Monday, February 28, 2011

Proper Serious Drama With a Message

Channel 4 must've busted the bank to get The Promise in the can, because Peter Kosminsky's era-hopping Israel/Palestine drama is a gorgeous, explosive epic; viewers, on the other hand, will be sorely out of pocket on plasters for their chafed and bruised backsides.

Clocking in at just under eight hours long, the story spans sixty years of Israeli history and boy, does it feel like it.  There are explosions!  And gunfights!  And more explosions, but also talking, and moody looks, and sulking, and then more sulking, and another explosion!

It's essentially an excellent four-hour drama stretched well beyond breaking point.  The plot threads split, following British soldier Len in mandate Palestine 1946-8, through his diaries as read by his gap-year holidaying granddaughter Erin in 2005 Israel. Len's story covers the formation of the Irgun and its battles with the occupying British army, up to the end of the mandate, while Erin's involves a lot of walking about, having things explained to her.

I can't fault Claire Foy's performance, since she does very well with a part that can be summarised as "Incredibly naive tourist is horrified by and complains at great length about unpleasant realities".  Nonetheless, it's the mandate-era scenes that drive the narrative and form the human core of the drama.  It's Christian Cooke - who is, by the way, stupendous here - as Len who gets the interesting storylines and the emotional heart of the tale.  His scenes in the final episode, when his failure to fulfil the titular promise is revealed, are heart-breaking.

As a drama, it has its problems.  The forties scenes thrive on a sense of impending doom as Len's attempts to do the right thing break down and he's failed or betrayed by all of his allies, but the modern day sequences are sloooooooow and taaaaaaaalllky.  The viewer is introduced to Israel/Palestine in all its awful complexity and contradictions, and Kosminsky sometimes struggles badly with the old adage Show, don't tell, opting to do both on more than one occasion.  I sympathise, since the show assumes that the viewer has stumbled into the conflict as clueless of its origins as his characters, and it's a supremely difficult situation to pin down in a couple of sentences.  Nonetheless, the film could've done with a damn good scissoring in the edit suite.

Still, it has successfully annoyed some of the internet's more entertaining madmen with its politics, and make no mistake - this isn't a general history of the Israel/Palestine conflict, any more than Exodus was an even-handed historical documentary.   This is unambiguously the story of the Palestinians' great disaster, as seen through the eyes of a disillusioned British soldier.

In tone and theme, it's more or less indistinguishable from Kosminsky's previous work Warriors, which focused on the experiences of British soldiers and civilians in the Bosnian war.  As in that series, the characters are either earnest witnesses struggling and, for the most part, failing to salvage some good from a rapidly-accelerating disaster; helpless victims of events or nasty, belligerent men of violence.

God help the switchboard staff at Channel Four, because the violent upheaval that led to the creation of Israel is all here, from the bombing of the King David to the Sergeants affair and the massacre at Deir Yassin, all of it onscreen in vibrant Technicolour.  That'd be enough to get them deluged even if there were regular harangues on the lunacies and atrocities of Fatah and Hamas, but the suicide bombings of the 2000s are swept away by  the bloody convulsion of 1948.

If that sounds like heavy viewing, the dense script certainly doesn't help.  Light entertainment this is not - I counted one joke and only a smattering of banter in eight hours, and can't even recall whether it was funny.  It is, without doubt, the most po-faced thing I've seen since The Dark Knight, a movie that was almost 100% po from start to finish.  The first episode opens with archive footage from the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen and ends with a vicious terrorist attack, leaving the viewer in no doubt that this is very, very serious indeed, and it's all downhill from there.*

Nonetheless, Channel Four should be commended for making a big, messy, flashy historical drama of a sort that's rarely attempted in an era of reality bullshit and glorified karaoke.  With a little more editorial discipline, this could've been a barn-storming drama and the fact that it fails to reach those heights shouldn't blunt our admiration for the director's ambition.  When the awards season comes round, expect The Promise to pick up a rash of nominations in the Proper Serious Drama With a Message categories.

*God love the Great British public, though.  A glance at Twitter during screening showed that a large number of viewers enjoyed this grim, didactic and overpowering historical production on the grounds that the lead actor was gorgeous, and that there was occasional titty.  I find it oddly endearing that as a nation, we're capable of appreciating hard-hitting political drama via the medium of nipples and bums.

Easy Answers To Straightforward Questions

"How Can Latin American 'Revolutionary' Leaders Support Gaddafi?"

Because they very much enjoy annoying the Americans.

"And how on Earth can Castro, seen by many as a voice of national liberation and social revolution, refuse his support to the overwhelming majority of Libyans in their battle for freedom?" 

See the answer above.

I may be thuggishly reductionist here, but I think it really is that simple.  If the scenario in that bloody awful film Armaggedon - Barrack Obama sending Bruce Willis to destroy an asteroid that threatens to wipe out all life on Earth - ever played out in reality, Hugo Chavez would probably cheer for the asteroid.  He might even offer it a cut-price petrol deal into the bargain, because he's just that kind of guy.

It's worth recalling that the likes of Chavez or Ortega are, in large part, popular with so many of their people precisely because they devote so much of their time to coming up with new ways to annoy the Americans.  Frankly, I'd expect a bit more out of my head of state, even though ours spends half of her time wringing pheasants' necks, eating swans and other such cruelties to anything feathered that has the misfortune to cross her path.

Nonetheless, if the modern Latin American strongman prefers to spend his time woofing at the United States rather than, say, hosting Soviet nukes or hurling his nation into murderous civil wars, I'd say that we're getting off pretty easy.  After all, the more time Chavez spends boring his citizens to death on Venezuelan TV, the less time he has for poking Colombia's twitchy military with a stick.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

For Me But Not For Thee - This Week In Decency

(Being part of my continuing attempts to alienate my few readers by focusing on Scottish football, obscure fifties novels and even more obscure political cults).

