This blog is defunct! Check out my new music blog at Sonicrampage.org.
I have recently joined the group blog Dictionary of Received Ideas, which seems to be shaping up as a clearing-house for links to all kinds of historical and current events articles and blog postings. My contribution will be limited to links to various articles of interest; the larger exploratory pieces will only be done here.
While I am working on some new book reviews (really, I am), here's some interesting stuff from the blogosphere from while I've been away.
Michael J. Totten on his trip to Libya.
Kevin Drum on liberal ways to frame issues.
Abiola Lapite on the flap about the Terrell Owens-Nicole Sheridan Monday Night Football ad.
Fistful of Euros has an excellent roundup of the current events in the Ukraine.
Angry Chinese Blogger on foreigners who don't speak English.
Women and sex in the Arab world. From Mahmood's Den.
Norman Geras with more on the increasingly disastrous situation in Zimbabwe.
I'm now back from Georgia, where I went for a great Thanksgiving trip to visit my grandparents and Aunt Becca. I will be doing a new photoblog a bit later today (just need to re-size some pictures), and will be working on some new pieces. I managed to get quite a bit of reading done while I was there. I finished Norman Cantor's In the Wake of the Plague, read Bernard Lewis's Assassins, and got about 150 pages into Peter Balakian's The Burning Tigris before I decided that I'd (temporarily, I guess) had enough of death and destruction, so I started reading David Brooks's Bobos in Paradise, which is just a bit lighter!
My sister and I are off tomorrow for Rome, Georgia to have Thanksgiving with our maternal grand-parents and our aunt Becca. For everyone else celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday have a great time, and I'll be back in New York on Monday.
continued from here
Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese Communism
As important as the Nazi occupation of France and the Vichy regime’s subsequent dealings with the Japanese imperial army were in undermining French power in Indo-China, the Vietnamese nationalist movement still had needed a leader. In Ho Chi Minh they had an extraordinary one. Ho was, hands down, by far the most important figure in twentieth-century Vietnamese history. Born Nguyen Van Coong in Kim-Lien, in the Nam-Dam section of Nghe-An province, on the 19th of May, 1890, he was an example of the new generation of Vietnamese. The son of a mandarin, he was educated in French-run schools, and was swept up in the 1920’s by the early stirrings of Vietnamese nationalism, like so many of his class and background. Ho formed the first socialist revolutionary organisation for Vietnamese nationalists, the Thanh-Nien (Revolutionary Youth Movement), in exile at Canton in 1925. Initially, it was a failure, riven by infighting and prone to the sort of bad behaviour that alienated potential supporters, and it remained so through several further incarnations. Finally, in 1941, the sectarian infighting of Vietnamese nationalism was quelled with the formation of the Vietminh as a broad-based anti-colonial front, with the Communists leading an alliance of other nationalist groups.
Ho’s leadership role in Vietnam’s liberation struggle was guided by both his life experiences and his personality. Erudite, well-travelled, and versed in three distinct but complementary philosophical traditions (Confucianism, Marxism, and Western), he was the ideological force behind Vietnamese communism. As a person, the example of his life was an inspiration to many. Since his youth he had been ceaselessly dedicated to clandestine political activities, organising for socialist and Vietnamese nationalist causes. He had also spent long stretches of time in prison as a result of his activities, which only increased the respect that he was given. His faultless dedication to the twin causes of Marxist revolution and the liberation of the Vietnamese people was combined with a genuinely ascetic lifestyle. Of course, the myth of Ho was heavily stage-managed, but it was real enough that, allied with his natural charisma and deep learning, he emerged as a massively influential and successful figure in Vietnamese life.
Like Mao, he believed that, in the absence of an urban proletariat of any size and importance, it was necessary to organize the rural masses for revolutionary action. Gradually, as the war progressed, from their base in the mountainous west they grew in strength both politically and militarily. By the time that the Japanese decided they’d had enough of their arrangement with the French, disposing of the colonial authorities and arresting Decoux in March 1945, the Vietminh had become a formidable political force, with agents throughout the country, especially in the north. Their work in alleviating the effects of the famine had gained them much support among the mass of the Vietnamese peasantry by early 1945. They were ready for the next step.
The Revolutionary War, 1946-1954
As the war turned against the Japanese in Asia and they were forced to flee their conquests, including Indo-China, the Vietminh took advantage of the confusion and swept into Hanoi, where they declared the foundation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on the 2nd of September, 1945. The next day, Chinese troops from General Chang’s Kuomintang Army, entered Hanoi to assist in the demobilization of Japanese military forces north of the 17th parallel. Ten days later British forces arrived in Saigon to fulfil the same role in the south of the country. They were followed by French military forces, part of the Liberation government’s effort to re-establish French colonial control as a means of reviving French national esteem. There was also a powerful economic motive for this, as Indo-China had accounted for 70% of French imperial trade prior to the war. The French quickly spread through southern Vietnam, re-establishing military and political control. With the Viet Minh in control of the north of the country, the result was a stalemate. The best chance of a diplomatic breakthrough appeared to have arrived with General De Gaulle’s resignation on New Year’s Eve, 1945, which ushered in a new leftwing “tripartite” government in France, who were more willing to find a compromise with Ho. The negotiations, which began in February 1946, reached informal agreements on proposals including the recognition of the DRV as the government north of the 17th parallel, the withdrawal of all French troops by 1952, and the right of the south to choose its own political destiny. Both regions were to be incorporated into the newly-created French Union, a decentralised umbrella grouping for French colonial states.
This seeming-breakthrough was then sabotaged when, acting against orders from Paris, the High Commissioner D’Argenlieu declared Cochin-China a republic on the 31st of May, 1946. Within months the leftwing government in Paris had collapsed to be replaced by a centre-right coalition and relations rapidly soured between the French and the Vietnamese Communists. Matters were brought to a head in December 1946 when General Giap’s Viet Minh forces attacked the French garrison in Hanoi, the precursor to a retreat by the revolutionary government and armed forces to the mountainous highlands of the northwest from where they had made their base during World War Two. This was the beginning of the guerrilla war which would continue for the next eight years. Tactically, it was a war of attrition to sap French political and military morale. Like all insurgencies, there were few major battles in this campaign, but the effect of constant small-scale guerrilla strikes against French forces had the effect of sapping French morale and driving opinion in France itself towards the conclusion that the situation in Indo-China was an intractable morass.
It was not until May 1954 that there was a genuinely decisive battle. The heavily fortified French base at Dien Bien Phu, a crucial crossroads in northern Vietnam between China, Laos, and Hanoi, had been the centre-point of the Navarre Plan, named after the general who designed it, which had been intended to draw Viet Minh forces out of hiding and into battle. This it succeeded in doing, but the French forces were unprepared for the scale of the assault and were forced to surrender after several days of fierce fighting. News of General Giap's seizure of Dien Bien Phu arrived in Europe at the same time as delegates from both sides were preparing to meet in Geneva to forge a peace plan. It was a stunning defeat for the French, crystallising the feeling among politicians and civilians alike that it was a war that could not be won, a war that would continue to drain resources. The Geneva Agreement in July 1954, which concluded the war, was an official recognition of the situation as it stood, with Vietnam partitioned at the 17th parallel. Ho accepted this, as he believed it would be a quick process of overrunning Bao Dai’s puppet state and reunifying Vietnam. He was, of course, wrong, as he had underestimated America’s commitment to containing Communism’s spread in Asia.
In conclusion, France’s Indo-Chinese colony was doomed from the moment Paris was overrun by Nazi Germany. The colonial system had been creaking for years, run down by corruption and mismanagement and beset by an increasingly vocal nationalist opposition, but the events of the Second World War accelerated the process and gave it a certain inevitability. The capitulation to Japanese interests, and the terrible famine that resulted from it, allowed the Viet Minh to gain massive political support while it was also relatively free to build its military strength, with the Japanese generally disinterested in the political situation in Indo-China. As a result, the events of 1946-1954 are almost superfluous to the analysis, as they merely confirmed the pattern of change that had been forming for several decades previously. The one question that looms over any look at the last days of l’indochine francaise is whether the brutal war could have been avoided, as it was to have terrible consequences for both nations in the aftermath of the Geneva Agreement of 1954. For the Vietnamese, the increasing involvement of the United States in the last years of the colonial administration would mean another two decades of violence, an involvement that would have been by no means certain if Ho had managed to win a military victory early in the war. For the French, defeat in Indo-China would mean redoubled efforts to maintain control over Algeria when that rebellion broke out several years later, leading to an even more brutal and bloody war, and, ultimately, an even greater humbling for France.
