tag: War



10
Apr 2013

You could make it up (but they’d think you were high)

In a statement that took few by surprise, the world’s satirists today collectively announced their retirement. “There was some discussion about continuing in a more limited capacity”, said Armando Ianucci in an interview published in The Guardian, “I thought we could perhaps scale back to a bi-monthly sketch show on one of the smaller cable channels… but when Steve Bell read out the Downing Street press release again and the words truly sank in, well… I think we all knew it was time to pack up and go home.” Ianucci, Bell and Charlie Brooker have announced their decision to open a pub together in rural Dorset. Meanwhile the editors of The Daily Mash and The Onion have suggested that they intend to remain in digital media and will collaborate on a new website about kittens.

Margaret ThatcherThe decision by satirists to “call it a day” en masse was triggered by the announcement from Downing Street this morning that the funeral of the late Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, would have “a Falklands War theme”*.

Although details of how this “theme” will manifest are sketchy and much of the planning has yet to be completed, some suggestions have emerged from Downing Street.

  • The pall-bearers will be drawn from the armed-forces and will be selected from regiments and units that played a major part in the Falklands conflict.
  • A military fly-past will be scheduled to coincide with the coffin being carried into St. Paul’s Cathedral.
  • A representative of the Falkland Islanders who lived through the war will deliver one of the eulogies.
  • Service men and women who fought in the war will escort the carriage carrying the coffin. Those injured or disabled during the war will be asked not to attend per the original victory parade.**
  • A four second loop of Kenny Everett shouting “Round them up, put them in a field, and bomb the bastards!” will be broadcast over the national anthem on all stations throughout the day.
  • Footballers, Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa will be placed in stocks outside St. Paul’s and members of the public will be encouraged to throw rotten fruit at them during the ceremony.
  • The late Prime Minister’s funeral procession will stop briefly in Trafalgar Square while a carefully selected group of Argentine nationals will be drowned in the fountains.

When contacted for comment, a spokesman for the Cameron government made it clear that while “the primary theme” for the funeral would be the Falklands War, “Lady Thatcher’s legacy will be celebrated in a number of other ways on the sad day”.

“The government has also arranged for several Irish nationals to be denied food indefinitely”, he said. However, officials are quietly concerned that, come the funeral, not enough time will have elapsed for them to have starved to death (“they won’t even be all funny and emaciated by then!” shrieked a demented Norman Tebbit from the cockpit of an RAF dive-bomber above Buenos Aires). George Osborne, however, pointed out that “they will still be pretty hungry” and also mentioned that “we can always deal with them with a tribute to Mrs. Thatcher’s [Northern Irish] shoot-to-kill policy”.

“We are also planning to torture some Chilean nationals as a tribute to Lady Thatcher’s deep friendship with Augusto Pinochet. And we’ll probably beat up some queers and Pakis for old times’ sake”, he concluded.

Meanwhile, plans to burn down every building north of Watford have stalled due to a lack of coal.

* Look, I don’t want to undercut the humour of the piece, but I think I need to stress that bit’s not made up. They really are having a Falklands War themed funeral. The mind positively boggles.

** This, too, also happened. In the end, injured and disabled veterans were permitted to take part in the parade after a media outcry, but the original decision was to exclude them for fear they might depict the war in a negative light. Heaven forbid war should ever be viewed as anything other than glorious.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


8
Apr 2013

Thatcher: On balance?

On the negative side there was…

  • Support for apartheid.
  • Scorched earth monetary policy – a vast proportion of what’s wrong with the world emerged in the 80s thanks to the Thatcher/Reagan axis of evil.
  • Rampant financial deregulation – and we’re still suffering from this
  • “We are being flooded!” – speech about immigration in 1979.
  • Shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland.
  • Section 28
  • The Falklands War. I don’t support Argentina’s invasion, but the relish with which Thatcher exploited it for her own political ends was vile.
  • Massive increase in socio-economic inequality – an inevitable and wholly predictable result of her policies.
  • Fatally undermined local democracy.
  • Beginning of the end of the NHS.
  • “Make a quick buck” privatisation of essential services… introducing the profit motive where it doesn’t belong and making life worse for the average person.
  • Government contempt for a whole swathe of the workforce – social workers, teachers, NHS nurses, etc.
  • “There is no such thing as society”
  • Care In The Community
  • Support for mass murderer, Augusto Pinochet.
  • Ripping the heart out of local communities
  • Treatment of striking workers
  • Poll tax
  • Staggering increase in youth homelessness
  • Harking back to Victorian morality and constant use of the phrase “family values” from a government that included Cecil Parkinson, Alan Clark, David Mellor, Jeffrey Archer and Jonathon Aitkin
  • Beginning of the end of the UK’s genuinely progressive social housing policies.
  • Sheer, rampant viciousness.

On the positive side…

  • Before entering politics was part of the team that developed soft-scoop ice-cream.

… but as much as I like ice-cream… well.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


12
Nov 2012

Send in the drones

Last Tuesday – mesmerised as I am by coloured maps – I stayed up late enough to see Barack Obama hold onto the US presidency. So I went to bed early Wednesday morning knowing that Mitt Romney wasn’t going to be President of the United States. And I was glad about that. The lesser of two evils won. And as a friend pointed out, “The lesser of two evils is still evil, but is also lesser. That’s just maths.”

