22 September 2003

Against Copy-Controlled CDs

There has recently been a shift away from the largely authoritarian prohibitions adorning CDs to a more ‘personal’ approach: rather than the familiar “All rights reserved. Unauthorised copying blah blah blah is prohibited”, recent EMI CDs have sported the spiel reproduced below.
Thank you for buying this music and for supporting the artists, songwriters, musicians and others who've made it and made it possible. Please remember that this recording and artwork are protected by copyright law. Since you don't own the copyright, it's not yours to distribute. Please don't use Internet services that promote illegal distribution of copyrighted music, give away copies of discs or lend discs to others for copying. It's hurting the artists who created the music. It has the same effect as stealing a disc from a store without paying for it.

Apart from the somewhat whining tone, this is a shift of focus away from what we might call ‘professional’ copying (pirating CDs en masse and selling them in shops as actual substitutes for the originals) to ‘casual’ copying (making copies for friends). The latter has apparently reached such proportions, and the copies such high quality, that it is considered the more threatening to the music industry, or at least threatening enough to warrant a direct appeal. This appeal is apparently to the better side in all of us, the side of us which is basically law-abiding, and the side of us which doesn’t really understand the implications of what we are doing when we copy a CD for a friend. However, I find it sentimental, patronising and on the verge of insulting.

That illegal copying and downloading have reached unprecedented proportions is beyond question. What is questionable is the explanation presented in the passage quoted above. You and I copy CDs because we don’t understand what we’re doing, how it’s hurting the poor musicians and ‘others’ (I wonder who they are? - perhaps the same people who were so afraid of releasing Terry Gilliam’s most famous film that he had to put an advert in the newspaper which read, "Dear XYZ, when are you going to release my film Brazil?" - in short, the pushers of pens). It’s like stealing from a shop, and you and I wouldn’t do that, now would we? Yet we copy CDs. The unavoidable implication of this is that the music industry regards the likes of you and me not so much as customers but as potential (or actual) criminals. How generous. And if we could only realise how it hurts (and don’t forget, as R.E.M. once said, that “Everybody hurts”), could let our hearts fill up with sympathy and empathy, instead of apathy, we could rise above the sinful temptation.

Do I go too far? Perhaps. But please note that there in no mention of the over-pricing and poor standards of commercialised music in the passage cited (admittedly, how could there be?). All the blame for the current proliferation of copying and downloading is the consumer’s responsibility. The music industry have (needless to say) absolved themselves of the need to produce quality music at a reasonable price - in short, of giving us value for our money. And so long as the blame is one-sided, and seen as solely the prerogative of the unscrupulous consumer rather than the unscrupulous producer, there will never be a solution to the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not promoting the illegal distribution of CDs and I am not an inveterate copier of CDs myself (I own over 800 bought CDs). I most definitely agree that we should pay musicians for what they do. What I am disputing is that the problem lies where the music industry think it does (or better: where they are telling us it lies) and that it can be solved in the way they think it can.

So here, in a little more detail, are my objections.

1) The argument from stealing goes like this: if I copy a CD for a friend, I am depriving a store of the sale of that CD. If I hadn’t copied the CD, my friend would have bought it, and as such the shop would have made its €16, and thus I am effectively stealing. Fallacy #1: there is no reason to think that my friend would necessarily have bought the CD if I had not burnt it for them. True, they might have; but might have is entirely different from would have. They might have listened to it in the store, decided that there were only two good songs on it, taped them off the radio, and waited for the Greatest Hits to come out. In that situation, exactly how has the copying deprived the store of money? It hasn’t, and my point is this: even if copying CDs often deprives stores of money, it does not categorically deprive them of money, and as such cannot categorically be compared to stealing.

Which brings up to Fallacy #2: copying a CD for a friend is not like stealing it from a shop, for the simple reason that I bought the CD which I am copying. Naturally this does not give me copyright over the material. But I still paid my €16 for the CD, and even if the store has diminishing returns on that CD the more I copy it (one copy = €8, two copies = €5.33, and so on), at least there are returns. When I steal a CD from a store the returns are immediately €0 for everyone involved. True, the store doesn’t make its second €16, but it did make its first, and in this copying a CD is significantly different to downloading songs from the internet or indeed stealing it. To accuse the general public of effectively stealing a CD from a store when they copy it for a friend is over-simplistic and sensationalist.

However, it might be argued that even if what I say is true, when I copy a CD from a friend, the analogy with stealing is more appropriate, since I have paid nothing. But that still depends on whether or not the friend bought the CD or downloaded it from the Internet, since ultimately what interests the music industry is how many CDs are sold, not who buys them.

2) Why isn't the industry clamping down on second-hand record shops? Don't they re-sell CDs at reduced price and prevent people from buying them at full price from high-street stores? (Okay, that’s a bit pedantic....)

3) It is disingenuous to suggest that artists are only hurt by copied CDs, since it ignores the role that ‘burnt’ CDs can play in selling CDs indirectly, or at least judges it insignificant. To take an example: suppose I have two copied CDs of Ani Difranco at home. But I could qualify that by saying that I have eight bought CDs by Ani Difranco at home as well. If I hadn’t been given copies of those CDs by a friend several years ago, I would never have discovered her music and bought every album she has released since. So in this case, surely even if those two copies of CDs are comparable to stealing, the threefold returns of subsequent sales must offset that.

Ani Difranco has a far better slogan than the EMI blurb on her CDs:
Unauthorised duplication, while sometimes necessary, is never as good as the real thing.


This strikes me as much more honest. Ani Difranco is herself a fine example of what is meant by ‘while sometimes necessary’, since her career is built on the distribution of bootlegged tapes of her earliest album(s) during the early nineties, which built a following because of the quality of the music (pushers of pens take note) that allowed her to become a successful independent artist thereafter. Just how many artists have built their careers on great live performances and casual copying? My estimate would be many, although admittedly confined to the so-called ‘independent’ scene. A great British example would be the Ozric Tentacles, whose early albums are all 60 minutes long because that was the length of the cassettes they were recorded onto. But if we start talking about unauthorised copying possibly being more threatening to some artists than others - namely, more threatening to the commercialised, over-promoted artists who only have hits because we are told that they are good, than to those who eschew such machinery and consistently produce good music and live performances without top 40 hits - then we are entering a wholly different ball-game.