With uprisings throughout the Middle East by millions of democracy-hungry Arabs, this week produces a bumper crop of Decent wibble on Libya, military intervention, tiny irrelevant microsects and the odd piece of fluff about Tony Blair.

Let's start with Dangerous David Aaronovitch* in Thursday's Times, who was - of course! - very keen to see no-fly-zones over Libya, although rather less specific on where the necessary warplanes would come from.  Having said his piece yet being stuck with another four columns to fill, he then turned to the urgent task of explaining away Tony Blair's embrace of Colonel Gaddafi...

In retrospect it is becoming clear to me what happened (when Blair got all touchy-feely with Gaddafi)... The lib-int demons were moments in history, such as Munich in 1938, when inaction spelt disaster. Never mind the ghost of Vietnam, the lib-ints argued, it's Rwanda and Bosnia that should haunt us... But somewhere along the way the desire to neutralise Gaddafi as a pro-terror threat, together with a quiet pessimism about change in Libya, combined to create, not wariness, but a toothy embrace, big deals and even arms sales... 

Never mind the quasi-admission that Dave and his mates cheerfully blew off the prospect of modern Vietnams in the Middle East, feel the naivety!  I love the idea that British companies have been making a mint by flogging weapons to Libya and cutting megabucks oil deals because, Dammit, the UK government were just too damn keen on neutralising the terrorist threat!  

Unconsidered - the idea that perhaps What Tony Blair did was in some unfathomable way connected to What Tony Blair had always intended to do. 

The unwary reader could be forgiven for concluding that, at some point in 2006, the former PM stumbled out of the back of a Number Ten wardrobe and emerged blinking into a tent in Tripoli, where he had a ripping adventure and returned with great armfuls of business contracts, but no idea of how he came to be carrying them.

Bonus comedy, as Aaro explains what happened to "liberal interventionists" that caused them to cuddle Gaddafi and to squash investigations into corrupt arms deals between BAE systems and the Saudi royal family...

Perhaps everyone was just exhausted by the reaction to the Iraq war, I don't know, but ambivalence had entered the soul.

We made a packet because we were spiritually exhausted by the reaction to the Iraq disaster;  They pursued business interests at the expense of human suffering via cynical realpolitik, and You collaborated with tyranny.  Truly, the cup of human kindness overfloweth with sympathetic understanding for the world's misguided sinners, provided they're on the right side.

In the wider Decent world, charity may have added a respectable sheen to the former Prime Minister's actions, but no such largesse was forthcoming for Venezuelan basket case Hugo Chavez, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega or retired dictator Fidel Castro, none of whom appear to have made money off Gaddafi but, uh, have instead said idiotic, supportive things about him.  Evil, dictator-fellating bastards to a one!   From Hell's heart, I stab at thee! 

Of course, there remained the all-important task of somehow linking "the left" to Gaddafi. Clearly, photos of the former leader of the Labour Party playing tonsil-tennis with the Libyan despot wouldn't do.

Thankfully, Google produced some joker comparing David Cameron to Gaddafi in the Morning Star, and a quick trip to the archives turned up the Worker's Revolutionary Party, a microsect that split into total irrelevance when I was seven years old.  Not only that, but some article that a WRP hack wrote in 1976, a year before I was born!  And let's not forget Ken Livingstone, George Galloway and, for reasons that elude me since he's hardly a socialist, SNP leader Alex Salmond!

The fiends!  For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!

Readers might ask whether all of this frantic scrambling was a way of spreading the blame and avoiding the topic of Tony Blair's post-retirement corporate advocacy jobs in Libya.  I'll leave that question to you, and allow you to weigh the evidence and form your own conclusions.

But the answer is "Yes". 


Meanwhile, the increasingly comical Chris Hitchens observes the Americans' lukewarm response to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and concludes, not that the Americans wanted Mubarak to remain in power, but that Barrack Obama is weak.

Absent this time - the idea that the United States is usually motivated by self-interest, like every other country on Earth;  that the Americans have cheerfully supported despots across the Middle East for sixty years and may have been quite happy to continue doing so.


In non-Libya news, the snotty but generally reasonable Professor Norm took a surprising step down Memory Lane in a piece that, controversially, began "God spare us the Guardian's pet Azzajews".

The term "AsaJew" features regularly in the wackier outposts of Decent discussion, meaning roughly "Jewish person who mistakenly believes that their religious affiliation will allow them to criticise Israel's horrible policies without being accused of praying for genocide".  When I featured it in the Encylopedia, I defined the term as a "Bizarre ethnoreligious insult used by wackadoodle wingnuts to demean and disregard the opinions of non-wingnut members of the Jewish faith that this writer, for one, is not touching with a fucking bargepole". 

Well, I think it might be time to get the bargepoles out. Bluntly, I see little difference between "Pet Azzajew", "Uncle Tom" and "House Negro", all of which evoke shameful subservience and obsequiousness.  If anything, "Pet Azzajew" is significantly worse, carrying as it does the implied accusation of some kind of fucked-up, ethnoreligious treason.

One wonders what the Professor is thinking when he puts this stuff out there.  Given that half of his blogging career has been spent lecturing other bloggers on what they should say and how they should say it, to avoid giving aid and comfort to racists, you'd think he'd be a bit more cautious about rehabilitating some of the last century's nastier racial slurs.

In fact, it's damn odd that a political tendency that bases a large part of its analysis on the idea that incautious word choices are tantamount to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei don't smell a rat here.  Given that most consumers of Decent discourse these days are furious Yankee wingnuts, though, I'm assuming that this is one of those cases of owners coming to resemble their dogs.

Decency in brief this week -

Decent ingenue Ian Birrell, the Guardian:  Once more into the breach, somebody else, for purposes that I will leave opaque, in pursuit of an objective that even I confess may be unachievable!

