Archive for September, 2006

Timeless torture

Friday, September 29th, 2006

This is a Worm’s Eye column from November last year:

Everyone knows that in Stalin’s Purges between 1935 and 1940 perhaps fifteen million people died after various forms of torture. It is less known that throughout this Terror the Russian secret police — first known as the NKVD, and then as the KGB — were were directed by men who confessed, at their trials, to being agents of the British government. This was felt by many Western observers to be completely ridiculous. After all, by the time the purges were over, it appeared that practically everyone on the Soviet government in 1934, and not just the men who ran the secret police, had been taking their orders from foreign governments, and from Trotsky in Mexico too. This couldn’t, surely be true. Yet it is true that while millions died in silence or even defiance, hundreds of thousands of wreckers and saboteurs went to their graves protesting their own guilt. In the dock, in front of the horrified and astounded observers, some from the Western press, they proclaimed themselves guilty on every unimaginable charge.

Some contemporary journalists believed them, most notably Walter Duranty from the New York Times, who won a Pulitzer for his reporting, and wrote that “The future historian will probably accept the Stalinist version”. The American ambassador to Moscow. Joseph Davies, reported to his supererios from the show trial that there was “proof … beyond reasonable doubt to justify the verdict of treason.”

The only evidence for these confident verdicts was confession. As Robert Conquest, the great historian of the Terror, wrote: “A case in which there was not only no evidence against the accused, but they also denied the charges, would clearly be rather a weak one by any standards. In fact, confession is the logical thing to go for when the accused are not guilty and there is no genuine evidence. “

So how were the confessions obtained? For years we have believed that the answer was “torture”. But reading Conquest or Solzhenitsyn today, this seems less certain. Both of them list the methods used by the KGB — Solzhenitsyn has 28 in his, yet both say that few of these were in themselves torture. Here are five methods used by the KGB to extract their confessions:

  1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.
  2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.
  3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.
  4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.
  5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.”

If the translation sounds unfamiliar, this is because it is indirect. Though all of these methods are listed in both Conquest and Solzhenitsyn, I took this particular list from the CIA. They are — according to ABC News — five of the “Enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA in secret camps on prisoners detained without trial or any other contact with the outside world. There is a sixth method, of simulated drowning, which even the KGB did not use.

These are the methods described last week by Mr Bush’s appointed head of the CIA as “a variety of unique and innovative [techniques], all of which are legal and none of which are torture”.

Solzhenitsyn, reviewing their effect of these tortures, wholly unoriginal and completely illegal even when practised by the KGB, asks mercy for their victims. He, who suffered terribly himself, does not condemn anyone who cracked: “Brother mine! Do not condemn those who, finding themselves in such a situation, turned out to be weak and confessed to more than they should have. … Do not be the first to cast a stone at them.”

Neither should we. But there is one small point of justice here. The purpose of these tortures is to extract confessions, or, as the CIA calls them, “vital information”. And if they are effective then we owe Stalin’s ghost a huge apology. Orwell, Koestler, Conquest, Solzhenitsyn, and all the other enemies of Communism were slanderers.

If torture works, the truth means nothing and all the heads of the KGB under Stalin were really working for British intelligence and Leon Trotsky too. And if you find that hard to believe, consider the only alternative: that the men currently directing the American government in its fight against evil are themselves now taking their instructions from the other side.

An argument for which I will not charge royalties

Friday, September 29th, 2006

I thought I could not longer be shocked by the hatred and depravity of the usual crew of dhimmitudinous liberal al-Guardianistas who will see nothing good in any of the actions of this administration. Typically, they are screaming in their chestless womanly way about the way that congress has voted to legalise torture and abolish habeas corpus. It never occurs to them that this is a far-sighted move towards lasting peace. Since, as everyone knows, the terrorists hate us for our freedoms, how can we hope to end the Global War on Terror unless we remove the freedoms that they hate us for?

I’ll be astonished if any better defence of this crew is ever put forward, and delighted if it is put forward at the Hague.

What does this mean?