4) Someone may accuse me of having a deficient sense of morality: that just as stealing is wrong (=illegal), copying a CD is wrong (=illegal), and that, after all, something is either right or wrong, and there is nothing in between. The answer is that there are shades of grey. Remember the old commandment of Thou shalt not kill? Try explaining that it means in all cases to any God-fearing Christian of the crusades, or latterly born-again Christians like George Bush. My views about the war are irrelevant here; just that when even self-professed Christians believe that killing is acceptable in some circumstances, what compels the rest of us to accept that stealing is in all cases wrong? And furthermore, anyone who sides with the music industry should stop being an apologist, since surely no-one in their right mind thinks that the industry itself believes in black-and-white morality. Just watch the sliding standards of sex/advertising on any music TV station you care to mention if you don’t agree.

5) Copying a CD for a friend is vastly different to downloading music from the Internet or indeed posting music on the Internet for others to download. Such a song is readily available to thousands upon thousands of people, which is somewhat different to the limited number of CDs that could be burnt for a circle of friends that have similar music tastes. Internet sites which promote illegal downloads of music are more comparable to the ‘professional’ copying I mentioned earlier than to casual copying through the sheer magnitude of potential downloads.

6) I find the Apple Music Store, which recently celebrated its 10 millionth download amongst American Mac users alone, instructive in several ways.

i) The obvious: that it is commercially viable to sell music downloads over the Internet, if the price is reasonable, the service effective, and people have the right to do what they want with the music (such as burn it to CD) when they have downloaded it. All the previous solutions offered by the music industry were overly paranoid and incredulous, like suggestions that people could ‘rent’ the music on subscription or pay for the number of plays.

ii) The principle fear of the music industry - that such a service would promote ‘greatest hits’ or ‘Top-40’ downloading rather than downloads of complete albums - has proven unfounded. Now just why were they worried about that? Perhaps because the multi-media morass which is popular music sells mediocre albums on the back of two or three hit videos which are indistinguishable from all the other hit videos and promoted to the point of saturation, and that given the opportunity the public would judge the rest of the album for what it is and ignore it. After all, not everybody (hardly anybody) is, like Michael Jackson, capable of producing an entire album of viable hits (as was certainly the case with Dangerous). And Kaboom! all those low-quality-driven profits are out of the window. But for whatever reason - maybe we’re just too well trained - it didn’t materialise.

iii) The introduction of the Apple (iTunes) Music Store in Europe is currently planned for the euro-zone only. One wonders why. Administration purposes? Hardly. The truth is surely that the euro-zone, with its single currency, has a certain degree of price parity, while the main country outside the euro-zone, Britain, has no price-parity whatsoever with the countries within it. A new CD in Germany costs say €16 or €17, while it costs the same in pounds sterling. With a conversion rate of approximately £2 : €3, that means that the average British CD costs around €24. The excuse for this, as for all the extortionate prices of Britain, is import costs (which of course is why Guinness, imported from Ireland, is cheaper in Germany than in Britain). And here we have the real reason for euro-scepticism amongst British companies. After all, what self-respecting British company would willingly subject itself to a transparent pan-European enterprise which highlighted just how much they had been overcharging the British public for decades? The same is true of the music industry in Britain in relation to the Apple Music Store.1

7) Copy Controlled CDs don’t prevent copying. Any fool can copy a copy controlled CD, by simply buying a cable from a local electrical store, connecting the headphone jack on a standard hi-fi system or disc-man to the input jack on the computer and importing the sound with software like the open source Audacity. True, it won’t be a digital reproduction but an audio one, yet the point is this: Copy Control does not prevent anyone who actually wants to copy the CD from copying it. It simply takes a little longer (1:1 playback), and doesn’t even involve fancy software which can be outlawed, just around €3 for a cable.

8) They are intensely annoying. I don’t have a hi-fi system, or a TV, only a computer (I fell for the Apple propaganda about a digital hub, all right? You know, all that stuff about a computer being able to do what you want it to and not needing six different appliances to do what one thing is perfectly capable of doing?) The software that comes along with these CDs is rubbish, since it keeps jumping, stopping and utterly ruining the listening experience. So either I have to connect my disc-man to the computer every time I want to listen to a Copy Controlled CD, or for simple convenience, I am encouraged to employ the method described above to circumvent the problem in order to listen to the blasted CDs whenever I want to do so with the minimum hassle. In other words, Copy Controlled CDs may even encourage people to find ways of overcoming the inconvenience.


Conclusion

Those are some of my reasons for disliking the spiel now found on Copy Control CDs. It targets the wrong consumer problem (which is downloads); it treats the consumer like a criminal; and it ignores the responsibility of the music industry to produce things which are worth parting with our money for. It is a cynical, and above all frightened, manoeuvre. What is the music industry frightened of? Change in the face of technology. So far its response to the increasingly open and global scale of technology has been increasing protectionism, increasingly aggressive attitudes towards those who do not play the prescribed game. For the music industry the dot-com bubble never burst: it never even began.

19 May 2003

Matrix: Reloaded, directed by the Wachowski Brothers

Many people do not seem to have liked the start of Matrix: Reloaded, which does take some time to get going.  I’ve heard comments about the messianic-depiction of Neo at the start, and that the film is too much “Neo Christ Superstar”.  Not fair, in my view.  The film starts with his dream about Trinity dying, which lends a more fatalistic tone to everything which follows.  He seems burdened by his responsibility when he arrives home to find people seeking his help.  And it isn’t Neo who gives an uplifting speech to the people of Zion, it is Morpheus.  And the people seem to revere (worship?) Morpheus just as much.  As for the speech, it was pleasantly surprising.  After the drum-banging of The Two Towers (which Peter Jackson admittedly tries to tone down), the simple realism of Morpheus’ was like a breath of fresh air.  There was none of the glory-of-those-about-to-die about the speech, the main sentiment being that, although they had been at war with the machines for a century, they still hadn’t been defeated: they would survive as they always had. Give me that over the “we shall die in such a way as will be worthy of a song” rubbish of The Lord Of The Rings any day.

