A Propagandist Rides to War

As we approach the centenary of a war that butchered hundreds of thousands in the name of God, King and Country, the Education Secretary insists that it was entirely “just”:

In an article for the Daily Mail, Mr Gove says he has little time for the view of the Department for Culture and the Foreign Office that the commemorations should not lay fault at Germany’s door.

The Education Secretary says the conflict was a ‘just war’ to combat aggression by a German elite bent on domination.

‘The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war,’ he says. ‘The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.’

Mr Gove writes: ‘Richard Evans may hold a professorship, but these arguments, like the interpretations of Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder, are more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’

The Education Secretary says it is time to listen to historians such as Margaret Macmillan who has ‘demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order’.

Let the propaganda die, Michael. But don’t take it from me; the Thatcherite Niall Ferguson has explained very well why the First World War was a mesh of blunders and lies.

Firstly, not only did Edward Grey – the Foreign Secretary – refuse to commit Britain to neutrality in the event that Germany respected Belgium’s sovereignty, which would have side-lined the 1839 treaty with which his government declared war, but in the weeks before the war the Committee for Imperial Defence even considered invading Belgium if the German generals chose to attack through France. There was no casus belli in “defending the Western liberal order”.

Britain’s Liberal government, though, was another matter. With a slender majority in the Commons, there was a serious threat that the government would have to call a general election if Britain reneged on its pledge to Belgian neutrality; it would have led to the resignation of Grey at the very least. It was judged to be more more convenient to fight, instead of the Tories, the greatest war that humanity had ever waged, and to do so people who couldn’t even vote.

For all the propaganda, indeed, there was little need for liberal ideas in the early months of the war. Posters of soldiers standing in English meadows had no bearing on the thousands of the dispossessed urban class moving en masse to enroll in the effort; declaration of war led to financial collapse and the rocketing of unemployment, to which – and never let it be said that war has no ironies – the only salvation was found in uniform in Europe’s trenches. It was grab a gun (if there were enough) or go hungry.

The war was sustained not only in poverty, but in vengeance killing. A bloodied terror came to haunt No Man’s Land as men saw their friends butchered in front of their eyes. Desertion remarkably rare, blood feuds drove soldiers to fight with ferocity they had never known before; often to be gunned down in exactly the same way. This is not something, I imagine, that we should be rushing to defend. Were it valid, there’s not a single war in history that wouldn’t be justified by the horror of soldiers dying in vain – by the fatuous and arrogant verdict that the death of one man justifies those of many more.

The Great War was a waste. Millions died for no reason that could ever have pretensions to be justification. A stupid decision, made at a late hour in Whitehall, impoverished men and made them the oxen driving a war to its exhaustion; and they deluded themselves, as all people are capable of doing, into the belief that letting the blood of every remaining Hun might vindicate the sacrifices their friends made to causes that were never theirs. Forget liberal freedoms; to call the defence of Belgium simply “tragic” is dishonest and disgraceful.

For all the failures of the British government’s propaganda drives – which made compulsory enlistment so necessary – it’s a belated irony that the Education Secretary should fall for them so easily. Some advice for him: if he is serious about returning children to literature and history, he should probably start with Wilfred Owen.


From Milton to Morsi: The Puritan’s Test for the Islamist

When the Egyptian President Morsi was ousted from office back in July, various commentators assumed that those who denounced him were simple-minded ignoramuses unable to distinguish between political Islam and jihad. Here was a man who had been elected by the popular will; it was undemocratic not to stand with him, it was said. Consistent equivalents were drawn with Western leaders – was Bush never so unpopular, and was the elderly accused Belusconi not in need of expulsion, of a Mussolini if you will?

Morsi overruled the democratic process. Individual freedoms were claimed for the government; it became policy to target those minorities whose unity threatened the Freedom and Justice Party, from Coptic Christians to liberals. He was, in short, the figurehead of a (at the risk of sounding tautological) deeply anti-democratic theocratic movement. His supporters have been sure to carry on his legacy on the streets, however stirred by the coup that has so stupidly and irresponsibly itself pitched against them.

