Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Clash of Civilisations

It was as long ago as November 2006 that I purchased Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order (my blog entry of 5 November 2006 refers) and I've only just started reading it! As I mentioned then this was a book that was mentioned along with Francis Fukuyama's The End of History thesis in the OU course I did on the United States. Huntington and Fukuyama to a lesser extent are both referenced in my current course and I thought now was an opportune moment to get to grips with the former.

Okay, so I haven't read all of this as yet and my comments here are abridged and condensed and my interpretation, so don't take what I say as the gospel on Huntington! Essentially Huntington's argument is that with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism, the world moved into a multi-polar, multi-civilisational age. By multi-polar he means the end of the dichotomy of two superpowers vying for hegemony and thus the dispersal of power amongst many. However, it could be argued that the United States as the sole remaining superpower is pre-eminent and with its imperial ambitions, is without equal. The general point though is that US power, whether it be political, military or economic is in decline. The second point Huntington is making is that the post-Cold War world consists of broadly nine civilisations - Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese. Whereas during the Cold War nations were roughly polarised between East and West or non-aligned, with the fall of Communism, old identities and groupings are re-emerging.

So, he says that the major conflicts of the twenty-first century will be along the fault-lines between civilisations. This we have certainly seen with the Al-Qaeda attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 and also the break-up of Yugoslavia and the divisions there along largely cultural lines.

What Huntington is doing in this book is presenting a new paradigm - a framework or lens - through which the modern world and international relations can be understood. In doing so he is dismissing theories which were dominant throughout the Cold War such as realism and roundly dismisses Fukuyama's End of History thesis - what Fukuyama was advocating was that Western liberal democracy (and capitalism) had triumphed and would be the dominant political system. This, Huntington concludes, is false and he presents a view that the Western civilization is in decline, having reached its peak somewhere around the 1920s. The reasons for this are complex and also interesting. I don't think I can do full justice to Huntington's arguments but I will do my best to tackle them here.

Essentially, if I have understood Huntington correctly, what he is saying is that modernisation (which is a product of the West) in non-Western societies leads to 'de-westernisation' and the promotion of the indigenous culture. The reasons for this are variously:

1. Modernisation leads to dislocated and alienated peoples - traditional bonds and social relations are broken down. Thus the peoples turn principally to religion to fulfil the void. Religion is key to cultural identity

2. In addition modernisation tends to empower these societies - their populations become better educated, socially mobile and increasingly urbanised. In turn this leads to a greater pride and 'belief' in their culture, which is then reasserted

3. Rapid population growth is typical in non-Western societies with large populations of young people (15-24), who Huntington cites as the motors of political change. With an empowered society and an articulate population, it is only a matter of time before the civilisation comes to believe itself separate and distinct from others including Western civilisation

Thus there is then this challenge between this new civilisation and others because it has become culturally, economically and politically distinct, whilst absorbing into it the benefits and attributes of other cultures, particularly modernisation. So what Huntington is saying is that the world is becoming more 'modern' and less 'Western' hence his theory that the power of the West is in decline and that of other non-Western civilisations is on the rise.

I hope I've made a reasonable job of explaining Huntington's points so far. I won't go into his comments and analysis of the Islamic Resurgence because I am not sure that I fully understand it yet!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Good things and bad things

Just a random collection of good things and others that annoy...

People moaning about the weather - of course it has always been a national obsession to discuss the weather, it just isn't British to not be complaining about it either being too hot, too cold or too wet or sometimes a mix of all three in the same day! You can't really call yourself British, if you've never struck up a conversation with a complete stranger whilst waiting for a bus (or indeed engaging in any other everyday mundane activity) and discussed the weather. However, I have noticed more recently that this obsession has become, well...more obsessional, if that is possible. Everyone seems to have short memories and so think that every spell of 'unusual weather' is so unusual that they can't remember it being quite like it before. Even worse, the weather forecasts now are so dramatic that its almost a wonder that each one doesn't come with some fearful warning. Not to mention the fact that Global Warming has to be thrown into virtually every discussion that concerns the weather these days. What do we have? An ever more neurotic public who sense every change in the weather as if it is some calamitous foretelling of terrible disaster... Absolute rubbish, the weather is as it always has been in my memory, marvellously unpredictable. That's why we like talking about it so much.

'Gay Marriage' - this phrase really irritates me. Marriage for me is between a man and a woman, not between two people of the same sex. I have no problem with Civil Unions but these are not, in my view, a marriage. I think describing Civil Unions as such, devalues the meaning of marriage as something, which I still regard as being a special and important commitment between a man and a woman.

