Cherwell: We Can Still Save Syria

I wrote this before Ed Miliband betrayed the Syrian people, so it is a bit out of date/lacking necessary expletives, but here is my article for Cherwell.org:

“Never again,” we like to tell ourselves, again and again. Looking back, we know Thomas Hardy was right to anticipate “all nations striving strong to make red war yet redder”; the so-called “war to end all wars”, beginning in 1914 with Gavrilo Princip’s bullet of the century, would not really end until 1991. Outlived as he was by the old men who sent him to die, Wilfred Owen’s glib submission “dulce et decorum est” should represent more than anything else the grim legacy our generation inherited from the 20th century. Our heroes showcase a grand hatred of war.

Except we see the world beyond through different spectacles. The student voice, which in the 1960s called on Britain to take a moral lead in the world, drops dead with apathy or sinks into “post-colonialist” hysteria whenever faced with foreign conflicts; the Labour Party has been mellowed by a populist sickness that chases after old Tory slogans; and Barack Obama, with his innocuous charm and Nobel Prize to think of, would rather pretend there is no war than bring it to an end.

Read the rest here!

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Murderer Fears Cyber-bullying

We’ve seen children crying with joy before the presence of Kim Jong-Un; we’ve seen “ex-gay converts” profess, with equal joy, to have abolished their sinful desires; we’ve seen children playing in the wreckage of a tsunami. Sometimes we are inspired, and in other times we have no choice but to face-palm until it hurts.

But I don’t think we’ve evolved an emotion for President Assad joining instagram:

Picture3

In fairness to the poor bloke, young rapscallions do keep tearing down his posters. As of yet commentators are unsure why he has become the target of so much harassment.

Sanity is for the mad.


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?


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.


Icons of Feminism

I recently stumbled across this incredible series of portraits capturing the rare sight of women fighters in the Syrian civil war:

Syrian Woman Turned Revolutionary

Fadwa, 20 years old, widow with 3 children: “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.”

Amal, 30 years old, married, housewife with 3 children: “I’m sincere to God, that is all I need and want, the rest will come with time.”

White middle-class wankers of Marxist cliques have this tacit presumption – that they can be revolutionary at work and then go home to a Waitrose ready meal and Britain’s Got Talent. Hypocrisy is as old as it is everywhere pervasive.

This is, in fringe Western language, no less true of the orthodox communities in the Arab Spring. Aristotle saw the political community as the macrocosm of the household; he would have despaired to see far right Muslims protest for change on the street and then return to a family as stoic as footsteps on the surface of the moon. Or perhaps not. Anyway – what we can be certain of is that hunger for the vote is a far cry from cultural revolution. As we’re seeing in Egypt, and even more so in Iraq, those who were once oppressed are using their votes to settle sectarian scores and force others to live their nightmares. The activists – or whatever we wish to call them – are disproportionately male. They crave power in worlds public and private. For all the irritant definitions of any “patriarchy”, these political upheavals have left the fabric of masculinity unapologetically content.

In such a context I’m not entirely sure what the most enlightened response to these all-women fighting forces ought to be. No one is pleased with perpetual warfare, or for the disintegrated communities from which these women have formed new lives.

What these women represent is that no “patriarchy” is inevitable, I think. 20 year-old Fadwa tells us, “My husband died on the front lines, I will die on the front lines, may God help us.” Women are able to protect their families just as men can, and it emerges from the social wreckage that fascists have traditionally been best-equipped to exploit. We shouldn’t find this remarkable, but I suspect most would. The union of gun and child is so utterly disturbing that it smashes any conventions of effeminacy.

In one of Max Weber’s rare moments of concision he quipped that “the person who attempted to walk by constantly applying anatomical knowledge would be in danger of stumbling”. The nuance of ideology bows before the primacy of instinct. It’s why, whenever we race to term someone an “icon” to a movement, we should do only if they exemplify that to which his or her followers aspire. Veneration, after all, implies emulation; and to emulate an ideologue is to emulate their arguments. It’s ideological constipation. Not only does this abandon our critical reasoning of their deficiencies, leading to the most conformism of dogma, but it also assumes the perpetuity of resistance, and thereby a defeatism in which the individual strives for struggle rather than victory. An icon, in other words, should embody a movement’s dreams – not the movement itself.

Nelson Mandela is justly iconic for civil rights figures, black and white and every other gradient. Some Western liberals in the 20th century who considered themselves anti-racist did – much like those today who affirm that “Arab democrat” is a primitive paradox – argue that Mandela was a black man in a white man’s game. For them, anti-imperialism also meant anti-democracy in the most absurd phrases of cultural relativism. Obviously, that was a racist belief even if its conviction in opposition to colonial rule. The reason for Mandela’s iconic status, in other words, is that he represented democratic politics in promoting an equal share in this philosophy. If you think that’s self-evident then you’ve just proved my point – that an icon should be no more, and no less, than a tautology: a black man is born equal to a white person. The truest of truisms.