When I awoke the following day though, I was a little taken-aback when I watched his victory speech online. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the people in that convention hall were precisely the people who will feel strongest about an Obama victory; but I found the sheer distance between their euphoria and my resigned fatalism a little disconcerting. Then I read an article about that mass re-tweeting of Obama’s “victory tweet” with the attached photo, and it floored me. According to a different article, that creepy photo of Barack and Michelle embracing has been shared by almost three quarters of a million people on twitter and 3.6 million Facebook users. That was last Wednesday; I feel certain the numbers are higher by now. And I’m pretty certain the vast majority of those people weren’t forwarding the photo as an example of “a creepy thing”.

And then I had three different discussions on social media forums which led me to realise that quite a lot of people seem to be relatively heavily invested in Obama; intellectually, emotionally, politically… however you want to put it. Mostly those on the American centre-left, but plenty of non-Americans too. They didn’t find that photo – and the shared urge of millions to forward it to their friends – at all creepy. They found it celebratory, uplifting, inspirational even. And that sense of disconnect I’d been feeling continued to grow.

Political puppets

Hey! There’s one guy holding both puppets!

Once again, let me stress that I’m glad Obama beat Romney. If someone put a gun to the head of someone I loved and told me to choose the next US president from between those two men, I would – of course – choose Obama. I’m not sad because the greater of two evils failed to win the election. I am, however, pretty sad that the entire world – but Americans in particular, as it’s their president we’re talking about here – appear to passively accept a state of affairs in which they choose between two evils every four years. Here in the 21st century, is that really the best we can come up with? Because it’s far from the best we can imagine. Is the gulf between our imagination and our ability to shape our society so vast? And have we completely abandoned all attempts to bridge it?

I understand that relatively rational, relatively liberal Americans are consumed by a fear of the right-wing crazies in their midst. There is a fundamentalist religious movement in America (along with a bunch of Machiavellian politicos willing to exploit it) whose views on many issues are right off the chart – whether it’s legitimate rape, the death penalty for rebellious children or that whole “teaching creationism as a scientific alternative to evolution” thing; there is a segment of the US population who appear to want some kind of psychotic theocracy. And I understand the celebrations of those who see Obama’s victory as having prevented that outcome.

But those celebrations rest upon two very dubious foundations (in my view). The first is the idea that a Mitt Romney victory represented such an outcome (I’ll explain in a moment why I don’t believe it would have). The second is the idea that returning a murderous war-criminal beholden to corporate America to the White House should be a cause for celebration under any circumstances. Even if the only alternative to Obama had been a bizarre genetic experiment comprising equal parts Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Osama bin Laden… even then, the proper reaction to a victory for a murderous war-criminal beholden to corporate America should be some brief muted applause followed by an immediate decision to change the system so that the lesser of two evils is not the only option next time around.

Mitt Romney: He’s no Jim Jones

Firstly, let’s clear up a few misconceptions. While Mitt Romney would have offered the occasional bone to the Tea Party movement and other religious fundamentalists in America, he’s certainly not one of them (Mormon or not). As president he would have had to take them more seriously than Obama; so yes, once again, I’m glad he didn’t win; but Romney represented the rich, corporate wing of the Republican Party; not the poor, deluded, religious wing. His position on things like homosexuality and gender politics is less liberal than Obama. But he’s far from the religious extremist that many Obama supporters saw him as. Just as Barack Obama was painted as a far-left, ultra-liberal communist Kenyan by the US right, so Romney was also demonised by the US left (admittedly, not to quite the same extent). Those on the left who cannot see this, or deny it happened, or insist that “their side” would never use such dirty tactics are – sadly – just as deluded as those who believe the nonsense spewing from Fox News.

First and foremost Mitt Romney represented the wealthy elite. And exactly the same is true of Barack Obama. To suggest otherwise is either ignorance or wilful self-delusion. It’s almost certainly true that Obama doesn’t view everyone else with quite so much contempt as Romney (see: the 47 percent) and is willing to throw them a few more crumbs, but the fundamental changes necessary to rid America of deep economic injustices are just as far away under an Obama presidency as they would have been under a Romney administration.

Barack Obama: Liberal-lite

When it comes to social policy, there is some clear water between Romney and Obama. And it’s on this subject that the various Obama fans I have spoken to always want to focus. And yes, to return to the gun-to-head-Romney-or-Obama scenario, it’s here that I too would base my decision. Obama’s support for gay marriage is to be welcomed (though his unwillingness to be proactive on the subject is a bit of a cop out). And he doesn’t appear to view women with quite as much disdain as the Republican party – certainly if he does, he’s too smart to blurt out dodgy statements about “legitimate rape”.

But Obama’s presidency to date has seen no attempt to reform drug policy. And given the monstrous incarceration rate in the United States (with most of those in prison for non-violent drug offences) this is not “a minor issue”, as someone described it to me in a conversation. Far from it; this is one of the fundamental human rights issues facing America (indeed the world) right now. The US prison population is disproportionately made up of poor, young, uneducated men from ethnic minorities. The US state is destroying the lives of millions of these people for doing something that – at most – should be viewed as a public health issue, and in a lot of cases shouldn’t be anyone’s business at all. It’s called a “war on drugs” but it’s really a war on poor people (or as Bill Hicks described it, “a war on personal freedom”). And Obama has been fighting that war on poor people just as enthusiastically as any president before him.

And that’s not the half of it. The effects of the American drug war on places like Mexico and Colombia have been little short of devastating. Torture, corruption and tens of thousands of violent deaths… all because the United States refuses to take a rational approach to the issue. Some analysts believe Obama has plans to revisit US drug policy in his second term. If this does prove to be the case, then I have two reactions:

  1. Yay! Well done. Finally!
  2. Hang on, you waited until your second term to do something about this? Presumably because you were worried it might affect your chances of re-election? You spent four years trampling over local democracy by cracking down on popularly-mandated medical marijuana initiatives in your own nation, and watching while tens of thousands died horrible deaths at home and overseas… all because you were worried that to do otherwise would threaten your job security? Seriously? You absolute bastard!

