The Syrian Civil War – Why?

Via NMSyria:

With the 70,000 lives lost are countless more made unbearable.

It’s a good job we oil-sucking imperialists aren’t involved, isn’t it?

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Morality and the Past

Can we pass judgement on history? It’s one of the many interesting questions to which my answer is “why the fuck not?”

If either of my tutors read this, I have no doubt that they would be thoroughly appalled. But it’s part of my personal – and silent, and very cautious – criticism with ivory tower mentality. The idea that it’s a perfectly legitimate way of life to withdraw into a tower and spend your life researching intricate facts about which no one else gives a shit. I do feel like I’m betraying the Oxford legacy, but I hate it. Such a waste of intelligence.

Complaints against moralising with those unable to defend their name are usually threefold:

  1. It’s “unhistorical”; our values were not present at the time.
  2. Moral prejudices will inevitably skew the facts.
  3. What’s the point? It’ll just be us attacking past cultures.

The first is true, but irrelevant. Why don’t we approach alternative cultures with a view to compare, to contrast? It’s fascinating to analyse, say, modern Islamic and more liberal-minded values. Unsurprisingly I’m generally reaffirmed in my view that stoning gays or rape victims is wrong, but I’m at least open to persuasion. The trouble with this is that we’re limited, rather obviously, by contemporary or near-contemporary anecdotes and cultures for our evidence. Opening the scope to the whole of history multiplies this to new level.

The second is a cause for a concern, but ultimately insults the historian. I, for one, would advocate a sort of parallel approach here: keep your specialists. They provide the facts and the gritty detail – the boring language, the dry and witless abstracts and tedious conclusions. (It is, I think, rather difficult to popularise intimate historiography of the early Counter-Reformation subversion of the Eucharist by priestly pretensions to the divinity of hierarchy. Trust me . I’ve tried.) But add to them historical polemicists. They take the facts and add the colour, thus rehabilitating history with a role for popular culture. And then the specialists can read the polemics and point out what does and does not reek of bullshit. The democratisation of accurate history, in other words.

And finally: other than comparing the values of other societies, we can draw some rather important “lessons”. I can’t think of a better word, sorry. What we need first to accept is that morality can be objective, and universal (equality of the sexes, the races etc are I think guaranteed). And if they are objective then there can be empirical substance behind them. We can provide facts that support or contradict those moral arguments. Was William the Conqueror a bastard (in term of conscience, that is)? Well, let’s see what he did!

Think of it as the new humanist historiography. Machiavelli, for one, would draw political instruction for his contemporaries. If we can agree with some universal standards for philosophical humanism then we can apply them to history, and we can draw more objectively moral lessons.

So Elizabeth I was a bitch and her father was the early modern predecessor to Stalin – who was indeed evil. Who’s with me?


Student Idealism: Pure Shit

Idealism lends itself to crude frameworks. Usually, they’re binary: good against bad, Palestine against Israel, Hamas against Netanyahu, East against West. This is generally how Western student movements see the Middle-East. Now, I’m a student – so I’m going to be binary too:

Revolutionaries by choice against revolutionaries by circumstance.

Free expression is wasted on morons.


A Story of History: “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes

Yes, of course we were pretentious — what else is youth for?

My subtitle is taken from Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. There’s too much in this little book to bring out in this simple-minded reflection but virtually all of its most prominent themes depend on a rather simple trick. It’s historical. In a few short paragraphs towards the middle of the novel, Barnes leaps from the 1960s to the 21st century; Tony has been married, divorced and had children whose love has always evaded him. There is never the sense that these were somehow irrelevant happenings in the drawn out adventure of his life, only that there’s an undercurrent to his character that they never really touched. The irony is that the aged Tony is united with his younger self by a broken relationship: he remains troubled by the suicide of his best friend.

As to avoid spoiling the story – which is well worth the read – I’ll say this: throughout the novel, you’re fully aware that you can’t trust the narrative. But it’s all you’ve got; and it makes the ending, if you consider its implications for the protagonist’s role in it all, incredibly poignant. Throughout, we’re led to suspect that there’s something more to his friend’s death; that his long, intellectual and philosophical reasoning, left behind in a rational but emotionally distant suicide note, was never sufficient.

