undemocratic and unaccountable the EU is. And of course it’s quite true. It is undemocratic and unaccountable. But is it any different really from other contemporary political systems?

Take Britain. The political system observes the forms of democracy but in practice the first-past-the-post voting system is absurdly undemocratic. Or take the United States, with its rigid two-party system that effectively makes it impossible for the dominance of the two major parties ever to be challenged.

And how accountable are political leaders in general? Yes, they can be voted out of office.  They then collect a fat pension (a very fat pension) and in Britain even the most abject failures as prime minister have a good chance of getting a peerage. H.H. Asquith led Britain into the First World War which makes him a major contributor to the destruction of western civilisation. As a reward he was made an earl.

One of the reasons that democracy is in trouble is that bad or incompetent leaders do not pay a genuine price for their nation-wrecking. I’m not suggesting that we should hang failed prime ministers (although I admit that the idea of doing so occasionally, to encourage the others, does have a certain appeal). But there have been plenty of western political leaders for whom a few years breaking rocks in a prison yard would have been a fitting fate. And knowing that leaders who make an unholy mess of things might actually face punishment would have a most salutary effect not only on politicians but on the general public. The postwar disillusionment and nihilism of the 1920s might have been less severe had the bungling idiots who led the way to war paid the price for their folly.

Don’t get the idea that I’m defending the EU here. It really is a bureaucratic nightmare. But modern politics on the whole is in practice pretty much a sham.

Monday, September 16, 2019

beyond good and evil - politics today

Religion is, among other things, concerned with good versus evil. In a post-religious age the struggle between good and evil is transferred to the field of politics. No matter how rational we like to think we are we see politics as a struggle between the White Hats and the Black Hats, the good guys and the bad guys.

The problem is that in politics today there are no good guys. Perhaps there never were. But there certainly aren’t any today. Modern politics is more like a struggle for power between rival organised crime gangs. The apparent ideological differences between political rivals are more like different approaches to organised crime. It’s like the gang war between the North Side Mob and Capone’s South Side Mob.

The bigger problem is that ordinary people have not yet realised this. They still think that at least some politicians are on the side of the little guy. They’re still looking for heroes.

Democracy these days at best offers us a choice of which mobsters we’re going to be exploited by.

Take Brexit. Starry-eyed Leavers thought that leaving the EU would mean a return to traditional Britain. The Britain of cricket matches on the village green, a pint of bitter at the local pub, cod and chips, plucky little Britain standing up to Hitler, decency and common sense.

In fact Brexit is a dispute between two rival gangs of globalists. You can call them the Brussels Mob and the Washington Mob. You can have a choice between the globalism of bureaucracy and the globalism of deregulation and law-of-the-jungle free markets. The globalism of Tony Blair and David Cameron or the globalism of rootless cosmopolitans like Boris Johnson. Some billionaires will be better off under one brand of globalism while other billionaires will find the other brand of globalism to be more congenial. Ordinary people will still get screwed either way.

There’s no good vs evil in modern politics. Just internal disputes among the bad guys. Just because Tony Blair was a Black Hat doesn’t make Boris Johnson a White Hat. They’re both Black Hats. Hillary Clinton was a Black Hat, but so is Donald Trump.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as good and evil. I’m just saying that it’s naïve to see politics in those terms.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

why it’s almost impossible to sell nationalism

Back in 2016 there was much excitement on the dissident right at the supposed revival of nationalism. The Brexit referendum and the election of Trump, the increase in support for nationalist parties in several European countries and the apparent determination of eastern European countries like Hungary to defy the globalists on immigration seemed to promise a nationalist tide that would sweep across the West.

It hasn’t happened. The nationalist tide has receded. Very little, if anything, was achieved. Brexit remains in limbo. Trump’s only solid achievement has been tax cuts for the rich. The globalists have gone beyond a mere support for high immigration levels - they are now openly advocating complete open borders. A belief in the total abolition of national borders has now gone mainstream. The nationalist parties in western Europe remain politically irrelevant. Eastern Europe seems certain to succumb to the siren songs of globalism, consumerism and feel good liberalism.

The reason is that supporters of nationalism seriously underestimated the emotional appeal of internationalism. The alternative to internationalism is nationalism, and nationalism means Hitler. That's how a very very large number of people see it. It's a pure emotional response. And it's a very powerful very visceral emotional response.

