Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Culture vultures...

Yes, Easter was quite chilled, although as a full time student what’s four days off here and there? The only difference was more people in the shops and the girlfriend for four days.

Still, we used it productively: booking accommodation in Lisbon for our trip there next week and catching up on a few films lent to me over the weekend: Alexander and Team America.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Alexander ever since I read Robert Lane Fox’s biography 18 months ago. Imagine my disappointment then, to see Oliver Stone’s version of it. The editing was rather poor and the battle scenes too closed in, too claustrophobic. Although I’m sure it can probably be argued away by the director claiming he wanted to show what it was like to be in the middle of one of those tight battle formations.

As for Colin Farrel’s Irish-accented Alexander and his generals, that didn’t bother me too much. The Macedonians were considered provincial cousins to the majority of Greeks, despite their domination in the period. But Angelina Jolie as Alexander’s mother? Oh, please! Have you ever seen a woman looking that young with a 20-something son? I didn’t think so.

However, compared to other ancient epics recently portrayed on screen, Stone did do a relatively good job of keeping to script. I felt I was sitting there with a checklist (OK, Lane Fox’s book on my knee) making sure all the right boxes were filled. But if there was one major grievance I had was with Stone’s jumping around the story. At the beginning we have Anthony Hopkins briefly going over Philip’s death (Alexander’s father); then, an hour in we have a return to that fateful day, breaking up the sequence. Why, oh why did you do it, Oliver?

As for Team America, alright, it was puerile and silly, but on the mark. Not just in its observations of American military cack-handedness, but the way in which sceptics can all too easily align themselves with dubious elements (you only have to recall Saddam’s meetings with Galloway or Tony Benn’s poor interviewing skills with the dictator).

And finally, a trip to the ICA for the first Batmacumba gig of the year on Saturday night. It looks like DJ Cliffy has found a new protégé which is really mixing up the music – and not always for the best. However, when he takes to the turn table he’s still reassuring: both in his usual choices as well as having his finger on the pulse of new Brazilian musical forms, most notably in the baile funk he’s bringing to his repertoire.

Besides that, I had one of the most original excuses given for an acquaintance not being able to make it - owing to current commitments in Kabul!

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Right to life?

You heard it here first: "The presumption, particularly in a situation like this, where you have someone that is at the mercy of others, ought to be in favour of life. And that's the president's view."

So how does George Bush square that with his commitment to capital punishment?

Monday, March 21, 2005


Could someone at Liberal Democrat office please have a word with Dick Taverne? He was on the radio this morning (Today, where else?) talking about the supposed virtues of GM. Poor people will benefit, he claimed, notwithstanding the excellent claim made by the NGO chap that it was big agribusinesses who are making use of GM in most countries – not the poor.

But it’s not the supposed pros and cons of GM which gets up my nose. No, it’s the fact that we were listening to a Lib Dem peer who comments seemed to suggest he spoke for the party on this matter. Well, I’m afraid he doesn’t. I seem to recall spending two years working on this and other agricultural issues within the party. And if memory serves me correct at least two conference motions were passed which sought to restrict their use during that time.

Then again, maybe there’s a reason why they’re letting him present the image that the Lib Dems are pro-GM. After all, while Labour and the Tories were slugging it out at the top of the hour on school dinners and throwing travellers in prison, what were the Lib Dems doing? That’s right: outlining plans to make life easier for business.

Nice to see the party’s got its priorities right – not.
Looking at the left

Left wing government in Latin America was on the agenda last Friday. It was a workshop run by the LSE and ISA jointly and ranged from the development of leftist thought to include the experience of governments like Lula’s PT, Chavez in Venezuela and Kirchner in Argentina. There was also time to examine the contrast between the Chilean and Uruguayan models of social democracy and the role of participatory democracy as a leftist project.

Some quite interesting themes came out. Fiona Macauley stressed that the PT and PSDB in Brazil were two quite different animals, both in terms of ideology, support base, history and organisation. But Edmund Amann and Alfredo Saad Filho both pointed out the continuity in macro-economic policy between the two governments. Given the importance of policy outcomes, wasn’t Fiona overstating the differences? I asked. Fiona’s response was to say that the two parties come to these decisions in a different way: broadly the PT is more internally consultative than the PSDB’s technocratic style. Maybe so, I replied; but we need to account for the difference in level of governance too. At the local level the PT has been more participatory in decision-making, but at the state and especially the federal government level, what mechanisms are in place to ensure this happens?

Rick Muir’s paper on the historical experiences which mark out the distinct ideological and programmatic taken by the left in Chile and Uruguay was stimulating. But I wondered whether he overstated the case too much; afterwards I asked him whether we should be less concerned with the two parties’ variation and commitment to negotiated bargains with labour or commitment to greater flexibility and instead focus on their general economic platforms. If so then it’s clear that both parties have accepted the globalisation agenda, indicating the primacy of broader economic trends on the two parties’ outlook over and above those of historical experience during the two dictatorships.