Danny Ayalon, Israeli Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs:  Arabs are paranoid and backward.  Israel is awesome because it doesn't machine gun protestors in the streets.

Melanie Phillips, The Spectator:  It's scandalous that the UN took ten days to condemn Libya, yet it has spent the last three decades condemning the Israelis for taking land from their neighbours by force.

Melanie again:  Britain is now a Gestapo toilet of Jew-hatred so foul, depraved and all-pervading that only I can detect it.

Update!  Nasty Nick Cohen casts a baleful eye over the violence in Libya, considers its implications for the country and the wider region, and then accuses the "liberal left" of "Jew obsessions" and blindness to the plight of the Arabs.  Only Nick could unironically accuse "the left" of trying to make absolutely everything about Israel, in a column that's theoretically about Libya.

In a piece denouncing elite collaboration with the Gaddafi regime, Nick manages to assail BP, the Worker's Revolutionary Party (again), Vanessa Redgrave, the London School of Economics, Human Rights Watch and Peter Mandelson, while somehow using the word "Blair" only once.  He also manages the difficult achievement of discussing foreign collaboration with horrible regimes such as, say, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, without once using the words "United States of America", lulzwut.

What an honest, pleasant and relentlessly serious man he is, well worth the paycheques the Observer keep giving him.  I've long expected that sooner or later, he'd be fired for submitting a column scrawled in his own faeces, yet he continues to surprise with his clear-eyed insights.

*David's article is behind the paywall, but I have the article here if anyone wants clarification.  Decent bingo points awarded too, as Aaro invokes the wisdom of Michael Totten, an American writer who's spent most of the decade travelling around the Middle East, miraculously discovering that the opinions he arrived there with were even more correct than even he'd believed them to be.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I Drink Your Milkshake

"That's not an excuse, as some would argue, to claim that Arabs or Muslims can't do democracy – the so-called Arab exception... For me, that's a prejudice that borders on racism. It's offensive and wrong and it's simply not true."
So says David Cameron, in answer to a question that nobody asked, to a parliament that exists upon the mere whim of the Emir of Kuwait.

There's been plenty of fun at Cameron's expense today, as yer internet critters gleefully pointed to Britain's record of flogging weapons of mayhem and destruction to numerous enemies of the people, and why not do so?  It's undeniable, and Cameron blatantly doesn't have the stones to look the nation in the eye and ask, well, would you rather that China picked up all those fat defence contracts rather than a wholesome, job-creating British arms dealer such as BAE?

The mad scramble by Britain's few remaining Blairites to exonerate our once-Dear Leader from charges of up-sucking to dictators has been nothing short of hysterical, a floor-rolling, knuckle-chewing knee-slapper.

Oh, of course we thought freedom and democracy were important in the Middle East vis a vis Iraq, but why can't we understand the necessities of the diplomatic strategies and the careful balance between pragmatic engagement with the arse and blah?

Such attempts to cast avarice as principle remind me of that old Onion headline, Desperate Vegetarians Declare Cows Are Plants.  Look, petals!  Stalks!

And even better...
Amused by number of people who objected at overthrow of Saddam now complaining that we didn't overthrow Gaddafi - David Cairns MP, today on Twitter
Har-de-har! 2

Of course, nobody is asking Cameron whether Arabs deserve democracy, just as nobody is suggesting that Britain should've invaded Libya in 2006.  Cameron wishes to avoid explaining why he's punting bullets, stun batons and spiked bollock-shockers around the region, and Blair's amen corner aren't keen on discussing his privately funded heavy-petting sessions with the mad Colonel.

You just hold out your hand...
You know, I'm not shocked or even particularly outraged by any of this stuff.  It may be repellent, but I've long since come to expect business interests to trump highfalutin rhetoric about human freedom.  I already know that the lofty waffle about invading Iraq in the name of democracy was cover for an ugly truth - namely that the world's attitude to oil-producing countries is determined by their willingness to play pattycake with the rest of us, and human rights can dangle.  Gaddafi is every bit the murderous shit Saddam was, and yet...  Well, you know.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that when Cameron hawks arms or Blair goes all suckee-suckee-five-dollah with tyrants, that's not a flaw in the system.  That's the system working at maximum efficiency, doing what it does and has evolved over long decades to do - keeping the precious spice melange oil flowing to the rest of the planet in an orderly fashion.

There's nothing conspiratorial about this, given we're talking about the mindless, faceless behemoth of global commerce here.  Certain countries produce a vital commodity for a demanding market, and the rest is straightforward economics - production, supply, demand, consumption.

I mean sure, a recalcitrant supplier here or there might occasionally need correcting 1, say with a major bombing campaign or a secret service coup, but that doesn't demonstrate intelligent control of the system any more than you could command the white blood cells in your body to take biological baseball bats to a virus.

So it's entertaining to see the Prime Minister explaining why Arabs deserve democracy, when he's standing slap-bang on top of 104 billion barrels of high-octane democracy-Kryptonite.

Would the region have developed into a series of viable liberal democracies if the entire population of the Earth weren't falling over themselves to hand the meanest and most vicious of their citizens a bajillion dollars a day?  Who knows!

Hell, some of you will have read DuneAs fiction, it's a po-faced shaggy dog story, but as a primer on modern geopolitics, it's a damn sight more illuminating than the Times.  There's a reason why the Harkonnens and Atreides aren't Fremen, and the Padishah Emperor Shaddam sure as shit isn't modelled on some tinpot colonel with an army of foreign-trained goons.  As Gaddafi's thugs are slaughtering the brave protestors, I have to remind myself and others that he didn't buy their guns 'n' ammo with saved-up nectar points.

Maybe Steve Bell could whip us up a snappy cartoon depicting the petrol leaping out of our cars and flying French jets over the Tripoli skyline?  That'd be just as apt as digs at Cameron and Blair, I think, and it might just convey the message that individually, we're not quite so divorced from proceedings as we like to think we are.

