What is a Teapot?

One of the scare stories told to students applying for a place at Oxford and Cambridge is that they their fate will inevitably be determined by something arbitrary and unexpected. With a mendacious grin the professor will recline as he asks, “What is a teapot?”

Via The Atlantic, here is tea time in Syria:

Iraqi refugees find themselves on the boundaries of another war: a teapot lives with the community abroad.

Fighters of the Free Syrian Army warm their drink on the embers of one of the regime’s posters: a teapot brings life and energy out of destruction.

Behind the flimsy curtain defending against snipers, an iron teapot is the unperturbed stoicism of routine.

The good teapot can be picked out of the rubble; it civilises war. Is that a good thing? Or does it just normalise it?


Is the Novel Dying?

As the world gets more complicated, I’d have thought the need for longer works of fiction to describe it would become ever more important; but Philip Roth argues that it’s doomed. No one will read that one solid vessel for personal autonomy in so technological an age as ours.

Worryingly Weberian. I hope he’s wrong, but my lazy experience can hardly counteract it!


Nigel Farage Is The King of the Castle

There is no more painful an unrequited love than that for history. Nevertheless, someone should tell Nigel Farage that the days of the Motte-and-Bailey are long over. He is not our hero; and the barracks he purports to champion, that refuge of well-civilised romantics standing stoic against a hoard of European barbarians, is no more realistic a concept than toddlers throwing balls in a playpen.

The surge in support for UKIP is then, we might then say, alarming not so much for the troubles it might present to the Commons but for the delusions it legitimises as a constitutional party. It would almost certainly lose every seat it were to contest at a general election; but if the Tory party is to defend itself then it too will need to slur out some drunken nonsense. The task of the political party should be to justify the direction in which to take the nation, not to embody its most irrational and populist psychologies.

“National sovereignty” has become as much an oxymoron as the “global world” a tautology. Once political authority had passed from the Crown to Parliament it was always presumed that the people had gained some control over their lives; and with the coming of nationalisation, and of the welfare state, it seemed guaranteed. But however cliched it might be to say, these days are over. In order for Britain to maintain its influence over both its foreign policy and indeed internal affairs it has to align itself with other powers. Free trade, for a start, is in itself incompatible with isolationism; and in contrast there is nothing to stop a government upholding trade links both with South America and with Europe. Now it is true to say, of course that London’s dependence on the financial services would give it a merry position from which it could grow outside of the EU. The government could cut corporate taxes and make the City favourable to foreign investors.

But so fluid a river as that of global capital would leave Britain not a barge but a raft resting nervously on its surface. The investors it attracts would not, after all, be from within Britain – a slap in the face to the cultural isolationism of the UKIP voter. In this context, though, the implications should also concern the socialist for whom there can be no defence against tyranny of capital through only domestic machinery. From the perspectives of both socialists and capitalists, then, it is fundamental to (virtually) all British people that we remain a part of the European Union.

None of this is to demean what are very powerful criticisms of the EU, of course. For a start, any convicted neoliberal should be seriously concerned with the Common Agricultural Policy. At the price of a third of the EU’s budget, the CAP is in effect a method of subsidising French and German farmers at the expense of those in underdeveloped nations. And herein lies a frightening moral conflict that we’d rather ignore: the British middle-class contenting itself with buying Fair Trade no more alleviates the poverty in rural Africa than clapping loudly to make contact with aliens. Perry Anderson’s The New Old World concurs; radical ideas gave momentum to the EU’s shape but ultimately it has an exploitative history, the trading relationship between France and West Germany mutating into a bourgeois authority over the less equipped.

And here I return to the question of sovereignty. Can an essentially undemocratic bureaucracy offer any autonomy to a nation, either in its economy or its political process, if such a nation is shaped by a group of unelected figures in Brussels? Clearly not; and fortunately that is not the situation in which we find ourselves. The EU has a tiny bureaucracy; it has only a few thousand employees. It has no methods of collecting taxation, and its control even over its own currency is not a lot more persuasive. In no fewer words, I might therefore suggest, the we are looking at a transitory state. A right-wing project, Anderson describes it, with radical potential.

It’s times like this that we must return to those principled ambitions when the hope of European unity was nascent and urgent. Orwell, 1947:

When I think of these and other difficulties, when I think of the enormous mental readjustment that would have to be made, the appearance of a Socialist United States of Europe seems to me a very unlikely event. I don’t mean that the bulk of the people are not prepared for it, in a passive way. I mean that I see no person or group of persons with the slightest chance of attaining power and at the same time with the imaginative grasp to see what is needed and to demand the necessary sacrifices from their followers. But I also can’t at present see any other hopeful objective.

If Europe is growing then it needs the participation of Britain. It’s perfectly possible for us to get a political – and economic – Union favourable to the principles to which UKIP claims, however falsely, to uphold. But the weight to mature rests not only with the Right: what cannot be allowed to happen in defenses of the European Union is for left-wingers to abandon their commitment to the democratic process. An obvious point, we might say, but in recent days that old favourite of mine Glenn Greenwald decided, one again, to equate liberal democracy with Islamic jihad.

And then the image of Nigel Farage in his grand armor of chivalry returns to me. If he had his way, we’d be repairing the wooden stockades while France and Germany build citadels. He needs to drop the drawbridge and enter the fucking world.


Heart-ly Worth the Time

… but that won’t stop me.

If George Galloway is correct about the recent footage of cannibalism – or “bestiality” as he fascinatingly terms it – as being symptomatic of all of Syria’s “western-funded” rebel forces, then he is probably fortunate that he lacks a heart.

