20 September 2006

The self-nullification of Mikhail Gorbachev

By Eric Jansson

One takes it for granted nowadays that great nations must reckon with the fabled balance between freedom and security. Well, our warring world has not exactly been waiting for him to weigh in, but at last we have a new perspective on this pesky balance problem from a man regarded by many as an epic champion of liberalism and peace: Mikhail Gorbachev.

And what shining words has he given us? Presenting his new book, In the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party, Mr Gorbachev has declared that he takes it all back.

"I have reviewed my values and made conclusions," he says, as quoted by Interfax news agency. These conclusions include one about Boris Yeltsin, who in 1991 delivered Russia from an eleventh hour return to hardline rule. Mr Yeltsin should have been sent into diplomatic exile, safely away from the real action around Red Square, he says.

What an extraordinary turnaround. Disarmed, aging and evidently drunk on the compliments he receives incessantly from adoring German lefties, Gorby decides to side with the very Brezhnevite coup plotters who had him kidnapped.

As for "separatists" – and within historical context one presumes he refers here to the democratically-elected leaders of the many nations brutalized under Soviet rule, among them the Baltics and Ukraine – they should have been "hit", treated like the "criminals" they were.

"I was too soft" is the essence of Gorby’s analysis. Yet his softness in the decisive hours of Soviet collapse is probably his record's primary redeeming feature – otherwise it was mostly a series of untenable tactical retreats from wildly unsustainable hardline positions.

Grotesque! To make matter worse, parroting Vladimir Putin, Gorby also says the collapse of the USSR was a "geopolitical catastrophe", when in fact the great catastrophe was the USSR itself, poisoned at its very root, Marx-Leninism.

Whatever good one could find in the Soviet system, it could have been had without the captivity of nations, the inhumanity and insanity of centralized rule, the enslavement of souls and the mass murder of perceived enemies. The good in Soviet power was, at the start, only the (false) expectation of vivid, transcendental democracy. Later, its good was found wherever the falseness crumbled and old hopes were accordingly re-exposed to daylight.

I suppose that Gorby forgets now, as so many others do, just how bad Soviet rule really was. He believes he should have rushed to preserve it. But had he done so, he and Raisa would have ended up like a couple of Ceaucescus, sprawled right around the corner of the Kremlin wall, over by the eternal flame, behind the pines.

One might write off his musings as a pensioner’s gibberish, except that Gorby retains – in some circles, anyway – a certain moral gravity. It is the kind of moral gravity you or I can freely share if we wish: the satisfying knowledge that we are virtuous because, when the chips were down, we didn’t shoot our rivals dead or exile them to the Gulag. You didn’t, did you?

Nonetheless, his moral gravity counts for something in a northern hemisphere that, today, thanks to democratic spirit in the east and consequent Soviet collapse, we can broadly describe as post-totalitarian. After all, it did count for something, in 1991, that Gorby didn’t shoot.

But what a profound comment he makes, by accident, about our current confusion about freedom, its balances and its benefits. One hates to think that, after all we have won over the past two decades, on the backs of so many brave and daring individuals, that an old lust for security can bring a feted champion of liberalism to misty-eyed reminiscence for the safer, jollier days of... Chernenko.

And what a profound comment he makes, by accident, about the way unprincipled liberalism risks cancelling itself out with pride and good intentions. It is as if Gorby would like to nullify his very self. God help Russia should she agree with him.

17 September 2006

What I love about... Racine

By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times, 16 September 2006

I once knew a guy who got shot in the head. Call him Jim. He was a popular guy in a small town and so, as the story goes, an innocent victim. When Jim got shot, we learned that God had given him a skull made of something like steel. The bullet lodged in his skull and he carries it round with him to this day.

Jim had been hanging out in one of the rougher neighbourhoods in Racine, Wisconsin, an industrial town on the west coast of Lake Michigan. The lake is home to the loveliest series of lakeside cities in the country: Racine, Kohler, Manitowoc, up north to Sturgeon Bay.

A rough neighbourhood in Racine looks like a blossoming Eden to anyone from anywhere genuinely rough. It has wooden houses built in the early 20th century, roomy verandas, tidy little front yards angling down to the street. The serpentine Root River flows through under the shadow of old willows. Crisp breezes blow off the enormous lake through lush green summers, fiery orange autumns and deep white winters.

The only trouble is drugs. Racine makes a handy drop-off point for narcotics traders from Chicago to the south and Milwaukee to the north.

Rumour counts in a small place and one rumour had it that Jim came too close to one of these hardmen. But the true, incredible, story is that some violent fool tried to steal his shoes.