1  That's "Correcting", pronounced as it is in The Shining by Grady the former janitor - "I corrected them, sir. And when my wife tried to prevent me from doing my duty, I corrected her". 

2.  And while I'm at it, I'll add that yes, it's good news that Gaddafi doesn't have access to chemical weapons.  If he'd had them on top of his warplanes, his helicopters, his artillery and his machine guns,  he could've killed more or less the same number of people, in just as horrible a manner as he's doing right now.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

We Fade To Grey

"I hope you know what you are doing there.  Oh, I know your motives are good, they always are... I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.  And that applies to your country too, Pyle".  

On release, Graham Greene's The Quiet American was justly decried as an anti-American novel and the production team on the 1958 film disgusted the author by significantly cutting down on the political content, focusing instead on the love triangle between the protagonists.

When the 2002 version was released, it garnered high praise for remaining true to the source material, but I'm not certain that the original movie did Greene such a great disservice, whatever he himself believed.

It's long seemed to me that, while the author may have set out to pen a searing indictment of western interference in French Vietnam, what he actually created was a nakedly intimate portrait of a tired and cynical old man, struggling fitfully to hold onto the remnant of his ill-gotten comforts.

Briefly, it's the tale of veteran English reporter Thomas Fowler's struggle to retain the affections of Phuong, a Vietnamese woman many years his junior as Alden Pyle, the idealistic, titular quiet American, attempts to woo her away from him.  As the plot unfolds, Fowler comes to realise that Pyle is funding and assisting a sinister "third force" in the French-Vietnamese conflict - the murderous General The, whose character and motivations are much more malign than the unworldly Pyle believes them to be.  Appalled by the carnage that Pyle unwittingly sets in motion, Fowler conspires with the Viet Minh to have Pyle murdered, and returns to his life with Phuong.

The neat set-up and payoff are deceptively simple.  Greene's great gift was in constructing complex characters driven by both noble and base impulses, often heroic and villainous in equal parts.  Fowler, the narrator, is unlovable, curmudgeonly and deeply selfish, concerned only with his own material and physical comforts.  His affection for Phuong may be genuine, but it springs from his mortal terror of dying alone in an uncaring world.  On the occasions when he expresses any concern for her wellbeing, altruism is hardly the spur.  He loves Vietnam for its sensual pleasures; partakes in opium-smoking and uses prostitutes, and has a failed marriage and a string of bitter, broken-down relationships behind him. 

Pyle, by contrast, is the ultimate innocent abroad, a well-meaning fundamentalist with a head full of idealistic drivel from the pen of fictional foreign policy wonk York Harding. Stiff and immaculately mannered, he arrives in Vietnam determined to make it fit his own conception of democracy and freedom, whether the populace like it or not.  His love for Phuong is genuine, yet he's as blind to the transactional nature of their relationship as he is to the blood on his shoes after one of his bombings for the greater good goes horribly awry. 

Greene doesn't care to disguise the symbolism - Fowler, the jaded ancien regime of old colonial Europe, desperate to retain his possessions from mere habit and Pyle, the upstart from the New World with Big Ideas, taking to his new global responsibilities with determination and a shocking naivety, both men vying for the affections of lady Vietnam for their own purposes.

It's to Greene's credit that he offers both as fully realised characters and leaves judgement of their virtues and flaws to his audience.  For all that it's Pyle who has more blood on his hands, he's in many ways the better, braver man, while his love rival is the schemer; the dissolute, grasping cynic.  Certainly, I struggle to believe that Greene named his narrator "Fowler" without considering the phonetic connotation.

The novel tantalisingly offers Fowler's eventual betrayal as a potential act of redemption. Fowler repeatedly declares himself neutral, not involved in the war raging around him, but Pyle's refusal to face the consequences of his actions offers the narrator the opportunity to take a side at long last.  In giving up his friend to the Viet Minh, does he finally commit a single, honest act of altruism?

Greene declines to offer definitive judgement, but such justifications are overshadowed.  In his response to Pyle's crimes, Fowler may be intermittently tormented by the recurring vision of a dead mother and child, casualties of a lost war far from the world's attention, yet he broods endlessly upon the grim prospect of his loneliness and mortality.

If Fowler's betrayal was so righteous, would he so recklessly invite retribution from the investigating police?  Would he so strongly feel the urge to confess, and would his guilt run through the novel until the final sentence?

If Pyle's murder was a necessary evil for the greater good, then why does it feel so much like a terrible crime?  After all, Pyle may be complicit in the murder of innocents, but now Fowler also has the blood of an innocent man on his hands; perhaps the most innocent that he will ever meet. 

Either that or, you know, I'm reading a bit too much into it.  Take your pick.

(This post inspired by a years-old exchange with Rosie Bell that Google now stubbornly refuses to cough up).
Okay, Libya and international intervention.  There's enthusiasm for the concept and the situation is, I think, more than grave enough to merit it.  I'm in favour theoretically, provided somebody in authority has some answers to these questions.

I know nothing about public opinion in Libya, beyond the fact that Gaddafi is obviously hated by a vast swathe of the population.  How popular will international intervention be?  I imagine "very", but I don't know whether there's any local animosity towards potential actors.  The French, for instance, have quite a bad rep in many parts of north Africa.  Would an incoming government have greater legitimacy with or without outside assistance?*

Who's going to enforce no-fly-zones or other measures?  I gather the French have some planes in the area, and the Americans could have a carrier there within a few days.  Do we have sufficient resources available and do we seek UN approval, or invoke an international emergency and wing it?

Will international intervention make the Libyan armed forces more or less inclined to turn on Gaddafi?   If Gaddafi digs his heels in and pressure starts to mount for an active support role for the intervening force, what are we prepared to do to get rid of the regime? 

