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Sunday, May 29, 2005

An EST time out....

I've been a bit preoccupied with getting the word out on a conference I am organizing on Accountable Governance here in Belfast next October, but did manage to take advantage of concert by Swedish jazz trio E.S.T. (Esbjörn Svensson Trio), which describes itself as "popband that plays jazz". This group is a favorite of Ciarán's, and little wonder why -- they are terrific and their performance on Friday evening at Elmwood Hall (located literally just a few steps from the QUB Student Union) was facsinating (you get a taste of it by watching their videos).

I have been listening to their Seven Days of Falling CD on the iPod (in fact, it is on constant replay mode as I write this), and having seen how they create the sounds of some of their more interesting pieces has hooked me. Some of what they played at Elmwood was familiar, but the new pieces are exciting and I assume they are on the new CD, Viaticum, that is only available as an import in the US and which does not seem to be accessible on the iTunes site as yet. I will now go searching for it in local UK stores -- and I am kicking myself for not picking up a copy at the concert....

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Being exposed....

My fellowship leave at Belfast is entering its last month, but I am doing more reflecting than packing. It has been a productive time publication wise, with at least seven different pieces -- a couple of solo ventures, but mostly co-authored with various colleagues -- either in print or in the queue for publication. One of the drawbacks of academic writing is that it takes so damn long for any particular work to go from initial presentation to publication. And then it takes a few years before it has any impact -- if then....

I bring this up because the article I was working on as I came to Belfast on "Accountability and the Promise of Performance" was finally published in the March issue of Public Productivity and Management Review, and there it would have languished in relative obscurity were it not for colleague H. George Frederickson who has featured it his May column in the PA TIMES. George's kind words will certainly bring some attention to the piece.

Now if only I get generate as much attention to some of the other work....

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The problem with zippers that stick....

A couple of posts ago I mentioned attending a talk by Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations here in Belfast. Mead mentioned in passing a concept he had previously used in an article on US foreign policy that stressed the American use of "sticky power". Sticky power is a variation on what former Harvard Kennedy school dean Joseph Nye termed "soft power" which reflects the influence of American social and cultural forces in tying other nations to the American Empire. Sticky power represents the economic attraction of the American market which acts as a spider web by entangling others in a way that they cannot really escape without a futile struggle. I was reminded of that concept while reading an interesting article in today's Guardian G2 section on the sudden emergence of the Chinese in the manufacture and supply of buttons and zippers....

Now that might not sound like a major economic sector to you, but for the Chinese in the small community at the center of the booming button-zipper industry it has been a major development in a relatively short time. The degree to which the Chinese have come to dominate this economic arena is even worrying good old "sticky" US policymakers who have taken steps in the direction of protectionist policies in this and other relatively obscure sectors of the economy. There is obvious pressure on the Bush administration to interfere in the area of buttons and zippers as they did unsuccessfully in steel production a couple of years ago. The approach is likely to be quite different, with a focus on getting China to adjust the value of its currency to more realistic levels -- a step that will reduce their competitive cost advantage. But when it comes to zips and buttons, it looks like the Chinese entrepreneurs will win out in the end given their capacity relative to other producers.

Which brings up one of the risks the US takes in adopting a sticky power based foreign policy strategy -- especially if it succeeds. It's another example of needing to be careful about what you wish for, because you might actually get it....

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Ono.... Honey, I shrunk the Scots!

A couple of media related items....

A column in yesterday's Media Guardian section by the paper's ombudsman, Ian Mayes, noted that London is hosting the 25th annual meeting of ONO -- the Organization of News Ombudsmen -- at which, so the headline tells us, they will celebrate "press accountability."

They're expecting 50 delegates, and a few small trivia points are in order. The first newspaper ombudsman (I wonder why they maintain the gender bias in the title -- I don't think ombudsperson is any less awkward) was appointed in 1967 by a local paper in Louisville, Kentucky. While it is not mentioned whether non-U.S. members outnumber US types in the overall membership of ONO (that really is a terrific acronym), at this forthcoming meeting there will be more delegates from outside the US.

And speaking about media accountability, we should take note of the public reaction in the UK to the new graphics used on the BBC TV weather forecasts.

Now, it must be noted that the BBC has been through a great deal lately. Starting with the Hutton inquiry which threw the entire corporation into turmoil, the organization has been subject to almost constant criticism from both outside and within. Yesterday, for example, several thousand BBC employees conducted a one-day strike in protest of proposed changes that include 3500 redundancies over the next few years. (It is clear how much I have grown attached to the BBC -- yesterday was quite difficult without listening to the Today program on BBC Radio Four and Paxman's Newsnight broadcast at the end of the day.)