This question of Islamist movements is a worrying one for a democrat. You see, I find anticipation of a coming “Enlightenment” for Islam a little embarrassing, almost – dare I saw – a little Orientalist in its armchair intellectualism. Islamist movements are a reality across the fresh painting on the Arab political world, be they sectarian, moderate or sponsors of terror. There’s Irshad Manji, sure – but it seems to me that it is in the schooling of some very basic, visceral instincts that will be the prerequisite for change in Islamic communities in Africa and the Middle-East, where they are invariably not ruled by a First Amendment or littered with secular schooling. The deeply religious in these places must first come to know a confidence sure enough to grant tolerance and patience: as searches for social movements go, it’s a patronising one – but it does identify something beyond progress’s very modest starting line.

Here, then, is my new test for the Islamist – raised from the voices of English Puritanism. Pass it and you scrape the modern test for what is palatable to a democrat; fail it and my sympathies go.

John Milton. Far from some whitewashed commodity of English Puritanism, to his name being the epic Paradise Lost, Milton nevertheless found himself alienated by the Presbyterian Parliament that rose against Charles I; he remained what we might term a “political Christian”, looking for moral guidance in the inspiration that so readily lay behind his poetry, but he stood firm against the desires of the later republic to forge oppressive laws from the contents of their halo-fashioned minds.

This is the poem with which he eviscerated these Presbyterians:

On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament (1646)

Because you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,
And with stiff vows renounced his Liturgy,
To seize the widowed whore Plurality,
From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,
Dare ye for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a Classic Hierarchy,
Taught ye by mere A. S. and Rutherford?
Men whose life, learning, faith, and pure intent,
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul
Must now be named and printed heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch What-d’ye-call!
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing, worse than those of Trent,
That so the Parliament
May with their wholesome and preventive shears
Clip your phylacteries, though baulk your ears,
And succour our just fears,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.

At Cromwell’s funeral procession, Milton walked blind alongside his fellow Christian poets Dryden and Marvell. I don’t like to call anything inevitable in history; but one has to ask how such an awkward religious tolerance might have appeared in England without that first popular victory over divine rule, the dethroning of Charles I. It happened in France nearly a century and half later, and its failure in Russia after 1917 has allowed the Orthodox Church to fantasise in perspex once again.

Milton represented the germination of secular thought: a consideration of diversity, and uncertainty, pumping through a deeply religious mind. That’s a line that would upset many academics. But the same must surely be true of some of today’s political Islamists.

If they would sympathise with Milton’s poem for freedom of conscience, then they surely become that which is just about tolerable in the 21st century: the morally-charged religious who, though guided in their politics by Islam, will nevertheless prepare themselves to let go of others’ corporeal and spiritual fates. I do not think I will live to see same-sex marriage legalised in Saudi Arabia, but this is a trajectory in which a distant hope, if generations away, might find an ally.

It is the difference, in other words, between deep conservatism and reactionary theocracy. And Morsi was on the wrong side.

Always solidarity with socialists, liberals and those blunt-speaking people struggling for their democratic rights today and who rightly refuse to wait for the decades that I fear they may need; but the result of this has to be that those “Islamists” who respect them, and who hold their stomachs not to pass Medievalist laws, must be tolerated by democrats.

There’s my test. Take it.


George Orwell Betrayed

Worth sharing:

This week in London, the annual George Orwell Lecture was given by the Islamist writer Tariq Ramadan. Where is one to start?

George Orwell was against religious censorship. Tariq Ramadan campaigned successfully to cancel a production of Voltaire’s play Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophete in Geneva.

Orwell was a rational man. When Ramadan taught at the College de Saussure he argued in favour of Islamic biology over Darwin.

Orwell risked his life fighting for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascists. Ramadan is a coward when it comes to fighting fascism. In November 2003, on French television, the future French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited Ramadan to condemn the practice of stoning women. He would not. Ramadan squirmed: “I have called for — because I know my position is a minority one within the Muslim world today — a moratorium so that there can be a real debate between Muslims.”

Orwell opposed state control and religious indoctrination. Ramadan would like the former to impose the latter. He wants Muslim parents to control the content of state school programmes according to “Islamic values”.