But let’s hope he does something about this insane drug war over the next four years, even if it will demonstrate he’s a typical cynical careerist politician with no moral compass.

Cluster bombs and predator drones

And here, finally, we get to the main reason I felt such a disconnect with the euphoria surrounding Obama’s re-election… the main reason I found that photo of him and his wife hugging so very creepy…

The man’s a child killer. And not just kids. He’ll kill pretty much anyone – man, woman or child. And not just one or two of them either… Barack Obama has ordered the deaths of dozens – perhaps many hundreds – of children. And people are sharing a photo of him hugging his wife? Seriously, I just don’t understand it. So what if he’s better than Romney? He murders children, what the hell are you celebrating!?

I have addressed the issue of cluster bombs on this blog before; but it’s not an issue that can be discussed too often. Handicap International “is an independent and impartial aid organization working in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster.” They – along with many other campaigning organisations – have highlighted the role played by the United States in the “production, stockpiling, trade, and use of cluster bombs”. In fact, during the past four years the Obama administration has been hugely instrumental in obstructing international efforts to ban the production and eliminate the use, of cluster munitions. Despite the fact that the use of cluster bombs clearly contravenes several international treaties (including the 4th Geneva Convention and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions), Obama has consistently reasserted the right of the United States to deploy these heinous weapons – weapons which, let us not forget, disproportionately result in civilian casualties (note: the US is a signatory of the Geneva Conventions but boycotted the Convention on Cluster Munitions when it was signed in 2008 and continues to do so).

Only last week UK Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the use of cluster bombs in Syria citing them as “further evidence of the brutality of the Assad regime.” He went on to insist that “the apparent use of cluster munitions shows an appalling disregard for human life.” I completely agree with Hague’s statement, but I find it pretty weird coming from him of all poeple. While the UK was actually instrumental in setting up the 2008 Convention, it is one of the closest military allies of the nation most responsible for the use of these weapons. Furthermore, Hague’s government – unlike the previous New Labour administration – appears to be quietly backing US efforts to overturn the Convention.

Let’s not be under illusions; any state military or non-state militia using cluster bombs is an enemy of humanity. It’s that simple. Barack Obama – by asserting the US right to use these vile things, and furthermore to actively obstruct international attempts to end their use – is a goddamn monster. When you forward that photo of the Obamas, you may as well be fawning over a photo of Syria’s Assad hugging his wife. Or Saddam Hussein hugging his. Because to knowingly use cluster bombs is to knowingly murder and maim children. There is no other way of looking at that issue. In the murky world of global politics you rarely find a black-and-white issue. Well, cluster bombs is one of the rare ones. And if you think it’s not; then go do some bloody reading on the matter. And that’ll be “bloody” in both a literal and an expletive sense.

Predator droneAnd then there’s the predator drones. Imagine a scenario where the Pakistani government regularly flew remote control weapons platforms over Texas. Platforms that periodically launched missiles at buildings suspected of housing enemies of the Pakistani state. Imagine a large proportion of those buildings also contained innocent civilians; sleeping families, students studying for their exams, average Americans watching TV. Imagine if the US government had issued repeated statements forcefully demanding that Pakistan cease their bombing campaign. Imagine this went on for years.

I’ve heard people argue that “while the number of drone strikes has increased significantly in the last few years, US intelligence is getting better and there are now fewer civilian deaths”. Would that placate the population of Texas, I wonder? “Hey Hank, I know you lost your kids in that last drone attack, but actually the Pakistanis have killed less children this year than they did last year. So chin up, eh?”

Maybe you’re happy with a US president that oversees such a policy. Maybe cluster bombs and drone attacks are cause for rejoicing in your world. They’re not in mine. And they never will be.

And no, Mitt Romney would not have been any better in that respect. He wouldn’t have halted drone strikes. He wouldn’t have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. But that just means modern politics is deeply screwed up. If the best we can do is manufacture a false choice between two murderers every four years (or a murderer and a would-be murderer), then we really don’t have much to celebrate at all. I’m glad that Mitt Romney is not the president of the United States. Truly I am. But don’t expect me to jump for joy at the re-election of a mass murderer. And next time you see that victory photo, try to remember that the man with the satisfied smile on his lips also has the blood of children on his hands.

UPDATE: Worth mentioning that I didn’t even get around to Obama’s lamentable environmental record… worthy of a blogpost (nay! a book!) all its own. “Clean coal” my arse!

Note: I had intended to illustrate this blogpost with an image of a cluster bomb victim, but I felt uncomfortable posting such a photo as I would inevitably be using an image of an individual in great distress to make a political point (albeit a valid moral point as well). However, I suggest you do a quick google image search on “cluster bomb injuries” if you are in any doubt about the horrific nature of these weapons. And if you do so, note the high proportion of children… because of the nature of the devices; cluster bombs disproportionately target children. How? Well, they leave lots and lots of shiny unexploded bombs lying around – the kind of things that most adults would know to avoid but which attract the inevitable curiosity of children and toddlers.

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15
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

This time last year I published a piece over at Dorian’s site, On This Deity. It commemorated the final withdrawal – on this day in 1989 – of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the end of that disastrous, bloody and futile invasion.