But for all that, nothing quite matches the reaction to the change in weather graphics. Those of us who live in the hot media markets in the US have been subjected to all sorts of wild computerized weather graphics over the past several years as local TV stations compete for audiences in the only way they know how -- through bells and whistles. There was a bit of that in evidence when I first came here -- Sky News, ITV news and Channel 4 all had a bit more colorful weather forecasting graphics than the BBC which seemed to rely on the usual cartoonish and static logos placed at appropriate points on maps of the UK. (Just as US weather maps tend to ignore the existence of Canada or Mexico, so the UK maps give the impression there is no weather in the Republic of Ireland...).

So you would think that the shift of the BBC weather folks to a more dynamic and interesting way of describing shifting patterns of rain, clouds and what little sunshine we do get here would be welcome. But the reaction was of course typical of the people who have the tendency to clutch to tradition and other bad habits. They complained. And often they complained loudly. And their complaints made front-page news.

But none of those complaints was more interesting than a comment made by a Scottish Nationalist MP who took note that the new BBC weather maps shrunk the size of Scotland relative to the rest of the UK. "The BBC's news has been bias to the South-east the years," he said, "and now this." I suspect that the size of Scotland on the BBC forecasts will now become part of the SNP manifesto for future elections....

UPDATE (28 May): The BBC has demonstrated once again its uncanny capacity for fair and unbiased reportage by rethinking -- and unshrinking -- the Scots. We can now rest assured that the rain and clouds will now cover all of Scotland....

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Sunday, May 22, 2005

The I/eyes have it -- random readings and thoughts on a Belfast weekend

Recently I've been giving more thought to the things that I'll miss when I leave Belfast next month. I'll be returning from time to time, but there is obviously a difference between visiting and living in a place. To say that I'll miss my friends and colleagues, and the daily routine of the coffee and the craic, goes without saying. I will also miss the general weekend routine that I've developed here -- the routine that starts with purchasing the Saturday Guardian and spending the rest of the weekend doing everything from workouts (not as often as I should) and shopping to laundry and a bit of cleaning. The key to having an enjoyable weekend is really linked to the quality of the articles in the Review section of the Guardian, and more often than not the paper delivers.

This weekend was no exception, although it's taken me until this morning (Sunday) to really getting into the paper. I'm not quite finished with my morning read, but already a clear theme has developed, for intentionally or not most of the interesting articles relate to personal perspectives -- or as the title of this post notes, the"I's"/eyes have it....

The cover essay by Caryl Phillips did not attract my attention at first, but turned out to be a good read about his climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro with Russell Banks. Nothing really special, just as well written essay.

As for reviews, there is one interesting and scathing critique of Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat that effectively removed that book from my list of things to read when I get back to the states. I read an excerpt from that book in a recent Guardian in which Friedman describes the "global" nature of his Dell laptop computer, and it actually looked pretty interesting. But according to the reviewer, Richard Adams, there isn't much more to the book then some very personalized observations with little depth. In fact, Adams suggested that the book would have been well served had the "I" been replaced on that laptop....

There is also an interesting critique of Simon Blackburn's new book, Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed. As the reviewer, John Banville, describes it, the book seems more an attack on the relativism of Richard Rorty than a clear statement of Blackburn's own "quasi realism", and once again the book has been eliminated from my future purchase list. If anything, I'm now more likely to read Rorty....

There are also a couple of interesting reviews of books about cultural phenomena such as our obsession with Wall Street and the popularity of reality TV shows. On the subject of "eyes" and perceptions, this week's "adaptation of the week" (which compares movie adaptations with the original books) is about the 1960 movie "Village of the Damned" and highlights the director's use of "glowing eyes" in pretraining the weirdness of the children. Interestingly, that article is placed next to an essay on the life and work of Frida Kahlo whose self obsession is seen in the eyes of her self-portraits.

And as usual one of the more interesting pieces is the weekly profile of some major literary figure. This week it is Joan Didion, and while I am only vaguely familiar with her writing, as always this feature makes me want to learn more about the individual. As it turns out, for instance, Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, wrote to screen adaptations for "True Confessions," "Up Close and Personal" and some other films.

But thus far the most interesting piece was an essay by an American writer I've never heard of, Nell Freudenberger. The essay on her experience as a US State Department lecturer in China really does get to questions of perspective and the difficulties of relating across cultures.