In 1937 the English writer Virginia Thompson said that, “If France had not been victorious in the (First) World War it is no exaggeration to say that she would never have been able to keep Indo-China.” It is equally no exaggeration to say that France’s disastrous defeats in the early part of World War II were to be a major factor in France's ultimate loss of its Indo-Chinese colonies of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. With the benefit of hindsight it seems obvious that the end of the French colonial venture in south-east Asia was a historical inevitability, part of the far greater process that saw the mighty European empires shredded by local nationalist movements. Of course, the reality on the ground at the time did not make this seem obvious, or inevitable, and the 'colonialism was doomed to fail' way of seeing things is too simplistic an analysis, denying the differences between nations and regions in an attempt to conveniently fit the history of decolonisation into a singular mould.
The story of the dying days of French Indo-China is a very interesting one, resting as it does on a unique combination of factors; a combination of the rising strength of Communist China against the waning strength of French imperialism, the growth of a new form of Vietnamese national identity, and the difficulties of the colonial project, as summed up in that one line written nine years before the beginning of the liberation war. It was a process that entered its final phase with France’s humiliation at the hands of Nazi Germany, and the Vichy government’s subsequent craven subordination to the Japanese military, events which irrevocably altered the nature of relations between coloniser and colonised and would lead to anti-colonial armed conflict after the end of World War Two.
The first serious cracks in France's control over l'Indochine Francaise had begun to appear many years before the disastrous events of the early 1940's. In the decades after the first World War, French inability to properly address the problems caused by a rapidly growing population meant hardship for many and the lifting of the illusion that the French, even if they were in the region out of self-interest, could provide improvements in the life of the masses. The wide-spread corruption and discrimination practiced by colonial officials and settlers only worsened matters. France's destruction of the traditional Chinese-oriented Mandarin class was to have profound implications as new generations raised with both Confucian and Western influences synthesized a Vietnamese nationalism in direct opposition to French colonial rule. Although initially powerless, this new generation would seize its chance when France’s humiliation in the Second World War ended the illusion of French military invulnerability. Once the liberation war was actually under way, the widespread indifference and often hostility in France towards the events in Indo-China would fatally undermine military efforts and strengthen support for any sort of political agreement that would allow France to get out of Indo-China.
On the Vietnamese side of matters, the key factor was the rise of Ho Chi Minh and his Indo-Chinese Communist Party. Ho and the Viet Minh guerrilla forces were able to harness the support of the masses with an effectiveness that previous liberation and nationalist movements had failed to do. Their organisational and tactical efforts to drive the French out are necessarily a crucial part of any discussion of the end of French colonialism in Indo-China. Yet it is also important to understand their place in the context of Vietnamese history, as they were not an isolated phenomenon that sprang from nowhere fully formed.
Vietnam Pre-World War II
Vietnam has a proud history, independent of direct Chinese rule for many centuries before the arrival of the French. Despite the enormous cultural influence wielded by the Chinese throughout Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese people have had a distinct cultural identity that has persisted for a very long time, often identified by the ways in which they differ to their northern neighbour. The Vietnamese that the French were dealing with as they began to flex their political, economic, and military muscles in 1860's South-East Asia were a people with a long tradition of independence and a developed sense of national identity. It would be an exaggeration, though, to claim that at this point there was a local corollary to the European conception of loyalty to a nation-state. That was a concept that would develop later on in the colonial period. Nonetheless, Vietnam’s long-established national consciousness dictated that acquiescence to French rule was always a shallowly extended thing, ready to be withdrawn at any moment.
French rule was established first in the Treaty of 1862, where King Tu-Duc of the Annamese, from his royal palace at Hue, gave the French direct control of the three provinces around Saigon (a recognition of the French military conquest there the previous year), increased access for French trading ships to Annamese ports, and official renunciation of any monarchical claims on Cambodia. This was followed twelve years later in another treaty, whereby the French were granted control of Cochin-China (the southern region of Vietnam) and the right to establish a resident consul in Hanoi. By the 1880’s the pattern for French colonial rule was set, and in its confusion was contained the seeds of future problems. Officially, Cochin-China was a colony, Annam and Cambodia were protectorates and Tonkin had its own strange status, where certain sections were administered like colonies although officially protectorates, others were treated as protectorates although officially colonies. The transfer of power was completed when, in 1919, the imperial court at Hue was sidelined and the French governor-general became the unquestioned political ruler of the region.
From the French perspective, this period was highly successful and profitable. The plantations, although a source of considerable social disruption, were tremendously successful from the standpoint of the French government and colonists. From the 1920’s on the French authorities made strenuous efforts to rectuit Vietnamese men for positions in the colonial bureaucracy. It was these young men, educated in the French manner, who would become the most effective leaders of anti-French agitation. It may seem paradoxical that these most Westernized Vietnamese would become such strong nationalists, but the nature of their role within the colonial project means that their ultimate rebellion is not surprising. Although these young men were often assigned to key bureaucratic posts, especially in the less developed Laotian and Cambodian colonies, the fact that no native was allowed to progress to positions of real power meant that their aspirations, fed by their modern French educations, were frustrated by the glass ceiling that all Vietnamese, no matter how talented, would ultimately run into. Despite the optimism of the 1920’s, as Vietnam played an ever more important part within the imperial economy, serious problems were already emerging. The French bureaucracy had found no way to adequately provide services for the booming population, whether through infrastructure or in distributional models, a fact that would have devastating consequences in the years to come.
World War II and the Japanese
The systematic failure of the French colonialists to sufficiently modernise either agricultural methods or transport and communications infrastructure to better benefit the rapidly expanding Vietnamese population could perhaps have been righted in time if not for the onset of war. France's defeat was probably the single most important event in the history of twentieth-century Vietnam, because, despite occurring on the other side of the planet, it was the trigger for an extraordinary chain of events. For many in France, their defeat, an almost incalculable blow to national pride, meant that they emerged from the war actively seeking ways in which to restore national pride. Central to this was a determination to restore control over their pre-war colonial empire. Consequently, nationalist disturbances were seen as something to be crushed without hesitation. From the Vietnamese perspective, the war had several crucial effects. One was the end of the belief that the French could not be defeated through military means. A second was the boost given to Vietnamese nationalism by the Japanese, not only by their success in defeating European military forces in Asia and the Pacific, but also by the fact that, when the Japanese had taken de facto military control of Indo-China, they tended to interfere less with local life than the French had. The Japanese military domination allowed the development of a military and political movement dedicated to national liberation, the Communist-dominated Viet Minh, of a potency and scale that would have been much more difficult to create under direct French control.
On the 30th of August, 1940, an agreement was reached between the Japanese government and local Vichy French officials that, officially at least, recognised France’s continuing sovereignty over Indo-China while ratifying the privileged position and the prevailing interests of Japan at the forefront of a new era in Asian affairs. Although the Japanese were not yet interested in Indo-China as a political dominion they recognised the role it could serve as a supply point for their vast army. In May 1941 they gained ‘most favoured nation’ trading status, bringing with it valuable mining and agricultural concessions. By August 1942 they had gained an agreement from the French to supply a million tons of white rice and a quarter million tons of corn from the harvests of 1942-43.
Politically, Japanese strength and French weakness meant changes in the colonial state. The Japanese, partly for propaganda reasons, made unofficial links with local nationalists, encouraging them in their resistance to the colonial power. As a counter to this, Admiral Decoux, the Governor-General, allowed native officials to move into the highest levels of the bureaucracy for the first time. As the same time, the disruptions of the war and the Japanese army's logistical demands created an enormous humanitarian disaster. Soaring food prices and dwindling supply led to a disastrous famine in Tonkin that, beginning in 1943, ultimately killed two million people by March 1945. The famine, and the weakening of French political control over the region, would play a major role in bringing Ho Chi Minh and the Vietminh revolutionary forces to the forefront of Indo-Chinese affairs.
I'm going to be out of town this Friday so I've decided to go ahead and post some more pictures now. These are a couple pictures of New York City that I've taken over the last couple months. Clicking on the picture will take you to a larger version.