On the radio - there are three radio programmes, all BBC of course, that I try to listen too regularly. Firstly Newshour on the BBC World Service, which is an interesting and informative round-up of the days news. I like it because its not about sound-bites and it doesn't gloss over the issues like much TV news does. Another favourite news and current affairs programme is Broadcasting House on Sunday mornings on Radio 4. I suppose technically I am not a listener to this programme in the usual sense as I am a podcast subscriber but I very much enjoy listening to Paddy O'Connell and his guests each week. This is a surprisingly informative hour and often humorous too. Finally on my local station, BBC Three Counties Radio, there is a gem of a programme every Friday evening from 8-10pm, filled with terrific tunes from the 70s and 80s.

Being in a job - I realised this morning as I left home for work how lucky I am to be working. I know I've moaned about my current job from time to time but I count my blessings for being in work and for the sense of purpose and direction it gives. I am very thankful for being where I am now when I think back to how bad things were about six months ago.

Friends - where would any of us be without our friends? I read a telling quote on someones mug at work earlier - 'Life is nothing without friends.' How true and I feel very fortunate to have the friends that I do and for all the ups and downs there is from time to time, I am grateful to count each and every one of them a part of my life.

Doctor's receptionists - why are they all like little 'Hitler's'? Well all the ones I seem to have a dealing with are!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Idle curiosity at lunchtime, plus a few bits of shopping, took me into Boots and I wondered if it was still possible to buy camera 'film.' With all things being digital these days, I was surprised and delighted to discover the answer is yes. Not just plain colour film either but Black & White as well and even better, slide film, still seems to be produced. For a short period during the mid-1990s I experimented with taking slides, which was an experience that I enjoyed and I liked some of the results. I found my old slides during one of my sort outs over recent weeks and I always feel that they have a certain nostalgia and sense of reality that seems to be absent from film or digital prints. There is a lot of nostalgia mixed in as well, as it takes me back to my childhood, when on a wet weekend afternoon my Dad would sometimes treat us to a show of slides, both ones he took many years before, some from my Mum and lots of me and my brother when we were babies and young boys. They are wonderful and I used to love those afternoons sat in the dark, it was so much more fun than leafing through a photo album!

Unfortunately I think I've either lost or since disposed of my old 35mm portable film camera and I doubt that you can actually buy camera's which accept film these days. Its a pity as I feel I would like to do slides again and build up bit more of a collection and certainly more varied than the ones I took in the 90s. And slides are economical too as the cost of processing is included when you buy the film. I seem to remember that the box used to include a small envelope that you sent off your finished film in and then about a week or two later it would come back, with a neatly packaged box of slides. Wonderful!


I learnt not for the first time today that not all things that are cheap are necessarily that good. I need to get some new earphones for my iPod as the ones supplied are knackered. Well, it is only the left earpiece that is falling apart and while it is usable it isn't particularly comfortable. So, I thought I'd buy myself some new earphones and the cheapest I saw were £3.99 in Woolworths. They are dreadful, the sound sounds distorted and muffled and they are very uncomfortable as they are of an 'in-ear' design. Wish I'd saved myself the four quid and saved up for a decent pair. Thus, I will have to soldier on with the old earphones for now until I can afford to get some decent ones.


I noticed on Monday that Classic FM have started a CD-series called 'The Full Works' which is exclusively available at HMV. Seems to be a similar idea to Naxos - top quality recordings of classical music on a budget label. Sounds a bit of a contradiction I know but from what I can make out the Classic FM CD's feature quite old or previously released recordings, so that is presumably how they can package them cheaply but I thought they are a great way to explore new works my familiar composers or to even try something new, after all £6 is reasonable for a CD these days.

There was a rather good documentary on BBC 4 the Friday before last about Ralph Vaughan Williams, who died 50 years ago this year. Arguably one of the finest British composers, maybe some would say even better than Elgar, this interesting documentary concentrated on the women in his life, that so inspired his work. It revealed a lot about the man and his passions and it was refreshing to hear that this was a composer whose life wasn't marked so much by tragedy and sadness as by joy and passion to his last days.
A piece of music that I have 'discovered' recently and particularly like, even though it is perhaps one of the saddest and depressing works I've heard, is Henryck Gorecki's Third Symphony, subtitled 'The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.' I know very little about it other than I understand it was written to express the pain and suffering of the Polish nation during World War II and the most popular recording features the soprano Dawn Upshaw. It is a three-movement work for orchestra and soprano and each movement is blindingly beautiful and tragic. It is three laments or songs, each sung in Polish and heart-wrenching nonetheless. I wish there was an English translation with the CD. I recognised the Second Movement, as part of this was used in Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution.
On a happier note, I am also exploring works by Rachmaninov, who wrote some wonderful and romantic pieces for piano and also the Danish-composer Carl Nielson, whose Fourth Symphony I particularly like.