And unsurprisingly that is the case. But when Tony is younger, he accepts the idealistic version of events a little too keenly, something which the disdains his more experienced, and I dare say wiser, self. We learn that time and reality detach idealism from people far too easily, but forming this framework is Barnes’ wider, more depressing allusion to history:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation (page 17)

This is Tony, the protagonist, in a nutshell. He has brought together the few sources he has on his younger life and formed them into something with which he can live, if not wholly comprehend; and so when later on he reunites with his old girlfriend, Veronica, who gradually unveils the more intimate details, Tony’s adolescence collapses. It makes me think how I’ll remember myself in a few decades from how. Barnes might not have intended this, but I think we can draw a word of action from him: students should take advantage of our petty, slightly ridiculous tendencies to idealism before it grows grey and tired.

History in the making? Or perhaps I’ll just make it when I’m older.


Love and God

So I ran into this photo earlier:


The simplicity is telling, don’t you think? The focus on a single line, the blurring of everything else. A lot of left-minded Christians today like to think that their religion is nothing but love, when clearly anyone who has ready virtually any of the Bible knows that this an incredibly ludicrous distortion.

If you’re one of them, I’d be interested to know – is God love? Or is love God? What comes to your mind first – love or God? It’s a battle of emphases with crucial implications. If you lean towards love being God rather than God being love then you’re embracing humanism. And it’s a mindset which takes the principle of compassion and decency and then elevates it to universal, international prominence: suddenly religious vindication becomes the promotion of human decency, and does so irrespective of divinity. It recognises that humans do not need to worship books to do good works.

Part and parcel of Christianity’s decline? Corrupted by love! Now, there’s a pleasant irony.


Mr Galloway

I wish there could be a more sophisticated allusion to Mrs Dalloway – an ironic jab at the superficial similarities between a feminist and apologist for rape – but I can’t think of one. Work it out for yourself.

Anyway, I believe this took place in Christ Church:

No one should be shocked, really. This is a man who has praised virtually every Middle-Eastern dictator in the past few decades; the subtotal accomplishment of his career has been to disgrace the anti-war movement. In this light, a spot of racism is hardly overwhelming.

edit: also this from the Telegraph. He’s losing allies.


The “Great Idea” of the American Bard

There’s something uncomfortable about the word “postbellum” – not like its more lucid antonym. Speaking of the “antebellum” is fundamentally nostalgic, premillennialist even. And in a sense we should never forget that for many war is indeed apocalyptic. Not just for the glory-hunting “desperadoes” it feeds but for the civilians it starves. It won’t do to be flippant about “casualties” – a term which, although murmuring with slightly more moral illusion than “collateral damage”, hinges upon the notion that victims are just violence’s inevitable residual. But the English language beggars for better terms. “Postbellum” is of course another. It conjures images of irreparable societies. It suggests that there is time beyond war that may or may not be hell.

There’s not much more we can say about the Iraq war, ten years later. All that we really saw in a recent debate was that for some reflection comes a little too easily. Owen Jones stood staring down at his audience without a trace of humility, Mehdi Hassan smiling gleefully and shrugging of counterarguments as “neoconservative”, “imperialistic”. It’s the modern terminology of heresy. The people were clapping unreflectively, come to have their predetermined moral vanities confirmed, and this is manifested rather bleakly in the debate title that Hassan picked: whether the war was “worth” it. The dead are weighed up next to the lives of the living and we’re told rather glibly that the result is in favour of those anti-war visionaries, those content with the the status quo of sanctions without end. Emotion becomes the easy whitewash over all the philosophies of war that have evolved steadily with human history. And it is in how the “just war” is played out that human progress is most vividly tested.

I wasn’t politically aware in 2003; I was 9, and all I remember was being happy about it. It was a war between good and evil and the evil would quickly fall. I wish I had asked my granddad what he thought about it. Not long after, I won a competition in which I had interviewed him on his experiences in the Second World War – the parade in Berlin, the fall of Hitler. So did he share my idealism? Was a war against “fascism” enough a psychology?