Supporters of nationalism are motivated by a strong and genuine belief that nationalism is a good thing. A morally good thing. But supporters of internationalism are also motivated by a strong and sincere belief that nationalism is morally wrong and reprehensible and dangerous and will lead to disaster.

Of course the people pulling the strings behind the scenes are in most cases motivated by a cynical desire for gain and for power. But the foot soldiers on both sides are running on pure emotion. That's why so few people change their views on this issue. Rational debate with either side is futile.

Supporters of nationalism are also often blind to the unpleasant fact that nationalism has not always been in practice such a good thing (just as supporters of internationalism are unable to see that there are valid arguments in favour of nationalism). Neither side has any interest in listening to the arguments of the other side because both sides are equally blinded by emotion.

There is also of course a class element. Nationalism is seen as one of those wicked beliefs that working-class people hold and the working class today has zero political or cultural power. There is not a single significant political party in the West that represents working-class people.

On balance globalism is at this point in time a much more dangerous and existential threat to civilisation than nationalism. But the emotional appeal of globalism/internationalism is much stronger than the emotional appeal of nationalism. And nationalism has very little appeal to the young because it’s old-fashioned and must therefore be obsolete. It is an iron law that the young always believe that they are the first generation in history to be truly enlightened and virtuous. Selling nationalism is not going to be easy.

Friday, September 6, 2019

more musings on conspiracy theories

I probably need to elaborate a bit on my recent conspiracy theories post.

First off, I certainly don’t advocate deplatforming or persecuting people who believe in conspiracy theories. There are some conspiracy theories which seem to me to be completely nuts (like the Faked Moon Landing theory) but I’m not going to tell people they can’t believe something simply because I think it’s crazy.

I also do not disbelieve all conspiracy theories on principle. I just think that if you’re going to be sceptical of “official” versions of events then you need to apply the same scepticism to alternative versions. You need to approach all explanations of events in the same way. Is it plausible? Could such a conspiracy have been possible? Is there a sufficiently strong motive to explain why official agencies would take the risk of exposure in order to promote a false version of events? How many people would have needed to be involved?

Does the conspiracy theory actually explain the known facts? Does it do a better job of explaining them than the official version? Is there at least some evidence to suggest that the official story is dubious?

Some conspiracy theories clearly fail the plausibility test. The Moon Landings Were Faked theory is a great example. It would have required the involvement of thousands of people in a number of different countries (since the Apollo missions were tracked by tracking stations across the globe). It would have been insanely risky - there’s just no way such a conspiracy could have been kept secret. It involved events that took place much too publicly. The payoff for such a conspiracy would not have been worth the risks. The official story is a better explanation of the known facts. So it’s reasonable to conclude that  it’s probably nonsense. Pretty much the same arguments can be used in respect of the 9/11 Truther conspiracy theories - they’re ludicrously complicated and the chances of pulling off such a conspiracy successfully would have been too slim.

You also need to ask whether a conspiracy theory seems appealing because it fits your pre-existing prejudices. If it does then you need to exercise an even higher degree of healthy scepticism. If you already think the Russians are evil and that Vladimir Putin is literally Hitler then you’re vulnerable to seeing Putin’s hand behind just about everything. If you already think that the Freemasons or the Jews or the Communists are enemies of civilisation then you’re vulnerable to seeing almost everything as a Masonic, Jewish or communist plot.

I do agree that the conspiracy theory label can be, and is, used to discredit political opponents. That’s one of the reasons it’s a good idea to steer clear of the crazier conspiracy theories - there’s no point in making it easy for your enemies to discredit you. I’m intrigued by Ron Unz’s idea that it’s possible that the crazier conspiracy theories may be being pushed by the C.I.A. in order to discredit the plausible conspiracy theories. He may be on to something so that’s another reason for caution.

There’s no doubt that some conspiracy theories are true, or are highly likely to be true. There are quite a few things that I firmly believe that most mainstream opinion would consider to be conspiracy theories (feminism being a corporate plot to weaken unions, identity politics being a plot to destroy the Old Left).

You just have to be cautious and sceptical about both official versions and conspiracy theories.