More important is the way in which the film resembles that of Peter Jackson.  Both films seem to be in the process of re-inventing what it means to write a sequel. The Empire Strikes Back, in which the good guys lose and the hero loses his hand in a fight, had an attempt at this in the early 1980’s, but no-one seemed to take up the gauntlet until recently (Terminator 2 almost did).  Both films treat the audience with some respect by implicitly saying, we know you’ve seen the first film and you understand what is going on; we’re not going to patronise you with background which you already know.  Neither film has any introductory sequences for the main characters or story.  If you haven’t seen the first film, you won’t have a clue what is going on in the second.  It might sound arrogant, but this is good.  The very nature of a sequel is to sell itself on the back of its predecessor’s success (a series is somewhat different, however).  Why should films with complex story-lines like The Lord Of The Rings or The Matrix recapitulate what took 2 or 3 hours to develop in the first part for the benefit of those who go to watch a second part of a trilogy without watching the first part?  Answer: they shouldn’t.  Nobody who went to see Matrix: Reloaded wanted a simple re-hash of the first film: they wanted a development.  They wanted to see how the story went on, what would happen next, not merely the same story retold with new special effects and different actors, as is all to often the case in sequels.  There is a kind of anti-populism in these films which is a good sign, in my opinion: they are not made for the ignorant fools who went to see The Fellowship Of The Ring and were disappointed that it didn’t have a proper ending.  It is an attitude which says “It’s a trilogy, stupid!” and which I find utterly refreshing.  It is anti-formulaic: repeating the formula is not enough.  It is brave: it risks alienating a section of the audience.  And for Hollywood at least, it is subversive: it shows how well it is possible to do a sequel, which will heighten the contrast with the populist pap that is usually churned out.

Matrix: Reloaded does this without changing the basic story of its predecessor, a common device of sequels (see Highlander 2 for a particularly bad application of this rule: it turns out that they’re aliens!).  The world of both films is the same: nothing had to be tweaked in order to introduce the new story.  The excellent Agent Smith was not replaced by a new and supposedly more dangerous Agent Smith character (who would have made short work of the hero of the last film) but with a re-invented Smith, whose own development is intertwined with Neo’s.  Old allies, such as The Oracle, are recast in a new but consistent light; new foes are introduced who would simply not have been interested in the events of the first film.  And because of the generally familiar cybernetics context, new concepts are able to be introduced which require no justification to the audience: “programs hacking programs” as Neo says at one point regarding the exiled programmes we meet at various stages of the film, or the idea of programmer ‘backdoors’ which require the correct key to be opened.  All this means that Matrix: Reloaded feels like a worthy extension of the original, and if its a little complicated at times, that just leaves you talking about it when you leave the cinema.

I have heard the suggestion that the film is really only commerce, trying to make you watch the third part when it comes out.  If you’ve read everything I’ve written so far, you’ll know that I don’t think that’s true.  Certainly, we have a multi-media bombardment, but that’s been true of much-hyped films for years.  And if the computer game (to take one example) is so well integrated into the story of the film as it is supposed to be then that is raising the stakes of tie-ins.  I have no problem with multi-media capitalism anyway, just with dumb multi-media capitalism.

Another thing that I was pleased wasn’t missing was the humour.  The first Matrix was near-spoof at some points, and the stylish tongue-in-cheek nature of the film was what made it so superior to many other ‘action’ movies.  There is perhaps not as much in the second film, although some of the humour will become apparent after several viewings, I’m sure (like the Morpheus’ explanation that within the Matrix, your physical form is “the mental projection of your digital self” - er, really? Like, I have a digital self?).  But a couple of points stood out.  “He’s doing his Superman thing again” says the new operator Link as he watches Neo flying off into the blue.  And as Neo leaves The Architect and the building explodes behind him we get a old fashioned fist-clenched outstretched-arm flying routine straight out of DC Comics. Übercool.  When Smith leaps on a unsuspecting rebel who cries “Oh, God!”, Smith replies “Smith will suffice.” Or when Neo meets The Architect, who tells him that “the most obvious question is also the most irrelevant”; Neo, not having much in the way of grey matter, asks “Why am I here?”  And to cap it all, when The Architect, who likes the sound of his own voice, pauses for breath, Neo, in a flash of insight observes that “You still haven’t answered my question”; The Architect replies “Quite right. Interesting: you noticed faster than your predecessors” and proceeds to talk about something else entirely.  When Trinity lies dead in his arms, Neo resolves to try and bring her back to life on the basis that “I just love you too damn much”; her first words are “Now we’re even”.  Side splitting it isn’t, but this kind of almost-corny self-awareness saves both films from disappearing up their own behinds, which given the amount of stylised violence and neo-mystical pseudo-science is absolutely crucial.  “There is no spoon” from the original film is still one of my favourite cinematic lines ever.  And even if other people think that the films are true, the saving grace of the films is that they don’t take themselves so seriously.  After all: its a film, stupid!

Matrix: Reloaded - Speculations

Impressed I am.  Saw the film on Friday (well, actually I saw the film twice on Friday).  It is what I had hoped the second film would be and more.  The basic conceptual problem which the Wachowski Brothers would have to deal with in this film was the fact that at the end of the original Matrix , Neo overcomes his archenemy and becomes pretty much invincible.  During the last sequence he even seems able to freeze the Matrix.  So how, with such a powerful lead character, do you write a second and third film?  So far the Wachowskis have succeeded brilliantly.

During the first fight in the film Neo is confronted with three Agents and when they appear clearly faster than before he observes wryly, “Upgrades.”  They don’t last long, however, and its also the last time in the film that Neo will fight Agents.  Much more interesting is that his archenemy has become his nemesis.  No full explanation is given, but good old Agent Smith is back.  Having been destroyed by Neo, he has instead been “set free” and is no longer an Agent of the system.  The suggestion is that “perhaps some code was copied or overwritten”: in other words, when Neo destroyed the original Agent Smith some of the base computer code which comprises everyone in the Matrix was altered and Agent Smith acquired some part of Neo’s uniqueness.  And this uniqueness has transformed into multiplicity: his freedom from the system has given him the ability to overwrite the code of others himself, be they ordinary civilians, rebels or indeed other Agents.  He tries to pull the same trick on Neo, but nothing is ever that simple: Neo, after all, is The One.  But the impression is that, if Smith could defeat Neo and “overwrite his code” he would assimilate much (if not all) of Neo’s power and become an Anti-One.  The net result is that Agent Smith, at this point, is invincible.  We are treated to a fight scene in which increasing numbers of Smiths arrive, eventually numbering a hundred or so.  Echoes of the Hydra myth of Greek mythology, maybe, where when one head is cut off, two grow back to replace it.  In the myth, you had to quickly cauterise the wound with fire before the heads can regenerate; Neo needs some such fire but lacks it at the moment.  In the end he does what Cypher advised in the first film and runs.  We bump into Smith again a couple of times in the film, but if you stayed and watched the credits to the end, you’ll have seen the trailer for the third film and know that Smith is being set up to be the big baddie there (“If you can’t defeat him tonight, tomorrow it will be too late”).