Which reminded me of the local reaction to a lecture given at Queens University this week by another State Department sponsored speaker. Walter Russell Mead is on a tour of European cities where he gives talks on American foreign policy. As the Kissinger Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mead has established himself as one of the more perceptive analysts of the history and current trends in US foreign relations. In the political science business he would be regarded as a realist, and in his presentation to his Belfast audience he didn't pull any punches. I am pretty familiar with his work, and use much of his historical analysis in my own presentation of American foreign policy both in class and in my textbook chapter. Nothing he said, therefore, surprised me, and I thought the audience was pretty accepting of his argument. They were as polite as one would expect, and the question asked afterwards seemed pretty agreeable. But later in the day I got quite an earful from an American colleague who also attended the lecture as well as several graduate students. All seemed a bit shocked at Mead's presentation which they saw as an endorsement and apologetics for the Bush administration's outrageous policies toward the rest of the world. Clearly, even after 15 months of living in Belfast, I still don't have an appreciation of the Northern Irish perspective on the United States....

So much for random thoughts on a relaxing weekend in Belfast.

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Thursday, May 19, 2005

A (long overdue) observation....

From Randi Art

Okay, it has finally gotten to the point where I must express publicly something that I rarely (as in never -- I am not that kind of 'guy') express privately -- although I feel it all the time. Reading Randi's post of two days ago, I am once again struck by just how talented and smart she is, and how lucky I am to know her, let alone to be married to her for (oh my god!) nearly 37 years.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Yo, yob! Yeah, you....

Okay all you Anglophiles, here's the question for today: define the word "yob". For the uninitiated, this is a term applied to young males who are rowdy, aggressive and at times violent. And if you haven't caught on, it is "boy" spelled backwards. Brilliant, eh!

And why is this a bit of slang trivia important? The answer can be found in recent news broadcasts and tabloid (as well as broadsheet) headlines, for we seem to be heading into another one of those intermittent phenomena known among British sociologists as a "moral panic."

Moral panics are media fed public frenzies that the people of Britain seem to need every so often so they can vent their frustrations over living relatively innocuous social lives. Sociologist Stanley Cohen first applied the phrase in his 1972 study of how the UK reacted to "mods and rockers" of the 1960s, and it has since been used in other contexts. And this latest version of the moral panic has all the same characteristics of the original as a media frenzy is being constructed about an entire subculture based on a youth culture "style" that has become the target of a collective angst about the lack of respect in society.

So, what does a disrespectful yob look like? This is all too obvious to both the media and government ministers who describe yobs as those scary kids who wear hooded pullovers and baseball caps and very loose fitting -- actually 'baggy' -- jeans. Sound like someone you know? Seen one lately? (Do you know what your kid is wearing today? How would he score on the yob quiz?)

I don't have much positive to say about the so-called yob wardrobe as a fashion statement -- in fact some of my best friends (in their 30s) have (and probably would if they still could) dress that way. I never thought of it as much of an improvement over the "all black" (no, not the sports team) heavy metal "dude" attire of a previous generation (worn by another close acquaintance of the 30ish type to this day -- at least some of the time). But I fail to see this as a key identifier of criminal intent that warrants the kind of government action being discussed in the UK newspapers. In the language of the moral panic literature, these kids (both youthful and otherwise) hardly deserve to be stigmatized as "folk devils" just for the sake of selling more newspapers or getting social disorder under control. Perhaps a few more restrictions on the real source of most unruly behavior around here -- the binge drinking -- would help. But clothing? Give me a break....

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Sunday, May 15, 2005


From Randi Art

Although separated by a very big pond, Randi and I seemed to have experienced the seasonal changes together yesterday.

New England has emerged from a very snowy and long winter -- reported as a record breaker for snow and by far the most challenging since we moved to Beverly in 1997 (of course, I was only present for a couple of the storms). Randi's excitement at the coming of spring has been evident in her recent fixation on flowers and capturing the blossoming and greening with her phone cam (see here and here and here)....

Northern Ireland is also in mid seasonal change, although it isn't as dramatic here. Although trees go bare during the "winter", the grass remains green throughout. So-called "snow" is a rare occurrence, and while the temperature range is nothing to write home about it typically stays above the freezing mark and might creep above 40°F every so often. Here the coming of spring is evident by the slow blossoming process and the trees regaining their leaves. But the real sign of spring is when folks shed their jackets and bring out the BBQ grills. Yesterday, in what counts for an exceptionally warm day here in Belfast (temperatures in the high 50s Fahrenheit range), I received a visit from Niaz and friends who set up the cooking equipment on the lawn at my apartment complex. This was just a "dry run" for a bigger cookout Niaz is organizing for next week in celebration of his pending completion of a Ph.D. in law.