Finally, Gunther Schonleitner presented a paper on the different experiences of participatory democracy by the left in Brazil. What I took from his analysis was the importance of good background conditions being necessary if participation was to be meaningful. In fact he argued that the focus should be more on building up representative institutions as opposed to participatory experiments. But what remains unsaid, is how to build up those institutions if the conditions aren’t ideal. Presumably the impetus for this must come from outside, a factor which cannot be relied upon in many parts of Brazil and Latin America.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Action with organisation?

Sérgio Haddad was at the Institute yesterday, talking about the World Social Forum, of which he is on the organising committee.

During his presentation he pointed out that the purpose of the WSF was not to organise but to provide new space in which deliberation and action can happen. However, he also noted two contradictory features of the Forum, including its relationship with political parties who want to use it as a vehicle to organise and the Forum’s refusal to take a lead in this process.

Sérgio spent some time ruminating aloud on the difficulties this presents to those involved in the Forum: it makes criticism possible and even suggestions regarding alternatives possible. But where it becomes really challenging is in the actual implementation of those ideas. He gave the example of the World Bank.

The Forum’s space gives people opportunities to both criticise the World Bank’s role and activities and suggest ways of dealing with it – either by reforming it from within in, or ‘blowing it up’ (this was before we had even heard about Bush’s proposed candidate for president). But how can two diametrically opposite approaches and goals be achieved?

In other words what would appear to be the Forum’s strength – its apparent ability to break Michels’ iron law of oligarchy – is also its greatest weakness, by failing to provide a clear direction and alternative.
A sad way to end

I feel like a bit of a vulture writing this, especially as it’s at the expense of someone else’s misfortune. But of all the perils associated with blogging (e.g. losing your job), nothing can compare with this.

Rob came to my attention last year in a big Observer spread on blogging. In fact I feel I partly owe my decision to take up the mantle to that story (along with the Bloggerheads campaign to get election candidates reaching out to potential constituents).

Although he does tend to write overly long posts, Rob’s appeal was the fact that he reminded me about my time as an undergraduate a great deal: the awkwardness, inexperience and confusion which revolves around as you try and make sense of both yourself and wider world.

Unfortunately, Rob’s writing seemed to deteriorate. Even he acknowledged it before Christmas, when he reported that readers were complaining that his posts had become those of a pub bore, recounting tedious drinking tales. His sharp observation of the people on his course, the people he lived with and the girl he liked was gone.

Given his decline, the potential risks of Rob’s approach to blogging became greater. Writing about your life and the people within it can be dangerous, not least if someone disagrees with what you’ve written and posted for the whole world to see. I’m not sure I would do the same and over the past year he has reported the fallings out he’s had with friends. But it was never as bad as his last post.

I can see why he would want to give it all up and the gesture he hopes it will show. Though whether that will be enough is doubtful. However, while Rob tries to find his own way to say sorry, it means saying goodbye to a part of his life and the readers who have followed him through the fumblings of early adulthood – and leaving the final chapter unwritten.

Good luck, Rob. You have my sympathy.
Maybe he has a sense of humour?

Oh. My. God.

Is it 1 April?


But how else to explain this?

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A tale of two events

Two different kinds of occasion you could not get. Last night it was the annual students’ lecture at Senate House. For the occasion the current director of Chatham House director and a former one at ISA, Victor Bulmer-Thomas, was prevailed upon to give his thoughts on ‘Living with the Mega-Power’.

Restrained, moderate, coherent and balanced, Bulmer-Thomas set out the framework within which states can operate with or against the US. Concepts such as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power abounded, along with observations on ways to restrain the mega-power, including through treaties and international obligations. Frustratingly, every time I scribbled a point which I thought he had overlooked, sure enough, back he came, addressing precisely that topic. I soon gave up.

Later on and by contrast, what had been billed as a seminar on micro-credit in Venezuela under the auspices of a women’s bank was almost anything but. Walking into the LSE’s refurbished New Theatre (well, it may have been done several years ago but since I haven’t been in there for 10 years, who am I to say?) I momentarily assumed I’d come to the wrong event. Cuban flags and portraits of Che adorned the walls, along with a banner expressing solidarity with the ‘Miami 5’. Richard Gott was in full swing, talking about the channelling of Venezuelan oil money under Chavez directly into the poorer sections of society. Cue enthusiastic cheering. It seemed I had stumbled on a rally.

Nora Castañeda, the president of the women’s bank, gave her speech through a translator. Some numbers were given of the number of projects they had funded, but very little could I remember. Instead we were treated to a diatribe against colonialism and imperialism (conveniently overlooking the bourgeois, elitist and anti-democratic sentiments of the Venezuelan independence movement) and much pro-Chavez endorsement. Not only that, she was cheered when she reported the government’s decision to pass legislation to muzzle the anti-government (and pro-business) big media. Upon finishing she was given a standing ovation – or was that for Chavez?