We are also introduced to another group of programmes (?people?) with more autonomy than your average Agent.  We learn that The Oracle of the first film is one such programme, along with her bodyguard ?Seriph? (who seems to play a part in the third film) and a strange character called The Merovingian.  He has kidnapped The Keymaker, who our intrepid heroes need in order to fulfill the prophecy that, when The One reaches the Core (of the computer system), the war will be over.  Thus ensues a great deal of fighting, the good guys eventually winning.

What is interesting here is that, in contrast to the first film where there are simply good guys and bad guys, in the second film there are at least four groups of antagonists: the rebels, the Agents, Smith(s) and independents like The Merovingian.  While some are clearly good and some bad, others are ambiguous and others may simply stand for chaos and fight everyone.  The result is a much more complex set of motivations and relations which does the film no end of good, and I’m sure will be further developed in the third part of the trilogy.

At the end of the film (which was more conclusive than I’d imagined it would be) Neo does reach the Core and meets a perhaps rather too god-like chap called The Architect.  They have an extraordinarily complex conversation which throws more than one spanner in the works.  The story moves to a meta-level, where the rebellion against the machines is actually part of the programme, and has indeed been run five times before.  The One is an integral part of the programme, basically allowing it to be rebooted (which, I take it, is what was meant by “the war will be over”).  As far as I understand it, the idea is this: as Agent Smith said in the original film, the human mind rejected the first Matrix because it was too perfect, and ever since the machines have been updating and refining the programme until it reaches a tolerable level of efficiency.  If The Architect is the father of the Matrix, The Oracle is its Mother: she (the programme) realised that at about 99% of the time the human mind would accept the Matrix if it was given a choice at even a sub-conscious level.  However, the 1% that did not would become increasingly dangerous as their numbers expanded.  So the machines introduced The One, who would be able to lead the rebels onwards with hope, until the reached the point of directly challenging the core of the system, whereupon they would unwittingly reboot the system and restart the whole (now refined process) from the beginning.  Next time, however, only 0.5% would reject the Matrix, then 0.25% and so on.  This is, as I said, the sixth time the programme has been run, which explains why The Oracle knows what will happen in the future: because it already has five times.  It also casts her role in the in the first film in a somewhat different light: she is doing research into all the “potentials” which we see in her flat, such as the boy with the spoon, in order to improve the Matrix programme so that these anomalies do not arise next time.  And don’t forget that Morpheus said that The Oracle freed the first of the rebels; to facilitate the research, it seems.  Hence the entire underground uprising is anticipated and planned by the machines, more or less like keeping a database of software bugs.

At the end of meeting with The Architect, Neo is given a choice: go through the door on the left and save the entire human population (by rebooting the programme), or go through the door on the left and save the life of Trinity (who has just been shot by an Agent).  Love-struck as he is, Neo chooses to save Trinity, but by this stage in the game we’ve no idea whether that was indeed what he was meant to do. Trinity dies (as was prophesied, but since she dies within the Matrix, Neo is able to give her code a little tweak and in effect give her the kiss of life.  They return to the Nebuchcadnezzar and Neo tells Morpheus some of what happened (I think he left out the bit about the sixth run, though) and Morpheus, understandably, has a crisis of faith.  He has lived by the Prophecy all his life and now it has not come true: the war is not over even though The One reached the Core.  Then we are treated to yet another twist: Sentinels turn up and ambush the ship and it is destroyed by a bomb (looked more like a missile to me, though).  The crew escape, are about to be killed by the Sentinels when Neo stops, saying that “something has changed”, turns round to face the Sentinels and, rather as he does with bullets, stops them dead in their tracks.  The Sentinels short-circuit and crash to the ground; Neo follows them, the physical exertion being too much. And that, pretty much, is the end of the film (I’m purposefully leaving out the odd spoiler).

What is going on here?  When Neo faces the Sentinels, it is not in the Matrix but in the “real” world, although he appears to have Matrix-like powers, even if their physical toll is extremely great.  I see two possibilities here, which have quite different implications. One is that this supposedly “real” world of the Sentinels, the hovercraft and Zion is all in fact part of a deeper meta-programme. What we have previously know as the Matrix is in truth a Matrix-within-a-Matrix, rather like a Russian doll, and everything we have seen so far in the films has been within this meta-programme: we have not yet seen the “real” world.  People living wiithin the Matrix believe it is real; those who have escaped the Matrix believe that they have escaped to reality, but that would be seen to be just as false, if only they could escape to the next level, and it could be that Neo is beginning that escape.  The story of meta-Matrixes, however, could go on to infinity.  Alternatively, it could be that the borders between the Matrix and the non-Matrix worlds is becoming blurred; there is a “strange loop” (to use Douglas Hofstadter’s phrase from Gödel, Escher, Bach) between the worlds, such that Neo will be increasingly able to use Matrix-like powers within the world of the machines and that the conclusion of the trilogy will involve these powers.  This does not have to be a contradiction in the logic of the film.  One explanation is that it occurs as a by-product of the increasing refinement of the Matrix.  In The Architect’s constant striving for efficiency in the system, The One will become correspondingly efficient, perhaps in ways unforeseen.  And it could be do do with the bond with Smith: Smith has become free from the bounds of the machines and is able to inhabit human minds from his encounter with Neo, and in a parallel way Neo has become able to “feel” (his word) and control the machines.  I’m tempted to go this way: we’re not watching the third incarnation of The One, because that went according to plan (from the machines’ point of view), but the sixth, because in the end it doesn’t go according to plan.  And the bond with Smith seems the most likely source of that at this point.

06 May 2003

A Passion Play, by Jethro Tull

At last! Finally my favourite Jethro Tull album has been re-mastered and re-issued! This may seem unworthy of comment, but, having released the ‘classic’ Tull albums of Aqualung (1971) and Thick As A Brick (1972) some time ago, EMI recently set about re-issuing all the Tull albums starting with the first album This Was (1968), followed by the second album Stand Up (1969) and the third album Benefit (1970). Then for some reason they leapfrogged A Passion Play and released the next three albums, War Child (1974), Minstrel In The Gallery (1975) and Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die (1976). I was beginning to despair. Then last weekend I found it, re-issued out of sequence with Songs From The Wood (1977) and Heavy Horses (1978). I still don’t see the logic of this, but at least the CD (and naturally the other two) has finally made its way into my record collection.