We're hoping the fickle weather gods are smiling on him for that event....

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Friday, May 13, 2005

Listening up....

An eventful day of sorts -- I finally picked up the hearing aid for my left ear. The fact that it was for the left ear rather than a right was merely a matter of arbitrary choice. About a year ago, when I had my hearing checked, it was determined that I needed help in both ears, but the NHS would only do one of the time.

Although the British health system is infamous for long waits for services such as this, the extended wait in this case was a combination of my travel schedule conflicting with their scheduling procedures. When we finally settled on today's appointment, nothing was going to interfere -- not even a trip to Paris that I passed up in order to keep this appointment....

I've tried out the unit for several hours today -- an hour or two at different times. The sensation is like having half your head submerged in water. In addition, I am hearing myself much more clearly than I am hearing others, but I was told this is something I'll get used to over time. The unit is clear plastic, and the only part that might be visible is the tanish unit itself that fits over the ear. My long hair tends to hide that, and so several folks I was chatting with during the Institute coffee break late this morning were not aware of it.

In opting for finally getting a hearing aid, I'm hoping not only to hear sounds that I've been missing for the past decade or so, but also to improve my capacity to understand some of my colleagues here in Northern Ireland. As readers of my blog know, I'm a real fan of Belfast and Queens University, but there are times (many, many times) when I can't quite make out the language. I know it's English (most of the time), but there are certain speakers to whom I can merely respond with a smile and head shake while saying "uh-huh" in a fruitless effort to convince them that I really understanding everything they're telling me. What makes it all worse is that I have the greatest difficulty with the most common accents in Northern Ireland -- usually described as a broad scottish accent with a bit more mumble (listen to Radio Ulster or Radio Foyle for a bit to get a taste of what I am talking about -- especially the call-in shows). I think I've gotten better over the past 18 months, but there are still folks that I find difficult to understand.

The problems I (and others) have with the Northern Irish accent is truly amazing when you consider some of the folks in the entertainment business who come from around here. Listen to Liam Neeson sometime, or James Nesbitt, or Ciaran Hinds as they adapt their voices to the roles they play. Chameleon voices. But it is more than merely role playing -- listening to a Van Morrison interview this morning on BBC4 Radio, I was struck by the extent to which he has lost -- or chose to lose -- his northern Irish brogue in the interview, and it certainly is not in evidence in his singing. The secret (if there is one) seems to be an almost natural capacity among folks from around here to adjust their speech to the context. Example: a student in my undergraduate course here is relatively easy for me to understand when we chat one on one after class -- no problem at all. But the other day I happen to be sitting at a location near where he was chatting with his mates -- and the entire exchange could have been in a foreign tongue for all that I could gather. Different situation, different patterns of speaking.

On second thought, maybe the hearing aid won't help...

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

BS and Nightmares

Two items from today's Guardian G2 section worthy of note.

First is a feature piece on Harry Frankfurt's essay-turned-cheap-bestseller-book, On Bullshit. A little excerpt is included....

Second is an article on the TV-documentary-turned-movie, The Power of Nightmares. This three part TV show was broadcast on the BBC in the UK just prior to the US elections, but it could not find an outlet in the US -- and so the turn to movies. The article notes that the movie version, being shown at Cannes, does not come off as well as a Michael Moore flick. In its TV form this was a really thought provoking documentary that focused on the parallel history of the Islamic movement that spawned Al Queda and the Straussian school of political philosophy that gave birth to the 'neocons'. Too bad it will not get a full 'airing' in the states -- while I have some qualms about the presentation and content, it would have stimulated a much more interesting debate than Moore's rantings....

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Top that, Sarbanes-Oxley!!

Those of us familiar with the US effort to make corporate executives more accountable thought we'd seen it all with the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley in the US. But certainly Spain has now taken the effort to a new level....


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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Hey Ma, guess what I have? (Another soccer saga...)

Every so often there is a news item or campaign on UK TV featuring obese children, and the storyline is always the same: our kids aren't eating right and they aren't getting enough exercise. There are similar stories on US TV, and I suspect even more since the "Super Size Me" documentary made the rounds (pardon the pun).

I have mixed feelings whenever I see these stories, for while I think it is terrible that kids don't eat right and are so "out of shape", I can't help but forget that I know what it is like to be an obese kid (hell, I know what it's like to be an obese adult!). I think the last time I was probably at the correct weight for my height was at the age of 4 -- I even have to check with my mother on that point. (Randi has always claimed to be too short for her weight -- great line.)