The view from the back window of my old place in Greenpoint, April 2004
My cousin Ben looking out over Chinatown, May 2004
View from Williamsburg to Manhattan, March 2004
This is essentially two books. The first is a fascinating look at the early years of the gang phenomenon in black Los Angeles, and the second is a long rant about how evil white people are, the evil of America, all delivered in Afrocentric-inspired Black Nationalist gibber. Kody 'Monster' Scott (now known as Sanyika Shakur) joined the Crips street gang in 1975 at the age of 11, in the early days of the wars between the Bloods and the Crips in LA's South Central district. Shakur was deep in it, with his initiation coming through the execution of a rival gang member. It's impossible for someone like me to relate to a life like his. The catalogue of dead friends, the constant violence, the inability to move freely around the city because you might venture on to someone else's turf.
In this book, Scott takes the reader on a fantastically written tour of his life; from the years and years of low-level urban combat on the streets of LA, to the disintegration of his family, the constant battles with the police, prison life, and his conversion to Black Nationalism. It's a compulsive page turner, especially on his 'pre-conversion' years. The quality of the writing is outstanding, as he offers a unique first-person insight into the mentality of LA's gange members. When he reaches the big changeover a lot of the clarity is lost as the book begins to descend into ideological ranting. Shakur's big problem is white people, or 'Amerikans' as he refers to them (what with him being a 'New Afrikan' and all). After a while, if you are white, like me, it gets a bit tiresome reading about how evil you are and how your fellow melanin-deficients are responsible for everything that has befallen Shakur. This is a man who has murdered quite a few people and who has been involved in major criminal conspiracies - laying the ultimate blame for his crimes at the white man's door is sheer chutzpah.
To round off the day's blogging, here's a selection of links to the various music blogs that I read.
Dissensus - Not a blog, but a very interesting music message board.
In the same spirit as the previous post, here's some interesting stuff from the blogosphere from the last couple of days.
Claire George on Henry Winstanley.
The Belgravia Dispatch on the situation in Baghdad.
Randy McDonald on Wattenberg's Fewer.
Oliver Kamm on Chomsky and Holocaust Revisionism.
Abu Aardvark on Al-Jazeera.
Juan Cole on the mosque shooting in Fallujah.
Far Outliers on the fissures within the Sunni community in Pakistan.
The Marmot's Hole on North Korean nuclear attack scenarios.
The Head Heeb on Arafat's legacy.
Commentary.co.za on conservatism in South Africa.
I'm still recharging my batteries a little bit and working on a couple of new large pieces (a question to my readers, are the big pieces interesting or should I write less per piece? I wrote around 5000 words on Central Asia and around 3000 on Puritanism; is the depth I went into good or is it a hassle?)
Anyways, here are some links to some articles on stuff involving the Abrahamic religions that I think are interesting (with credit due if the link has come from another blogger).
An interview with Gilles Keppel: The War for Muslim Minds.
The Sign and the Seal, on the Ark of the Covenant and Ethiopia.
I don't really feel like writing today, so I've decided to do a new projects: photoblogging. This first edition will be a couple of pictures I've taken of people. There's no real theme, beyond the fact that I liked these pictures. Clicking on the image will take you to a larger version of the photo.
Self portrait, June 2004
At my cousin Carmel's engagement party, Virginia, October 2004
My sister Laura, New Paltz, New York, June 2004
Jeremy Forteau, 1st & 1st, April 2004
Anthony & Becs, Kenka, St. Mark's Place, May 2004
Iowahawk has the details to help you get to know your countrymen. Very funny.
My family has now lived in London for about thirteen years and one of the things that is useful about being an expatriate is that it gives you a different perspective on both your home and adopted countries. Having read through quite a bit of the commentary about the murder of Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist in Amsterdam two weeks, one thing that struck me was how it can often be difficult for Americans to understand European attitudes to immigration and immigrants. This is something I've often talked about with my father.
This particular post started off as a comment of mine on this post at Michael J. Totten's site, but I felt like it was something I wanted to flesh out a little bit further. One thing that I, and the rest of my family, feel like is that European societies are still, beneath the veneer of modernity, essentially tribal societies. The borders between the European nation-states as they stood in the aftermath of World War II were essentially boundaries between highly homogenous ethno-lingual societies. With the great rise in immigration in the long economic boom that followed the war in Western Europe this began to break down a bit, but it's hardly gone.
In most parts of Europe, at least in my experience, the indigenous populations tend to see themselves as having national identities that are intertwined with their ethnic/tribal identities, in a way that is completely different from American nationality, which is an ideological concept detached from 'blood-and-soil' legacies. For example, I doubt that by this point in history anywhere near a majority of white Americans can trace their ancestry to a single European ethnic group (my father's roots go to Germany and Northern Ireland and my mother's ancestors, who all arrived before the American Revolution, are from Britain, Holland, and possibly other places that we don't know about because it was so long ago), whereas in Europe you will have far far far more people who can say "all my ancestors back as far as I know have been German/French/Polish/whatever".
There are outliers, sure, like Switzerland (although the Swiss are pretty careful about separating 'foreigners' from the existing German, French, and Italian groups), and in a sense the United Kingdom falls into that category too, but mostly there is a broad connection between ethnic and national identities. Consider that in Germany, the grandchildren of Turkish immigrants are still unequivocally 'Turks' while freshly-arrived volksdeutsch (ethnic Germans) from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union are pretty much immediately granted citizenship and seen as fundamentally German. Or the recent referendum in Ireland where 79.17% of voters voted to end the automatic right to citizenship of all babies born in Ireland. Americans have generally remained placid about levels of immigration (illegal and legal) that far outsrip in percentage terms what the various European nations receive*.
While the indigenous people might admit to non-whites (or people from other parts of Europe, for that matter) their status as citizens, many would say that they can never be part of 'the tribe'. Britain, where I lived for many years, is somewhat exceptional in that, since it is not one country but four, because there is this side identity category of 'British' that ethnic minorities can claim a part of (ie British Indian or Black British) when few of them would claim to be Caribbean-English or Indian-English. Britain seems to have negotiated the transformation to a less homogenous society pretty well, but even there the matter is hardly resolved. One of the things our family always found amusing was when journalists, Whitehall mandarins, social worker types and so on would make pronouncements on 'multicultural Britain' as if it was some reality that all the people were living in. London is multicultural, sure, and so are Birmingham, Manchester, and a few other big cities, but the country as a whole is still more than 92% white! Outside of a few cities you will hardly see any non-white faces.
The single major topic of public conversation pre-Iraq War in Britain was immigration and asylum (levels of which as a percentage of population are but a fraction of what America gets every year). Sure, there were liberals taking the usual liberal line ('diversity is strength' 'newcomers refresh our society' etc.) but they were drowned out by hysterical ranting about foreigners coming to Britain to live off the welfare state and steal jobs from the natives. I'd see it everyday in the headlines in the right-wing papers, hear it in radio call-ins, hear people in pubs and buses saying it, read people ranting about it on the internet. The Guardian, which is probably the British newspaper that Americans know best, is one of the worst-selling, and certainly reflects no more than a minority view on issues of migration. The Times and The Telegraphy far outstrip it in broad-sheet readership, and they've never been shy about calling on the alarmists at Migration Watch for op-eds and talking points. And for all that Britain is undoubtedly one of the more tolerant countries in Europe. The attitudes are much harsher elsewhere.
In the continental states the matter is simpler, they just don't want immigrants. One of the new cornerstones of the American Right is that France, with its 10% Muslim minority, will be seized for Sharia within decades. Randy McDonald wrote an excellent article a while back debunking this, which is worth reading, but it is worth noting that all sectors of the French government have been pursuing minimal immigration policies since the 1970's, and the Extreme Right still routinely takes 15-20% of the vote. In a lot of parts of continental Europe, you may speak the language, you may dress the same way as the locals, you may have been born there, but to many (the majority?) of the locals, you are fundamentally an outsider. You are always going to be a Turk, or an Arab, or an African, and that is that. The multiculturalism that is officially encouraged doesn't help matters because it legitimizes ethnic separation and encourages the local population to see the newcomers as a permanent foreign presence.