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

Tim Garton Ash, in the Guardian today, concludes by saying:

At this pivotal moment, we who live in the rest of the world, beyond the Washington beltway, also face a choice. We can watch like spectators in the cinema, as a real-life Terminator 4 unfolds before our eyes, and then walk home, at once titivatingly appalled and self-huggingly reassured in the certainty of our own moral superiority – until, that is, we are blown up by a jihadist bomb. Or we can try to reinforce the nascent shift in Washington by ourselves helping to develop better ways than guns and missiles of dealing with a militant Iran, the awful consequences of the misbegotten Iraq war, home-grown terrorist cells and the other real dangers that threaten us even more directly than they do the current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

And who are this “we” he addresses? If anything I could say or do or write had any influence in Washington I’d feel a little better. But of course it doesn’t. So perhaps the piece is addressed to the British governing classes. But they are of course doing whatever is in their power to find a way of coping with the consequences of the Iraq disaster; and they are very well aware of the threat of Jihadi terrorism. Nor, in any case, does Washington take any notice of them, either. I like Tim, and admire him greatly. But he’s not very realistic about the power of intellectuals in modern America.

Mike Ford, a review never published

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

I did actually review his most recent book1 for the Guardian. They never printed the review, because the book,sent me by PNH, was never published here. But I did send it to him, and got a kind note back.2 Below the fold.

1 No, I don’t want to write “last”.

2 Kinder, perhaps, that I would have written myself in response to a review so much about other people. But I was writing for a self-consciously high culture audience. They still have on file an appreciation of Resumé with Monsters which they don’t know what to do with.


A friend you should have had (a note to Rupert)

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

Did you ever come across Mike Ford, memorialised at Making Light these last few days? He wrote the lovely sonnet in our living room.

But go and read the linked posts anyway. They make a fence now, between us and him, that cannot be recrossed.

Textile despair

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Some of the people who read this — I’m looking at you, Hammersley — know quite a lot about Movable Type. So maybe, somewhere you there on the lazyweb, is the person who can tell me why the individual archive template, which is what you get when you try to make a comment, or to read the comments on a particular entry, blows up all the “fancy” quotes — the em dashes — and everything else that shows up fine when the same entry is displayed on the front page.

In both cases, the tag I am using is identical: <$MTEntryBody smarty_pants=”1″ filters=”textile_2″$> but while this entry will look fine onthe front page, it will look terrible on its own. Why?

UPDATE; it was a side-effect of the switch to dynamic publishing. The front page here is generated statically; the individual pages here are pubished dynamically, using PHP. But if you use PHP to do this, you need a different plugin to pretty up the quotes, which I now have got. Any further errors, complaints to the usual place.

God’s magic telephone

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Sam Harris asks1 why we should respect George Bush for saying that he talks with God in the privacy of his bedroom. If he said that he talked to God using a magic telephone, then people would think him mad. So, asks Harris, what difference does the absence of a telephone make?

This isn’t the unanswerable question that he thinks it is. The difference is that the magic telephone offers a strictly private revelation. When the lunatic hands his magic telephone, to someone else, the recipient hears nothing. Prayer’s not like that. People who pray do tend to hear things, at least some of the time; and they do agree that they are, or ought to be, hearing things from the same source.

Harris objects: why is a shared delusion preferable to a private one?

Because it can be criticised and made less delusional. It can be integrated into the other knowledge of the group. You cannot tell a schizophrenic with a magic telephone that the voices aren’t really telling him to kill someone. He knows. But people who pray are some of the time different. What’s more, they are committed to the belief that they are different. Hearing God is a social activity. Protestantism, or modern semper reformanda Islam is much closer to lunacy in this respect. But the cure, however incomplete and partial, is more likely to be better religion than an attempt to abolish it: “God said this but he meant that” is a more productive way to do things than “God never said that, you stupid greedy hick hahahaha”. See the entire history of Judaism for examples.

1 I read it earlier this week, but buggered if I can find where.

Notes from a scrapbook

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Is religiously inspired morality a crane or a skyhook? That is to ask: when a religious person attempts to build their character in a particular direction, are they building on pre-existent morality, or hoiking down something from God or the bible? I would claim it is self-evident that they are building on pre-existent moral urges and predispositions; more, that each successive act of willpower or moral exertion builds on the ones before. To this extent they are using, in Dan Dennett’s terminology, cranes. They are building themselves, step by step, on previously built foundations, using techniques that have worked before. What’s more, I don’t see how that morality could work otherwise. It is possible that some charismatics disagree with me and suppose that a single intervention from above could change everything. I think that the Catholic doctrine of grace might be interpreted that way, though I don’t know enough about that. But in general, my experience of Catholics is that they expect grace to build on nature, in the phrase.