When I was a kid, however, the word we used was not obese but "husky", which was the category of clothing that I was forced to wear. In fact my mother would drag me to the local men's store and ask aloud "Where are the husky boy's section?" I don't recall ever having come across that setion in my adulthood, but I am thankful that at least in my childhood we didn't have to go to the store and asked where we can find the "obese kids" department....

To add insult to obesity (so to speak), I also suffered as a child from an affliction (again, so to speak) known as being "pigeon toed." This is another term for 'in-toeing' according to sources on the web, and while it is typically associated with early childhood development, some folks (like me) still 'suffer' from it for longer periods.

The orthopedic 'specialist' who treated me prescribed a corrective regimen that effectively stigmatized me for many decades. The solution to pigeon toed-ness, it turns out, was to have me wear my left shoe on my right foot and vice versa. Yes, this did look funny, but far worse often gave people the impression that I was not merely obese but also quite stupid.

If there was any "benefit" to all this it was that it got me excused from gym class. While all my fifth-grade and sixth-grade friends were out on the gym floor playing dodgeball or learning to square dance (a skill I am certain they still use today), I was in the gym teacher's office smoking his cigarettes.

By age 12 I was up to at least half a pack a day....

The good news is that the corrective measures worked -- while my feet are nothing to write home about, I am pleased to say there is no indication of a genetic link between me and some winged friends.

I am also pleased to report that 12 years later I gave up smoking....

And I think I've gotten over looking stupid.

As for being obese and in need of exercise, well I never did really get over that phase....

I bring this up because today I suffered -- at age 58 -- what may be my first "athletic injury." As has become part of my Tuesday afternoon routine here in Belfast, I attended the four clock law faculty football game. As I've written in an earlier post, this has become a part of my routine that I actually look forward to despite the feeling of exhaustion that follows. Until today's game, we have been a bit shorthanded this term, with only four or five folks showing up each session. This has made the weekly "game" even more demanding on me, because with so few people on the floor I actually have to contribute to moving the ball around as well as providing something resembling a defense. Not merely is this good fun, but it is also my personal version of a cardiac "stress test." (I had a heart attack in March 2003, followed by a couple of procedures to implant stents in appropriate places, and for all that I am actually most anxious about passing the annual stress test. Don't want to let those doctors down....)

But while I really like the good work out, I was relieved today to see that 10 people showed up for the game, allowing me to effectively avoid contact with the ball while looking like I was seriously engaged in the game. But perhaps I was a bit too "laid-back" about the game, for within a few minutes I suffered a mishap which I believe falls under the term "groin pull."

Yes, this is not a fun injury. Luckily for me however, I tend to move forward and backward most of the day rather than laterally. The rest of the game, of course, was a bit awkward, and even now I am finding that sudden moves in front of the computer are a bit more difficult than usual.

Nevertheless, there's a certain point of pride in having sustained -- finally! -- an injury worthy of a less obese lifestyle.... I think I'll call my mother and let her know that I have actually sustained an athletic injury.

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Friday, May 06, 2005

Heading north....

From RandiArt

Those who follow this blog from time to time are aware that while I am presently located in Belfast, Northern Ireland, my actual home turf is in Beverly MA. My time here in Belfast is coming to an end (I have been here since September 2003), and I will soon return to the US. But while I am definitely heading back to Beverly to live, my work situation is likely to be different....

In the states I have been affiliated with Rutgers University-Newark for about a dozen years, and for five of the last seven years I have had to commute weekly to Newark to teach at Rutgers -- a process that was frankly wearing me down. The prospect of going back to that routine this fall was depressing. I love the students in Newark and my colleagues as well, but I was hoping for a change. And it looks like that will be the case.

I am about to agree to a position at the University of New Hampshire, a school of 13,000 or so located in Durham NH -- just forty minutes from my home in Beverly. There I hope to continue my work on accountability, but I am also looking forward to helping UNH build its MPA program -- something definitely needed in the New England area.

Among the benefits of the position change is being able to drop in for breakfast or lunch at Portsmouth -- a 15 drive from Durham and one of our favorite places to visit on a brisk morning. As Randi's pic shows, it is an interesting place with plenty of charm -- and even more presidential politics. I am really loking forward to the change....

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Items: Criminalized, Medicalized and Localized Accountability...

OK, here's a few items generated by the Google News Alert function and other random searches:

First, two teens in Billings, Montana have been charged with the crimes of 'attempted deliberate homicide by accountability and robbery by accountability'. Does anyone out there know what this means exactly?

Second, move over 'attention deficit disorder' -- you have some competition for the ADD acronym.... there is a new angle on accountability from the editorial pages of an online publication published in the Tampa Bay area....

