Prisons & Prisms (G2)

Coincidences generally occur on the same day, don’t they? Recently, I caught a glimpse of Global Society, an interdisciplinary journal that I had never heard of, about an hour before finding second hand (for fifty cents) a book by UK foreign correspondent Tim Marshall called Prisoners of geography: ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics.

The latter reflects the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) type perspective that mapping and struggling to control monopolies in natural resources is the basis of all business, politics and its resulting wars. As per Marshall, this is what all countries’ governments and historians do or, at least, should be doing. It also has a perspective that, to my highly impressionable but perhaps insightful way of thinking, reflects the ghost of the Royal Navy within the machine of UK political analyses or political culture: the rise and fall of states’ naval power is the key to past and present in every part of the world. Keep thinking that way and you might even find a home in Cambridge, spiritual or otherwise.

The attractive thing about Marshall’s book is that even if one takes all his analyses with a grain of salt (there’s no mention of developmental aid or global partnerships in this navicular analysis) it provides a birds’ eye view of continents, written for a general reader, that can throw up perspectives that may have never dawned on one’s mind. I’m looking forward (slightly) to seeing what he has to say about the Middle East when I’m travelling on the bus again next week. In this fleeting moment, however, the inspiration for this casual musing or blog is simply his choice of the word “prisoners” because I (once again in my highly impressionable but perhaps insightful way of thinking) tend to automatically associate language geared to imprison the mind with some ideological con-tricks. If prisms become prisons paradigms become like two halves of the same apple, don’t you think?

An interesting contrast between Marshall’s journalism and the interdisciplinary yet “entirely self-referential or academic” perspective I saw in Global Society can be found in an idea in the latter. This is that neither pacifism nor non-violence, despite all that has been written or has been implied in contemporary media jargons, has yet to find its place within “international relations theory”, which is still largely governed by the “English School” of Thomas Hobbes (and, perhaps in turn, the LSE). As a historian, I tend to associate Old Mister Hobbes with a brief encounter I once had with Quentin Skinner who, though considered a historian (he certainly has a historical intellect), struck me as a political philosopher who had a loyalty to both English monarchy and Old Mister Hobbes as deep as any primordial religion. How did that old Bob Dylan lyric go? “I live in another world, where life and death are memorised, where the earth is strewn with lovers’ pearls, and all I see are Dark Eyes”. It can be fascinating sometimes to become seemingly aware how minds can follow on different tracks without necessarily being fully aware that there are even tracks in the mind in the first place.

Two primordial ideas in “Ye Olde Historie” – Hobbes’ “war is inevitable (so be prepared for it)” philosophy and the medieval “just war theory” – are evidently referenced and questioned in the latest issue of Global Society, with one source of inspiration for the latter “questioning” being a reference to something of which I was not aware. If medieval theologians famously coined a “just war theory” to raise the question if a war can ever be just, it would appear that the Catholic Church has recently decided to “officially scrap” that theory and decided instead to just deem all wars to be inherently unjust. Yippee. The fact that Mr. Jesus wasn’t a soldier or a warrior-king (kings were warriors, don’t you know) has often made me wonder if he was a kind of “hippie Jew” at heart, but don’t tell anyone I said that or I might get burnt at the stake of some other historian’s war-governed sense of orthodoxy.

In short, however, one can’t help thinking that the prism that becomes a prison in various scholars or writers’ attempts to understand the world is the E.I.U. perspective. This is bound to become the pivot of professional academics’ work (whether they are even conscious of it or not) because the professional home of academics, the universities, are internationally focused businesses and so all discourse, state-funded or not, actually flows from that business purpose. I remember a self-professed talent less but highly ambitious individual telling me that “you must go with the money” in both your thoughts and your actions. Unsurprisingly, he found a career following that logic while I did not, but who either is or was the happier or wiser person? Who knows? Next time you meet a hippie Jew ask him or her for me. Meanwhile, why there is this temporary attraction to the idea of attempting to visualise an instrumental equivalent to Dark Eyes only the senses may tell.