The organisers of the Orwell Lectures ought to be deeply ashamed of themselves. Don’t care about the above? Or, do they find Ramadan’s tongue-twisting political language blurring discourse so merrily that the most blatant distinctions between the two men no longer appear to matter?

Certainly, though, priorities are amiss. Forget Ramadan. If you wish to examine why Orwell still matters, you need only hear the final line of Bertolt Brecht’s parody of Hitler’s rise and fall, Arturo Ui: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Be it Islamism, NSA or the hysterical out-cries of the reactionary far left, challenges will not be resolved by reactionary celebrities. The Orwell Lecturers should try harder to find new voices:

I hope that Dr Borkenau will write a longer and better book on approximately the same subject. The present one, in spite of some brilliant passages, seems to have been hastily written and has faults of arrangement. Nevertheless Dr Borkenau is one of the most valuable gifts that Hitler has made to England. In a period when nearly all books on current politics have been compounded of lies, or folly, or both, his has been one of the few sane voices heard in the land, and long may it continue.

It’s not just bad politics, it’s lazy.


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…


An Interview with Norman Geras

I just stumbled across this old interview with Norman Geras, I believe Professor Emeritus at Manchester University. His writing is one that I admire for its consistent depth and clarity, and his very humane form of Marxism.

A few paragraphs are especially interesting. On the validity (or otherwise) of the Marxist tradition:

You sometimes come across an assumption that this sort of simultaneous taking and leaving of various components of Marxist thought is not available to Marxists: as though either Marxism is a seamless whole or it is nothing. That is the very assumption, however, for which Marxists used to be criticized, as propounding a dogma. No one need accept it. I think of myself as being a liberal-minded kind of Marxist, in more than one sense of this qualifier.

On  the erroneous presumption that the starting point of all conflict is American hegemony:

The arguments concerning America’s global record, for all the truth they have, do not explain the crimes of September 11. If they did, it would be a mystery why so many other movements against injustice and oppression have not felt impelled to fly aircraft full of civilians into skyscrapers full of civilians, or carried out atrocities of comparable scope. Not only the Chilean movement in response to that other September 11 – of 1973 – but also the PAIGC and FRELIMO fighting Portuguese colonialism in Africa, and the ANC fighting apartheid, and the guerrillas of Fretilin in East Timor, waged long struggles without recourse to the mass murder of civilians. If one is sincerely interested in explanation, explanation which does not condone, the most that can be said is that in conditions of oppression and injustice hatreds are more likely to take root and vicious ideologies to feed off them. This is why people of progressive outlook have always argued that removing injustices and alleviating suffering are the best route to pacifying conflict. It has never spared us the necessity, however, of calling the more poisonous and deadly political tendencies which can emerge in circumstances of social crisis and despair by their proper names, and recognizing that they have to be fought. A clear parallel is fascism. It has been noted often enough that fascist movements prosper most in conditions of economic dislocation, insecurity, unemployment, loss of hope. But outside the disastrous example of Third-Period Comintern policy, socialists and democrats have not generally allowed this fact to obscure the character of fascism as a dangerous enemy of their own values and ideals.

Geras’ blog, which on Sunday passed its 10th anniversary, can be found here. Always brilliant for sport, philosophy, history, Marxism, literature, politics, film, music.


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


Annus Mirabilis, by Philip Larkin

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Whenever I moan about the tedious bureaucratic monstrosities that seem to have overwhelmed student radicalism, deep-down I feel a little self-indulgent and self-righteous. But this poem vindicates my beliefs a little: Larkin’s early life missed the sexual revolution, his forming years spent living the comparatively idle post-war existence. He reminds us of the cool irony that nostalgia can kindle in us; it’s not always about warming memories. I suppose that’s why it’s to be avoided (a la Midnight in Paris). We’re all guilty of it, we would-be radicals; although I’m slightly jealous for those who grabbed hold of the changing outlooks of the swinging sixties’, at the same time there are a pseudo-lefties in the SWP or the Respect Party who still think we’re living in the Cold War era.

The message, then, is: dream about the future, not the past.