My relationship to Jethro Tull’s music has been complex. They have passed through so many styles and phases during their career that I have found myself liking different records or series of records at different times. This is to some extent natural for anyone who listens to a lot of music, but Tull seem to have experimented with directions more than most and I’ve found myself growing into their various developments. I began with the late 80's rock phase of Crest Of A Knave (1987), for which Tull somewhat farcically won a Heavy Metal award (over Metallica!), and Rock Island (1989). Then progressed backwards to the greatest hits of the early 70’s. Then rocketed forward to the early 80’s electronics of The Broadsword And The Beast (1982). Then backward again to the late '70s folk-based albums. The two albums I would not part with now are are A Passion Play and Minstrel In The Gallery. The point is really that at each time I thought I knew Tull and knew what I liked, only to rediscover them again later (A Passion Play became a foil for my increasingly electronic-dance orientated musical tastes), so I’ve been spared the nostalgia of ‘I used to listen to this’ but have instead found that Tull have remained relevant to my musical environment, from the beginning on, in a way that no other band have.

A Passion Play is the most complicated album Tull recorded, and, following Thick As A Brick, the second and last album to be 45 minutes of continuous music. And 45 minutes it is, rather than two sections of 23-ish minutes. In that comment lies my first criticism of every CD release. On both Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play, there is a sense of trying to overcome the physical constraints of the medium of a vinyl record. The end of the first side of Thick As A Brick fades out and the second side fades in from the same point. On A Passion Play there is an interval song, 'The Story of the Hare who Lost his Spectacles', and the bridge occurs in the middle of the story, during a natural pause after the main characters have been introduced. In fact the album anticipates the CD medium with its single side, and it was not until being issued on CD that this endeavour was truly fulfilled. However, every CD I’ve seen begins the second part of the album from the beginning of 'The Story…' . It would be more appropriate to begin from the middle, as the vinyl did, or to dispense with such divisions altogether, in acknowledgement of what the album was trying to do.

'The Story of the Hare who Lost his Spectacles' is an oddity amongst Jethro Tull songs in that it is narrated, and indeed not even by Ian Anderson, but by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. Musically it is a psychedelic mutation of Peter And The Wolf filtered through Winnie-The-Pooh and only flirts with what we would recognise as Rock in the last few bars. But the words are the key for me: the punning makes you cringe in delight. On the newly re-mastered release, we are treated to a 7-minute promotional video of 'The Story…', complete with ballerinas, the dancing of oversized animals and frantic editing. As you watch this or listen to the music, it’s worth bearing in mind that only two years previously Tull had been bracketed in much the same category as Led Zeppelin, and yet this is about as far from Heavy Metal or Hard Rock as it’s possible to get.

The words and lyrical plays are part of what makes the album so impressive. Perhaps the best line is on the second side: 'I’d give up my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had'. Overall, the album is about death and possibly life afterwards, beginning as it does with a funeral. Yet, 30 years after its original release, it is not only the lyrics which make the album rewarding. Released in the same year as the ‘definitive’ concept album, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, A Passion Play is for me the better recording, and a major part of the reason is the music. A Passion Play is more unified musically than The Dark Side Of The Moon; the latter is really just songs which cross-fade, whereas the former has an ‘approach’ and a sense of continuous development. The music often is among Jethro Tull's most playfully eccentric, flowing in and out of seeming incoherence. The opening instrumental, for example, has an inverted 'Teddy-bear's Picnic' quality (which reminds me of the truly disturbing start of Faust’s eponymous 1971 album) before turning to the apparent gravity of funeral described in the lyrics. Regular song structures are rare, while repeated motifs tie the various sections together. There’s still a lot of acoustic guitar in there, but there’s also a lot of jazz-based rhythm and extreme contrasts of electric to acoustic and wild to ethereal.

The strange thing is that this album marked the turn of critical acclaim for Tull. The critics hated it, and for some reason have never recovered. Maybe part of the problem was that Ian Anderson seemed to resent being put into a category. Or maybe that he gave the impression of not caring whether they liked him and his music or not. Maybe the swing between introspective albums (A Passion Play and Minstrel…) and extroverted albums (War Child and Too Old…) meant that Tull were hard to get a grip on. And maybe it was simply a bandwagon that everyone got onto, and a guy playing a flute whilst standing on one leg is an easy target. But whatever the reason, Jethro Tull remain unpopular amongst critics and are for some reason considered to highlight the excesses of the 1970’s prog-rock scene, even though their music has dated better than much of Pink Floyd’s, never had the classical bombast of Yes, ELO or even Deep Purple, and Martin Barre’s guitar playing never degenerated into widdling and 40-minute solos.

And if you want more, then the 1993 compilation Nightcap is essential. The double CD set contains the original session for A Passion Play, recorded in France and labelled under The Chateaux D'Isater Tapes. Although much of the material was simply abandoned, some of the pieces, especially instrumentals, crop up again on A Passion Play, sometimes with alternative lyrics. For the full 'Passion Play Sessions', of course, you need to have War Child too, since 'Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of The New Day' and 'Bungle In The Jungle' were also recorded at the ‘Chateaux D'Isaster', along with Solitaire, which appears in its original form on Nightcap. The compilation makes it easier to tie up various threads in this period of Anderson's writing, as for example with the animal metaphors and 'Law Of The Bungle'.

All in all, a work of eccentric genius, in my opinion, closer to avant-garde than Rock. The critical headlines of 'Play without Passion' could not be further from the truth. Certainly a difficult album to listen to, but well worth the effort of trying. Still vibrant and inspiring 30 years after the original release.

12 April 2003

Elephant, by The White Stripes

Great album. There’s nothing original about what the brother-and-sister (?) team known as The White Stripes are doing, but they just do it very well. At the moment I’m missing the two albums between their first album and this, their fourth, but I’d have to say that there hasn’t been any progress as such. You’ll see what I mean if you compare this album to Placebo’s recently released fourth album, which sounds completely different to their first. The White Stripes still have their feet firmly planted in Led Zeppelin’s first to third albums, even though other references creep in there every so often. But they’ve simply got better at it.

I don’t know of many other bands out there that do the Led Zeppelin-filtered blues-rock as well as The White Stripes. Of course they could be accused of being retro (and in the words of Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, “Fuck retro anything”), but I think the truth is more subtle than that. The White Stripes are just plain old-school rock music with edge; there is no bombast about it, no pretence of being intense in an attempt to sell more records, and there is a sense of humour in much of what they do (witness the last song on this album, 'Well It's True That We Love One Another'). Unlike self-styled indie-drivel like Nickelcack (sorry, -back) or Puddle of Crud (sorry, Mudd), The White Stripes don’t wear Led Zeppelin T-shirts in order to gain ‘Rock’ credibility whilst regurgitating their insipid rubbish; you listen to their records and hear the influence of the music, and get the impression that they play the music they do simply because they love it.