If you speak to the average man on the street, the bigotry towards neighbors is still quite strong (Americans may joke about Canadians, but it is nothing compared to the visceral reaction you'll get if you ask many Englishmen their opinion about the French). If they still hold attitudes like this about people they've been dealing with for thousands of years, is it a shock that many people have still not accepted people from radically different cultures who have only been there for a couple decades? Much of the officially socially liberal ideology of Europe is papering over the cracks of much older, much more deeply held views of who you are; something that Americans don't really seem to consider.
Although certainly the resistance of the lower orders to moral reform was understandable, there were other factors as to why the moral purges of Cromwell and the Puritans did not succeed. Since Elizabeth I’s reign, organised religion had been in a state of flux as various religious factions schemed against each other, all convinced that they represented the authentic voice of Christianity. Conflict between those who followed the Episcopalian model of church government and those who wanted the institution of a more fundamentalist Calvinist model had been rife for decades. These schisms did not disappear with the Parliamentary victory in the Civil War. Attempts to reconstruct the Church of England along Reformed lines led to an outbreak of theological infighting that only served to undermine religious authority. The conflict was over whether the Church should follow the Presbyterian model of the Church of Scotland, with its strict hierarchies, or a more atomised Congregationalist model, as seen in the Massachusetts colony, whereby the parish would become the ultimate centre of religious identity and organisations and persons above parish level reduced to an advisory role. The failure to quickly work out a viable plan for church government was a serious hindrance to coordinated efforts at reform on a national level.
Also important was the fact that certain elements of religious control had disappeared. In particular the abolishment of ecclesiastical courts in 1641, although a long-hated symbol of Laudian oppression, was to cause the Puritans many difficulties. Although their disappearance had initially been beneficial to the 'Godly cause', the absence of church courts helped to block the path of moral reform. Without being able to directly sanction moral offenders the Puritans were forced to forge alliances with secular magistrates. Many of these secular magistrates proved unwilling to play much of a role in cracking down on traditionally ignored activities such as sports, visiting alehouses, and illicit sexual relations, as they knew that community solidarity remained stronger than godly zeal. Crucially, in most parts of the country the magistracy never really forged strong links with the major-generals in 1656, as, despite their victory at Westminster, the Puritans had failed to overcome much of the hostility and apathy towards Puritan aspirations held by many local officials.
For the Puritans, who had long championed religious toleration as a means for subverting the hated episcopacy, the end of strict state control over access to printing presses, at around the same time as the demise of the ecclesiastical courts, was to cause them further unforeseen difficulties. The genie of religious dissent was let loose, as disparate groups, especially the Quakers, found that they could quite easily disseminate their ideas to a public eager for theological discussion. For the Puritans, the inability to strictly control access to the printing press meant that they were unable to stem the tidal wave of dissenting opinion that was flooding forth from the various Protestant separatist groups. Attempts to replace the old Laudian religious orthodoxy with a new Calvinist variety were seriously undermined by the newfound freedom of the population to discuss religious concepts and ideas. Individually, these dissident groups never attracted hordes of converts, but as an overall movement they formed a serious theological and social challenge to the Puritan project. Calvinism, having long served as the banner to which the religiously disaffected rallied, now found itself in the strange position where its key theological concepts had mutated into form that they usually found distasteful and often considered abhorrent. Despite their victory against the Royalist party and the seeming subjugation of the Episcopacy, they were now the religious conscience of the government and were, as such, now the primary targets for dissenters, separatists, and traditionalists.
The dominant theology in Cromwell’s New Model Army during the Civil War should have served as a warning to the Puritans as to how difficult it would be for them to reform the Church of England. As the war progressed, a very particular interpretation of Calvinist Protestantism developed in ranks of the Parliamentarian army. In the spring of 1645 Cromwell had reorganised the army to maximise soldier morale by encouraging a more free-wheeling theology, a process described by William Haller as “the spontaneous irrepressible aggregation of like-minded saints in shifting voluntary groups within or without the traditional ecclesiastical frame, or what was left of it, seeking comfort and enlightenment for themselves from the gospel.”
These ‘gathered churches,’ where men willingly joined together as a sort of roving religious/military hybrid unit, fired the Army with the righteousness of certainty that God was on their side. ‘Free grace’, the idea that all were capable of receiving God’s grace, had been traditionally the source of great disapproval amongst orthodox Puritans. Yet on the battlefield, fired by the Word, this belief, preached by the Army chaplains, that Jesus was with them in their hearts, helped guide them to ultimate military triumph.
Puritan theology had always been torn between the polarising ideas of freedom of conscience and enforcing certain standards of conduct. Although orthodox Calvinism had always been very hierarchical, despite its rejection of the Episcopalian model of church government, it brought certain ideas into the public domain that were taken and shifted into all sorts of strange and wonderful directions. Dissident Protestant sects like the Baptists, the Fifth Monarchists, the Muggletonians, the Ranters, and the Quakers, amongst other, all emerged from this process of creative re-interpretation of points of Puritan theology. Mainstream Puritans may have seen these offshoots as heretical and disgusting, but they were the children of the movement for a more Godly England. In particular, they were the outgrowth of the more loving sides of Puritan belief, focused on the issues of liberty of conscience while rejecting the orthodox Calvinist's obsessively dour focus on predestination. Liberated by the concept of paradise being something that was actively within achievement for those who would seek it, they presented a serious theological challenge to the newly ensconced religious radicals of the Interregnum government. With the freedom to print what they wanted they were able to spread their message easily through a population where literacy, spurred by the Puritan emphasis on 'knowing The Word for yourself', was unusually high for a society of its time. Even if they didn't attract vast numbers of converts, they had a powerful effect on religious discourse, because even those who were unconvinced by nonconformist positions became aware of alternatives to prevailing Puritan theology and were more inclined to dissent.
Many of the ideas held by the dissenting groups were extremely radical and confrontational for the time. The Quaker rejection of religious patriarchy, by allowing women to speak and actively participate in services, was greeted with much suspicion in a society where women's opportunities beyond the home were extremely limited. Their de-emphasis on the Bible in favour of what they called 'the light inside,' the place that God had in the hearts of all true believers, flew in the face of Calvinist orthodoxy. Their rejection of the concept of predestination for the belief that anyone could gain salvation through giving themselves up to God, was matched in its radicalism by the Ranters and their elevation of predestination to a process so unalterable that no action could reverse it, thus meaning that hedonistic acts were therefore a method of praising God.
The nonconformists created a blizzard of contrasting ideological positions, yet, crucially, they all converged on one issue, an issue that showed their common routes in the earliest Calvinist challenges to Episcopalian Angliocanism. This issue was the idea that religion was a fellowship of the spirit, a voluntary association, something that was not instituted from above but something actively entered into as a means of a personal expression of faith. The original Puritan dissidents had created this concept of communities of faith in the early part of the seventeenth century with their practice of 'gadding to prayer' - travelling to hear preachers and being part of a dynamic religious community that was no longer bound by the old restrictions of parish. With religious freedom now essentially guaranteed for all, the impetus for reform was reduced, as those who wanted to live and pray according to Puritan methods were now free to do so.
With the political situation unravelling, and the death of Cromwell in 1658, by the late 1650's it was obvious that the Puritans had failed in their goal of effecting a permanent transformation of English society. Puritanism was a religious movement that had failed during their moment of greatest opportunity. The cultural conflict between traditionalists and reformers that had been a part of English life for over a century had not been resolved by the Parliamentary victory. The 1650's showed that the Puritan agenda commanded neither the popular support nor the enforcement muscle to truly alter England. Thus when the Reformation brought Charles II back to the throne on a wave of popular support, it not only meant the political failure of republicanism, but also the defeat of the Puritan ideology.
In 1649 the forces of republicanism and puritanical Christianity reigned triumphant over England following their spectacular military victory over the forces of King Charles I. The king had been executed, the heir had been exiled, and the victors sensed that the moment had come for a profound re-ordering of English society. For over a century the dream of the Puritan minority had been to effect a moral reformation of the English people and to reform the Church of England on Calvinist line. And now that day seemed to have arrived. Yet only eleven years later Charles II returned from his French exile to reclaim his father's throne. How did the planned transformation of English morality fail?