Third, of local interest here is the fuss over a delayed report about the doings of the University of Ulster vice-chancellor (the de facto leader of the institution -- the chancellor is typically an honorary position). It is one of those stories that spreads by rumors and leaks to the press. In this case Professor Gerry McKenna is being investigated on the basis of several complaints that seem related to personal (marital) issues that have impacted on his decisions. Ah, accountbility at work....

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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Interesting victory speech....

Just watched the victory speech of George Galloway who won the constituency of Bethal Green and Bow in the East London area running under the "Respect" party banner. Here is a link to a video clip of the speech. It was probably the most interesting one of the night -- a straight forward attack on New Labour (which kicked him out of the party because of his opposition to the war and his personal contacts with Saddam Hussein) and an even more targeted assault on the local borough officials.

Galloway is an interesting character that has obviously been underestimated. But there more than a bit of demagoguery and arrogance in his approach, and his comments about parliamentary colleagues ("spineless" supporters of Blair with the "blood of 100,000 on their hands") guarantees that he will be a loose, loud (but ineffective) cannon in Commons. The fact that he beat one of the few black female MPs (Oona King) has added to the feelings against him on the liberal left despite his leftist reputation. (For a previous speech in which he articulated his views quite clearly, see here.)

In an interview on BBC that followed, Galloway went head to head with Jeremy Paxman, and eventually walked off after having taken Paxman to task. That was worth staying up for.... (Video here)

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Could not have said it better....

It is about 230 AM GMT (I know the posting time is different -- I post in US time, five hours earlier) and I awoke to the radio sounds of Blair making his constiuency victory speech in Sedgefield where he obviously did quite well despite the challenge from Reg Keys. He also spoke of Labour having a majority for its third Parliamentary election in succession -- thus giving him a historic third term in 10 Downing Street.

Looking at the TV with the mute button on, however, I see a little sidebar that indicates that the Labour majority will not necessarily be up to a level of comfort -- which most regarded as 90+. Anything below that number, it was said before the election, would be regarded as a negative for Blair and would probably lead to his turning over the PMs job to Gordon Brown in two years. The projected number on the screen is a majority of 80.... [430 update: BBC is now projecting Labour majority of 66 -- and the Tories are claiming somewhat of a victory....]

On the election campaign itself, since this is the first parliamentary one I have observed from this side of the pond I have little to compare it to, but I found it strikingly different from the US election campaign in many ways -- this despite all the effort to bring in US (and Australian) style strategies and consultants. The only way to describe it is "very British". My sense of this was confirmed by an article in the G2 section of the Guardian on election morning by historian Simon Shama who flew over from the US on Monday to take a closer look as a commentator for the Guardian. His task was to offer his judgment about the UK politics he became so familiar with when he lived here and the US politics he has witnessed for the past twenty years while residing over there. His analysis is worth the read....

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Killing Finucane

Available @

In light of the last post on the Omagh bombing prosecution, I take note of the fact that friend Justin O'Brien has just published a study of the 1989 murder of Pat Finucane. Finucane, a Northern Ireland solicitor who specialized in human rights and civil rights cases, mainly on behalf republicans, was shot in his home in front of his wife and children as they prepared to sit down for dinner. The crime was ghastly enough, but as O'Brien shows the killing of Pat Finucane was a good deal more, for it involved collusion of state in both setting up and covering up the murder.

The book does not hit the stores for a couple of weeks, but Justin provided me an advanced copy yesterday. With just a few pages read, I am already hooked in this story of a war on terrorism that went terribly wrong -- and the lessons for current practitioners of homeland security should read it with care....

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Historic news....

From RandiArt

It's election day here in the UK, and if the media hype is correct this is going to be a closer election than originally expected. Although elections are supposed to be about the future, they are unavoidably often about the past. In the case of Tony Blair's Labour Party campaign, history has worked both for and against them. On the one hand, they've used history to their benefit by conjuring up voter memories of Tory rule with the theme of "Forward, Not Back". On the other hand, the more recent history of British involvement in the Iraq War and Blair's push for military action has come back to haunt him and may play a key role in reducing Labour's majority in the next Parliament.