The influence of Led Zeppelin is everywhere, although as I’ve indicated, only the first three blues-based albums of 1968-1970. Jack White’s impression of Robert Plant has to be heard to be believed, even if he can’t quite reach the high notes, and his guitar playing is clearly inspired by Jimmy Page. The 7-minute 'Ball and Biscuit' is a fully at home in the epic-blues-drama that Led Zep perfected on 'Since I've Been Loving You' on III. But as I’m listening to the record, I’m reminded of the other ‘Class of '68’ bands on occasion. 'The Hardest Button To Button' begins almost identically to 'No-One Came' from Deep Purple’s 1972 Fireball; Jack's singing on 'Hypnotize' is reminiscent of Purple’s Ian Gillan, and 'The Air Near My Fingers' reminds me of another Purple song, 'Hush'. The crunch of the middle section on 'Black Math' strikes me as a more than a passing reference to Black Sabbath, but in general when they crunch The White Stripes have more of The Stooges about them than Sabbath, as on 'Little Acorns'.

I guess it might be harder to appreciate fully what The White Stripes are doing if you don’t get the musical background, but the fact is that they rock in a way that very few bands do anymore. Fans of their predecessors might complain that we should bypass them and listen to the originals, but that’s not fair. For a start, Led Zep aren’t around anymore. Secondly, just as Nirvana were doing something important by attempting to decapitate the mullet-rock of the 80’s, not by doing anything original but by re-invigorating punk, The White Stripes are like a breath of fresh air in the foul-smelling morass which is today’s rock scene. And if it is any comfort to the old rockers who cringe at the thought of Led Zep and Purple being bundled into the same category as The Spice Girls in record shops, at least the fact that The White Stripes are to be found in the Indie section should offer some consolation. Good old-fashioned rock music is decidedly alternative in this day and age, and The White Stripes are doing it like no one else.

Who to Blame for Looting?

So, Bagdad has fallen. And the people are running riot, looting whatever building they can find, including hospitals. The British and Americans are coming under increasing pressure to impose law and order, and are being criticised for bringing about anarchy in Iraq’s capital. Fine. But here’s a question: when someone breaks into my house and steals my computer, do I blame the police for not being there to prevent it? Or do I blame the fucker who broke in?

I agree that, as the only group of people in a position to bring about order in Bagdad, the British and Americans need to assert themselves. But there’s a limit to how far you can criticise them out of anti-war sentiment, because after all it is Iraqis who are doing the looting and rendering their own hospitals useless. Such stupidity has no excuse, and we should not excuse those members of the Iraqi population getting a kick out of ransacking their own country simply because we don't like the Americans.

It may well be that America has ‘opened a can of worms’, or even a Pandora's box, by going into Iraq. But some of the blame for what follows must lie with the actual worms.

23 March 2003

Solaris, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Man has gone out to explore other worlds without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.
—Stanislaw Lem, 'Solaris', translated by Joanne Kilmartin and Steve Cox

Earth? I thought of the great bustling cities where I would wander and lose myself, and I thought of them as I had thought of the ocean on the second or third night, when I had wanted to throw myself upon the dark waves. I shall immerse myself among men. I shall be silent and attentive, an appreciative companion. There will be many acquaintances, friends, women - and perhaps even a wife. For a while, I shall have to make a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand and perform all those gestures which constitute life on Earth, and then those gestures will become reflexes again. I shall find new interests and occupations; and I shall not give myself completely to them, as I shall never again give myself completely to anything or anybody.
—Stanislaw Lem, 'Solaris'

What can I usefully say about this film except ‘watch it’? It is, to my mind, one of the best and most poignant films released in some time, with more than a passing relation to Kieslowski’s Three Colours Blue. I read Stanislaw Lem’s book (which was written in 1961) a few years ago and was so moved that I was unable to scribble a few words about it onto the back of a postcard, as I was trying to do at the time with all the books that I read. It was captivating, but also one of those books (or ideas) that when you try to summarise end up sounding tacky or sentimental. So here goes. What Lem achieves in this book is to confront us with the limits and arrogance of ourselves by confronting us with ourselves; not with our greed or avarice, but with our love and guilt. All the people on the Station are confronted not with their wickedness but with their loved ones, who in some way they feel they have betrayed. So Lem avoids moralising about the weakness and frailty of humans, and instead asks a question which addresses all of us: how would we react when faced with the resurrection of someone we loved but who has now gone, and who we know we hurt? This is an painfully difficult question, and it requires imagination to consider.

Lem plays masterfully with the genre of science fiction, since the genre necessarily demands a certain suspension of belief (there aren't any aliens and space ships that we know of), but he uses this suspension to present us with a truly human question without having to divulge how it is possible. In a ‘realistic’ drama the audience will demand some kind of explanation, but here Lem can just indicate that the planet is responsible and this will be accepted. Indeed, a large portion of the book is concerned with telling the reader why there is no further explanation. It is a masterpiece of the genre and truly closer in conception to Shakespeare than Star Wars.

And so too is the film, which is a skilful rendition of the book as well as a variation on its themes. The attention to detail is impressive: at one point Rheya (Natascha McElhone) noticeably blinks - as if in answer to Kris's question in the book about whether she even did so. The initial transmission from Gibarian asking for help does not occur in the book, but it is broadcast via the Prometheus, the ship on which Kris (George Clooney) arrives at the Station in the book. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the novel. There are necessarily changes, since no film is able to capture the breadth of such a work: most obvious is the lack of history (in which the book is a clear kin of the 1936 novel War With The Newts, by fellow master science fiction writer and inventor of the word ‘robot’, Karel Čapek). In the novel, Lem is at pains to describe the origin and development of ‘Solaristics’ - the study of the ocean which covers the planet - partly to give us a sense of place, in which he succeeds tremendously, and partly to show us the continued failure of the human mind, firstly to make Contact with the alien ocean, and secondly to understand why the attempts keep failing. The sense of place is there in the film, as we look over the frankly beautiful graphic depiction of the ocean, accompanied by Cliff Martinez's excellent near-minimalist score. But the film focusses on the two central characters: Kris’s struggle to come to terms with Rheya’s presence and his own past, and, endowed as she is with all the human faculties of understanding, Rheya’s deepening sense that she is herself somehow not right and her inability to live with this realisation. The result is a bitter turmoil of emotions, all of which culminates in Rheya’s first attempted and then successful suicide. Kris, having lost Rheya, seemingly regained her, and lost her again, remains in the Station, unable to re-enter everyday life.