Afghanistan is BurningIn my piece I draw the obvious parallels between the ill-fated Soviet occupation of that central Asian country and the modern US-led Western occupation. In both cases the stated reason for the invasion was to combat terrorism. In both cases the invaders believed they were liberating the people of Afghanistan from the clutches of an aggressive religious fundamentalism. In both cases the occupying forces went about trying to install relatively progressive policies: the insistence on a national legal system that would supersede tribal and Sharia laws; the promotion of greater equality for women (just as, if not more, aggressively pursued by the Soviet puppet regime than by the US puppet regime it should be noted); the establishment of secular health and education facilities; the de-politicisation and secularisation of the police force and civil administration.

All of these policies were pursued vigorously by the Soviet occupiers. Just as they have been by the western forces. And – I would suggest – with roughly the same level of success. Perhaps the current occupation has it slightly easier thanks to the relative lack of external support for the Afghan militants. Whatever aid being supplied to the Taliban opposition by dissident Saudis, sympathetic elements within the Pakistani security forces and Iranian smugglers is as nothing compared to the huge resources made available to the mujahideen by the CIA during the 1980s. Indeed, it was fairly obvious to the world that the United States was fighting a proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan. They pumped money, weapons and military training personnel into Afghanistan on a massive scale and in so doing, they strengthened the ultra-reactionary Islamist elements within Afghan society. Those very same elements who are now killing US and other western troops today.

Rarely has the old adage about being careful what you wish for been so dramatically demonstrated in the arena of world affairs. The United States wished to turn the fundamentalist elements of Afghan society into a force capable of resisting a superpower. I suspect they no longer find Charlie Wilson’s War quite so clever.

Just as with the fall of the Soviet Union – an empire that was militarily over-extended and consumed from within by an economic system that was unfit for purpose – the United States must surely now face up to its own slow collapse. They are mired in debt that nobody sane believes will ever be repaid, and which is being aggressively ignored by both debtor and creditors alike in the mistaken belief that the elephant in the room can be trusted not to break the furniture so long as nobody talks about it. They are rapidly reaching the limits of their ability to intimidate the world with military power (how long before China decides to repossess the US 5th fleet in lieu of the money they are owed?) And while there is currently little sign of a wane in their cultural influence, that too can hardly be far away. On top of that, the rifts in US society – between their own religious fundamentalists and the besieged bastions of liberal secularism – threaten to rip the nation to pieces from within.

Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union cannot be blamed on their invasion of Afghanistan – the invasion functioned both as a symptom of that collapse and one contributing factor; so the US involvement in that nation will not, historically, be viewed as the reason for the decline of America. However, it will be heralded as an obvious symptom of western self-delusion and over-extension. And I suspect it will also be considered a contributing factor – albeit a relatively minor one, compared to our psychotic financial system and the inability of consumer capitalism to cope with resource depletion.

So today we pause to recall the final humiliation of the once proud Red Army. And we take a moment to look a few years into the future at that humiliation being mirrored on the other side of that old Cold War divide.

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7
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Maastricht Treaty

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Oddly enough, there don’t appear to be any high-profile celebrations of this milestone. No fireworks, no street parties, no parades through streets lined with flag-waving children. Instead there’s an almost embarrassed silence. Certainly the Greeks are in no mood to party. Even if they were; what with sky-rocketing unemployment and an unprecedented increase in urban poverty; it’s unlikely they’d be in a position to spend much on bunting and streamers.

Fractured EU FlagHere in Ireland the mood is similarly sombre. It seems like every week the news brings us a fresh story about poverty becoming more widespread, companies shedding jobs, or another public service becoming even less fit for purpose. And as bad as these stories tend to be, they are made even worse by the accompanying tales of bondholders syphoning yet more money from the pockets of those who never owed them anything. Or new government plans to inflict further suffering upon the vulnerable while trotting out insultingly transparent nonsense about why the wealthy are being coddled.

It would be entirely wrong to blame the disaster on Europe. The original goal of European integration was – as I wrote when I discussed the Maastricht Treaty over at On This Deity last year – a noble one. It was a well-conceived and entirely sensible response to half a century of conflict which had seen some of the worst atrocities in history perpetrated on European soil. After two world wars which had visited horrors upon the continent… the horrors of the trenches, the targeting of civilian populations in massive aerial bombing campaigns, and the concentration camps… after all that, Europe wanted peace. And they wanted to make sure it lasted.

Which is why, within a few short years of the end of second world war, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed a treaty that essentially marked the beginning of what was to become the European Union. It was a remarkable decision and even as the EU strains under the weight of morbidly obese financial institutions determined to bleed the continent dry while externalising their every mistake; and even as our political classes permit this obscene injustice – nay, encourage it; even now, despite all of these things, we should applaud that decision back in 1950 to set aside the enmities of the recent past and work towards a shared future.

And it’s fair to say that while mistakes were made in the decades that followed, the closer integration of the European economies was a positive development. There was a stability and a strength in the union. Resources were redistributed from wealthy areas to those suffering poverty. Human Rights were placed at the centre of the political agenda, and as internal borders began to dissolve, so did much of the distrust and suspicion that had festered in Europe for so many years. It didn’t disappear completely of course, and like so much of the gains made during those early decades, we seem determined to undo that particular achievement. Nonetheless, the original spirit of European Unity was a profoundly positive one, and we should work hard to salvage what we can of it, even as it is undermined by those who hijacked the European project for their own personal gain.

