Retracing the Enlightenment

A few days ago I was in Vienna, the old capital of Austria-Hungary. It’s a wonderful city. Every shop, every church, every house, every workplace seems to demand a separate emphasis; the fusion between office and metropolis, imperial and urban, is so seamless – as though its history were traced in blueprint some millennia ago. One can watch businessmen travelling to work from inside the comforts of Trotsky’s Café Central and feel not at all misplaced.

But one is especially struck by the Austrian obsession with Kaiser Franz Josef:

Statue of Franz Joseph I in Vienna

His figure rather literally rises high above many of the city’s architectural projects that he himself had commissioned. In many important ways he typified the late enlightened despot: an idea might not supplant the king, it was said, but it could certainly guide him. Franz would offer equal rights and dignitaries first to the Hungarians, and then to the Croats, Galician Poles and Bohemians, his “divide and rule” strategy apparently a genuine reflection of populism rather than cynical regime preservation. Into this he would melt his gentle and benevolent patronage of the arts and sciences: to this day, perhaps the most impressive monuments to his legacy remain the two museums that stand apart like sun to moon at the Maria-Theresien-Platz:

The Maria-Theresien-Platz

The Maria-Theresien-Platz

It would seem unthinkable that we might be able to build these sort of monuments today, because what can possible be grand when there are queues at food banks? Styles have changed, of course – these days we we choose glass over concrete and marble. But is it really possible that we could concentrate so much effort, so much manpower and – gasp – taxpayers money on a single area of land, primarily under the auspice of the rich and and well-to-do, when the causes of social democracy struggle with poverty in every modern city?

It’s oddly like the old troubling question with which the aesthetically-minded atheist is confronted: could he live without the great churches and cathedrals of the Medieval world, or the sanctimonious high culture of the Renaissance? It’s for everyone to decide for himself, I suppose, but much as one does not have to love Athena to appreciate the Parthenon in her city, nor does the tourist need to care for imperialism to love the buildings and treat them as remarkable human accomplishments, however morally dubious at their inception. Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistene Chapel was funded by a special raising of Papal indulgences; but that does not mean we cannot like or dislike the art that it facilitated. All I think I can say is that, surely, it’s the task of modern citizens to reclaim whatever these “enlightened” aristocrats as our own.

(And this is me showing how it’s done:)

P1050078

Nostalgia is the natural reserve of regret; it is surely a good thing that popular consent, today, is a necessary precondition to the public funding of infrastructure. On the train from Prague to Vienna we passed some fields of sunflowers, a sight I had never seen before except in film – but it was August, you see, and they were dying, the yellow petals having some time ago lost their hue. I want to go back there some time in spring, some time. But isn’t that telling? While we ought to appreciate whatever historical legacy there might be, and the buildings its poor erected on our behalf, that does not mean that the present and future must be dismissed without prospect. What is great has changed; and the lenses of welfare democracy through which we see the city’s public buildings certainly elevates them above its poor who have long since died unforgotten.

And herein lies the most important case for abolishing the British monarchy, throwing open its old homes to the public: so that our imperial past, with its terrible legacy, may at last be severed and its few crowning achievements preserved for the citizenry of the modern world. The Viennese may have been forced to do it in 1918, and for this it is perhaps remembered as a sad tragedy – the death of an enlightened empire; but it reaffirmed their priorities as a people rather than a nation under the guide of an alien aristocrat. Buckingham Palace, these days, with its celebrity aura lingers like the Vatican and its pretensions to statehood: both represent empty anachronisms that can only drink gold, and thus whose future is short.

One of the many things that Britain can learn from Europe. We might not be able to fill in the channel but we can certainly share their republican outlook – ideological unity, after all, is what really matters in this infant Union.

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On Moral Equivalence

Those who believed that the physical and sexual abuse perpetrated at Abu Ghraib under the US occupation put Bush in the same camp as Saddam have questions to answer. They refuse to rise to the challenge because they know their position is untenable – both morally, and factually. Spoiled children of democracies will always run into the hands of local criminals if it leads to the derision of those who brought them up.