David Aaronovitch tweeted:

My fellow debaters have been very good, but it feels to me as though the oomph has gone out of this discussion. It’s moving into history.

— David Aaronovitch (@DAaronovitch) February 7, 2013

Some said that this had “deeply” offended them (then something about dead babies). But that’s not strictly relevant to the point; history doesn’t have to be emptied of emotion.

Nonetheless, whatever the interlude between pre and post, war ends. I’m in no position to declare an Iraqi postbellum – which some have already tried, several times – but most of the characteristics are generally present: Saddam is replaced, the country is largely at peace and the invading forces have been removed. And it is certainly true that small bands are trying to murder civilians; it started not long after the invasion when the Baath Party made its alliance with Al-Qaeda. But most are finding, I suspect, that daily life is moving on again.

One way of avoiding this rather bleak time-stop, this binary distinction between peace and war, is to treat postbellum as a time of reflection. A sort of introspective hangover in which there is regret and resignation but also recovery. Moments of happiness remembered. If postbellum was the rape-child of the antebellum then yes, let’s cry about the conception but still, we should grab the life with full throttle, move on.

And this is why we must never forget Walt Whitman. Never did the English-speaking world produce a more lovely poet; but never did his calming humanism fail to rouse him. In him is blended romanticism with action. With his lover George Doyle they took walks in the park and discussed the rights of abolitionism, the horrors of alcohol. He was deeply political, never retreating into the ivory tower of poetic narcissism (or, thank God, the naval-gazing of angsty teenagers). This was a man whose life was spent hopping across unsuccessful editorial positions like a pebble skipping over a seemingly impenetrable lake. And it was the American Civil War (1861-5) that consumed his humanist vision.

In his poem As I Sat Alone by Blue Ontario’s Shore, which is fucking long, he celebrates one of the most important principles ever to have walked out of America.

The end of the 10th section:

For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals,
For that, the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders,
The attitude of him cheers up slaves and horrifies foreign despots.
Without extinction is Liberty, without retrograde is Equality,
They live in the feelings of young men and the best women,
(Not for nothing have the indomitable heads of the earth been always
ready to fall for Liberty.)

But who is this bard? He’s man who preaches on the battlefield. It’s romantic and mental revolution mingled with a call to bring freedom to foreign peoples. The individual, in “the feelings of young men”, is married to “the great Idea”; and it unites “the best” who are pitched without remorse against “despots”. I suspect Whitman intended them to be “foreign” not just to America but to the good conscience of “the Idea”, too.

But As I Sat Alone was published in 1867, after the war and with it slavery had ended. It’s the result of a series of revisions to his much earlier Poem of Many in One, his thoughts from the antebellum. Over the war we find a rather incredible transition from the confidence that “we are powerful and tremendous in ourselves” to a subtle jibe at the naivety of his earlier self: rather stoically, Whitman rises to say that “not for nothing” does evil slip away. In spite of the 600,000 deaths of the war in which his brother nearly died, he refuses to get lost in the past. He aspires for a new day. When Lady Liberty is not leading the people she must apply her makeup in the dark.

It’s reminiscent of Shelley’s dictum of 1821 that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. It’s easy to make a mockery of this and dismiss it as petty idealism, but he meant it more literally than readers tend to think. He admired real revolutionaries – Tom Paine a particular favourite. Whitman’s “bard” becomes a moral inspiration but not for “unacknowledged” introspection. He must convert the world.

And so it is in the bearded American poet, father of his form’s free and lucid style, that we find not an unhealthily nostalgic obsession with the antebellum but an optimism for the postbellum. I, for one, don’t think being “right” about the Iraq war is possible anymore, not from hindsight. But nor do I care. How can we make Iraq better, and what can we learn from its mistakes? Can these be applied to the problems of today? Crying over our losses certainly will not. Aaronovitch closed his speech with a drearily accurate comment that I fear, but do not hope, will become true. 10 years from now we may well be asking ourselves:

“Syria: not intervening. Was it worth it?”

(And for the record, I’m fairly sure I’ve seen that beard before.)