What happens if an intervening force accidentally rubs out a load of innocent people? What happens if we instantly get a worst-case, Black Hawk Down scenario, with dead American pilots being paraded by Gaddafi's forces?  You'd better believe that the Obama admin will be under massive pressure to unleash the maximum smackdown in that eventuality.  

Has anyone planned this one out?  Do we have contingency plans for stabilising a state after a violent round of repression and revolution?

That's enough to be going on with for now, and I think it could be boiled down to Has anyone actually thought this through, or are we still in "Somebody must do something" mode?  

*This is no small quibble - remember, we're not just talking about this week.  Libya and the Libyans will still be there in five years, a hundred years.  Anything planning should include some detailed long term projections.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Almost a Decade Later

I've been putting off writing this post since what more, realistically, needs to be said about the slapstick career of Christopher Hitchens?

There seems to be a consensus emerging that Hitch has become a tragic figure - inadvertently blinded to the horrors of our wars by his principled zeal for Getting The Bad Guys.  I contend that this isn't so, and that Hitchens has known very well what he's been up to this last decade. 

So skilled a communicator doesn't accidentally find himself penning intentionally dishonest defences of the Americans' black prison network, nor would he consider such causes as defending the Bush administration on the fake Niger yellowcake uranium documents or the Valerie Plame kerfuffle, or beating down the mothers of dead soldiers worth his time, unless he was...  a hack, a bullshitter.  A hatchet man with armfuls of custard pies rather than hatchets.

Tragedy is the wrong word, I think.  The term we're looking for is bathos. 

Thus do we find Hitchens beating up on human rights organisations yet again.  The excuse this time is a typical piece of New York Times reporting at its one-eyed best...

International and local human rights groups working in Afghanistan have shifted their focus toward condemning abuses committed by the Taliban insurgents, rather than those attributed to the American military and its allies... 

Now, that's an interesting hook for a fairly straightforward story, i.e. "US Military Now Suspiciously Vocal on Own Record Of Rubbing Out Afghan Civilians, After Years Of Being Very, Very Evasive Indeed on the Subject".

The short version is that coalition forces in Afghanistan are now actually counting civilian deaths and that local independent human rights groups are focusing their attention on the Taliban, who are now killing the larger proportion of non-combatants.  Further, groups such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are calling for the International Criminal Court to indict Taliban leaders for war crimes.

The news is Christopher's cue to issue an astonishing series of hoots and snorts aimed at "the human rights community", with the implication that such groups are talking about the Taliban because suicide bombers are attacking "upscale markets or hotels that cater to the NGO constituency in Kabul, and suddenly there is an abrupt change from moral neutrality".  

I call this "astonishing" because the main groups under discussion are Afghanistan Rights Monitor and the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, i.e. Afghans.  While I appreciate that such organisations are likely to be drawn from what remains of Afghanistan's educated middle and upper class, it seems to me that they're probably not the bunch of pointy-headed, ivory tower-dwelling western relativists that Hitchens might like us to conclude they are.

Of course, the Afghan orgs aren't necessarily 100% correct in their campaigning simply because they're Afghans and spend most of their lives surrounded by other Afghans, or because they live in Afghanistan. It's perfectly possible that Hitchens draws the correct conclusions and that the NGOs have been terribly wrong.

Let us note at this point however that the habit of raising louder complaints about US air strikes than the Taliban's appalling human rights abuses is quite a popular passtime in Afghanistan.  Afghans have made their feelings known with many protests throughout the decade in Kabul, in Kandahar, in Nangarhar province, in Lashkargar, in Farah, in Laghman province, in Jalalabad, in villages such as Azizabad and on numerous occasions, by the President of Afghanistan.

When Hitchens talks of "Afghan authorities" who he wishes "were more deserving of the sacrifices that are made on their behalf", we can be sure he means Hamid Karzai and not, you know, the Afghans themselves.  What he'd make of them is anyone's guess, although his casual attitude to civilian deaths - as he notes, the Taliban's civilian dress "makes it hard if not impossible to distinguish their corpses from others who may have been killed in an airstrike" - is less than encouraging.

Well, so what?  None of this is bullshit is new from Afghan war enthusiasts, and Hitchens in particular.  I guess what bugs me about Hitch generally - and, by extension, the subset of jingoes for whom he speaks - is that it's simply never enough that he gets his way.  It's the demands that you either buy Hitchens' sales pitch 100% or you give aid and comfort to the enemy, with no middle ground available.

It's not enough that human rights NGOs protest Taliban atrocities - they must instead entirely focus their attentions on the Taliban, and keep their criticisms of NATO to a minimum.  After all, coalition troops have now "amended" their "rules of engagement", so what's the problem?  Okay, an unknown number - likely in the tens of thousands - of Afghans have been killed by NATO, but these can't be mentioned "in the same breath as the forces that are opposed to it".  

I've always thought that dead people killed by villains are neither more nor less dead than those killed by the good guys, but I guess that's my error.

It's not enough that people recognise that the Taliban are a brutal, murderous and disgusting bunch - we must instead recognise that they're inhuman psychotics who rise from their beds midway through the act of hurling acid into schoolgirls' faces, then set to a hard day's work mutilating women and retire after a nightcap of intimidating potential voters.  If we suspect that Hitchens' habit of repeatedly filling his columns with the crimes of the Taliban is less for public enlightenment than it is a dodge to avoid discussing the nature and utility of the war itself then well, us Islamist-lovers would say that, wouldn't we?

In the wider picture, it's not enough that Hitchens gets his trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or super-violent bombing campaigns in Pakistan, Lebanon and so on; not while the Iranians continue their schemes of remorseless evil un-splatterated. It's not enough that the United States runs a secret detention network for disappearing, imprisoning and torturing an unknown number of unnamed persons, far beyond judicial oversight or the possibility of review - it must be allowed to do it without having to answer a lot of impertinent questions from human rights groups.