The failure of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth government to follow its spectacular military victory in the English Civil War with a successful moral reformation of the English people was, in the main, the fault of two factors. The principal problem of the Puritans was that they stood against so much of traditional English life; the traditional pastimes they most despised were often those that the average person most cherished. Without the widespread acquiescence of the population to Puritan plans of moral transformation, these 'reforms' would have to be forced through and vigilantly enforced, a task made virtually impossible by the organizational constraits faced by an early-modern government. The other fundamental problem with plans for moral reformation is the question of religious dissidence. The Puritans had long campaigned for freedom of conscience, suffering as they had for so long under state persecution, especially during William Laud's tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1630's. Having seized power they were now confronted by an explosion of theological dissidents, groups who had built on the foundations of Calvinist Puritanism to create new forms of Protestantism. The effect of these splinter groups was to undermine Puritan religious authority throughout the country.
The Puritan plan for moral reform was a deeply ambitious one. Traditional English society, with its communal feast days, its communities revolving around the alehouse (sniffily referred to as ‘dens of iniquity’ by the pious), its passion for swearing, its cheerful habit for breaking the sanctity of the Sabbath, and its love of ‘immoral’ sporting activities from violent games of football to betting on blood sports such as bear-baiting and cock-fighting, was viewed with deep abhorrence by most Calvinists. For them, despite their success in defeating the tyrannical force of Charles I, they would be unable to build the ‘New Jerusalem’ in England without first destroying these remnants of Popery and paganism. This attack on popular activity was an expression of the split in religious belief that cleaved through the English people like a vertical fissure. The list of activities to be proscribed was lengthy, a task made extremely difficult by the fact that, as Christopher Durston pointed out, “Attempts by national governments to bring about radical changes in popular attitudes and behaviour are immensely challenging undertakings, and always more likely to end in failure than success.”
The most concerted effort by Oliver Cromwell to force through the moral reformation came with the dispatch of his major-generals, the ‘living saints’ who had played such a role in guiding the New Model Army to success in the Civil War, to the provinces in November of 1655. There the 'living saints' were meant to act as the fulcrum around which reforming efforts would be focused, in order to fight against what was seen as the chronic irreligion and ungodliness of the average English and Welsh person. There was a political dimension to this, in that traditional culture was associated with the old forces of monarchy and episcopacy; so suppressing ‘corrupt’ religious and social traditions would have the added bonus of weakening the Royalist cause to which so many still cleaved. The difficulty for the major-generals was that, in addition to being expected to act as figureheads for moral reform in their chosen areas (often fairly large ones due to the limited number of 'living saints'), the major-generals were also expected to take an active role in the collection of the Republican decimation tax, to oversee the reformation of the marriage process, to institute the new republican holidays while suppressing those disliked by the Interregnum (such as Easter and Christmas), to manage local elections, and to spearhead security efforts against the possibility of reactionary Royalist revolt. This exhaustive list of responsibilities meant that the major-generals rarely had the time available to devote themselves to overseeing moral reform efforts. Indeed, with little support forthcoming from London they were unable to devote themselves to any of their tasks as much as deserved, meaning that they tended to fail at all of them.
It was the mean-spiritedness of so many of the planned reforms that failed to bring success to the Puritan faction. Seventeenth-century England was, by any standard, a deeply religious society. Religion permeated everyday life in a way that has almost totally disappeared in the modern British Isles. The problem with Cromwell’s government, and the moral policies it pursued under the attentive watch of the Puritan minority, was that it failed to reconcile itself with the lack of interest the public had for disruption to the old patterns of life. This was exemplified by the attack on traditional celebrations, such as feast days and the festivals of Christmas and Easter. The 1645 Directory of Public Worship tried to replace the old Book of Common Prayer with a new Presbyterian liturgy that would both transform the national church and eradicate the traditional festive calendar. Attempts to impose solemn new fast days and days of prayer over the raucous old celebrations were a total failure. Newly imposed ‘rites of passage’ and new rites of marriage failed amongst widespread apathy to reform. To many, it seemed the new government had simply granted every insufferably priggish Puritan in every community their very own license to badger and annoy. It was this local zealotry, whereby the worst tendencies of the most obnoxiously pious were legitimized by the state, that particularly served to turn so many people away from Calvinism.
It is necessary to acknowledge that, despite the fact that the proposed moral reformation was a failure on a national level, there were still places where reform efforts were much more diligent and had more of an effect on local behaviour. One such place was London, where the crusading major-general Sir John Barkstead proved to be a formidable foe to sexual mis-adventurers. In 1656 he arrested hundreds of prostitutes (with a mind to having them deported to the colonies), closed the infamous Beargarden in Bankside (where animals battled each other in front of baying spectators), and cracked down on sporting gatherings throughout the capital and the surrounding region. Over three times as many moral offences were brought in front of the magistrates court in 1656 than had been processed in 1652, a sign that Barkstead and his allies in the area were having an impact on ‘immoral’ behaviour in the area. Certainly he was a dedicated man, but he was undoubtedly helped in his cause by the relatively small size of the capital, and the large numbers of soldiers posted within.
Great Yarmouth in Norfolk was another place where a concerted effort towards moral reformation was put into place, in its case specifically against unlicensed alehouse-keepers. In September 1656, under the major-general for East Anglia, Hezekiah Haynes, ninety-six alehouse-keepers were presented before the court charged with allowing their businesses to be centers of disorder, anti-Sabbatarianism, and immoral behaviour. Impressive, certainly, especially in a small community of only ten thousand people, but many of those appearing before the court had already done so before in the 1650’s. Indeed, for some it was their third time around, which indicates that the fines were never set at a level that could be any more than an unfortunate business expense, as opposed to a career-crippling sum. The fact that so many were able to continue in running their businesses even after being convicted and fined is symptomatic of how efforts at moral reform never had the necessary punitive force to coerce the population into better moral behaviour. Despite a seeming surge in activity, it was never a very deep effort, partly due to time, and also partly becuse the abolition of the ecclesiastical courts meant the law was left to secular magistrates who were less inclined to sanction sinners than their more specifically religious counterparts had been.
Carl Hiaassen doesn't like Disney. At all. Not even the tiniest bit. A native Floridian with roots stretching back several generations, Hiaassen sees the Walt Disney Corporation's Disney World theme park and resort as one of the absolute centers of the 'development'/despoilation of Florida. So, he wrote this short, 100-page polemic against the company. An old-fashioned impassioned rant, this is a real shock to the system for those of us who were raised with Disney's products as part of our childhood cultural ecosystem.
"It's not surprising that one company was able to change the face of Forty-Second Street, when that same company changed the face of an entire state, Florida, where I live...The worst damage isn't from the Walt Disney World resort itself (which is undeniably clean, well operated, and relatively safe) or even from the tourists (although an annual stampede of forty million Griswolds cannot help but cut an untidy swath). The absolute worst thing did was to change how people in Florida thought about money; nobody had ever dreamed there could be so much...Merely by showing up, Disney had dignified blind greed in a state pioneered by undignified greedheads." (p.5)
In the course of this rant, Hiassen's writing is as entertaining as you'd expect. The man couldn't write a dull sentence if he tried. His background as a muck-raking investigative journalist in South Florida (a virtual paradise for those seeking corporate and political sleaze) serves him well here. Did you know that Florida legislators bequeathed unto Disney a de facto autonomous state after Disney had anonymously bought up 24,000 acres of rural land in central Florida? The Reedy Creek Improvement District, a municipality that 'officially' has nothing to do with Disney (although the two are one and the same), runs its own utilities, administers its own planning and zoning, has its own building code, inspectors, security force and fire department and could, if it wanted to, build its own international airport and nuclear power plant. He also uncovers instances of choice sleaze that Disney, fanatically obsessed with privacy as it is, attempted to cover up, including the tale of the young costume assistant who would secretly videotape the changing rooms for the Cinderella's Castle dancers while bashing one out.
"One phone call to the local sheriff's office could have ended the peep show, but Disney security officers chose to conduct their own surveillance, which went on for three months. According to court records, the company deliberately didn't inform the women at the castle about the investigation, and in fact permitted the secret taping to continue...Disney acknowledged it didn't tell the performers they were being spied on, buy the company said it acted properly. Moreover, the company preposterously claimed the dancers had no cause to sue, because they had "a diminished expectation of privacy in their particular job requirements and...therefore knowingly assumed the risk of the matters alleged."" (p. 31)
Other topics discussed (well, savaged is probably a better term) include Disney's attempt to airbrush American history with a theme park near the Civil War battlefield of Manassas (an idea that created a backlash that managed to derail their plans for once), its cruise-ship business, the personality of boss Michael Eisner (who Hiassen refers to as 'Insane Clown Michael'), and Disney's own 1950's throwback suburban subdivision, Celebration, which came complete with a Disney-sized premium (although this was written a couple years ago, and Disney has now sold out). If you've ever harbored any bitterness towards Disney's extreme tweeness this is quite an entertaining book, because it's short length means that the acidity of the writing doesn't bore you (which would probably be the case if it extended to several hundred pages). As to whether it is worth the purchas, I'm not so sure, his column collections are probably a better bet, but if you see it in a library it's definitely worth a look.