Here he is on the Iranian state propaganda channel Press TV:

If, unlike me, you happen to have an especially strong constitution then I would recommend you read this article on 10 things worse than eating a dead man’s heart. For perspective. (You might find it easier than listening to Galloway, on reflection.)


Everyone Just Be Nice, Please

reaffirmation of the war on terror has Glenn Greenwald at it again:

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this war has no purpose other than its own eternal perpetuation. This war is not a means to any end but rather is the end in itself. Not only is it the end itself, but it is also its own fuel: it is precisely this endless war – justified in the name of stopping the threat of terrorism – that is the single greatest cause of that threat.

The West is due its share of terrorism, then, because it alone is its cause. He is presumably confident that so long as we maintain our distance from Syria, its rebels will bring about a pleasant social democracy in which all religions, and their respective denominations, are accorded equal dignity before the law. It will also be our friend. Nor is there any real prospect of the fragmentation of the country’s territorial integrity, its confessional boundaries gross figments of the Western imagination.

I can’t wait.

Syrian Religious Divisions Map

Click for source.

All that troubles Greenwald are those acts against American citizens, which if he drops the masquerading morality might appear like an important geopolitical statement. Involving Western troops in other country’s business might anger its wasps.

It’s a shame the argument is blinded by its self-centred masochism. Not even Gandhi went so far. He was at least honest about the implications of his opposition to retaliation in what he said of the Jews:

If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, a war against Germany, to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race, would be completely justified. But I do not believe in any war.

If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this, I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength.

Gandhi knew that the Jews couldn’t stop Hitler’s slaughter – but they could at least have their dignity while he went about it. He concluded it preferable for everyone to die in peace than for some to die in war. Thank God it was never his choice to make.

Pacifism is a noble outlook, but one inevitably coiled against the narcissism of its proponents. When I asked Tony Benn – President of the reactionary Stop the War Coalition – whether he thought there was anything we could do to help those suffering under the war, he responded that we shouldn’t get involved. I tried to phrase the question in such a way as to allow for, say, support for medical aid or the sponsoring of refugee camps (such people now including around a tenth the country’s population). Nothing. I can tell you that that’s not pacifism, nor even humanitarianism. Observers who believe that all wars are defined by Western involvement help to sustain them more than they will admit.

In any case, Greenwald’s next step – which for all I know he has already taken – is to treat Syria’s rising jihadists, a number of whom have already pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, like Western-funded straw men to which to set fire. Nothing else but a useless tautology punctured with conspiratorial claims about the motives of political oligarchs:

And then there’s the most intangible yet most significant cost: each year of endless war that passes further normalizes the endless rights erosions justified in its name. The second term of the Bush administration and first five years of the Obama presidency have been devoted to codifying and institutionalizing the vast and unchecked powers that are typically vested in leaders in the name of war. Those powers of secrecy, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, and due-process-free assassination are not going anywhere. They are now permanent fixtures not only in the US political system but, worse, in American political culture.

War should obviously never be codified into a political norm. The contradictions between martial vigour and those institutions built in and for the narratives of peacetime are necessary to exempt war from the status quo – capital punishment or the breaching of national sovereignty, for example, should be illegal and trespassed only in the knowledge that it’s a temporary measure. For all the off-quoted hysteria surrounding dear Orwell, it’s inevitably true, as North Korea refuses to disprove, that totalitarian regimes are shaped by their commitment to perpetual warfare. It’s why Blair undermined a lot of the good he did on the international stage with his flippancy towards domestic civil liberties. War can never become ingrained into a democratic society.

Something, though, tells me that Greenwald doesn’t really believe his own voice. There’s something slimy in the way he throws financial arguments in with the moral ones. Desperate populism, drawing on everything and everyone. It’s insincerity at its most paranoid.

This is too much effort. Disentangling a truther’s rationale is like trying to fix a power cable with wool.

To summarise: driven amoral by populism.


“Separate But Equal”, Echoes of Farce

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

In the latest edition of BBC Question Time, the “separate but equal” argument against the legalisation of same-sex marriage was advanced in full force – or rather by two very loud members of the audience. Civil marriage is not necessary, we’re told; what civil partnerships offer is, in practice, virtually identical.

Remember Rosa Parks? Ask yourself – why did she take the seat of the white man when the seats at the back of the bus were just as comfortable?

“Separate but equal”, after all, matured in an altogether different age. Remember how the US Supreme Court articulated its decision on Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it… The argument also assumes that social prejudice may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured except by an enforced commingling of the two races… If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.

Worrying – but rhetorically useful – parallels.


The Paradox of Learning Russian…

… is that there’s less and less that one would be able to say:

A former friend of mine – gay of course, and of course he kept it secret from all his family, as is common practice in Russia – said to me: “What on Earth made you come out? How stupid! Nobody was planning to shop you. The morning paper wasn’t running an investigation.” I didn’t know what to answer. I couldn’t even explain it clearly to myself – what made me stand up and tell everyone, on a TV show, in a country where they kill gay people for being what they are: “Here I am. I too am gay.” Do you think I wasn’t afraid? That I didn’t feel ashamed? That I didn’t regret ruining my career?

I’m afraid even now. I’m afraid of going into an empty entrance to a block of flats. I’m afraid of walking down a side street at night. I am afraid. And a little sorry that I probably won’t be allowed to continue working. They won’t let me go back to television. I’m afraid and sorry. But I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of now.