The point of this is that it suits both sides often to think of religious belief is working like viral DNA: it takes over the pre-existing character and moral judgement and zombifies it. Yet, while we can think of people who are like that for a while, how long do they last? As Eileen Barker’s work showed, most Moonies grow up. So do most Christians of my acquaintance, and most atheists, too. But if you naturalise religion in this way, you take away a lot of of the fun from atheism. The atheist, too, wants to struggle with principalities and powers, or at least with skyhooks and memes.

I know this isn’t widely accepted, but that only shows I’m right: it seems to me that differences in temperament are much more profound than differences in creed: that how you believe is more important than what you believe.

Some people only feel like this on Mondays

Saturday, September 23rd, 2006

People keep telling me I’m gloomy these days. Very well; I’m gloomy. Let me share. Here are some fragments from the latest NYRB.

Tim Garton Ash In the relationship with Islam as a religion, it makes sense to encourage those versions of Islam that are compatible with the fundamentals of a modern, liberal, and democratic Europe. That they can be found is the promise of Islamic reformers such as Tariq Ramadan — another controversial figure, deeply distrusted by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the French left, and the American right, but an inspiration to many young European Muslims. Ramadan insists that Islam, properly interpreted, need not conflict with a democratic Europe. …
Ultimately, this is a challenge as much for European societies as for European governments. Much of the discrimination in France, for example, is the result of decisions by individual employers, who are going against the grain of public policy and the law of the land. It’s the personal attitudes and behavior of hundreds of millions of non-Muslim Europeans, in countless small, everyday interactions, that will determine whether their Muslim fellow citizens begin to feel at home in Europe or not. Together, of course, with the personal choices of millions of individual Muslims, and the example given by their spiritual and political leaders.
Is it likely that Europeans will rise to this challenge? I fear not. Is it still possible? Yes. But it’s already five minutes to midnight — and we are drinking in the last chance saloon.

John Gray on George Soros:

Soros’s early experiences left him with a need to understand human behavior in extreme circumstances, which led to his lifelong engagement with the ideas of Popper. Popper never doubted that the ills of society could be remedied by the use of reason, and despite his criticisms of Popper’s philosophy Soros would like to agree. It is a belief — or hope — that has inspired him to promote intellectual and political pluralism throughout the world and it informs his admirable stand in opposing the follies of the Bush administration. Yet the searching self-criticism he undertakes in this book points in a different direction. If there cannot be a science of society, neither can society be expected to repeat the cumulative advance that has been achieved in science. The extreme situations that Soros experienced as a youth, and which in a different form he sees today, are not solely a result of fallibility — even of the radical kind he discusses in his account of reflexivity. They have a deeper source in irrational beliefs, which remain potent forces in politics. Over the long sweep of history, far-from-equilibrium situations are normal. Open societies can never be safe from the disorders of faith.

Some people may ask why, if I am so pessimistic about religion, and believe so much in its destructive power, I am then so rude about Dawkins. Sam Harris, and similar atheists. Don’t they agree with me? Yes. But they’re optimists. They hold out the hope that there can be democratic, peaceful societies committed to the (costly) effort of reason and self-criticism even when this has no obvious benefits, and irrationality no obvious costs. Actually, their assumption is stronger than that. They believe this is the natural, equilibrium state of any society that has discovered science. And it seems to me that this is one of the beliefs that has been completely exploded since about 1950. Or, as Housman put it, the love of truth is the weakest of all human passions.

Getcha Quechua flashcards here

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

The FWB is currently doing a Latin A level with an imaginative teacher, who has her pupil1 doing Latin Scrabble. Googling for a tile set led me to the University of Toronto, and from there to Liberation Philology, a small Canadian firm which offers learning aids in

  • Catalan
  • Dutch
  • French
  • Wulfilan Gothic
  • Irish
  • Latin
  • Old English
  • Old Occitan (Medieval Provencal)
  • Pali Nouns (transliterated)

amongst others, and vocabulary tests in Finnish, Swedish, Latin, Quechua and so forth.

Another Canadian firm offers a very comprehensive French grammar checker and dictionary suite which works with OOo. My French is sufficiently awful that I would use this if I had to write any significant amount of correspondence in that language. Yet I feel that it would diminish my chances of learning from my mistakes. Question: is the shame, and the emotional charge of classroom learning important in increasing its efficiency? This might be easier to research if any shame whatsoever attached, in English schools, to vile mispronunciation of foreign words.

1 Not a misprint