And finally, it's not enough that human rights and aid organisations assist in reconstruction efforts and call for the Taliban to be prosecuted.  From the article...

I can only too well remember attending some press conference in Pakistan in the winter of 2001 and seeing the unbearably smug expressions on the faces of various human rights and "relief" spokesmen who were concerned lest the military operation against the Taliban should support their relatively modest efforts.  They failed or refused to see that the removal of the Taliban was a necessary precondition of any serious relief and reconstruction.  It's heartening to learn that, almost a decade later, they are at least open to the awareness that the Taliban is the worst offender. 

Forget the "smug expressions"; let's skim over the fact that the Taliban, unfortunately, remain stubbornly unremoved.

If you're unfavourably comparing the activities of human rights orgs to the joy of military force, then what the fuck is that phrase "almost a decade later" doing in there?

I'd say that "almost a decade" after the invasion of Afghanistan, the attitudes of NGOs is right at the bottom of a towering pile of extremely serious military, political and humanitarian difficulties facing NATO.  Maybe Hitch will find time to discuss them next week.

And Hitchens' career is the tragedy?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Those Who Ignore History Are Doomed To The Hollywood Remake With Better Special Effects

HP archive-worrier Michael Ezra unearths the following snippet from screech-crazy wingnut boobyhatch National Review, 1957.  Money quote...

If the Soviet threat is primarily a Russian threat, then it can be handled by civilized men as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries handled their disputes—by diplomacy, by pressures, by limited warfare conducted by enemies who nevertheless share a universe of moral discourse. Then it is possible to fight, and live at peace, and fight again, if need be, for limited objectives. That is, then it is possible to coexist with the enemy. Then it is, indeed, deeply immoral to think in any other terms than those of coexistence.

If the essential dynamic of the enemy is an ideology directed towards the destruction of religion, of freedom, of the very kind of moral being we regard man to be; and if those who hold that ideology are pledged by its very nature to a crusade to make the world over in its image—then it is immoral to base long-term policy on anything less than the destruction of that ideology by all means in our power.

It's ironic that to Michael, the piece is an interesting relic of a bygone age.  I'm actually grateful that he found it since to me, it's a stark illustration of how the perpetual War on Terror is simply the Cold War with an amateurish slap of fresh paint on the backdrops.  Minarets for onion domes; mad mullahs for commissars and fellow-travelling pinkos for, uh...

Reader, how many nouns would you switch in the piece before it could credibly pass for the farting inanity of National Review Online, circa 2011?  I make it four, maybe even three at a stretch.  Chuck in a South Park reference and it'd be indistinguishable from the output of Jonah Goldberg.

And I have to admit that, when the great post-Soviet threat to all of humanity finally reared its ugly head after a mere decade of bush league superpower-pipsqueak smackdowns, it was pretty lucky that we could call on the very same actors, retool the same scripts, don the same costumes and remix all the old scores.  Hand the balalaika player an oud and ah-one, two, three four...

Well, it's not quite the same.  Some gullible Yorkshire fuckheads with homemade nailbombs are a mite less intimidating than the total nuclear annihilation of all life on Earth.  During the Cold War, it was the baddies who bled their armies white while achieving exactly nothing in unwinnable wars. We actually produced some decent thrillers back in the day, rather than the sorry naughties parade of shaky-cam, woe-is-us bollocks about how much it sucks to face an enemy who doesn't have an air force and won't fight fair.

Still, you have to admit, it does look like something of a coincidence.  Lucky us, eh?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Popular Misconceptions

Some creepy smut enthusiast on the radio last night declared that "Pornography is just a fantasy".  

Let him tell that to a judge, says I - a quick Google for "Boobies" will prove its existence quite conclusively.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Killer Best Man's Speech Tips

I'm overjoyed to learn that Prince William has asked Prince Harry to be best man at his wedding.  I was the best man at my brother's bash, and one day I hope he'll do me the honour of returning the favour.

It's an onerous task, no doubt about it.  I strongly advise Harry to veer towards the sentimental - no gags about that time that Kate had to be taken home in a helicopter because she'd clobbered a servant with a Bolly bottle and puked vintage champagne out of her adorably common little nose, for instance.

Chuck in the odd cheeky anecdote, emphasising the loveable-oafishness of the groom.  Frankly, Wills looks like the kind of geezer who spent a considerable portion of his youth slamming his naughty bits in a door, so that might be a fruitful line of inquiry, but there's no need to be vulgar.  Only use photographic evidence if it's tasteful.

Thank the in-laws, especially if they're paying for the gig, and try not to be too offended if the bride's father uses the wrong spoon on his swan soup or something equally ghastly.  Also, be sure to toast your own Dad.  I doubt Charles will have invited him after that whole "secretly banging Diana" malarkey, but it's the thought that counts.

Don't forget to chuck in a few near-the-knuckle chucklers for Prince Phillip, but nothing too racy*.  Anything that starts "A Pikey, a Pole and a Chinaman walk into a bar" will probably hit the funnybone, but definitely, definitely no comedy armbands or salutes this time.  Keep that to the stag do, when the press aren't watching.

If there's one thing I regret about my effort, it's that I never got the opportunity to slip my elephant impersonation into the speech, because kilts don't have pockets.  It'll be tops 'n' tails for the royal bash though, so carpe diem, your Royalness.

And finally, remember the golden rule - everyone will be pissed up, rowdy and jammed with goodwill, so enjoy yourself.  This is the only chance you'll get to have a bit of fun at everyone else's expense, so be sure to make the most of it.

Best of British to ya, your Worship.

* of course, "-ist" is perfectly fine.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Have brutally trimmed the blogroll of dead blogs, which is kind of ironic given the week-long silences you get around here.  Had to take out quite a few people who I've been following since I started in 2006, unfortunately, but will reinstate anyone who's just resting. 