Which is the problem we face today. I’m not claiming that a united Europe was ever an explicitly socialist project, but it had at its heart a yearning for justice, for greater equality and for a kind of collective progress… a road that led away from poverty and war. That yearning is still there, but it has been sidelined by an unregulated rampant capitalism that threatens to destroy any good that emerged from half a century of work. Our political leaders – perhaps deliberately, perhaps through incompetence – have allowed a financial elite to infiltrate the corridors of European power and redirect the entire project. The European Union now works in their interests and explicitly against the interests of the majority of European citizens.

Instead of leading us away from poverty, we watch as wealth is drained from the general populace into the hands of reckless gamblers who lost their own money and then somehow convinced our representatives to give them ours. Instead of leading us away from conflict, we are forced to watch the rise of the Far Right in a number of European nations, to watch as suspicion of The Other sees a resurgence in our society, and to watch as the Irish and Greeks blame the crisis on an undemocratic French and German economic assault on their citizens, while Germans and French blame the crisis on the profligate spending of the peripheral nations. And all the while the real culprits continue to gather the spoils.

I have a quick word of advice for the German, Dutch and French populations… be very very careful how you handle this situation. Once the financial markets have bled Ireland, Greece and Portugal dry; once they have stripped our assets and plunged us even deeper into poverty; they will move on to fresh fields. There is no limit to the greed that has seen them subvert the political institutions of Europe. Out here on the periphery… we were just the softest targets; easy meat. Once they’ve picked our bones dry, they’ll move on to Spain and Italy. And then… then it’s your turn.

EU flagWhich is why, in the end, there is a need for European Union now more than ever. Where once it was the horrors of the past we sought to escape; now we must unite to ward off the horrors of the future. This rampant capitalist beast cannot be tamed by Ireland. Or by Greece. Or by Portugal. Even together, the catastrophically weakened economies of the “bailed-out” nations simply can’t do anything about it. It’s not within our control. Sure, we could simply turn our backs on Europe altogether, and while I fear it may yet come to that; would it not be better to face down this destructive enemy rather than allow it to run roughshod over that original European ideal?

I’m not proposing some sort of radical pan-European anarcho-syndicalist revolution (as much as I’d like to see it happen, I’m realistic about the chances). Instead I’m simply proposing that Europe glance back 20 years to Maastricht. Even though the capitalist infiltration of our project began before that treaty, there’s a sense in which we were never more united than when we met in that Dutch town and pledged ourselves to a greater union. Hell, we even managed to drag the British tories along with us, which was no mean feat. So let’s try and recapture that sense of solidarity. Let’s realise that swallowing the lies of gangster capitalism will only impoverish us all in the longterm. And let’s unite once more to assert our togetherness in the face of an enemy that seeks to divide and conquer.

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19
Jan 2012

Pots, kettles and colonialism

Two cheeks of the same arseDear God, but David Cameron is an idiot. Seriously… he’s a proper full-blown clown of a man. Even on the rare occasion that he’s actually right about something – and it really is very rare indeed – he seems determined to express his position in the worst possible terms so that I desperately want to disagree with him even if I don’t. He feels for all the more like a fake Tony Blair. As if someone had flown to Hong Kong and paid one of those back-street tailors to take a break from making knock-off Giorgio Armani suits and rustle up a Tony Blair instead. Truly they are two cheeks of the same arse.

Cameron’s most recent utterance of blithering idiocy is to describe Argentina’s designs on the Falklands as “like colonialism”. The rest of his statement, where he points out that “these people want to remain British and the Argentinians want them to do something else”, is absolutely correct. I’m not suggesting that sovereignty of the Falkland Islands should be handed over to Buenos Aires. What I am saying is that for a British Prime Minister – particularly an aristotory – to accuse another nation of colonialism is just shoddy public relations. He may be right, technically speaking, but he also looks profoundly ridiculous in that rightness.

His choice of words draws attention away from the perfectly sensible point that the people of the islands have, for generations, asserted their Britishness. And away from the fact that they didn’t supplant an existing population of Argentinian citizens, but were in fact the first people to settle the islands. Instead he uses a word which reminds us all just how Britain got there in the first place… as part of a centuries-long policy of sailing around the world and stealing other people’s property at gunpoint. It was only through British colonialism that the Falklands are British today, and accusing the Argentinians of colonialism is akin to defending his position by wailing “yeah? but we did it first!”

Let me reiterate, I don’t believe the Argentinians have a valid claim to the Falkland Islands. I do think that this whole mess could be resolved though if Britain were to say… “Yes, the only reason we are there is because of a morally abhorrent policy that we engaged in for many years, and even though the Falklands is at the benign end of that policy we can see how it still looks bad in the eyes of others – particularly ex-colonies. Therefore as a gesture of goodwill, we will ring-fence any tax revenue raised from the Falklands – very small now, but who knows in the future – and place it into an unambiguously ethical overseas development programme (earthquake relief or something). The people there are British. And they want to remain British. But we will not reap any financial benefit from our possession of the islands – especially while we’re still spending a bunch of money helping the Americans invade places in what looks suspiciously like a continuation of that abhorrent policy that we’re accusing the Argentinians of adopting.”

I think that would be a perfect British response to Argentinian demands and may even – over time – slowly defuse the tension. But I doubt we’ll ever see such a response. Instead Cameron and his successors will continue to antagonise the government in Buenos Aires with accusations of colonialism and whatever other incendiary twaddle can be blurted out, until the day the British navy is so depleted as to make a defence of the islands untenable. At which point, a thoroughly pissed off Argentina will invade again.