Some more uncomfortable details for them:

The US soldier who murdered 16 Afghan villagers last year has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Staff Sgt Robert Bales, 40, opened fire on men, children and women during the attack in Kandahar on 11 March 2012.

He pleaded guilty to the massacre in June to avoid the death penalty.

He apologised during his sentencing hearing at a Washington state military base on Thursday, calling the attack an “act of cowardice”.

Sgt Bales had been making a case for why he should one day be eligible for parole, which would have meant he could have been released in 20 years.

The reason Bradley (Chelsea) Manning’s revelations caused such discomfort for humanitarians was because of the American government’s silence on the crimes in which they are now to be indicted; it might not have happened here, thankfully, but unspoken awareness is simply a step away from tacit approval. (No law exists allowing an official in the US government to overthrow other elected presidents, yet Henry Kissinger is still a free man.) It seems like a betrayal, it saddens me to say, in the same league as Pope Benedict’s to his followers, his refusal to cooperate with secular judiciaries on allegations of pedophilia leading to its institutionalisation and the blackened reputation of every humane priest. Justice, it seems, can lose its eternal authority at the whim of politicians courting the approval of their audience.

But, please – perspective.

To demand political transparency is as much a right as an imperative; but compare, for simply a moment, whatever supposed crimes of which the democracy and the dictatorship are charged. Assad’s recent chemical attack outside Damascus is a momentary echo of Saddam’s message to Halabja in 1988. The news of Sgt Bales’ imprisonment, meanwhile, is like valley to desert.

Failures in Iraq say nothing of our urgency to act in Syria.


Dawkins is Right: Call a Barbarian a Barbarian

[Awkward Disclaimer: I didn’t mean this just as a defence of Dawkins. Some New Atheists may or may not have a sectarian obsession with Muslims – but to dismiss every bland generalisation as another instance of racist bigotry is as flippant as it is frivolous.]

Much of the Left, very dazed these days, has turned to the puritanism that Right-wingers seem to have mostly abandoned. With it has come a tendency for the Left to assume that their rivals are driven by the most base, the wickedest, the absolutely worst motivations imaginable: Owen Jones moralising on the Tories is an odd example of this. If one is flippant, he must be callous; if one clarifies his terms only in rhetorical retreat, he is a bigot. Carelessness means racism.

A number of atheists – whose gravitational pull is still mostly liberal – are declaring in chorus their antipathy towards the anti-Muslim bigotry of which they accuse Richard Dawkins. If I might quote Alex Gabriel at the Heresy Club:

The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.

To illustrate his point he takes Dawkins’ January tweet:

To the inevitable fury, Dawkins clarified on two accounts – first to accusations of selectively targeting Islam:

And second to those who believed he was treating Muslims like an uncivilised homogeneous bloc:

Both are important.

To paraphrase Orwell – I think more democratically – to return to basic principles has become the first duty of all serious men; absolutes therefore mustn’t be relegated to the religious or the Utopian fantasist. Calling out those who exist to suppress and to suffocate the values underpinning decent society is the premise to internationalism – not its enemy.

The Incubation of Defeatism

Children and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

… disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people …

Preamble to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights may one day be ranked as the most powerful expression of liberty ever proclaimed, Eleanor Roosevelt famously dreaming it up to be the Magna Carta “of all men everywhere”. It was never expected to be a permanent guarantee of personal freedom, being neither legally binding nor politically enforceable; in a few short years not a single atrocity of note in Palestine, Egypt, Spain, Portugal or Hungary would be prevented with an invocation from the United Nations. What it neglects cries out for remedy, and its simplicity of statement, though a great strength, consistently struggles with the complexities of application. But at no other point in history have nations gathered together to express, however reluctantly, the unfalsifiable authority of personal dignity before fascists, theocrats, and the mass of blandly clichéd authoritarians floating between.