The newly independent nations of Central Asia, the oil and gas states of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and their neighbors Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, are all ruled by strongmen dictators, men who seamlessly moved between Communist and nationalist authoritarianisms as the Soviet system crumbled. As in Russia itself as well as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union the years since independence have been very difficult for the average citizen of the Central Asian republics. Closing factories, collapsing public services, mass emigration (especially of European ethnic groups such as the Russians and the Germans), and rising crime and insecurity were the themes of the 1990's for most people in the region. The uneven move away from the Russian embrace has also slowly brought Islam back as a popular force among the various Turkic-speaking ethnic groups who make up the majority of the regional population.
For some, though, the years since the end of Communism have been very good. Just as in Russia, which in the 1990's saw one of the worst thefts of public wealth in history at the hands of the 'oligarchs', the presidents, senior officials, and a few well-connected families and businessmen in the Central Asian states have conspired to a frankly incredible defrauding of their people. Perhaps the perfect exemplar of this trend is Nursultan Nazarbaev, the president of Kazakhstan, a man who rose from blast furnace operator to the head of the Communist Party in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan to member of the Politburo in Moscow. Nazarbaev's family alone are believed to have pocketed billions of dollars through skimming the state budgets and pocketing payments from western oil compains like Chevron and Mobil who moved very quickly into joint ventures with the Kazakh state to exploit the oil fields at Kashagan and Tengiz.
"(In the mid-90's) Nazarbaev had his puppet parliament rubber-stamp a new law granting him lifelong immunity from prosecution for misdeeds committed in office. Since independence up to a fifth of the country's wealth is believed to have ended up in Swiss bank accounts, so for good measure, Kazakh parliamentarians also voted for an official legalization of money laundering. Kazakhs are now free from having to account for funds brought back to the country, much less pay taxes on them. Who stands to benefit the most from this new law is not difficult to figure out." (p. 82)
Turkmenistan, where only eighty years ago much of the population lived as horse-borne nomads, is the home of a far stranger dictator: Saparmyrat Niyazov, aka Turkmenbashi, 'Leader of the Turkmen'. Niyazov has busily spent the proceeds from his fiefdom's natural gas fields building one of the modern world's most perverse personality cults, a nation that Kleveman called "Stalin's Disneyland". Most egotistical strongmen dictators tend to follow similar patterns: put your face on the currency, make sure your picture is omnipresent throughout the country, have the state-run media report on you and nothing but you. Not content with these garden-variety authoritarian tactics, Niyazov has busily spent his time pushing back the boundaries of how weird you can take your tyranny in the modern era. His only real competition in this regard is Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, although Niyazov's reign has been nowhere near as terrible as that of the film fanatic kidnap-enthusiast Stalinist who oversaw the famine death of three million Koreans in the 1990's.
Kleveman's descriptions of his travels around Turkmenistan, from his arrival at the port of Turkmenbashi (formerly know as Krasnowodsk), show the country in the grip of an ego that few people not living in such a country can fathom. Perhaps Stalin himself was not as enthusiastic as Niyazov at stamping his name on the land. Besides the aforementioned port Turkmenbashi is also the name of thousands of things, from streets and roads to airports, mosques, stadiums, a sizeable meteor crash site in the north of the country, and whatever else he felt needed a dose of Turkmenbashi. Of course, he also has his picture on all pieces of currency, and thousands of statues and paintings and photographs of him festoon the country. Other eccentric projects include a 120 foot tall gold-plated statue of himself in the middle of the capital Ashkhabad that rotates in order to always face the sun, and a giant waterpark in the middle of the desert. His own Ceaucescu-style monstrous residence in a lovely shade of pink. The Fascist-style slogan 'Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi' ('People, Fatherland, Leader') that can be seen on all government buildings (and a great deal of ordinary ones as well), and that all schoolchildren are required to recite. A walkabout around Ashkhabad discovers hidden speakers permanently broadcasting his interminable speaches to passers-by. And the coup de grace: the Ruhnama, a 'spiritual guide' from the president himself that all citizens must own and carry with them, and that all children must study in school. Quotations from this pseudo-rustic collection of folklore and parables adorn the mosques and many other buildings. In schools and universities the Ruhnama has become the central focus of education. The state-run television and radio networks, when they aren't relaying the latest exploits of Turkmenbashi, feature talking-head discussions of the president's book as well as acted-out scenes and readings from comely young women in traditional dress.
"Obscure anecdotes about Turkmenbashi abound in Ashkhabad. "The other day he must have wondered in his palace if the people really loved him as much as his ministers assured him. So he glued a false black beard to his face and drove to the outskirts of the city to ask common men in the street for their opinion." Needless to say, nobody in Turkmenistan dares to publicly express their true views on political issues. "Even less so if the interviewer arrives in the president's armored, dark Mercedes limousine, and has a false beard dangling off his chin."" (p. 152)
Niyazov is undoubtedly one of the world's stranger leaders, and there are few other dictators of recent times who can compete with his eccentricity (Enver Hoxha of Albania is one that comes to mind, though). Without Turkmenistan's vast natural resources he would probably be left alone to continue on his path, unhassled except by the odd human rights activist (although it should be pointed out that, unfree as his country is, Turkmenbashi tends not to engage in the sort of extreme repressive measures that are par for the course elsewhere in the region). Yet the vast stockpiles of oil and natural gas that lie under the ground and under the sea mean that this odd character must be wooed by the various business and political representatives of the main competitors.
One nation that is playing an increasing role in seeking the riches of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan is China. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping said "to get rich is glorious!", China has experienced one of the largest and fastest economic expansions in human history. This enormous growth has created a vast thirst for energy, a thirst that China's own dwindling oil reserves cannot hope to slake. In the early 1990's China was a net exporter of petroleum; ten years later it is a net importer, and every year the amount that has to be brought in from the rest of the world grows. As a result of this growing need China has been hungrily moving into the oil fields of the Caspian, with plans to construct a pipeline from Kazakhstan to China's westernmost province, Xinjiang, and from there all the way across the nation to Shanghai. Xinjiang is the home province of China's Uighurs, a minority group with close ethnic, linguistic, and religious links to the various Turkic ethnic groups of ex-Soviet Central Asia. As their cousins in the neighboring states have achieved independence, the rebirth of nationalism and Islamic consciousness in those countries has reached across the border and stirred the Uighurs, increasingly restive in the face of the ongoing and heavy migration of Han Chinese from China's heavily overcrowded east. The 1990's saw a campaign of assassination and bombings waged by Uighur separatist groups, leading the Chinese government into a severe crackdown on political and religious dissent, as in the more famous repression of Tibet. In Urumqi, the capital, Han Chinese already outnumber all local ethnic groups.
"The Chinese juggernaut of modernization has not stopped outside the fabled medieval city quarters (of the Silk Road city of Kashgar). Large parts have been torn down to create space for new roads and high-rise office blocks. Ten of thousands of residents, all of them Uighurs, have been forcibly moved to modern settlements on the city's outskirts. "For the government, this is all about destroying our culture and shattering all Uighur communities," Mamtimyn believes...In 1949 there were only about three hundred thousand Chinese among the five million inhabitants of Xinjiang. Now they make up close to ten million. "Many of those Chinese act toward us like colonial lords," says Mamtimyn." (p. 105)
For the Chinese government the province of Xinjiang is absolutely essential to the future growth of the entire nation, because, despite only containing one-sixtieth of the population, it has within its boundaries three-quarters of all of China's mineral wealth. Also, it is the only logical place for a pipeline from Kazakhstan to pass through, bringing with it the even greater riches from the Caspian. Throughout the last ten years the state-owned China National Petroleum Company has been engaged in a global buying spree, buying into oil fields from Venezuela to Sudan to Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan especially, the Chinese see the potential solution to the looming fact that they will have to import tens, even hundreds, of millions of barrels of oil to keep the economy roaring forward. For now, their biggest concern is America's deepening political, military, and economic ties to the Caspian Sea states, a worry voiced by Zheng Chendu, the CNPC director general in Kazakhstan, when he spoke with Kleveman.