What is it about the US that marries pleasant, peaceful places and splendid natural beauty with sudden, aberrational, extreme violence? Hard to say.

Once I was riding my bicycle in Racine when a terrific black cloud appeared overhead. The sky had been quiet and blue. Then rolling out of the west came a floating wall of squid's ink what looked like a mile high.

This happened on the good side of town, along a curvaceous lakeshore where urbanity has yet to scare away the deer, fox and raccoon. Here in the prismatic interplay of lake and sky, residents owe their wealth to the robust presence of smart, adaptable light industry - something increasingly rare elsewhere in the US.

So I was pedalling along some cosy avenue in Wind Point when the demon cloud drifted in.

The world went perfectly still. The jet-black cumulonimbus veiled the sun, a breeze picked up, trees bent, hailstones clattered, sticks flew. Wind toppled my bicycle. I ditched it, sprinting for shelter. The universe roared like a steam engine. They say it always does when tornados touch down.

What they don't say is that a tornado can leave a chaos of beauty in its wake. Scattered everywhere were shredded bits of tree and melting ice pellets. Tranquillity returned abruptly. A new sky of mute pastels coloured the earth. Bright-eyed people emerged from basements, full of vigour, grateful to be alive. Their houses remained intact, apart from one rooftop ripped off a garage by the whirlwind.

Racine is a city for survivors; it does not "do" atrophy.

A couple of decades ago, downtown was a dead zone. It was the 1980s, when some newfangled thing called the shopping mall was devastating main streets across smalltown America. Where the river flowed into the lake, Racine's landmark buildings stood soot-blackened and derelict. Among them is the Shoop Building, once headquarters of the city's 19th-century "patent medicine king", Clarendon Shoop. In its shadow, one felt the American dream had sailed through, never to return, as if the age of industry might curl up and die.

What saved the city was an invisible weapon: invention.

This is the birthplace of the kitchen blender and garbage disposer, Horlick's malted milk, Jerome I. Case's wheat thresher and the many products of Johnson Wax. Floating like a frosted halo above all these inventions is the queen of pastries, the kringle - a Danish import perfected in Racine. These peculiar assets kept the city going through hard times.

Today, Racine's latest invention is its own reinvention. How else to explain the decision by the New York Times to brand this hardworking town "the Hamptons of the Midwest"? Racinians roared with laughter when they read the description. Solid and sober, Midwesterners count on New Yorkers, slick and snobby, to stretch the truth. Yet, as a Racinian by birth returning to the city with fresh eyes (after a corrupting spell in New York), I agree with the glittering review.

Try to find a more impressively rejuvenated main street in the Midwest. Non-chain shops and art galleries bustle with activity. Steps away, the once-neglected lakefront - now a permanent festival site - offers splendid views, boat moorings and luxury accommodation.

Pleasure-seekers who until recently had never heard of Racine flee the skyscrapers of Chicago on warm weekends to sit in quiet beer gardens by Lake Michigan's gilded horizon. Shades of the Hamptons, indeed.

Even the old Shoop Building looks jolly these days. An almighty sandblast has revealed that its outer walls are not black but patterned in cream and red brick. A mildly resurgent 19th-century aesthetic now rubs shoulders with the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings of downtown.

What is it about this place that makes it so conducive to invention, reinvention and survival? Whatever it is, it goes way back.

One guy even moved to Racine just to reinvent himself. It was 1852 when Joshua Glover, a Missouri slave, ran away from his master. Some 300 miles north in Racine he found people who loved freedom and loathed slavery. They welcomed him with a job and lodging.

In 1854, Glover's grisly old master tracked him down, seizing him with the help of federal marshals who then spirited him away and jailed him in Milwaukee. When citizens of Racine caught wind of Glover's abduction, they exploded with righteous fury. A flotilla of private ships sailed for Milwaukee.

The Racinians landed and marched to the jail, smashing down the doors and freeing him. They hid Glover from the law, then sailed him 300 miles further to freedom in Canada. How many little cities can tell a prouder story than that?

07 September 2006

Blair’s downfall a giant blow to Bush

By Eric Jansson

The imminent end of Tony Blair’s leadership in Britain means the loss of George W Bush’s most treasured ally in the global war against terrorism.

The key question now is whether the President and the country will lose just Mr Blair, or whether the US will lose Britain as a whole.

The Bush administration lost Spain and Italy before, seduced away by a soft, anti-war European leftism offering false hopes and no viable policy alternatives. By comparison, the loss of Britain will be a massive, stunning blow.