But the hangover throbbed with regret. Not many years after the UN’s proclamation of the “inalienable” rights of free individuals, intellectual anarchism masquerading as “postmodernism” was looking to undermine it. In an age of decolonisation cultural theorists rushed to denounce “humanitaranism” as imperialism for the mellow-minded, fuelling the isolationist rhetoric, to name but one instance, of the odious Ayatollah Khomeini whose government would dismiss the UDHR as the secularised transcription of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Self-doubt, cynicism, and flagrant sadomasochism blurred into one ungodly polygamous marriage striding over millennia of Western philosophy in the name of “relativism”. Its academia sank into a mid-life crisis.

“Good” and “evil” are great secular words. Their dichotomy has transcended many languages and religions, from village to nation, evolving separately in regions of the world that existed for centuries in isolation. I think it’s a mistake, and a great shame, that many atheists and agnostics have decided that we don’t need this sort of moral certainty; that we ought to leave it to the religious to express emotional outrages – because they might fall silent on crimes of which they approve. Secular space is not created; either it is offered by missionaries or it is fought for and captured.

But this rejection of absolutes has lined the mentality of those academics who believe they know better than the “civilised” – that the only true way of building a society is to accept, ultimately, that there isn’t one.

Perhaps this attitude’s most lasting apologia was Edward Said’s sweeping assault on the orientalist tradition in Western scholarship – it was both a symptom and a cause, he believed, that orientalism now only makes sense as the propagandist machine of the imperial project: in engaging in a conscious effort to misrepresent foreign cultures as backward and inferior, a colonial aggressor felt at liberty to “civilise” them. Everyone in the age of imperialism was a racist Euro-supremacist, Said claimed, which he sought to justify – to the disdain of imperial historian Bernard Porter, who has found little evidence in his Absent-Minded Imperialists – in tenuous literary imagery pre-empting paragraph after paragraph of claustrophobic “analysis” before the final write-off of the author in question as a stooge of foreign aggression. (In Culture and Imperialism there’s a very strange passage accusing Jane Austen – whose novels barely even mentioned the Napoleonic Wars – of promulgating labour exploitation through her silence on empire and the emotional withdrawal it apparently represented. See Unrepentant Jacobin’s blog for a brilliant and much more comprehensive post on Saidism.)

Nonetheless, for the all the deficiencies of post-colonialist thought it might still have seemed very reasonable that the earliest victims of Said’s argument were loaded phrases like “barbarianism”. After all, the horrors of African colonialism that some contemporaries justified in the name of “progress” now seem too absurd for serious scholarship; Rudyard Kipling’s infamous The White Man’s Burden charged the English with the ineluctable duty “to serve your captives’ need” and bring barbaric peoples “towards the light”, a path apparently lit by the intermittent fires of war, genocide, ethnic cleansing and enslavement for those who resisted the imposition of rule by gunboat, diocese, and caste. This so-called “liberal” justification for the atrocities – “civilising the savage” – managed to creep even as far as the socialist Fabians, whom Ramsay MacDonald was compelled to abandon when they refused to condemn the Boer Wars.

Considering the long history of “barbarianism” this should hardly have come as a surprise. It doesn’t come from a very politically correct ancient world: the Proto-Indo-European barbar – which pre-empted the Greek barbaros and Latin barbaria for “foreigner” and “foreign country”, respectively – mimics the unintelligible ramblings of an alien. St Augustine would write the lengthy polemic City of God in order to make sense of the fall of great Roman cities to the murderous Alaric; and though the European humanists swore adoration for Rome they never departed from their Gothic and pagan inheritance, understanding better than their ancient forebears that not all “barbarian” cultures could be dismissed without merit. Consider how the conquistadors – the Pope’s military muscle in the New World – saw it their first duty to conquer the native Americans whose immodesty of clothing apparently revealed an equal poverty of the mind.

Given this history and its tradition of merciless ironies, surely – just surely – we wouldn’t be so stupid as to invent our own savages?

Identifying the Barbarian

“Barbarian” and “savage” have not always been purely racial terms.