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19
Dec 2011

Security (by Philip Challinor)

The War Against Terror has brought death, kidnap, rendition, torture and destruction to an already weary world. It has resulted in an ongoing erosion of civil liberties, human rights and the rule of law. It has also partly unleashed and partly revealed the moral vacuum at the heart of western society. The War Against Terror has done more damage to the notion of enlightened, liberal democracy than any terrorist could hope to have achieved. By fighting fire with fire we have merely succeeded in burning everyone. In my search for a silver lining – and it is a very narrow one indeed – I’m forced to fall back on that old cliché about harsh times providing inspiration for writers and artists.

Security (by Philip Challinor)It is The War Against Terror and consequent loss of civil liberties that form the heart of Philip Challinor’s 2010 novel, Security. It’s a story told with wit, skill and an unsettling dollop of resignation… a sense that humanity is more than willing to allow terrible things to happen if they’re scared enough, and sometimes just because they’re too lazy to do otherwise.

Readers of Security spend 24 hours with a mid-level bureaucrat – Anderson – working for National Consolidated Solutions, to whom the UK government have outsourced a number of security contracts. Any novel about the work of a bureaucrat is going to be leavened with a certain amount of existentialism, but Challinor chooses to downplay this aspect of Security by turning the inner world of his protagonist into an abstract mystery story… Just what is it that Anderson does? The central character suffers from that terrible and slightly paradoxical combination of boredom and stress that anyone who has ever done a job that didn’t interest them, yet found themselves with a petty tyrant as a boss will recognise. Partly because of this – and partly due to the nature of his company’s business – Anderson forces himself to plough through his daily routine by focussing purely on the mechanics of the task at hand. As a result, the bigger picture takes some time to come into focus and although the entire novel is steeped in a sinister atmosphere, it takes a while to work out exactly why.

All the same, there’s plenty of humour to be found within the pages of Security, but it is both bone dry and extremely dark, so don’t expect too many chuckles. And the inevitable existentialism of a bureaucrat’s story hasn’t been completely eradicated – despite the attempts of Anderson’s unconscious mind to roboticise himself. This existential aspect is most obvious in Anderson’s encounters with and thoughts about his family. We can only assume that these sterile relationships did not start out this way and are a direct result of the toll taken on his psyche by the job he performs. Perhaps.

Ultimately Challinor successfully avoids getting too bogged down either in the monotony of bureaucracy or the opaque family relationships of the protagonist. And he creates more than enough intrigue to prevent Anderson’s monotonous life turning into a monotonous novel. Like the great Leopold Bloom, while Anderson is a passive participant in his own life, his passivity does not weigh down the story he tells. Over the course of the (relatively short) novel Anderson’s conversations begin to reveal precisely what is going on around him – even if at some level he would rather they didn’t. And fittingly, his final significant conversation – with the wonderfully objectionable Eric Munt – reveals everything in the most explicit terms while also hinting at an even worse future to come.

Security, like Ken MacLeod’s excellent The Execution Channel, paints a bleak picture of a future that threatens to engulf us all should we allow it. A future that has already begun to creep backwards into the present (as the inmates of Guantanemo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the cells at Bagram Airbase or a dozen other places whose names we don’t know can attest to), and which must be resisted at all costs. The alternative, as illustrated by Anderson, is too chilling to contemplate outside the pages of a novel.

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18
Dec 2011

Speaking ill of the dead

A couple of days ago I awoke to discover that Christopher Hitchens had died. The news was initially conveyed to me by my twitter stream which was knee deep in tributes and impassioned insistences that we had lost “a great thinker”. There were other opinions scattered amongst the hagiography, but by and large they were in the minority. He was described as “the beau ideal of the public intellectual” by Vanity Fair magazine. And even those from whom one might expect a little balance seemed determined to speak no ill of the dead… a convention, incidentally, that Hitchens himself was unwilling to follow. Some of those who dared question the posthumous near-canonisation of the man have been accused of being “spiteful” or “insensitive”, apparently unaware of the insensitivity and spitefulness of the man they are defending. Read, for example, the views of Hitchens on Jerry Falwell – expressed live on CNN the day following Falwell’s death. I have no time for the loathsome Falwell, but the double-standards of some of those defending Hitchens is breath-taking to witness.

Christopher HitchensEven the normally fearless Billy Bragg sought to “add [his] voice to those who mourn the loss of Christopher Hitchens”. Bragg then went on to compare Hitchens favourably to George Orwell and express his admiration for the writer’s “compulsion to speak his mind”. About the worst thing he could find to say about him was that he “didn’t always agree with him”. I wonder if I were to spend the last decade of my life writing exultant articles in defence of cluster bombs and endless wars (in which young men are sent to kill and die overseas while I eat and drink myself slowly to death in luxury)… if I were to write a series of borderline racist articles about the followers of Islam and loudly champion the “clash of civilisations” like the most boorish of George Bush’s neoconservative cheerleaders… I wonder if I were to resort to calling women who dared to criticise the Bush administration’s foreign policy “sluts” and “fucking fat slags”… I wonder if the worst I would get from stalwarts of The Left would be “well, I didn’t always agree with him”?

I certainly hope not.

The fact of the matter is, Christopher Hitchens may have been a half-decent writer (and that’s as far as I’d go incidentally… “half-decent”) and he may well have been an engaging and witty conversationalist (I don’t know as I never met the man). He certainly didn’t pull any punches, and was willing to express his opinion even when it might land him in hot water. But you know what… attend any meeting of a neo-fascist organisation (the BNP, the KKK, or your local equivalent) and you’ll find plenty of people willing to express opinions that might land them in hot water. I’m obviously not suggesting Hitchens was a member or sympathiser of such groups; but if it’s just the willingness to express unpleasant opinions in public that earns you respect, why isn’t the press filled with columns lauding the greatness of Racist Tram Woman?