""The US troops are here in order to control the oil reserves in Central Asia...The control works indirectly...Since U.S. troops have moved up to its gates, the Kazakh government prefers once again to sign contracts with Western corporations - and not with us." If current developments continued, Beijing could very well face having to write off the big pipeline to the East. "In Kyrgyzstan the American military is stationed very close to the Chinese border. The United States has bases in Japan, in the Phillippines, in South Korea and Taiwan. And now here - China is going to be encircled!"" (p. 115)
One of the problems I am finding is just writing in normal hours. Since I've not been working for a little while (for those who don't know me, I generally work as a legal temp, I might go a week or two between jobs, but when I do work I do a lot of hours, I am also quite frugal so I tend to avoid financial problems). At university I had much the same problem with writing my essays. I could go out and do research in the daytime but trying to write in normal hours would be impossible. I'd stare at the screen, stare at my notes, wander off and talk to my flatmates, watch some tv, look out the window, fiddle about with music. Then there would always come that magic hour, when I was vaguely thinking it might be a good time to go to bed. Suddenly I'd get an idea about how to approach what I was writing about, something interesting to say, and, foom, I'd be off, hammering away for hours.
Writing this blog is somewhat similar, it seems that I can only churn out paragraphs of turgid gibber at normal hours, before I suddenly grab the meat between my teeth at later hours. Re-starting this writing process has, if anything, reinforced my respect for those bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum (to name just two) who seem capable of churning out thousands of words on a daily basis. Perhaps it's easier to write about current politics than the sort of pseudo-lecture/essays I've gotten myself into? I tend to spend a lot of time re-reading bits from the books I'm talking about, searching around Google and reading through various articles to see if they have anything that's worth linking to.
Well, anyways, this, I guess, can count as my 'blogger angst' piece...everyone has to write one at some point! I have about eight hundred words of the final Central Asia piece done, originally it was supposed to be just a standard 1000-1500 word piece, but I got carried away. Expect that to be arriving down the pipeline at some point tonight/tomorrow.
While I'm writing this, I might as well throw in a few links to some interesting things that I probably won't cover:
Japan Window - an excellent photo blog on life in Japan. For Dan.
Steven Malanga Why Queens Matters
Marc Cooper's interview with Christopher Hitchens
continued from here
For centuries Central Asia has been an inter-civilizational crossroads. The meeting point of the Slavic, Islamic, and Chinese worlds, it was the route of the legendary Silk Route from China to the Middle East. Many of the most legendary cities of the medieval world lay along this route, cities that are again returning to prominence as Central Asia slowly returns to the consciousness of the world after decades of being closed off in the Soviet empire. Bukhara. Samarkand. Almaty. Tashkent. In the nineteenth century these areas, as well as Afghanistan to the south, became the setting for what was called The Great Game, the machinations, proxy wars, shifting alliances, espionage, trade, and diplomacy that occurred as Tsarist Russia, pushing south from the Siberian heartlands, met Imperial Britain, pushing north from the Indian colonies. Now, as this book explains, we are seeing a New Great Game.
As complex as the issue of where the main pipeline from Baku will go, it is nothing compared to the fiendishly Byzantine chess game being played out on the other side of the Caspian Sea. There, endowed with absolutely immense natural resources, you will find the ex-Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, two nations that are, if anything, even more obscure in the Western mind than Georgia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, such is the profound lack of knowledge of these nations in the West that the British comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen (aka Ali G) chose Kazakhstan as the homeland for his brilliant creation Borat Sagdiyev, the sex-obsessed Kazakh television reporter, because, as co-creator Dan Mazer said "We chose a country such as Kazakhstan as we were confident that there was little chance of meeting anyone who knew anything about it."
This is unfortunate, because this is a region in which what may turn out to be the great story of the twenty-first century is slowly taking shape. Having disappeared in the long years they were in Moscow's orbit, the nations of Central Asia (the Caspian states plus their eastern neighbors of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgizstan to their east) are now at the heart of a new geopolitical contest between the main regional and global powers. The United States, through both military bases and business deals, is seeking to wrest these countries permanently out of Moscow's orbit while at the same time completing the military encirclement of Russia itself. Russia, after a decade of utter economic disaster, is starting to pick itself up off the floor and once again glance a covetous eye towards the jewels that fell from the crown when the Soviet empire imploded. Iran, where the mullahs who run the country, increasingly loathed by their own people, are betting their futures on trying to repeat China's trick of generating the sort of economic growth that will dampen calls for political change. And, finally, perhaps most importantly in future terms, there is China itself, the waking giant, whose incredible growth is rewriting the rules in the region, and whose growing thirst for energy to power the behemoth is drawing it deeper and deeper into the machinations of Central Asia.
"One of the Kyrgyz truck drivers drives me through no-man's land to the Chinese border post. His Russian Kamaz truck and the trailer are loaded, like all the other trucks on this road, with huge chunks of scrap metal, the remnants of factories shut down and dismantled in Kyrgyzstan and the other ex-Soviet republics. Chinese businessmen buy the metal in order to melt and reuse it for the construction of new factories, a rising empire robbing the corpse of a fallen one." (p. 97)
In July 2000, geologists discovered an oil bubble in the northern Caspian Sea off the Kazakh coast over twenty-five miles across, making it the most oil found in one place since the discovery at Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in 1970. This is the Kashagan field which could, once it has been fully measured, be in among the five largest petroleum fields in the world. As the political and social situation in the Middle East slides ever further towards explosion the potential importance of the Caspian producers only increases. This factor, of Central Asia and the Caucasus as placid and stable in case of some sort of regional war in the Arab world, is at least as important as the proven finds in the minds of the businessmen, soldiers, and diplomats now flocking to the shores of the Caspian.
In the Central Asia republics, as in their counterparts in the southern Caucasus, the central issue is getting the oil and gas to the outside markets, a difficult logistical process even if you ignore the various geopolitical machinations of the larger powers. Complicating matters even further, the existing energy infrastructure is even more rudimentary than in the Caucasus. The existing routes out of the region all go to the north, into Russia. After centuries of Russian domination there is a deep reluctance on the part of both the Kazakhs and the Turkmen to hand the old master complete control over the economic fate of their newly independent nations. To counter the return of Russian dominance new options are being explored. To the south lie Iran and Afghanistan. Again, like in the Caucasus, the obvious route, in this case south through Iran, may not be the most politically viable one.
The Iranian government desperately wants to cut a deal with their neighbors to the north, despite having sizeable energy reserves of their own. This is because the vast majority of Iran's population lives in the north of the country, and the oil and gas is located in the far south near Iran's Persian Gulf coast. The Iranian government has proposed a swap deal with Kazakhstan, whereby Kazakh oil is shipped to Iran's Caspian port of Neka for easy distribution around the urbanized north, while Kazakh-chartered ships pick up Iranian oil from ports on the Persian Gulf to take on to other markets. A small natural gas pipeline from the main Dauletabad fields of Turkmenistan to Tehran has already been built, with plans to increase the capacity if possible. This is part of a plan for economic development by the religio-economic elite, the alliance of the mullah-backed 'religious charities', which have now evolved beyond their humanitarian origins to their new status as secretive cartel-like operations of enormous economic power, and the traditional bourgeouisie, the bazaari. With the traditional aristocracy and the most prominent business families either liquidated or exiled in the Islamic Revolution these groups stepped in and have now become the main economic power-brokers of Iran. Their corruption and thuggery has become legendary, and although on the surface Iran remains an officially religious society, the mullahs face a never-ending erosion of their moral authority, and exponentially increasing unrest from the country's army of youth, as their wealth grows and society stagnates.