The reason that every colonial power got it wrong was because they all shared in the same ridiculous presumption: that an individual’s ethnicity made them a barbarian for the sole reason that they had not produced laws as “advanced” of those in whose judgement they sat. Through the adoption of customs originating in the land of the expansionists, they could they become “civilised”. In the classical world this racial link was only implicit, the Franks merrily absorbed into the Roman Empire while the Saxons continuing to appear to be wintry nomads for failing to see any virtue in Italy’s fading pyres. But by the 19th century technological industrialism had dwarfed whatever instruments the “barbarians” could offer; and with the advent of pseudo-sciences in the likes social Darwinism and phrenology this was codified into an explicitly racist set of assumptions about the genetic foundations of “alien” societies.

But in the 17th century there had been something of a respite to this thinking with John Dryden’s pitying indictment of the “noble savage”; although deeply condescending, only now does the phrase appear to be an oxymoron, contemporaries meaning the word “savage” as an equivalent for what we today would supply “person from another country” (though almost certainly with implications of skin colour). As a romanticism of the foreigner whose relationship with nature endowed him with values equivalent to the “civilised” virtues of England, it made a crucial point: foreign customs may indeed be “noble” but that is not a vindication of times in which they are not. Cultural toleration does not have to mean moral relativism. That points towards what today we would identify as religious and ethnic pluralism under a constitution constrained by moral parameters to human rights, and to the civil liberties they predicate.

It is the tradition around Dryden’s sentiments – which seems to have ended before the African conquest from the 1880s – that we have and will build upon in the modern world. The UDHR rules on “inalienable” rights for the very reason that no individual in the world is foreign to them: they are universal, and people are at liberty to demand them if and when they please.

Anybody who therefore uses violence to deprive people of equality from birth, to suppress and fight freedom and preservation of culture and of thought – and to murder for these ends and without remorse – is a barbarian.

That’s not a racial term; it’s written in the preamble to the UN’s greatest cause on a morality that has no bearing on nationality. It doesn’t mean “un-British” or “un-American” but anti-human. The commitment to internationalism and universality that it makes necessary is the very definition of anti-racism.

Fighting the Barbarian

It’s for this reason that it’s so intensely patronising – and very eurocentric – to presume that it’s only privileged white atheists and Christians in the West who hold especial contempt for acts of Islamic jihad:

That “b” word again – and from a devout Muslim, no less.

The most numerous – and targeted – of all of the victims of Islamic barbarianism are fellow Muslims. It was not a “civilised” person who blew up the al-Askari mosque in 2006, one of the holiest – and most extraordinary – Shi’ah sites in the world:

Massoud’s assassination was an attack, to take but one target, on Afghan women; it would be Muslim Malians who would be deprived of international aid by fanatics objecting to the presence of women in the crowd; it is Syrian and Iraqi Muslims who are currently caught in a conflict all too attractive to clerical fascists leaching on their material poverty and surplus of pessimism. In every case, “barbarian” is the only word that could possibly be used to describe those willing to kill to impose a murderous ideology – one which is alien to fellow Muslims.

“Don’t fuel the fires!”

So why then did Dawkins, unlike Hasan, feel it necessary to add the unnecessary label of “Islamic” to certain acts of cruelty or barbarianism? I would give the following explanation.

It is impossible to imagine how sociology might have developed without the contributions of Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit Capitalism posed an historical, and to a degree empirically answerable, question: why was it that Puritan religious countries, rather than their Catholic, Lutheran or Islamic foes, were the first to succeed in developing industrial capitalism? One cannot, he pointed out rather obviously, understand different historical trajectories undergone by societies and their religions without first addressing what distinguished them.

By today’s standards this academic – who wrote lectures stressing the importance of objective scholarship – is a racist.

It has become somewhat fashionable in recent years to dismiss all religions as inherently the same. The atheist sees them all to be false, and therefore always leading to a conviction in man-made ideas which, at their most extreme, can incite believers to commit horrific abuses driven by the presumption that God is on their side.

