God's Englishman

Michael S. Smith

To Tony Blair, the campaign against Iraq is the right war. It's his moral mission.

In building the case for war against Iraq, the United States has had only one dedicated ally, and it isn't Great Britain. It is Tony Blair. The distinction is important, because Blair has supported the Bush Administration's policy of a regime change in Iraq despite significant criticism from his own party, the British press, and close to three-fourths of the British public. To many, Blair has dangerously charted his own path, in pursuit of what former Labour Minister Peter Kilfoyle has called "the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, against the wrong enemy." To Blair, however, the campaign against Iraq is the right war. It's his moral mission.

How he came to this crusade is a story of opportunism, conviction, and what Harold Macmillan once called "events, dear boy, events." As the head of New Labour, the reformist outgrowth of the original Labour Party (formed by Socialist Democrats in the late 1890s), Blair entered government in 1997 with a strong domestic agenda and a singular ambition: to make a mark on the world. He began by transforming the Labour Party's policies on the economy and public services, reforming the House of Lords, and pursuing a "liberal interventionist" foreign policy (he assisted Clinton in the bombing of Kosovo in 1999).

Blair has been popular and skillful enough to remain in power for six straight years, but he has endured the enmity of many fellow Labour MPs who hate him for moving the party from the left to the center. He has been criticized for his handling of the euro, health services, education, and privatization. His critics have charged that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, his press secretary, and a few influential party members have determined his domestic policy. His reputation as a reformist Labourite is intact, but in recent years, Blair's ostensible hold on his place in history has been sliding.

Iraq, oddly enough, might be the very thing that will save him. This even as it raises obvious questions: why, for instance, would Blair choose to gamble on such an unpopular, unpredictable issue? The answer lies in Blair's self-image. He has as little interest in realpolitik as he does in any restoration of Britainnia's long-lost glories. His focus is more directly on the future, as he understands it. As he told the House of Commons last week, the conflict with Iraq and the U.N. "will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation."

Blair insists the war policy is moral, that Saddam's long history of tyranny and mass murder, as well as his potential for further aggression, warrant the use of force, with or without popular and international approval. He has been so emphatic about this that even the Labour left and the Tory right contend that he is acting out of conviction. Indeed, "moral" seems to be the most common word in Blair's lexicon. In October 2001, he declared that the war against terrorism allowed for "no moral ambiguity," that the invasion of Afghanistan was about "moral fiber." This past February, he responded to British anti-war protesters by saying that their "moral case against war has a moral answer. It is the moral case for removing Saddam."

This mantra, with all its simplicity, is not merely Blair's way of clarifying the war issue. If it's integral to his religious piety (he even consulted with the Pope in February), it's even more integral to his historical ambitions. Just as William Gladstone had Irish Home Rule and Winston Churchill had the war against Hitler, Blair has the war against terrorism and Iraq. In bucking party and public opinion, Blair is betting that history will prove that the United States was right about Iraq, and, by standing with Bush, he will therefore be seen as a visionary, while everyone else will be remembered for their lack of courage. He indicated this on March 18, when, before Parliament, he alluded to the appeasement of Hitler: "We can look back and say: there's the time, that was the moment... That's when we should have acted."

Unlike Bush, Blair has pursued U.N. and military pressure on Iraq with some consistency and measured resolve. Meeting with Bill Clinton in February 1998, Blair warned against Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and advocated the use of force if inspections failed. In September 2002, he presented a dossier to the British parliament detailing Saddam's violations, and then persuaded Bush to go to the U.N. before pulling the trigger. When no second resolution seemed viable, Blair proposed, on 13 March, a series of disarmament measures to Iraq (including the questioning of Iraqi scientists and the destruction of banned missiles).

Despite his determination, Blair has not been able to change his opponents' minds. British papers, across the political spectrum, predicted that the Iraq issue could destroy him. The Mirror commented, on 12 March, that the future is "looking grim" for Blair, citing the statement of 40 MPs that if Blair wasn't going to find a peaceful resolution to the Iraqi crisis, "he must make way for those who will." The reasons for such predictions are many. Blair has habitually neglected Parliament, accelerating the trend away from a balanced relationship between Parliament and Prime Minister, towards a stronger executive position akin to the U.S. presidency. He has ignored large blocs of his own party, all the Liberal Democrats, and the electorate.

But by far his greatest liability has been George W. Bush. As the Bagehot editorial in The Economist puts it, the dissension between Blair and Britain is due to the widespread notion among the public that "President Bush is a trigger-happy Texan who shoots from the hip" (18-24 January 2003). Blair might fear Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, but it seems that many Britons, like many Europeans, fear U.S. hegemony. Last week in Parliament, John Denham, who resigned as Home Officer Minister over Blair's Iraq policy, cited his opposition to "a U.S. administration that has seemed, at times, to delight in stressing its disdain for international opinion." On March 8, The Independent reported that polls showed that antipathy to Blair's Iraq policy stemmed from Bush's "cowboy image."

The predictions (made by The Times, The Independent, and The Mirror, among others) of Blair's fall seemed, at first, right on target. In February, Blair faced the largest Parliamentary rebellion of his career, when 122 Labour MPs (out of 410) backed an amendment stating that the case against Iraq had not been proven (the BBC's verdict of the 27th was that Blair had been left "bloodied"). On 18 March, Blair faced the largest Parliamentary rebellion in history, when 139 Labour MPs backed an amendment opposing the government's pro-war stance. The revolt was compounded by the resignation of eight ministers, including Robin Cook, the Leader of the House of Commons.

Though it would seem that no Prime Minister could withstand such damage, Blair seems to have done just that. In the end, Parliament voted 412 to 149 in favor of using force. This show of support is partly due to Blair's opening pro-war speech, which persuaded some, including Conservative opposition MP Andrew Mackay, who said, "The case [for war] has now been made." It's also due to the belief among many MPs that, since the troops were already in the Gulf, it was too late to turn back. But it is chiefly a function of political self-interest, embodied by Clare Short's apostasy. Secretary of International Development, Short had previously maligned Blair's Iraq policy as "reckless" and said she would resign if war occurred. On 18 March, she buckled, voting in favor of force and maintaining her cabinet post.

In opposition, Labour MP Alice Mahon declared, "The postmortem will reveal it [the war] was illegal and immoral." Even then, it might not undermine Blair's personal destiny. On the illegality, he is already trying to minimize the fallout. This week, Blair is attending an E.U. summit (along with Jacques Chirac), where he is proposing U.N. and E.U. humanitarian efforts in post-war Iraq. On the immorality, Blair already seems convinced that he has ethics on his side. His constant invocation of morality, as genuine as it might be, does not mean he is right about the war; it does mean, however, that if he pays a huge political price, his sense of righteousness will probably remain intact.

If the war goes well, he might again have the British public on his side. If the war does not -- and there are many ways in which, in the long term, it can go wrong -- Blair will go down in history as yet one more Prime Minister who lost his party, and his government, because of the steadfastness of his convictions.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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