Incidentally, I should also make it clear that I do not wish cancer or death on anyone (well, there may be the occasional dictator or mass-murderer who I’d be happy to see die in a bizarre gardening accident). I feel no happiness or satisfaction at the death of Hitchens and I wish those who knew him comfort in their grief. I’m not saying “Yay! Hitchens is dead”, I’m saying “Hang on a second, now that he is dead, why are we forgetting about all the horrible things he said and supported?”

And I’m aware that many seem willing to give Hitchens a pass because of his position on religion. A position which I personally find simple-minded and as far from “the beau ideal of the public intellectual” as it is possible to get. Humanity does indeed need to re-evaluate our relationship with religion, but that the discussion appears to be happening between religious extremists and the narrow atheist fundamentalism of Hitchens, Dawkins and the rest is just depressing. I always thought the mark of a true intellectual was that they could appreciate the nuances in complex issues and could navigate controversial and difficult discussions without resorting to pathetic insults and nonsense generalisations. No?

Perhaps my view of intellectualism needs to be revised given the recent celebration of Hitchens. Perhaps modern intellectualism is to be found in the championing of repellent military tactics such as cluster munitions while denouncing your critics as fucking fat slags. Perhaps it is to be found in taking delight in war, mayhem and violent death (from a distance of course… if Orwell really was Hitchens’ hero, then why did he never take up a rifle and face down the Taliban in Helmand province himself?) Perhaps we get the intellectuals we deserve… and judging by our violent, crass and deeply narcissistic society, perhaps we don’t deserve much better than Hitchens.

Photo courtesy of The Independent

I had just about finished writing this piece when I encountered Glenn Greenwald’s article over at Salon.com which makes pretty much exactly the same points, uses many of the same examples and goes into rather more depth than my own piece. As a result I almost scrapped this piece and tweeted a link to Salon instead. But in the end I figured that it’s an opinion that’s worthy of repeating.

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15
Dec 2011

Hey Mister, can we have our drone back please?

Even as western capitalism teeters on the edge of an abyss of debt, tensions between the United States and Iran are increasing… threatening yet another international crisis. I’m pretty convinced that sometime during the next couple of years we will awaken one morning to the news of a “pre-emptive” Israeli strike on Iran. This will almost inevitably drag the United States into yet another war in the region. Which in turn will almost inevitably see British forces (and perhaps some Aussies and others) – even if only a token contingent – killing and dying in Asia once again. What it will do to a global economy already on life-support is anybody’s guess.

It’s a grim prospect and one that will – I’m almost certain – have a far worse outcome than either the Iraq or Afghanistan invasions. Israel’s involvement (and I can’t see them not being involved, given the escalating rhetoric on both sides) will make it a lot more messy than it would otherwise be, and Iran won’t be shocked or awed quite so easily as other recent targets of the US military. On top of that, the rise of political Islam (which I suggested would be a likely consequence of the Arab uprisings) is likely to shift the balance of power in the region and exacerbate any conflict; particularly one that involves Israel.

As I stressed in a piece on the North African revolutions, my problem with the rise of political Islam is nothing to do with Islam specifically and everything to do with the influence of any religious fundamentalism on the political landscape. From my perspective, given their access to massive military might, Israel (with their increasingly Orthodox approach to both domestic and foreign policy) and America (with the rise of the religious right) are far more worrying than any individual Islamic nation. But the ‘clash of civilisations’ that US neoconservatives appeared to relish so much during the Bush years could finally become a reality should Arabic nations that were once relatively secular (despite being brutal dictatorships) shift towards theocracy during a period of US / Israeli involvement in Iran.

It is against this worrying backdrop that one of the most farcical news stories of recent weeks has been playing out. The story began about eight days ago when the US military admitted that it had “lost a drone” over Iran. This alone caused me some degree of consternation. I appreciate that the official US position on Iran is that it’s a rogue state, actively developing Weapons of Mass Destruction, and guilty of destabilising the region. Yet by carrying out military incursions (whether manned or unmanned is surely academic) into Iranian airspace the United States is effectively acting like a rogue state and further destabilising the region. How can it not see this? I guess the big difference is that the US has already developed (and deployed) WMD rather than – allegedly – merely contemplating it.

US drone captured by IranIncidentally, can you imagine the US response if an unmanned Iranian military aircraft had crashed / been brought down while flying over Texas? Seems to me that in this instance, unlike with their decision to send warships through the Suez canal, the Iranians have been a model of restraint.

Still, despite the surely criminal actions of the US military (am I wrong in thinking that sending military aircraft into the airspace of a sovereign nation without prior clearance is a crime?) we were assured by defence analyst Loren Thompson that at least the drone would not be offering up any military secrets… “This is a high-flying unmanned aircraft that malfunctioned and then fell to earth. It’s likely to be broken up into hundreds of pieces”, said Loren.

A couple of days later, however, Iranian news media showed images of the drone. Far from being broken up into hundreds of pieces, the unmanned aircraft appeared in pristine condition. Moreover, claimed the Iranians, it didn’t malfunction but was in fact “hijacked” by their electronic-warfare experts who over-rode the control system and landed the drone intact. The United States is scornful of such a suggestion, but frankly the machine doesn’t look like it recently plummeted to the ground from high altitude… so until we have further evidence either way, I’m leaning towards the Iranian version of events.