“Now we open the floor to questions,” the chairwoman said. “We’ve got the room for an hour, but please, don’t take too long to ask your question. Please keep to two minutes.”

Two minutes just for a question? I don’t know what other feel, but that to me was a speech! Taking that as a cue, I surreptitiously slipped out.
What goes around...

Things seem to be happening in cycles at the moment. The end of term on Friday is in sight and whereas this time last week I was wondering how I was going to fit several essays, presentations, additional readings and complete my PhD proposals in before the end of this week, things now appear more manageable. Only one more essay to do: ‘Participation is a potential, not a panacea. Discuss.’

Any takers?

In addition to the everyday matter of studies, I was down at Oxford’s Brazilian Centre on Friday. There was a workshop taking place on ‘Education as a human right’ which was organised by Sérgio Haddad, a visiting professor from São Paulo, whose interest it was.

Some extremely interesting observations were made and for those who lasted to the end of the day, it was frustrating that the former rapporteur to the UN Human Rights commission, Katerina Tomaševski, wasn’t able to stay longer. She made a robust defence as a human right, including the assumption that all children should be in school. But as we know in the developing world, there are other pressures on children, especially work. Her disappearance meant we were unable to enter into any detailed debate about her points.

But it was during the discussion when Maria Malta Campos, a researcher at the Carlos Chagas Foundation, made a comment that I had a eureka moment. “There’s not much written about the politics of education reform and management,” she said, setting a light bulb off in my head. That comment encapsulated what I was trying to do with both my dissertation and my PhD proposal: assess the political opportunities and limitations faced by social democrats in developing and implementing education (and employment) policies. Maria Malta’s words crystallised what I had been trying to articulate for the last two months.

So imagine my disappointment yesterday afternoon when I discovered I wouldn’t be receiving funding from the Institute to do fieldwork later this summer. What if the workshop had been last week, before the application deadline? What if I had used the language which came so easily from Maria Malta?

Needless to say, I’m asking for feedback, especially since my PhD proposal was contingent on the work I had planned to do for my dissertation. So it looks like I will be going back to the sense of panic I felt at the beginning of last week.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Suspended activities

It’s been a month since my last post. For shame! I can only pass on the excuses of a busy term time with the ongoing millstone of the research proposal hanging around my neck. And still it’s not perfect. Grumble, grumble… And this will have to be a short post as well, since it’s back to the grind of essays to churn out too. Can you believe it was only one month ago since the last lot were handed in?

Still, I have a bit of time to crank out the latest bit of Braziliana that I’ve been involved with. After missing its showing in Oxford and LSE the other week, it was third time luck for me last night. Down at Goodenough College (yes, it’s really called that) I saw Joao Moreira Salles’s Entreatos (Intermissions). And apart from the hard seat, it was extraordinarily engrossing.

It follows Lula around over the last month of his presidential campaign. Eschewing the rallies and big events, the director has chosen to focus on those moments in between: Lula on the plane, talking to his staff, at home with his family, having his beard trimmed while on the phone, choosing a tie for the debate, and talking about his turquoise VW which he courted his wife in.

It’s not a film about Lula the politician, but Lula the man. Admittedly, opinion was divided afterwards between those who disliked him, and those who liked him. Personally, I found him down to earth. In the question and answer sessions afterwards Joao was asked about his editing; was what he had cut an accurate representation of the time he spent with him? How much of Lula which we saw was him or his political persona? When did the act – as all politicians are prone to do – switch off?

Joao said that the access he had received was unprecedented. There’s even a moment when Lula’s campaign organiser and now chief of staff, Jose Dirceu, snaps at the film crew. Not even he was informed about the filming which was to take place. Lula never asked for a say about the final cut, which encouraged Joao to be as fair as possible. But as I said to friends after the showing, to what extent was he granted access in the first place had it not been a sympathetic portrayal.

One thing Joao could not help but notice was the absolute lack of introspection in Lula. After a few days you forget the camera is there and behave as you would otherwise do. But not once did he ever ask himself if he was up to the job. I asked Joao whether he plans to make a follow-up to the story: of how the political system and machine affects his ability to act. But he doesn’t want to; it doesn’t interest him. Besides, he claims that it’s inevitable that it will happen; that he will be swallowed up.

I would recommend this film, even to those (i.e. the majority!) who know nothing nor care about Brazilian politics. People will be split over whether they agree with his politics or his personality. But two things cannot be denied: one, the sheer charisma of the man; the second, the symbolism that Lula in 2002 represented. This is a man who is the living embodiment of someone who pulled himself out of a life of penury and manual labour, through the union movement and to become president of the Republic. If nothing else, that tale is one which symbolised his election: as the one moment when all the promises about politics being open to all, was finally fulfilled; when the dreamer finally reached a position to put into practice his ambitions.