But are we really to pretend that all religions – and the followers of their respective deities – are the same? That they have neither been shaped nor shaped common social features and shared religious property? Is it racist not to presume that no one religious outlook has anymore tendency to evil than its rivals? Is it possible that the Islamic, or the Judeo-Christian, or the Hindu religions and their respective denominations vary in their general outlooks on the world? In this context, put this tweet:

Is it possible that, in fact, it is partly due to common religious principles that Muslim societies have such poor records in education?

In his post, Alex spends some time talking about Dawkins’ connection – both implicit and acknowledged – with the English Defence League and horrid crackpots like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Geert Wilders and Pat Condell. He writes:

It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal.

I won’t condone any support for these people – but that is not say that they have never uttered a word of morally-palatable sense. Just because the right-wing press says it’s true doesn’t mean it isn’t, as Orwell said, which he then explained more fully:

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively,” which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.

The postmodern assumption that religions are “without fundamentals” is an utterly pointless remark: if the corollary that all of a given religion’s followers therefore share nothing in common – rituals, practices, holy sites, books, parables, folk tales or gods – is not then made, then there remains an imperative to identify what is broadly common. Weber looked for the “ideal-type” – the abstract projection of a religious follower from which every actual believer would deviate it some degree, but which would and can be necessary to make empirical arguments.

And demonstrating how these broadly common factors might or might not condone barbaric actions should not be suffocated in case nationalists seize upon them to denigrate entire communities. One can and should point out that parts of the Koran can lead to “barbaric” acts without then endorsing anti-Muslim (and by implication anti-Islamic) sectarianism. If one rejects every point in Wilders Fitna simply because they were intended to justify racist policies, then one leaves some of the most important moral criticisms of religion in the hands of nationalist thugs. That is how the issue is polarised; that is how one stokes a “clash of civilisations”.

Did foreign criticism of the old Tutsi monopoly on Rwandan government cause the Rwandan genocide? Did our disgust with the small number of atrocities committed by Bosnian Muslims mean that we could not also oppose the ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian forces? Does the evolving – or devolving, perhaps – of the Free Syrian Army into sectarianism prevent us from sending aid to the civilians there, or mean that we have to support Assad’s government?

Indeed, we are above naming any war a “class of civilisations”. It is to elevate atrocities to a level of which they are undeserving: barbarians would replace a society allowing for freedom of conscience with whatever tyranny might arise from their blood-soaked totalitarian insurgency. Most Muslims are on the right side – and it’s a nakedly perverse paradox to say that this was a war initiated by humanitarian principles.

It was not on Dawkins’ orders that Boko Haram – whose name means “Western education is sinful” – declared war on every manifestation of what they see to be “foreign” philosophy, elements including the rights to education sought by most Nigerians, who in turn become traitors for whom the punishment is murder or detonation. Add to these Islamic imperialists the Malian Ansar Dine whose expansionism under the guise of Sharia has hijacked whatever rights the Tuareg might have ever had to self-determination, adding eschatological justification to the region’s still deeply-ingrained problem with slavery. It was the anti-fundamentalist Ahmad Shah Massoud whose assassination at the hands of the Taliban would occur two days before the fall of the Twin Towers; his support for the rights of Afghan women and cultural freedom would allow Islamists to put him as a stooge to “the West”. They have embraced the status of “alien” since it confers religious exaltation.

Nor would any decent New Atheist claim, just as Dawkins does now, that barbarians are all Islamic. The Christian white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan, torch in hand, murdered and pillaged in aversion to the very first article of the UDHR; the slave labour of High Stalinism was just as evil as that authorised by Tuareg Islamists; say nothing beyond the probable claims of cannibalism within the ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army; and Orthodox (or perhaps simply highly masculinised) Russians who assault gay pride protesters are, indeed, manifestly wicked. Savagery might be everywhere; but it is not racist to ask whether some religions or non-religious ideologies, more than others, warm to it, and not imperialistic to decry those who embrace it.

