Tag Archives: Politics

Day 29: A book everyone hated but you liked

Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer

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This was a book hated by my Ethics of War class – a core textbook, everyone had to read it. List a book as compulsory, and it suddenly becomes the most boring book ever written. However, I really enjoyed it. Looking into the ethics of war practices,JaUW confronts moral dilemmas and tries to find a moral acceptable solution. This may sound boring, and to some it is, but Walzer is a eloquent writer, and the subject matter is engaging if you actively confront the ideas and solutions he poses rather than just assuming what he says is correct.

So I recommend this book (as I did when I mentioned it in Day 1). Definitely give it a read if you think ethical puzzles are what your mind is after. For politics students, feel free to ignore it and hope it goes away. I always found this to be a good strategy.

Image creditAmazon

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The morality of George Smiley: Part 1

I am so tired. Oh, the hard life of a student. I am currently in the process of finishing off my dissertation, revising, and writing an essay on John le Carré, master of the dark spy novel, which has fuelled my inspiration for this post. I like John le Carré, and really like his work (even it is majorly depressing). Le Carré is, at least for me, a lot more entertaining than Ian Fleming, and I’ll take his George Smiley over James Bond any day (unless Bond really does look like Daniel Craig, or Idris Elba even). Fleming’s novels are so flashy, and Bond always triumphs against the multi-millionaire, evil genius who owns killer sharks, or whatever. Bond is smooth and the books detailing his escapades have a glossy appeal, but George Smiley and his adventures – if you can even call them that – will stay with me for far longer than Bond ever will.

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SPOILERS ahead for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Looking Glass War.

George Smiley has a long-lasting  appeal because of the moral ambiguity in le Carré’s novels, and the strange, unknowable mind of his protagonist. Even when Smiley isn’t the main player he shines through, captivating the attention of the reader. This is because, throughout the moral murkiness surrounding him, George Smiley stands tall as perhaps the only half-moral character, and the moral compass for the books as a whole. In The Spy Who Came in, he stays out of the Leamas affair, with Control remarking he finds the operation “distasteful”. By the end of the book we know why. After all the nastiness (there is no other word for it) that happens in The Spy Who Came in, Smiley, who had in this book been only a supporting character, comes out of the mess, the only one on the British side who is vaguely clean.

However, there is a dark side to Smiley too. For however “distasteful” he finds the work surrounding the Leamas affair, he still participates in the process, and is there when Leamas throws himself onto the other side of the Berlin Wall. He allows his feelings about his wife’s affair with Bill Haydon to cloud his judgement in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He calls for, and achieves, the abandoning of Leiser in The Looking Glass War. He’s human and he is flawed, he is not morally pure. He does not always act impeccably. But in comparison to those around him, both in the opposition and on his side, he is as morally sound as is likely to be come by.

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I like that in le Carré’s writing there is no absolute clarity of good and bad, but rather each side is as bad as the other, and no one comes out on top morally. Each side has their demons. Smiley is a constant anti-demon throughout(I won’t say angel): highly intelligent, seemingly gentle and trying to do the right thing, though sometimes circumstances conspire against him and he cannot. He is constantly underestimated, but there is a steeliness to him that is undeniable. Avery in The Looking Glass War remarks that a few hours after meeting Smiley, he begins to realises he fears him, and there is a dangerous quality to Smiley that lurks within his character, a ruthlessness that is occasionally revealed. There is also a bitterness in Smiley’s People (and, to a lesser extent The Honourable Schoolboy) that follows Smiley, but that is for a Part 2, a.k.a. when I have finished reading those books and not just skimming them for my course. 

Smiley is not perfect, but, he is appealing, and the strained situation with his wife always, if it does not make him relatable, then confirms that he is human. Smiley isn’t perfect, but  under the circumstances, and considering he is a le Carré character, he is as close as we’re going to see.

And, because I couldn’t resist, here is a picture of Daniel Craig:

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Damn. Also, Oscar Issac in the new Star Wars film?! So excited.

Review: Mr Smith Goes To Washington

About six months ago I watched this little gem of a film and fell completely in love. I am currently trying to watch all the films on IMDB’s Top 250 list, which I know is really cheesy, but it has introduced me to some wonderful films I didn’t know existed, such as this!

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It stars my favourite ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’ actor James Stewart. Before anything else, I have to admit one of the reasons I enjoyed this film so much is because of him. I love James Stewart. He brought an energy to every project he worked in and is simply likeable in everything he did, whether it be a grumpy photographer avoiding committing to Grace Kelly and suspects his neighbour of murder in Rear Window, or a man who may or may not be insane as he talks to his best friend, after who the movie Harvey is named, an invisible, 6ft tall bunny rabbit. I have yet to see Vertigo (for shame!), but even a film that I am not as enamoured with as everyone else seems to be, It’s a Wonderful Life, is made enjoyable because of him.

He plays Jefferson Smith a naïve, easy-going leader of a troop of boy rangers in an unnamed state in America. He’s well liked by the community and loved by the kids he leads. He is made a senator by group of corrupt officials, including the Governor and the other state senator, Senator Paine, as well as the man who controls them, Jim Taylor. They believe they can control him. They do not, however, understand how honest and good intentioned he is. Senator Paine doesn’t want to manipulate Smith more than is necessary – as a close friend to Smith’s deceased father, he is a father figure to Jeff and cares for him. He encourages Smith to create a bill of his own, not realising how it will affect his own corrupt plans. After Jefferson discovers Taylor and Paine’s corruption they turn against him, and he realises just how powerful these people are.

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The supporting cast is fun and important, especially ‘Diz’, a journalist, and the President of the Senate. Stewart infuses Jeff Smith with a joy that is uninhibited and infectious. It permeates the film. He can’t believe how lucky he is to be in Washington, to see and discover this great city. As soon as he gets off the train he goes to see the sights, his favourite being the Lincoln Memorial. The shot of Smith standing at the foot of Lincoln’s statue looking up into the marble face, both of them captured in profile, is beautiful, as is the sequence of Smith, a little boy and his grandfather as the child reads Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

As the film progresses you can feel the loss of Smith’s joy as his enemies attack from all directions. His discovery that the man he idolised and trusted, Senator Paine, isn’t the man he thought he was hurts him and the viewer alike, and as you witness Jeff become steadily more broken, it breaks you too.

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I have not yet mentioned another major character in the film as I felt she deserved some space devoted directly to her. For if James Stewart guaranteed that I would like this film, Jean Arthur’s character Saunders made me love it. She is his secretary and knows more about Washington than he probably ever will. She’s smart and sarcastic; if this film wasn’t both made and set in the 1930’s she would have been a senator herself rather than secretary to them. Cynical due to her surroundings Saunders falls for the idealistic Jeff. (But then, who wouldn’t? Of course, my bias towards James Stewart could be blinding my judgement.) The character is wonderful. Arthur allows her steely personality to be warm and not abrasive. Even when hurt she is strong and doesn’t fall to pieces – Smith relies on her far more than she relies on him, something rare in films even now. Funny and intelligent, she is a brilliant creation and makes the film for me.

This isn’t a pure comedy. It will break your heart (at least it broke mine) and cause you to question both those who are meant to lead us as well as the character of people in general. I would guess this is a film that would hold even more meaning if one were American (not being so, I can only speculate). It is funny, but there is more here than just laughs. It is bigger than that; it longs for more than to make you simply chuckle and that’s what makes it wonderful.