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.

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Scholarship for Gazans

I’m very proud to have been one of the students offering a small contribution to this scholarship, which aims to help fund the travels and tuition fees for a Gaza student each year:

Rawan Yaghi is a bookish 19 year old who, appropriately for a student of literature, arrives to meet me in Gaza with a text tucked under her arm.

It is a well-thumbed copy of Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s classic satirical novel on the absurdities of war; not an inappropriate choice for somebody who’s spent her entire life amid one of the Middle East’s most intractable conflicts.

But Rawan’s life is about to take a different direction. Currently a student at Gaza’s Islamic University, she has just won a scholarship to Oxford University to study linguistics and Italian.

She is looking forward to moving from the minarets of Gaza to the city of “dreaming spires”.

“I’m very excited. I can’t wait,” she smiles. “It’s going to be different but it’s going to be fun.”

Unusual scholarship
Few have made such a journey.

But what is even more unusual is that all the other students at Oxford’s Jesus College will pay some of the cost of Rawan’s studies.

As part of the recently established Jesus College Junior Members Scholarship most of the other students have each agreed to pay £3.90 ($5.90) per term towards Rawan’s fees.

The scholarship was set up by Oxford graduate Emily Dreyfus after she realised that few Gazans had ever had the chance to study at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities.

I think this is great: it’s not about taking any “side” in some binary Arab-Israeli conflict. It simply recognises the limited – especially so for women – opportunities for education in Palestinian territories, made worse in recent years by the Israeli blockade. I wonder if other colleges will follow suit and offer scholarships for similarly under-funded regions.

It’s strange – Jesus College was set up by Elizabeth I to educate clergymen from Wales. As lovely as that part of the world is, Palestine is, I think, just a little more exotic.

Jesus College


“Johnny Mad Dog” and Child Soldiers

The truest films in this world don’t climax; they don’t end. The credits close an ephemeral snapshot rather than the story itself. This is what makes Johnny Mad Dog‘s depiction of child soldiery from the second Liberian Civil War so harrowing; we’re left, in the final moments, with the fleeting images of two children staring into the heart of violence (or the heart of darkness) and grabbing it with both hands. A young girl is turned rabid when the memory of her brother and father meet whom she blames for their deaths, the only onlooker an infant whose parents never make it onto screen.

And the truest films know that the greatest tragedies are neither parasitic, nor corruptive, nor even simply destructive; they are total in their transformation, all links with the former self severed from redemption. Hamlet’s murders are symptoms of a psychological crisis, his mind first emptied by loss and then filled with a madness made frighteningly concrete with the lust for power. When wars bring down villages there is at least the memory of what once stood in their place, the acceptance that in forgetting we lose the only part that can be preserved.

Johnny Mad Dog does not let us forget this. The two girls who end the film – a young generation raised in tribalism incarnate – is one part, perhaps the most intrinsically central; but constantly in foreshadow is the absurdity of the child soldiers who have already been nurtured by crazed warriors for whom the label “war criminal” would be much too civilized. Later on in the film, even the coldest of viewers find some sympathy with Mad Dog. For a brief moment there is the spectre of a love which his comrades quickly dissipate; an ember smothered.

Take a look the children in this photo from the film:

Johnny Mad Dog

The arbitrary outfits conceal the uniform that underpins them: a common monstrosity, perhaps the naivety of innocence diverted into the single hedonistic pursuit of war, the disregard for the self and the hunger for blood. They are roused by chants that turn them into the wildest  of animals that look more like iron age hunters than modern rebels. And this is the true tragedy, when we no longer really know how much moral vindication we can afford them. The most horrific acts are committed; viewers of the film are fortunate to be spared how some of them are concluded. But at the end we are troubled with a simple question: how much of a child soldier is still child?

I’m left thinking that it’s an oxymoron.

(You can watch the film online here. It’s brilliant – many thanks to Lost in Babel for bringing this film to my attention!)


When Things Fall Apart: War and Civilisation

It might seem frivolous of me – and just a tad bourgeois – to talk about ongoing conflicts as though they were entirely removed from human suffering; and I certainly don’t intend that, not by any means. But it’s not just death that dehumanises us. I’m always inclined to remember Heinrich Heine’s old dictum to the effect that “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.” Accompanying death in civil degeneration is the assault on art and culture, these being the people’s voices in which is cast the memory of a society before it fell apart.

Firstly, Syria:

Debris in Aleppo: the old Museum of Science.

Debris in Aleppo: the old Museum of Science.

Dan Snow’s recent documentary for the BBC stressed that Syria was for thousands of years at the heart of civilisation: 2000 years BC stood the city of Palmyra, later Bosra and a few villages to its north, playing host to the cradle of Christian Rome. The fact that modern Syria was sketched about imperial settlements after the First World War should not allow us to forget the crossroad of the great many civilisations on which the nation was established. To think what is being lost.

And then there’s Mali:

An early modern mosque, one of the few remaining in Timbuktu.

It’s easy to forget that – numerically – the most significant victims of Islamic fundamentalism are invariably Muslim: before the French (with British support) liberated Timbuktu, the ancient city was plagued by fanatics in the Al-Qaeda-allied Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) who tore about 15th century mosques among their many cultural blasphemies. Another would include the banning of music,”crushing culture to impose rule”, as the author phrases it. If you want to silence a people’s voice, then you silence what they write and what they paint, and also what they sing.

Not all iconoclasm is bad; the destruction or the mockery of the greatest symbols of oppression can liberate the most captive of minds. But rarely is it so calculated, and calculated for progress. For the most part, remember: the symptoms of war can never be calculated with only cold death tolls.


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?