“For the union makes us strong!”

So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.
‘Inside the Whale’, George Orwell

I didn’t intend this post to be so long; congratulations if you made it, for thou art a noble savage (and damn you to hell if not). But the problems with New Atheism are not simple-minded instances of bigotry and racism. Dawkins is a clever and eloquent academic who does not need prattling teenagers like me defending him; if he is careless with his language, or if he endorses the bigots rather than whatever few decent points a bigot may have to offer, then he is being provocatively flippant.

It is perfectly possible to conceive of evils as barbarian; it is the first imperative of the internationalist to do so, irrespective of the religions and societies with which he is confronted. The methods of Islamic fanaticism are as alien to the moderates who share their faith. As the clash between Mehdi Hasan and Irshad Manji showed, some Muslims accept that the Koran can incite violence, while others do not; but, as with any decent New Atheist, no moderate would consider extremists “civilised”.

Let’s stop calling legitimate criticism of barbarism – Islamic or not – “racist”. This is very, very important.


This blog.

I’ve decided that I’m not happy with the way things are going on this blog. From now on, I intend to post much more frequently and much more in-depth: it’s a (personal) moral outrage that I have been able to spend the best part of half a year hectoring without facts or consistency.

In any case, I do have a few essay-style posts in the works on: the English Defence League, the Burka/prostitution, socialism’s disenchantment, barbarianism and my dislike for gay pride parades. I’m away for a week on Wednesday, and again in mid-September. Hopefully that won’t cause too much disruption. Look forward to a blog redesign at some point, too.

Thanks for reading! I had no idea when I started that I would have the commitment to blog for half a year – and getting 400 followers and a Freshly Pressed badge is just fantastic, and I’m so grateful. Stop it. You’re making me blush.

Onwards and upwards! To victory, comrades.


Turkey Needs A Literary Voice More Than Ever

Some time ago I submitted to your attention an article, written by Ayfer Tunç, expressing the need for Turkish literature to stand independent from any supposed Occident-Orient conflict. She argued that such a narrow literary outlook confined its voice to a set of Western expectations in which there was no space for nuance, overlooking poetic idiosyncrasy as some sort of curious cultural trivia.

Over the weekend, Reuters reported that Erdogan’s government has replaced a number of key military personnel following its leadership coup in 2011:

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who chaired the Supreme Military Council meeting, has eroded the army’s power since his Islamist-rooted AK Party first came to power in 2002. The secularist military staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pushed the first Islamist-led government out of office in 1997.

The council decides on promotions and retirements of top officers every year at its three-day August meeting and had been expected to make major changes at this week’s gathering.

The forced retirement of paramilitary gendarmerie force commander General Bekir Kalyoncu, who had been the leading candidate to take over land forces, was the most unexpected of the Council’s decisions.

Media reports said Ankara was opposed to Kalyoncu leading the country’s land forces as he was regarded as a government critic and his name had cropped up in testimony in the trial of the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy against Erdogan’s government. A verdict on that trial is scheduled for Monday.

Instead, General Hulusi Akar was given the job and, according to custom, would be expected to replace General Necdet Ozel as overall armed forces head in 2015.

Meanwhile, General Ilker Basbug has been jailed for his role in the “Ergenekon” conspiracy – what would be appear to be the final gasp of the Kemalist secular military.

The removal of an unaccountable military has been essential since Turkey’s earliest bid to join the European Union in 1987; but the irony is that this is also precisely the methods deployed by authoritarian governments to consolidate their rule. They roll over the secular tradition under the pretense of civil rule – as we found ourselves arguing in remembering Morsi – only to restrict, simultaneously, the power of the voters who gave them the authority to do so. Democracy is meaningless without the constitutional commitment to human rights and political equality; but who now could protest if Erdogan were to lift the ban on religious parties?