"More than 75 percent of all Iranian youths do not pray, according to a recent poll commissioned by the government itself. There are far fewer mosques in Tehran than in Cairo or Amman, and only rarely a muezzin's call to prayer can be heard. "The young people do not put up with everything anymore, and they turn their backs on Islam. In reality, Iran is a secular society. Not even the mullahs still believe in what they preach," observes (Amir) Loghmany. "By elevating Islam to a political state ideology, it has practically been destroyed as an authentic religion in Iran."" (p. 126)
In order to preserve their political and economic power in a time when their religious and moral authority is in tatters the Iranian elite is pegging its hopes on the sort of economic boom that, like in China, would essentially buy off the middle class from political agitations. A key part of this strategy involves cutting deals with their northeastern neighbors for the transit of energy resources. Of course, this is considered completely unacceptable by the corporate and political leaders in the West, particularly in America, who have been devoting ever more time to strategic planning in Central Asia. They would much prefer if Kazakh and Turkmen oil and gas were to avoid Iran altogether. Two potential alternatives have been mooted by the Americans. One, for the resources to go to Baku and on to Ceyhan, either by being shipped across the Caspian or by possibly travelling through a mooted new pipeline to be built along the sea bed. Alternatively, the pipeline runs southeast from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to the Pakistani port city of Karachi. This route has been on the cards for many years, even during the Taliban's time in power.
The chaos of Afghanistan's civil war put that idea on ice until America's removal of the Taliban regime after the 9/11 attacks allowed the deal to be signed. As Afghanistan, by its standards anyways, calms down, the news for the US government from that country has generally been quite positive, certainly in comparison to the chaos in Iraq. Not only have millions of refugees returned to the country, but the recent elections there has confirmed Washington's man Hamid Karzai as president.
So, America seems to have won out, at least for now. But what of the terminus of this planned pipeline, Pakistan? And what about China? And how likely are Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to stick to the script?
to be continued here...
I decided to go ahead and post the first part of this piece, the second part will be done very soon (in the next 24 hours!) and will be posted then.
Despite containing some of the largest reserves of petroleum and natural gas in the world the nations of the Caspian Sea region are almost certainly the most obscure in the world for the average Westerner. Among the captains of the energy industry and among political elites from Washington to Moscow, Central Asia is neither a joke nor a head-scratcher, nor are its constituent states relegated to the role of answers to pub trivia questions. In writing this book the author, Lutz Kleveman, set out to "examine how the geopolitical struggle over the Caspian oil and pipeline routes caused the Afghan war and other armed conflicts in the region." In the course of his travels he visits major producing nations such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, as well as pipeline sites (existing and planned) like Georgia (famously the homeland of a certain Joseph Dzugashvili), Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan, as well as the adjoining areas of the main regional players such as Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and the Xinjiang region of China. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 the fourteen 'autonomous republics' that, along with Russia, had comprised the Soviet Union became independent. Suddenly, for the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution, the major Western energy corporations had access to the major petroleum and natural gas fields in the Caucasus and Central Asia. During the Tsarist era this region had seen huge investment from American and European firms, especially in the region around Baku, and their corporate descendents giddily rushed back in as the Soviet Union shriveled and died. The long years of separation had created a great longing in the West, indeed one of the central reasons for Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union was to seize the oil fields of the Caucasus, a plan that failed when the Wehrmacht found itself bogged down, then trapped, then finally annihilated during the attempted seizure of Stalingrad. Now, with increasing instability in many of the Opec energy-producing nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Venezuela, and Saddam Hussein's Iraq still under international sanctions, the Caucasus and Central Asia were seized on as a long-term solution to over-reliance on the nations of Opec.
With these new opportunities came new problems. The central problem for the energy industry operating in far-flung locales has always been moving from producing regions to consumer regions. This problem is particularly acute in the Caspian area, because it had always been the least developed and poorest part of the Soviet Union, and so consequently a very large amount of pipeline infrastructure would have to be created from scratch. Compounding these logistical/developmental problems are serious political issues. Because the Caspian Sea does not connect to any other major body of water all pipelines from the production centers have to travel across national borders, sometimes three or more. Existing pipelines from the Azeri capital and energy production hub Baku run north through the Chechen capital Grozny into Russia, but Western energy firms (and their supporters in government) wanted to buy directly from the source nations, without having to go through Moscow. Running south from Azerbaijan is Iran, where a major pipeline route would be obviously politically out of the question to Washington. So, the decision was made that a pipeline running west from Baku was called for.
"Azerbaijan's vulnerability has wider regional implications because the country's location makes it a geopolitical pivot. It can be described as the vitally important 'cork' controlling access to the 'bottle' that contains the riches of the Caspian Sea basin and Central Asia. An independent, Turkic-speaking Azerbaijan, with pipelines running from it to the ethnically related and politically supportive Turkey, would prevent Russia from exercising a monopoly on access to the region and would thus also deprive Russia of decisive political leverage over the policies of the new Central Asian states." - Zbigniew Brzezinski (p. 25)
Going west, the logical route runs from Baku through Armenia into Turkey. Unfortunately, political reality intervenes. Armenia and Azerbaijan had fought a brutal war in the early 1990's over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, a conflict that had ended in humiliating defeat for the Azeris (Armenian forces control 15% of Azerbaijan's land to this day). So, that was out. Then, the next idea was to route the pipeline in a crooked way from Baku through Tbilisi to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Post-Soviet Georgia was, and is, a deeply disfunctional place, to put it in ludicrously mild terms. Three civil wars, in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Ajaria, economic collapse, mass emigration, soaring crime, and absolutely rampant corruption presided over by a gleefully kleptocratic government headed by Eduard Shevardnadze. Yes, the same one. After Shevy played his role as foreign minister in the dying days of the Soviet Union he returned home to take power after the disastrous reign of romantic nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia. By the time Kleveman arrived in Georgia it was a country foundering under the force of its unleashed demons, casting about forlornly for its place in the world.
""We need the big oil pipeline so that we will continue to have the United States on our side against Russia. You see, Georgia has nothing else to offer to the world, we have to sell our geographical position...We are beggars, but we would rather be beggars than live under Moscow's yoke again!...The oil per se does not matter. Sure, it will generate customs and transit fees but that money will once again end up in the pockets of the wrong people anyway."" (p.31)
Since the book was finished quite a bit has happened in Georgia. Shevardnadze was overthrown in the 'Rose Revolution' last November by an assortment of dissidents led by the American-educated lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili. The breakaway republic of Ajaria was quickly brought back into the fold, yet tensions are still thick between the new government in Tbilisi and the leaders of the breakaway republics of Abkazia and South Ossetia. In Azerbaijan, as well, there has been a change of leadership, but this time simply a dynastic succession from the deathbed of ex-KGB chieftain turned nationalist boss Heydar Aliyev to his son Ilham. After their humiliating defeat in the Karabakh war, the Aliyev clan turned to exploiting their greatest natural resource, inviting in British Petroleum, and turning their minds to stuffing their pockets to the brim, with little consideration for the nearly one million Azeris displaced from their homes in the conflict.
One of the biggest problems with oil, why it is known as 'the devil's tears', is that is one of the world's greatest boons to corruption. Almost no poor country has experienced a major oil windfall without all sorts of chaos. Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Angola, Iran, etc; almost everywhere that has seen sudden booms in oil production has experienced enormous problems with corruption and social stratification. This problem was particularly acute at the height of Opec's ransoming of the globe in the 1970's. When the money is literally gushing from the ground, and your rule is somewhat arbitrary anyways, why not steal what you can, or at the very least make sure your ethnic group/tribe/sect/social class are looked after? Part of the problem for poor countries, is that oil, although perennially a high-demand product, is not a high employment industry, especially with the technological capabilities of the modern corporate behemoths. The sort of money that oil can produce tends to send weak legal and political systems (often based as much on personal relationships as what's on the books) haywire. Oil revenues can also distort economies and encourage bad habits, especially in times of high prices, with governments spending the money on projects that return to haunt them.
Even in the Western nations, with their long traditions of rule of law and independent oversight of corporate activities, the nature of the energy industry often tempts people off the straight and narrow, as with the carnivalesque fraud of Enron. Countries that were wealthy before big oil discoveries (like Britain and Norway) have tended to fare quite well in the aftermath. Other places, like Saudi Arabia (which is a pretty odd state anyways) have experienced wrenching change as a result of an influx of oil wealth. The changes in the Caucasus and Central Asia to date have been less all-encompassing, but as the new pipelines are agreed upon and start to come online, with good governance a mostly unknown concept regionally, many of the countries discussed in the book will start to experience even greater problems piggybacking on their new opportunities.
to be continued here...