Anybody I'm not linking who I should be?  Bear in mind that I treat this place like a glorified homepage, so any gems I'm missing will be appreciated.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Complaining About Human Rights Is a Bullshitter's Charter

Still on the subject of human rights, there are some damn stupid things being said about the Convention and its applications in the UK.  I've been reading this stuff long enough to know that 99% of coverage of ECHR is intentionally misleading, so let's clear up a few of the sillier assertions being made here.


Let's start with Laban's idea that the 22 MPs who voted against maintaining an arbitrary ban on prisoners voting are "traitors".

They prefer a foreign jurisdiction to the laws made by Parliament. quoth he. What do you call them? 

Readers, meet the man who imposed the tyrannical rule of the foreigns on Britain; history's greatest, most anti-British monster: Sir Winston Churchill, or "Judas" as we should perhaps call him for his traitorous ways.  That call of his for "a kind of United States of Europe" It makes voting for legislation on prisoners' rights look like child's play compared to Churchill's Hitleresque desire to enslave the British people. 

Related to this is the argument that British jurisdiction is being trampled over by the European Court, which happens to be partially true.  I suggest that this possibilty probably occurred to the officials in the Churchill government who drafted the legislation that created the thing.  Still, as I noted before, all the Court did was say that our current ban is non-compliant, then punt the decision on how to come into compliance over to Westminster.

Parliament could've put in place legislation confirming the ban, or established a hierarchy for voting.  It was our MPs who chose to spit the dummy and bleat about the foreigns rather than do something about what is a fairly simple and straightforward problem.

My brain hurts!

Another tactic is to complain that human rights are too complex for the man in the street to grasp, and that they amount to an elitist attempt to bamboozle the public.

Quick - define the minimum standards required to secure an appeal against a sentence in criminal law.  What's the purpose of judicial review?  Explain the Common Agricultural Policy through the medium of dance.  Who's in charge of your local health board?  No Googling!

Of course it's complex - of course the man in the street doesn't understand it.  The only time when your average citizen would bone up on the law is if he wanted to dodge a speeding ticket or something.  Rights are no more difficult to understand than 99% of criminal and civil law.

If someone's telling you that human rights are exceptionally complex and incomprehensible, they're most definitely Up To No Good. An iron rule of political discourse is that the Me humble caveman no understand fancy talk gambit is generally used to smuggle some form of horseshit under the public's nose.

Another one somebody raised with me was this - MPs shouldn't talk in terms of rights, because they're an abstract concept that allows them to make substance-free, bullshit assertions.  

To which I can only reply, alright then - let's also retire Fairness, Britishness and Hard-working families.   If we were to strip politics of substance free, bullshit assertions, there would be no such thing as politics.

There's no "human right" to a Ford Escort full of jam 

Indeed.  If you manage to convince the average Briton that human rights are a good thing in principle, you almost always get But it's gone too far now, there are new "rights" being invented all the time.

The mistake here is understandable, and it's down to the way that cases are presented to the public.  Firstly, the fact that some joker says they have a "right" to whatever, doesn't make it true.  If Peter Sutcliffe declares he has a right to a Ford Escort full of jam, he's going to be disappointed.

It's true that the concept of "rights" is vague and windy.  "Human rights", however, have a specific legal definition, decades of supporting case law and a concrete, practical function.

Further, the fact that somebody wins a case on issue (x) doesn't establish a "right".  Prisoners don't have a "right" to a toilet in their cells, for instance: the famed case which ended prisoners slopping out in Scotland established that, in the specific circumstances of one individual, slopping out breached the state's common law duty of care. This means it was against Scottish, not European law.  Note that this wasn't highlighted in coverage of the case at the time, which was much in the OMG Human Rights Scandal Forces Taxpayer To Personally Fellate Inmates vein.

The other objection is generally But where will it end?  Does a fetus have rights and so on.  Here's the deal - if you can't win a court case over it, it isn't a "right", and judges won't be slow to tell you so.

It's an affront to Common Sense 

There's a reason why we have a legal system, and that's because the words "Common Sense" are a synonym for "Utter bullshit that I strongly believe".  

Contrary to popular belief, the courts aren't filled with lunatics and retards.  If a case makes it to the Supreme Court, it's probably a lot thornier and more difficult to adjudicate than the press make it sound, and I would no more ask a randomly-picked punter to rule on it than I would let my brother perform brain surgery on my dog.

If you think I'm wrong here, I'd urge you to imagine yourself telling a judge that it's just like that because it is, and everyone thinks so.  Best of luck if you ever need to do that for real, by the way.

It's a criminal's charter 

You know the score here, so let's just say that yes, criminals are far more likely to raise cases than the general public.  While recent high profile cases have involved ordinary people arguing for euthanasia, the rights of soldiers or for public inquiries into various issues, it's most commonly accused persons who raise ECHR points.

The reasons for this aren't difficult to grasp.  Human rights governs interaction between citizens and the state, and nobody interacts with the state more than people who are in its custody.

Additionally, it should give critics pause to note the situations in which ECHR objections are raised, i.e. as a last resort.  The reason why, say, people who are being extradited to the United States invoke human rights is generally because there is no other form of protection against extradition to the United States.  Often, but not always, rights are the last form of defence against government balls-ups and bad law, which should endear them to everyone except those who entirely trust state bureaucracy to act nobly and judiciously at all times.

There, that should be enough for now.  If there's any arguments I've missed, feel free to point them out in comments.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Something or Other

And on the general subject of empty-headed, meaningless governmental babble, a quick look at David Cameron's "Multiculturalism has failed" speech...

What's he actually saying?

First, that the government shouldn't fund religious dingbats.  Hooray!  Except...  The government isn't funding religious dingbats; it doesn't intend to and wouldn't have the cash to do so, even if it wanted. 