No less true of women, is it not? What the women in the women’s militia represent is that when the old rules fragment, socially as well as politically, sex is entirely irrelevant to a person’s potential. Inevitable biological differences aside, we’re left with that other obvious tautology that women are people like men and neither anything more nor less. Just as these women represent some of the most utterly desolate communities of Syria, so should an icon also be found from above. But who could possibly serve such a purpose?

I think it a lovely irony that in rejecting feminism Thatcher should have set in stone her legacy as a feminist icon – but before you send an armed guard to castrate this patronising male blogger, hear me out. Thatcher should have been thoroughly ashamed of her refusal to aid female Parliamentarians. Even today, only a quarter of our MPs are women. Now it’s in my humble opinion that you shouldn’t promote equality – and cut down sexism – by superficial politics like all-women short-lists. That will not solve gender gaps in salaries and leaves lad cultures unscathed, unabashed and altogether uncaring in their ignorant trance.

And yet – in many respects Maggie represented a lot to which the female feminist ought to aspire. By breaking their every convention she denied the existence of the ideal woman. She does not have to be liberal; she does not have to be working class; she does not have to be sympathetic to the vulnerable or pass maternalist charity to whomever beggar she greets. All of these are desirable, but they are just as desirable for a man as for a woman. Maggie neglected feminism because of her own success; with triumph ends ideology. Thatcher was a bitch – but so are an awful lot of men.

Mandela was not a black man in a white man’s game; Thatcher was no woman struggling through a man’s world; and the Syrian women do not believe in a conscious battle against any conceptual patriarchy. Take this final image:

On her head, in the place of the traditional woman’s headscarf, Em Joseph dons the keffiyeh of the Arab man. When Thatcher used her curious propensity to sexuality to navigate her way through her colleagues’ stubborn attitudes, she was accused of cheapening women’s activism and accepting male instincts. But was she? Or was she not, like Em, reminding people that conventions can be twisted by women just as much as they can be by men?

Whatever happens to these few Syrian women, I can only wish them the best of luck. Great icons – better than the self-indulgent paranoia of some radical feminists whose minds are like Shakespearean theatrics on steroids.


The Times They Are a-Changin’ (In The Arab Spring)

When you worn to exhaustion by the vampiric presence of Jeremy Kyle or that perpetual newsreel on poor Maggie’s demise, the mind drifts. And it drifts towards one final tool for procrastination. Well – should I? You’re faced with a Socratic challenge. It will demand the evasion of judgmental family members. An easily concealed TV set is obligatory; an already stained conscience helps. In spite of the inevitable guilt that threatens to mute any pleasure you might dare to enjoy, you continue.

And I did it: I watched Loose Women.

It all seemed somehow vindicated by the story which the ladies shared with us – about a 104 year-old gentlemen whose gardening abilities have been maturing for nearly a century:

But it is the roses that fill Ralph with most pride. At the rear of his garden are some 200 floribunda and hybrid-tea bushes which in summer will produce flowers of many shades and a glorious scent.

Despite his age and a creaky left knee, Ralph still does most of the work himself. He can still, with difficulty, plant potatoes, although he now uses a tall hoe for weeding and a grabbing tool for picking things up. His great-grandchildren help with dead-heading the roses and weeding, but only under his close supervision.

This year it’s been too cold to get out much. He is waiting until the end of the month to sow his onions and potatoes but doesn’t mind the delay.

‘Gardening is all about having something to look forward to,’ he says. ‘It gets me through the winter. If I’m ever depressed or lonely, I think to myself “never mind, the roses will be along soon”. It gives me the willpower to keep going.’

And with this wise image I was left thinking about the Arab Spring. For roses we might replace the scent of Jasmine in Tunisia, whose democratic seeds may have been planted too close to the surface and now risk being uplifted in the rains. If it is true that the ousting of Ben Ali was the “encounter of the social and the democratic” then we would do well to remember that not all reunions have a happy ending. Some end in divorce, and others with the wife stabbing the unsuspecting husband with a screwdriver.

The inevitability of the seasons, if it does exist in the Arab Spring, is as likely to incubate fear as freedom – in part, I suppose, because many of its fanatics see the terrorising of others as a liberty. What if we reach winter when all the colours in the flowers are dead?

Ivy is a tenacious little bugger – it’ll survive winter’s chill. So will all the creepy insects just waiting to crawl out and infest the world again, like Camus’ La Peste, a dormant plague slowly bubbling its way to the surface where it readies to bring down another free city. I don’t know. Perhaps we can take comfort knowing that even if the tree sheds its leaves it doesn’t go anywhere. It can have them back soon enough.

Just don’t fall into that mellow optimism that the language of the seasons seems to tickle in us. It’s a simple tool used to absolve us of our rightful responsibility – because talk of nature implies a self-fulfilling ecosystem whose horrors will be purged from within. In reality, though, some of the people out there really need our help.

I never mixed so many metaphors with so little apology. Anyway, consider donating to the DEC’s Syria Crisis Appeal?