History plays an even more significant role here in Northern Ireland for obvious reasons. The politics of this place is as steeped in history as is the sectarianism that drives it. But yesterday the horrors of recent history moved center stage as progress was made in the investigation and prosecution of the infamous Omagh bombing of 1998 which killed 29 people and wounded many score more. In a history marked by many tragedies, the Omagh bombing seems to stand out not merely because of the numbers of dead and injured, but also because of its timing at a point when hope was so high that the violence of the Troubles might be drawing to an end. As it turned out, the Omagh bombing was in fact the last major violent manifestation of the Troubles. Nevertheless, it has been remembered more because the perpetrators were never brought to justice as far as the families of the victims were concerned. There was a prosecution and conviction in the Republic in January 2002 of a dissident IRA member allegedly involved in the plot, and a subsequent ROI prosecution of a Real IRA leader in 2003, although not for his role in the bombing per se. But the families of the Omagh bombing victims were not satisfied that enough has been done to pursue the prosecution of those directly involved, and they have in fact started a process of legal action against the police and prosecutors in order to sustain the case. Yesterday's announcement that an individual had been arrested and will likely be prosecuted for his role in the bombing was welcomed by the families, although with an understandable degree of skepticism.

Which highlights the fact that the history of the Troubles lingers in the background each and every day in Northern Ireland. Every so often -- perhaps a bit too frequently -- there is an incident to remind us of the violence that was once common around here. If you get major headlines, such as the Northern Bank robbery or the Robert McCartney murder that was steeped in the continued arrogance of the IRA. This past Monday, the Belfast Marathon was interrupted (or its lease the running course diverted) by a pipe bomb planted allegedly to get one of the runners, police official Hugh Orde.

Despite all this (and weather too), Northern Ireland and Belfast remains a terrific place populated by wonderful people, and I have never for one moment regretted the time I spent here....

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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

History versus history....

There is a TV show on the History Channel (I believe) with the title "Hollywood versus History," and it has the obvious theme of comparing Hollywood's rendition of history with the known historical record. After digging a little into the mysteries of the Norman Conquest and the Domesday Books, I think we might look into a show on "History versus History."

By sheer coincidence, just as I was typing away on my findings about the role of accountable governance in the rule of William the Conqueror the other night, the Discovery Channel was playing part five in the "Seven Ages of Britain" series that was originally produced and broadcast two or three years ago on the UK's Channel 4. While I haven't seen the whole series, I've caught a glimpse of it now and again on replay, but since part five was on the period from 1066 to 1350 I thought I would give it a view.

I realize that many of the details that I happen to be reading about for my research on the role of accountable governance during this period might differ somewhat from the generalizations of the show designed for general audience, but it became clear from the outset of the show that there was a fundamental difference in the historical narratives themselves.

The TV show depicts 1066 and the Battle of Hastings as a watershed event in British history marked by an invasion of Anglo-Saxon England by a ruthless alien force that plundered the landside and then imposed an authoritarian regime that wiped out a basically decent and somewhat enlightened (for its time) political order and replaced it with the worst kind of feudalism. To make matters worse, the Normans expropriated land and tore down homes throughout England as they constructed 80 new fortifications in order to both maintain and extend their suppression of the subdued Anglo-Saxon population. All this was depicted with appropriate images (houses ablaze, people being put to the sword, etc.) and supported by a narrative interspersed with interviews with leading historians and archaeologists. Pretty much good textbook history stuff.

The only problem is that the narrative is all wrong according to the history that I've been reading.

According to it, the Norman invasion in 1066 was just one event in a decades long relationship between Normandy and England, with Normans playing a major role in the court of Edward the Confessor (later sainted). It turns out that things were not quite so rosey before the invasion. For one thing, old Edward had a few problems with ruling his realm. As it happens, King Edward was raised in Normandy and had many of his Norman cousins and friends in top positions during his reign, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Most of the sources I've read note his obsession with all things Norman, and with assuring that his successor would be Norman.Another key factor is the stress historians now place on the role of the Normans in Edward's constant battle with his Anglo-Saxon rivals, the Godwins of Wessex. To appease that clan, Edward married one of the younger Godwins -- although he seems to have chosen a celibate life and so never produced an heir (perhaps intentionally, although he was several decades older than his young bride).

There is little doubt that the Duke of Normandy's claim to the throne had some credibility (although how it came about is questioned in some sources), and in fact his claim was recognized and supported by the Vatican and other powers in Europe who supported William's openly declared plan to invade. There's also evidence that William had to do a great deal of persuading to gain support for the invasion among his Norman followers who felt that the English under Harold (a Godwin in-law who claimed that Edward named him as successor on his death bed) might prove too difficult to defeat. In addition, there were concerns about how William might handle the fact that he would ascend to a royal throne in England while maintaining the lower status of a Duke in Normandy. In short, the situation was much more complicated at the time of the invasion than simply some raid by an alien barbarian force.