At this point the film takes its largest departure from the book: in the book Kris accepts that “I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.” In the film, the Station is in the process of crashing into the planet and Kris chooses death. Kris, by dying in the ocean becomes part of it, he and Rheya finally reunited. At the end of the film, as at the end of the book, I was still captivated.

War at last!

Is the War in Iraq the final nail in the coffin of the Enlightenment?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pro-war. When Michael Moore argued at last night’s Oscars that George W. Bush was a fictitious president leading America to war for fictitious reasons, I couldn’t agree more, and I think he found the most lucid summary of the present situation I’ve yet heard. But that’s not my point here, and I’m going to try to avoid letting that particular inclination get in the way of what I want to say.

The Enlightenment was, in essence, based on the idea that by the use of reasoned argument and the education of the mind it would be possible to strip away all idle prejudice from humanity and move on to better things. This project has suffered a number of near-fatal blows over the years, for instance that Nazis were able to appreciate classical music and then still commit atrocities in concentration camps. The shock involved here was that classical music was thought to appeal to the intellectual rather than the sensual side of our nature and so to raise humanity above the level of savage beasts. Thus anyone acquainted with such high art would be incapable of the acts which the Nazis perpetrated. We have still not learnt the lesson from this today: that art, be it high or low, will not make anyone a better person. And whenever anyone points out the logical fallacy in the claim that Marilyn Manson (or whoever is the un-popular scapegoat of the time) is responsible for the behaviour of the youth of today, they are quietly ignored. The truth of the matter is that neither reason nor culture will ever overcome blind prejudice, and the current war is perhaps the final proof. In brief, my argument is this: that from start to finish, this war and the build-up to it have consistently illustrated our inability to listen to, or employ, reason.

Let’s start with the most obvious point: everybody, and I mean everybody, has always known that this war would take place. George Bush senior led America in the first Gulf War in 1991. I’m old enough to remember this: at the time I said with utter conviction that if there was military draft, I would rather go to prison. And yet I nevertheless felt that, having started the job, Bush should have finished it, and I’m certain the Iraqis who, on the back of the war, rose up against Saddam Hussein only to be crushed under his repressive thumb thought pretty much the same. I remember the increasing frustration of the inspectors before they called it a day, held up at the Iraqi borders and arguing to be let in and do their UN-approved jobs before being turned away yet again. I also seem to recall, though I can't back this up, that before the presidential election people asked George Bush about Iraq. So why is it a surprise when, in the post-September 11 world of heightened sensitivity to dangers, George Bush decides to finish his father’s job and invade Iraq? Answer: it isn’t. Everybody saw this coming. And what is more, nobody doubts the real motivation for the invasion. Maybe they should. But if it is so clear to all and sundry that George Bush is invading Iraq because of the oil and familial responsibility, then precisely how did anyone expect to stop it? Did anyone honestly think that protesting on the streets, demanding a reason about why Iraq and why now, or the French threatening a veto, would make the slightest dent in the conviction to go on? Only one thing would dent that conviction, and that is regime change (and perhaps not even that). So what I want to know is this: what were we all doing wasting our time arguing about it for the last 8 months?

Any justification of this war would be as superficial as it would be senseless. The are two sides to this. Firstly, we are all perfectly aware of the genesis and evolution of this war. Any attempt to justify it and actually give an argument for it would necessarily diverge from this genesis, because it would look for a logical explanation and try to accumulate evidence, and would not constitute a description of the evolution of this war. This is one reason why Tony Blair’s efforts to justify the war have fallen on deaf ears: because he didn’t say, ‘Well boys, remember Bush’s dad?’ The other reason is that, despite Tony Blair's desire to be staunch ally of George Bush (and even a discerning influence), nobody really wanted to hear it from Blair; and Blair’s care and attention to detail have only served to highlight the singular failure of Bush to do so and his bullishness in all things international.

Secondly, the truth is we all think we know the truth, and are so caught up in our own presumptive fortifications that when Bush (or anyone else for that matter) says something that doesn’t coincide with what we happen to believe is true, we know they must be lying. What if George Bush’s reasons for being in Iraq are indeed humanitarian? Does anyone want to hear that? No. Why? Because we know it isn’t true. Bush could argue tirelessly about the humanitarian cause which he is fighting for; he could argue in all conviction; it could actually be true: and no-one would listen. If Bush turned round to the general public of the world and said, ‘Yup, it's all about the oil’, would that make us happy? No. If he was to admit what we all know to be true, would that appease anyone? Or would we all go on protesting? Of course we would. But look at it from Bush’s perspective for a moment: no matter what he does, we’ll go on protesting. If he doesn’t tell us the truth, we’ll protest about deception. If he does tell us the truth, we'll protest with vindication. If he packs up his armies and goes home, we'll complain about him leading us on for so long, about him being incompetent and all bark and no bite. You can't beat a good protest. So again, why should we be surprised that response is, 'What the heck, let's just get on with it'?

The Enlightenment project demands two things: a lucid and sophisticated teacher, and an open and receptive listener. With regard to the war in Iraq, we have neither. Bush has at every turn failed to give the kind of account of himself which a reasonable and unprejudiced member of the public (if such exists) could follow. He has painted himself into a corner so that he is now unable to back out and save face with either friends or foes. But Bush is not my point, and this is why I said at the start that my personal feelings about the war are not relevant. What truly concerns me is the behaviour of us, the public: I have never witnessed such far-reaching mass stupidity as in the current world situation.

The previous high-point for me was during last year’s parliamentary elections here in Germany when the foreign affairs minister Joschka Fischer came on a rally to Jena. While he was on stage he was continuously heckled by a group of punks (who in Germany tend to be anarchist left-wingers) for ‘lying’ about the atrocities in Kosovo and so on. (It goes without saying, but although the punks were avidly waving flags of the PDS, the ex-East German communist party, they didn’t show up to support the ex-leader of the PDS, Gregor Gysi, when he held a rally in Jena a week later.) Fischer fought back to strong applause from the crowd; the clinching insult which the punks in question could come up with was ‘Ami-Freund’: in other words, American-Friend. This struck me as a trait more often associated with fascism: hatred of someone because of their race. At that moment I wished that I had been American (rather than British) and could have walked up to the punk and told him exactly what he could do with his ‘Ami-Freund’ (probably not a good idea, though). This attitude is now prevalent on the streets of every country in the world. The English edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which is sold along with the International Herald Tribune in Germany, carried a cover photo of a group of normal-looking teenagers burning the American flag. I’m sorry, maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t that what they do in places like Iran (or did under the Taliban in Afghanistan)? You know, a bit like burning a book in public and sentencing the author to death?