I guess this possibility is giving the US military a bout of the heebie-jeebies… “if they can remotely over-ride our drones”, they’re probably wondering, “then what about our cruise missiles? Even worse!… what about the electronic systems on our manned aircraft? Just how safe are they?” I guess this new development has resulted in a lot of late nights at The Pentagon. People with job titles like “Deputy Assistant to the Director of Electronic Warfare” are producing lengthy reports, risk assessments and flow-charts. I wager that in the executive summary of one such report there appeared a statement along the lines of, “Of course, without access to the captured drone, we may never know precisely how – or even whether – the remote flight system was compromised”. And I suspect it was as result of such a statement that the truly farcical element of this story was born.

Ludicrously, the day after the Iranians had displayed the drone on TV, the United States government formally requested that the Iranians return the captured aircraft. It’s pretty unusual for me to actually laugh at something on the internet… lots of smiles but few proper laughs… and it’s even rarer for me to laugh at a story involving a US military incursion into Iran. But upon reading that headline – US asks Iran to return captured drone – laugh I most certainly did. The story gets even better when Hillary Clinton gets involved (and how often can you say that?)…

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that she did not think it likely that the drone would be returned.

I have to say that I rarely find myself in whole-hearted agreement with Mrs. Clinton, but on this issue we are definitely of one mind. She went on…

“We are very clearly making known our concerns. We submitted a formal request for the return of our lost equipment, as we would in any situation. Given Iran’s behaviour to date, we do not expect them to reply,” she said.

She said that despite numerous “provocations” from Iran, the US would continue to pursue a “diplomatic approach”.

I hate to perpetuate a lazy stereotype, but the Americans really don’t understand irony, do they?

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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1
Nov 2011

More news from Greece

A few months after the United States invaded Iraq, Dubya Bush sent Condoleeza Rice on a whistle-stop tour of US allies. Presumably her job was to gauge how much support was out there and to shore up whatever there was. I was living in the UK at the time and I recall the protests that greeted Rice’s arrival in London. A few days later she touched down in Athens and the news reported a huge demonstration that ended with petrol bombs being thrown at the US Embassy. It occurred to me that there was an important cultural difference on display there. It’s not about which response was right… whether Rice’s visit merited placards or petrol bombs. It’s that it takes far less provocation to get the Greeks to reach for the petrol bombs than it does to get the British.

Greek protestsThis is something that I’ve constantly borne in mind during the Greek protests. The austerity measures being forced upon the Greek citizenry aren’t that much worse than those being forced upon us here in Ireland. But Occupy Dame Street notwithstanding, the Irish citizenry is a long long way from general strikes and petrol bombs. Which isn’t to say that we can’t be pushed to it. Our history of armed uprisings is quite emphatic about that. But we appear to be slower to be roused to such action.

Why that should be, and whether it’s for the better or the worse is beyond the brief of this short post, but it’s worthwhile to place the Greek protests in that context. Which is to say… if relatively limited austerity measures will provoke the protests we’ve seen, then the potential for a populist movement toppling the government is very real indeed when you consider the far more draconian measures coming down the line as a result of the “bail out”. Something akin to revolution has been brewing in South-eastern Europe over the past few days. And lest you think I’m guilty of hyperbole, I present two pieces of evidence. One you already know about. Another that’s just been announced and which may or may not catch the attention of the global press.

The one you know about is, obviously, the referendum announcement. I was incredulous when I first heard it on the news yesterday. Papandreou couldn’t have created more chaos if he’d started chucking live grenades around the Head of State meeting. First he agrees to the terms of the “bail-out”, then – after every other EU leader holds a press-conference in which they speak of their relief at the deal being finalised and how it would have been disaster for Europe if they’d failed – he goes on TV and retracts his pledge and instead tells Europe he’s going to consult the Greek people. The same people whose response to the current deal includes general strikes and rioting.

It seems pretty clear to me that Papandreou arrived back in Athens, fresh from agreeing to the European “bail-out”, only to be met by grim faces. And he was told… “If you do this, your government will fall. And whatever replaces it will not implement that deal anyway”. He was backed into a corner and did the only thing he could; he bought some time for Europe to come up with a way of easing Greece out of the euro as gracefully as possible.

How do we know he was backed into a corner? Well, that’ll be the other piece of evidence. A few hours ago the Greek government surprised a lot of people (including those in the military) by announcing a wholesale change of the entire military top brass. The Heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and National Defence Force were all replaced earlier today. On a day where the Prime Minister is clinging to power by his fingertips, where his government’s majority has been whittled down even further by defections and prominent members of his own party are calling on him to resign. On a day where global markets are plunging as a result of Papandreou’s referendum announcement and European politicians are – not to put too fine a point on it – completely freaking out, does anyone think the Greek government has anything at all on its agenda that isn’t extremely urgent? And there’s not a lot of reasons why the replacement of the military high command becomes urgent.

Papandreou has played his final cards. The referendum might turn out to be a slice of political genius (opposition to the “bail out” is running at 62% according to the latest poll I saw… that’s not insurmountable) and the current government may somehow survive within the Eurozone by gaining a public mandate. But in my view, the odds of that happening are significantly worse than those poll figures suggest. With internal pressures beginning to fracture the government and something very strange going on with the military, it seems unlikely that Papandreou will be in power long enough to hold the referendum. And there’s no guarantee that his successor will feel the need to honour Papandreou’s commitment to a public vote.

One thing I am looking forward to though, is just what Vincent Browne will have to say about this all on his show tonight. I can almost hear his apoplectic spluttering as he confronts whatever lamb the government have sent to the slaughter… “But wha… wha… why are the Greeks getting a vote on this vital issue but the Irish are not? Does the government believe Irish citizens are not to be trusted? Or maybe that we’re all too stupid to understand what’s going on?”

Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

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