Archive for November, 2016

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man by Christopher Hitchens Book Review

17. November 2016

This is a biography of one of the founding father’s of America Thomas Paine by a journalist called Christopher Hitchens. To be more precise this is more of a biography of his works rather than a retelling of Paine’s life. Only those events relevant to the texts by Paine and other contemporaries(such as Edmund Burke) and some non-contemporaries are discussed. I have not read any of Mr. Paine’s works so this has served me as an introduction to his works. All that I know about Paine comes from this book, so the character I will discuss here is Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Paine. Paine the emissary, the republican, the revolutionary, the committee member, the deist and opposer to organized religion. I have to confess to have lost the plot once as it is easy to get lost in history when one is met with references to events and people that one is not aware of. Overall it felt like reading a long article whose climax was somewhere in the latter half but even that is better than a forced climax.

It was interesting to read how Paine’s views changed over time especially after he was imprisoned in France (rather than his views themselves) but I couldn’t understand how he could have still being in favour of France and then of the Bonaparte regime even after he had declared himself emperor. It almost felt like his hatred for monarchy had blinded his judgement. I think that the reason that I did not find Paine interesting as Christopher presented him was because I already agreed mostly with Paine’s views are and where I didn’t Christopher didn’t either and it was mainly due to Paine’s overly naive and optimistic views about government and human nature. The most interesting bit of the book was when Christopher briefly in a slight detour from the subject and discussed his views on human nature and human solidarity, I have heard Christopher bring up human solidarity as a source for human morality before but this is the first time I have seen him say that it wasn’t about idealism, altruism or benevolence or in other words that morality is simply born out of necessity, convenience and desire (and that “it hardly matters” if this is selfishness or not).

The back and forth argument between Paine and Edmund Burke constitute the first half of the book. Burke’s argument about chivalry in Europe being undone by evil economists just was ridiculous and it felt that the argument was about who had the better rhetoric skills and Burke overdid his hand with irrelevant romantic twaddle and “misplaced gallantry” about a certain Austrian woman aristocrat in France, Marie Antoinette and King Louis of France. After that it was too easy for Paine to win there. Burke however was vindicated by history as the French revolution degenerated exactly to the military despotism where all dreams of human equality would fly out the window. Christopher then concludes that they were both right in some ways as Paine’s was right about the end of Chivalry and Burke about the French revolution. Though in my opinion Napoleon’s rise is strictly speaking an argument to keep the army totally under the states control and not an argument for the monarchy, as any weakening of the state with or without a monarchy can lead to a power imbalance with an unchecked army. Just look at Thailand and see how the military junta has taken control of the country by worshipping the royal family and in turn worshipping themselves but I digress. Paine however seems to be correct on principles as he rightfully scorns Burke’s notion that the dead should be allowed to rule over the living for any generation let alone forever.

There is a brief discussion about the advantages of having a constitution and indeed I wish we in Britain had a written one too, not leaving the liberty and rights of the people entirely in the hands of trends. A constitution is in fact a better guard against trends than a populist monarchy can ever hope to be. The final part of the book is a recantation of Paine’s anti-organized religion (and therefore anti-Christian) but pro-deist Age Of Reason which according to Christopher acts as a sequel to Rights of Man as well as Paine’s most potent work. Once again the criticism by Paine against religion and the bible seem so obvious and self-evident that it’s boring. That little Irish poem at the end was appropriately placed and Paine’s legacy is present in Christopher Hitchens writing if anywhere else.

Persepolis Book review

17. November 2016

Persepolis is the autobiographical story of an Iranian girl living through the revolution, the counter-revolution and the war with Iraq and then about her experiences in the west. The film is an animated adaptation of the graphic novel. I haven’t read the graphic novel so I can’t compare it to the film. There are many memoirs like this, of young brave women escaping the despotism of their home countries and then finding it hard to adapt to their new host countries, but not many of them are animated.