It will happen in stages, less suddenly than the US’s loss of comparatively expendable former coalition members in Rome and Madrid – but far more importantly. For the loss of Britain from Mr Bush’s "coalition of the willing" will deprive the US of its prime advocate in Europe and its most persuasive rhetorical champion.

Abroad, it will gradually drain the coalition of its second-most potent fighting force. At home, it will strip Mr Bush of the propaganda value the alliance with Britain brings; Americans still cherish geopolitical echos of the old fighting days with Churchill, their gruff moral compass though the "Good War". It will split the English-speaking world in a dangerous age.

Mr Blair announced today that he will step down before September 2007. In so doing, he acknowledged his political impotence, effective immediately.

Even a lame duck is more powerful than a dead one. In Britain’s parliamentary system, where the prime minister does not personally wield executive power, they don’t go lame. They die.

Smiling at the funeral and muttering impatiently under his breath through the eulogy is the old-style Labour party bruiser who forced it: Gordon Brown, chancellor of the Exchequer.

The "coup attempt", as Blair allies are calling the power shift sweeping through Westminster and Downing Street, is engineered to force Mr Brown’s ascendancy to the post of prime minister no later than Christmas, although he may wait a few month longer if necessary. The very nature of this business tells us a lot about what Mr Brown is like.

Driven grimly by a need to lead, he has moaned privately for years that he deserves to govern. Almost anyone would be thrilled beyond their wildest dreams to wield the power Mr Brown has wielded for almost a decade as master of Britain’s purse – and more recently as Mr Blair’s imminent heir apparent. Not Mr Brown. His uninspiring egotism requires swifter satisfaction.

"Uninspiring" is the key word, for Mr Brown lacks a credible, inspiring and positive vision – precisely the asset Mr Blair brought to Labour when he took over party leadership in 1994, and the same asset that swept Labour to power in 1997.

It is also the asset that has kept Mr Blair at Mr Bush’s side through the horrifying series of bungles and crimes committed in Iraq, and this is the salient point.

The consequences of civil war in Britain’s Labour party are not necessarily obvious to policymakers in Washington who see Britain as a natural, traditional ally. Urgently, they need to grasp that without Mr Blair and his particular vision, Britain looks likely to turn away from Mr Bush’s policies and priorities across all the territories of the Great Game – from Palestine to Iraq, from Iran through Afghanistan to the Chinese border.

The US risks losing Britain at a key moment. Just weeks ago in Israel and Lebanon, the world received a foretaste of the conventional warfare that Iran stands ready to bring to the region, starting with her proxy forces in Hezbollah.

Such moments call for renewed unity. Instead, Mr Brown elected to make his cynical move at a time when it would throw Britain into the strategic paralysis of a leadership vacuum. No one is more pleased, surely, than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s ruthlessly practical president.

Yet beyond the current leadership vacuum, we can look forward to government under Mr Brown, and this is nothing to look forward to. It will be a very different kind of government, bowing as Mr Blair refused to bow to popular anti-war pressure from Labour lefties who, drawing on worn-out Communist-era stereotypes, see the United States as the world’s primary menace – and who view Israel as a menace in the Middle East.

Grassroots pressure for radical changes to Britain’s foreign policy is now immense. Tellingly, even local Labour party organisations have begun to turn on Mr Blair, siding with the Brown revolt. One local party leader in Islington spoke today on BBC Radio 4, explaining that Mr Blair’s support of Israel in the recent conflict with Hezbollah had been "the last straw".

Quite an extraordinary reason to overthrow a British prime minister.

Of course, Mr Brown may never get his chance to govern. As Mr Blair retreats from leadership, Mr Brown will discover that there remains a deep-seated popular mistrust of old-style, inward-looking Labour in today’s UK, a country reshaped and rebranded by the complementary legacies of Thatcherism and New Labour rule.

In which case David Cameron’s Conservatives may rise to the occasion. Yet their electoral position remains brittle, and they will not be risk-takers. Returned to power, the Conservatives would seek instinctively to befriend Washington and retain the "special relationship". But they have misplaced their confidence in the post-Thatcher era. Mr Cameron’s strategy for recovering it calls for sacrificing old presumptions. This may include, if necessary, the iron-clad alliance with Washington.

After watching Mr Blair’s leadership fall apart under pressure from anti-war pressure at the grassroots level, Mr Cameron will undoubtedly think twice before embracing the risky politics of principled alliance with the US.

Whoever finally comes out on top, Mr Brown or Mr Cameron, today is likely to be remembered as the beginning of the end of this political era in Britain.

Only a major security crisis can stop the rot, by exposing Mr Brown’s soft left as a greater sham than Mr Blair and his contingent ever were. Ironically, the major security crisis exists, but some prefer to pretend it does not.