Following the violent crackdown on the Gezi Park protests, Germany shut down negotiations on Turkey’s entry to the EU; in response, the Turkish EU minister has been quoted as saying “the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU” and that “if we have to, we could tell them, ‘get lost'”. Where, then, does this leave the Cypriot occupation, poorly enacted women’s rights, the denial of the Armenian genocide, intellectual property law, the Kurds, abuses of the environment?

European, Western, secular, religious, conservative, nationalist? As Hitchens said in 2011:

The nascent Islamist populist movement—the Justice and Development Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan—understood very well that, once in the European Union proper, Turkey would be prevented by EU law from submitting to another period of rule by men in uniform. We thus saw the intriguing spectacle of quite conservative and nationalist Turks (with a distinct tendency to chauvinism in Erdogan’s case) making common cause with liberal international institutions against the very Turkish institution, the army, that above all symbolized Turkish national pride and prestige. This cooperation between ostensibly secular and newly pious may have had something to do with a growing sense of shame among the educated secular citizenry of big cities like Istanbul, who always knew they could count on the army to uphold their rights but who didn’t enjoy exerting the privilege. The fiction of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s complex Nobelist and generally liberal author, has explored this paradox very well. His novel Snow is perhaps the best dress rehearsal for the argument.

We could really do with some more Orhan Pamuks to inform us about which direction Turkey is heading. Preferably beforehand…


A Message From Animals To Washington

Not that I can really contribute much to the BBC’s publicity, but one piece worth highlighting is on a new study revealing some of the evolutionary benefits to sharing and cooperation:

A team from Michigan State University, US, used a model of the prisoner’s dilemma game, where two suspects who are interrogated in separate prison cells must decide whether or not to inform on each other.

In the model, each person is offered a deal for freedom if they inform on the other, putting their opponent in jail for six months. However, this scenario will only be played out if the opponent chooses not to inform.

If both “prisoners” choose to inform (defection) they will both get three months in prison, but if they both stay silent (co-operation) they will both only get a jail term of one month.

The eminent mathematician John Nash showed that the optimum strategy was not to co-operate in the prisoner’s dilemma game.

This study would be worth celebrating in its own right – but it helps to contextualise some of the arguments made by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. If the study’s conclusions are correct – and I stress the weight of the if – then it acts as a practical, rather than visceral, refutation to those who believe in the beneficial qualities of war as a driver for progress.

One will inevitably consider the solipsistic racists expressing contempt for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in Washington as they naively grapple to appease two parties of God at once. Eretz Yisrael Zionists – paranoid about the implications of a Palestinian state – and anti-Semitic Islamists – to whom a state for Jews is in itself a cause for war – pollute the two camps.

Human actions are only coherent in Darwinian terms. Thus a child-like plea from secular science: the conflict hasn’t worked out for anyone and never will. Stop it. Not that such an argument should be necessary, and not that it would work on zealots. But oh well.

Enjoy the picture.


Whisky in Greeneland

Our Man in Havana Chess

Logic through spirits. The only way to play the game.

In his introduction to Our Man in Havana, Christopher Hitchens draws a distinction between Graham Greene’s whisky and non-whisky novels. He quotes the verse from the 1963 poem, ‘On the Circuit’, in which W. A. Auden is tempted by the novelist’s sweet healing drug:

Is this a milieu where I must
How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic swig?

I, for one, took Greene’s impenitent reliance on the drinks driving his narrative – no scene ever far from a daiquiri or Wormold’s miniature whisky collection – to be a rather satisfying combination. The Cold War comes to be defined by an alcoholic anachronism, as though hungover before the drinking has started. In the climax of the novel, it would be a game of chess – with all the pieces replaced for miniature whisky bottles – that would finally free Wormold from the rather awkward implications of espionage and provide him with the courage to commit the killing.

The very same substance that would guard him from the terrors of his Catholic-come-narcissist of a daughter, Milly, and his material poverty for which she is mostly responsible would, in a beautiful irony, also liberate him from the mightiest cliff-hanger of all – that of a pre-nuclear conflict.

I have a feeling that Our Man in Havana is likely to stick with me.