Having succeeded in defeating Harold at Hastings, William did reward his Norman followers by giving them lands and titles expropriated from the Godwins and their allies, and many of these new barons established themselves in new fortifications typically constructed in and around existing villages and towns (thus the need to demolish some existing homes -- a point that is regarded as evidence of the Norman barbarity in the popular historical narrative). But there is a great deal of evidence indicating that the imposition of Norman rule involved more continuity than change. Below the level of barons, many Anglon-Saxons became part of the (by then) Anglo-Norman regime -- a process made easier by the fact that the so-called alien feudalism that the Normans supposedly imposed on the defeated Anglo-Saxons was already in place throughout many of the English shires. In short, the narrative I was reading was quite different from the one found in the textbook and TV histories.

Why the difference? Very little of it can be attributed to new information or recent discoveries. Rather there has been a shift in the historical interpretation of the limited knowledge at hand. It turns out that British historians have always had a few objective facts to go on, and that much of what is proffered as the story behind the Norman Conquest involes a reading of history developed by 19th-century British historians who came at the task with a particular bias that favored a strong emphasis on the deep Anglo-Saxon roots of British traditions. These historians succeeded so well in establishing this particular narrative that it survives as the popular view of English history despite decades of scholarship that undermines its basic assumptions.

All this would seem rather trivial, except for the fact that the myths created through popular histories actually have an impact on political life today in Britain -- just as the various myths of American history helped shape contemporary American politics. And if I wanted to open a can of historical worms, I could raise the issue of how historical myths played a role in the rise, rule and obsessions of Hitler -- a topic covered quite nicely by historian Ian Kershaw in his Open University Lecture broadcast on BBC4 last evening....

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Monday, May 02, 2005

Choice and public policy

It's an official "Bank holiday" in the UK today (May Day), which allows a little bit more time to lounge around the local coffee shop and do a bit of extended newspaper reading. I put that time to good use my reading an article in the Guardian about the use of "choice" in British public policy. The article is well worth the read by anyone interested in how policy options for public services might be more effectively designed. The fact that I'm going to lecture tomorrow on American domestic policy perhaps added to my interest in the piece. But before I get down to preparing my notes for that session, I thought I'd post two observations generated by that article.

First, it's increasingly clear that public policymaking in the UK and the US are quite different in ways that go well beyond just institutional differences. When thinking about American public policymaking, I'm almost always forced to the conclusion that the entire process is driven by the dynamics of interests and ideologies. In the American Government textbook chapter on domestic policy (for which I have primary responsibility), we focus on the myth of "government as a necessary evil" to help students understand why American public policy is the way it is. That the fundamental assumption, most explicitly held by those on the right but also implicit in the liberal perspectives on the left, does play a major role in shaping policies in the area of health care, welfare, and even education. It is part of American political culture, and it's used by various interests and ideologues whenever policy issues are debated. You can put a thoughtful, well designed policy proposal on the table for discussion, but eventually it's the push and pull of interests and ideologies that determine the specifics of any proposal that finally passes. In contrast, the policymaking system in the UK seems more likely to foster the passage of carefully designed policies and programs. In a sense, much of the battle over the details of public policy are worked out before the proposal is actually tabled for discussion, and the debate is less likely to lead to alterations. This is institutionalized through the use of Green Papers and White Papers in which Governments articulate proposals that are in the formative (Green) stage for are in the about-to-be-proposed-and-ready-for-comment (White) stage. On the surface at least, the UK approach seems more sensible and perhaps less "messy" than the US process. The question is whether the end results are better or worse in either approach. That's an empirical question and probably needs to be answered on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, I suspect the answer would favor the UK approach....

My second observation after reading that article is that it is about time Albert O. Hirschman received recognition as perhaps one of the most influential political economists of our time. I guess this would involve something in the order of a Nobel Prize, and if so it would be well deserved. Hirschman's work on "exit, voice and loyalty" is featured in the article, but that is only one of his many notable contributions to the way we think about public policy, organizational life and human behavior in general. It would be a shame if his contributions were overlooked much longer....

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Accountability in paradise....

An editorial in a Saipan paper rails against funding cuts for public schools in the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas (a US Trust Territory that declares itself to be America's best kept secret) and suggests an agenda of accountability in lieu of Scrooge-like cuts in spending for education....

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Valued accountability

With the help of Google News Alerts, going to try a bit of an experiment and post links to accountability-relevant stories each day. Let's see what happens....

This first is from an editorial in the Sarasota (FL) Herald Tribune. The punchline is in the final paragraph where accountability is noted as an "American value...."

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