This film is originally in French but the English dubbed voices did a pretty good job and there were only a few inevitable immersion breaking moments where it was obvious that the language that they should be speaking in should not be English (Then again I doubt they should have spoken in French in Iran either). But these are minor concerns given that the characters in this story are cartoons. The film never tries to make you forget that they are cartoons and this works for the dark comedy that it uses. The art style is simple, perhaps a little bit too simple to someone like me who is accustomed to more detailed Japanese animation, but this story wasted no time trying to impress me with pretty colours. The animated medium of this show also helps it cram a lot of varying events in a short amount of time. For example those scenes in which the little girl talks with God in her dreams would have been too serious or strange or artificial in film. The very artificial nature of animation gives this film its genuine-ness or perhaps its the other way around the genuine-ness of the story can fully make itself shown through the animated medium.

This film echoes a lot of what the journalist Christopher Hitchens has said about Iran and Iranians. Christopher was always keen to stress how the younger generation in Iran did not like its clerical overlords and its repressive practices mainly because the young know about an alternative in the west from relatives who lived abroad and the western media which the people consume despite the lacklustre efforts by the regime to ban them or in other words Iran is not a closed country as North Korea. What Christopher failed to mention however is that there exists an older generation in Iran who was betrayed in the counter-revolution, then again given that hundreds of thousands of them have been murdered I can understand why they are not a revolutionary force in the country. This film places particular attention to this generation who was betrayed through the eyes of a young girl. By far my favourite character in this film was the grandmother who acts as the girls real parental figure throughout the film even when she was not there, no especially when she was not there in Europe. One scene in particular cemented this point: A pretentious European youth says that politics don’t matter because nothing really matters, the protagonist is quick to rebuke him by saying that her uncle’s death under the regime was not meaningless and promptly points that he is a pretentious prick. Christopher Hitchens once said something to the effect of, that totalitarianism is some young men who cannot get a date being given guns and told that they are special. This comment instantly reminded me of the revolutionary guards (the black shirts of Persia) with bushy beards(1) that were harassing the Iranian youth in this film(and sadly not just in this film).

Persepolis is not a single issue film as it is a memoir more than a piece of journalistic fiction (2) which tend to be specific in its focus as most fiction with a political agenda does tend to, it also touches the issues of love and drugs for depression. Love is a Stalingrad, the protagonist utilizes love to put away the feeling that she doesn’t belong in Europe or in Iran. In the end though it is clear which part of the world adheres more with her beliefs, and her grand mother’s beliefs of personal responsibility, integrity and freedom. When she returns to Iran a psychiatrist who likes to draw doodles in his notebook while his patients talk (this is a comedy) prescribes the protagonist with some medications that make her lethargic and further removed from society. Discussing any more events would be no different than retelling the story because the film has got many creatively drawn and animated expositions and monologues. If I may say so I do not agree with some of the actions the protagonist took but I don’t think the author will care or should care.

The ending was a bit of an anti-climax as Iran remains an Islamic Republic. This wasn’t an heroic tale, I am not going to say that most heroic tales are fiction as the essence remains the same, or as Yuuki Shinjuuruo(3) put it, “it is something beautiful that has been sullied.”

An obvious recommendation to those who like this film would be to read Maus, a graphic novel set in the Nazi era with themes similar to this film. I haven’t read Maus yet, so I cannot compare the two.

(1) I have never understood why some Muslims think that growing a beard is a modest thing to do when it clearly is a fashion statement. This kind of false (superficial) modesty is nothing more than a pathetic theatrical political statement just like having a tattoo or wearing a t-shirt with something pretentious written on it. This has nothing to do with modesty, in fact it is a symptom of attention-whoring and virtue-signalling of the highest calibre. Then again attention-whoring and virtue-signalling are among their least indicting offences to humanity.

(2) “Journalistic fiction” is a weirdly worded term, after all if something really happened then it’s not fictional and if something did not happen then it’s not journalism or at any rate proper journalism but a rose is a rose.

(3) Yuuki Shinjuuruo is the protagonist of the japanese detective animation “Un-Go” based on the works of Ango Sakaguchi.