He's saying that allowing immigrants to retreat into their own areas and communities, which have a tendency to cut themselves off from wider society to the apparent detriment of all, is Bad.  Let's make everyone British!  Hooray!  Except...  The government is cutting off funds to help immigrants learn English, and it's encouraging free, community-organised schools, a large number of which are likely to be run by religious dingbats.  Maybe they'll be dingbats with a strong interest in promoting Britishness?

As far as I can tell, this is about it, beyond vague appeals to Britishness and "muscular liberalism".  It's a speech that announces exactly fuck all but pushes a lot of buttons with people who would like to see some hard crackdowns on the behaviours of recent immigrants. 

For making what seems to be a declaration of some very vague principles with no tangible, real-world effects, he's been rewarded with vast acres of positive press.  The message I take from this is that the legacy of Tony Blair is alive and well, and is making a grand living by penning editorials and opinion pieces in The Times.

A Night At The Political Theatre

"Humans, for the most part, don't have a clue.  Don't want or need one.  They're happy.  They think they have... a good bead on things".  - Agent K

Try to imagine what value (x) would require in the following sentence to secure broad public approval.

Prisoners should be allowed (x).

I reckon maybe you'd get away with beds, food or blankets, although I'm fairly sure that even oxygen would secure a fairly chunky "No" vote, delivered with the stridency of Ian Paisley refusing a free ticket for Celtic Park.

Yesterday's parliamentary vote on the issue of prisoners' voting rights should be seen in light of these simple electoral maths - politicians who approach the treatment of prisoners from anything other than the most Draconian angle will not long hold office.

After all, what was the issue at stake?  There's no political push to enfranchise prisoners; no awful liberals campaigning from their ivory towers for ballot boxes in Barlinnie.  The issue arose because the UK has been found to be non-compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights by the court duly appointed to adjudicate.

And here's the deal - we're non-compliant because the ban on prisoners voting is arbitrary.  That is, it isn't laid down in legislation or included in the punishment part of sentencing.  As it stands, prisoners have the right to vote because it's never been officially withdrawn from them.  (Update - it's not quite as simple as that, but it's also not significantly more complex. See comments).

A solution wouldn't be hard to devise, I imagine...  A Bill here, a legal precedent there, and everything's hunky dory.  That's one reason why the European Court issues such rulings, after all: to give us the opportunity to bring ourselves into compliance and avoid all the lawsuits.

Funnily enough, our political class chose not to legislate.  What did it do instead?

Why, it leapt to its feet and issued belligerent vows to skullfuck some sense into those wishy-washy, foreign, fucking, European, touchy-feely, lily-livered, criminal-coddling, European, foreign judges who think they have the right to tell Britain what to do with their touchy-feely, European, foreign, wishy-washy criminal-coddling.  Westminster MPs thrust their fat faces into every passing camera and made damn sure they were seen to be chewing their desks with white-hot, bejowled rage...  And voted to do nothing about it.

To be clear, this means that it's a matter of months before some chavvy chancer picks up a two-grand cheque from HM Government if no action is taken, and our politicians know this full fucking well.  Many are in fact counting on it.

Ah, the British Parliament - standing athwart inevitability shouting Take the public's money for our short-term political benefit!

You might ask why they would do anything so inane.  Surely our leaders would be better to confront any problems that arise head-on and deal with them in the quickest and most sensible way?

Well, not in the UK, where emboldened ignorance and boiling indignation are electoral gold.  I've seen no polls, but I'd be stunned if public approval is running at less than 80% on this issue.

Me, I couldn't care less whether prisoners can vote or not.  Let them, don't, it's no skin off my nose.  What I see in all of this is a nation that takes massive pride in its own ignorance and perpetually offended fake victimisation.

I mean, take human rights as a concept in law.  Are they good or bad?  The public doesn't know, and it sure as hell doesn't want to know.  Read up on the basics then try explaining them to a relative or friend, and I guarantee that they'll look at you like you've just shat on their knee.

I had a long Twitter back'n'forth with a bloke yesterday who was complaining that too often, rights are a way of obfuscating simple political concepts, alienating the public.  Twitter ain't the venue for a chat on the political utility of rights, but this seemed to me to miss the point.

It's been a long time since, but I spent many years working in the courts and if there's one thing I can tell you about the experience, it's this - the public regard the law and legal process itself as essentially a scam; an elitist, pointy-headed affront to "common sense".  The people, essentially, don't understand criminal or civil law and aren't interested in hearing about it; find it confusing, in fact, and suspect strongly that their confusion is the result of some kind of plot to pull the wool over their eyes.

It's impossible not to form the conclusion that many would prefer to see Batman sort it all out.

I don't blame anyone for that - I don't understand half of what goes on in the courts and I'm frequently horrified by everything from lax sentencing to acquittals due to procedural balls-ups.  Even then, I don't call for the junking of law and rule by political decree, which is the strong aroma emanating from our debates on rights, prisoners and justice.

I don't know whether we'd be better served by the European Convention, the Tories' much-vaunted Bill of Rights, or by some constitutionally-mandated assumption of freedoms.

What I do know is that a society that makes a virtue of illiberal behaviour will treat its citizens illiberally; a culture that demands injustice in the name of common sense will perpetrate injustices.  I know that a citizenry that puts all of its faith in infantile concepts like force and "common sense" will receive plenty of the former and little of the latter.

For real, yo - a society like the UK, which seems to make most of its political decisions based upon mortal terror that somebody, somewhere is getting something for free, isn't headed for better and brighter things.

I've said this before and I'll continue saying it until people start parroting it back to me in annoying, sing-song voices:  I believe strongly in democracy, and that if the citizenry know what they want, then they should get it good and hard.  If our ideal representatives are angry stuffed-shirts, belching meaningless outrage into the Palace of Westminster for political theatre, then we don't deserve any better.