George Bush’s regime are now referred to as Nazis by members of the public with startling frequency. When I discussed the war last Thursday morning with my students, most were sure that Saddam Hussein was innocent, that he had done nothing wrong: ever. He does not persecute his own people. He does not - and never did - pose any threat to anyone. And my students are worried that, in response to American fascism, Hussein is calling for a holy war. Somehow the facts seem to have passed huge sections of the public by: for instance, the only reason that Saddam Hussein is such a thorn in America’s (and Britain’s) side is because we sponsored him during the 1980’s when his decidedly western-orientated state (in which women do not wear burkas) was fighting the decidedly Islamic fundamentalist state which is Iran. The fact that, whatever you may think about the consequences of the job George Bush senior did, he was responding to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait has somehow not sunk in. Again, it has not been noticed that the only reason there are any Kurds left in Iraq at all is because they live in a UN and American protected zone in the north. And I’m quite sure that, even in the context of American aggression, large sections of the Iranian public are thinking, ‘You mean, after fighting a war with our country for the best part of a decade and killing thousands of Iranians because of our religion, you want us to overcome our denominational differences and join in a holy war to save your butt? Think again, my friend.’

A large part of the responsibility for this lies with Bush and his regime, but a significant part of it lies with the media. On the morning the war started, Germany’s largest selling daily, Bild, carried a headline which declared that America’s mission was clear: Kill Saddam. Underneath this, when opening the broadsheet format, was the daily dose of female nudity; on the back there was an article about the death (murder?) of a talking fish. Clearly the most informative with regard to the everyday world at large was the nude. With press coverage like this, is it any surprise that people know nothing? When serious issues like the war are sloganed together with conversant pisces and the latest sensation, can we really be shocked when people regard it as simply The Latest Sensation? Surely we cannot object that the public are woefully ill-informed about the war when they know everything they need to know: it is, as well you know, The Latest Sensation.

But, as I’ve already indicated, it isn’t just the media's fault. They're only spooning us what we want to be fed. The other morning on the radio I heard a journalist talking to a protester in Britain. The protester protested that this was the end of Blair, and when the journalist asked him whether he would change his mind if Saddam Hussein was indeed found to have weapons of mass destruction, our hero said, ‘No.’ The implication of this answer is as follows: if this person, who is on the streets protesting against an unjust war, found out that the war was indeed just and that they had been wrong all along, they would still want to be rid of the person (Tony Blair) who they falsely accused in the first place. (I hear echoes of Monty Python - 'But she’s not a witch! - Burn her anyway!') When this is the face which protesters (some of whom might be there for the right reasons) give to the media, the rest of the public and politicians, is it any wonder that politicians studiously ignore what such people have to say and carry on as planned? Is it really so strange that politicians are increasingly detached from the concerns of the public, when the public’s utterances are increasingly incomprehensible?

And as for Jacques Chirac: you do have to grimace when you hear about ‘Freedom Fries’ in American restaurants. I mean, is that the best they can come up with? Take this for example: 'Next year I’m going to Freedom for my holidays.' - 'Oh, so where do you live now?' I’ve heard of playing into their hands, but that’s ridiculous. On a more serious point, I hold Jacques Chirac responsible for much of the current situation. Not because I’m pro-war, but because Chirac went along with the game until he could see more mileage in claiming to be pro-peace. And now all those protesters love him for it, and Americans boycott their chips (see, in England we call ‘em chips; the other things are crisps). But just what is it that Chirac wants? O-I-L. France has any number of contracts with Iraqi oil companies which it is worried will be ignored if America goes charging in. All those people carrying placards with the slogan 'No Blood For Oil' may as well be carrying placards saying 'Peace For Oil'. But no-one wants to put two and two together because Chirac is saying what they want to hear. And now the French government is saying it will not help in the rebuilding Iraq after a war; I appreciate that you shouldn't have to tidy up someone else’s mess, but it says a lot about how much they really care about all the Iraqi people that Chirac is so eager to protect.

And just what did all the negotiation of the last 8 months achieve? What did the threat to veto any new UN resolution achieve? The UN is in tatters, the EU is in tatters, NATO is in tatters. All the critics who complain that America is unilateralist have succeeded in making it even more so. What are the odds on George Bush never talking to the UN again? Diplomacy probably demands engagement, but at what distance? And for what? For a lost cause. The second Gulf War is, and always was, a lost cause. It was always inevitable; the question was never really if but when, and all we have done, along with obstructionist governments like Chirac’s, is squander the chance of stopping some future war or problem that could be stopped. As such I think it was about time it started: every passing day without war was, perversely, making matters worse. At least now we can hope for a swift outcome so that we can start trying to pick up the pieces.

The only politician, as far as I am aware, to emerge from all this with any dignity (though whether he has a career remains to be seen) is the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. At least he said from the beginning that he would oppose a war in Iraq, and has remained opposed, in general quietly. There have been no fanfares of pseudo-opposition, no veto-wielding threats, and surprisingly little political mileage. Even though he said what he thought and has stuck to it, and indeed, what he said concurs with what the public want, they are still unimpressed: Schröder, according to most, doesn’t really mean it and he only said it to win votes. Which raises a question: which is better (from the public's perspective): a politician who you vote for and then does what you want, or a politician who you vote for and then does what he or she wants? The answer: you can't protest about the former as much.

So is this war a symbol of the end of the Enlightenment, of the idea that by clarity of thought and culture humanity could progress into something less bestial? If I’m honest, I think that the Enlightenment was always a non-starter: it is a matter of faith and belief that we are ultimately going somewhere, that there is some point in trying to drag ourselves kicking and screaming away from the abyss. Belief in the power of reason is still a belief, and all believers can have a crisis of faith. But you have to hold on to possible alternatives, even at extremities: as Roy Harper (no relation) sang after the last Gulf War:

The Fourth World is here
soon there'll either be none
or one global village
with faces as bright as the sun.
Here's hoping.