Sam Harris’s inexplicable defence of Israel

Introduction:

 

I agree with a lot that Sam Harris has to say. I find him an erudite and intelligent commentator. I have been listening to his “Waking Up” podcast for some time. I sided with him in the Cenk Uygur debate, after watching the 3 hour back and forth they had and I was absolutely in agreement with him and Bill Maher when they duelled with Ben Affleck on “Real time”. So far, so good. I decided to go back to one of the first episodes of the “Waking up” podcast (#2 Why don’t I criticize Israel?) recently, and this is where the problems arose for me. Harris began to outline what he saw as the moral differences between Israel and Palestine. It shook me so much that I have had to completely revaluate everything I thought about the man. I have to seriously question anybody who genuinely believes Harris’ portrayal of what is going on there.

 

Should Israel exist?

 

He calls the doctrine of Judaism “unethical and sickening” and “worse than the Koran”. Being a fellow atheist, I agree with his assertion that virtually all religious doctrine is bad. However, he then says that “most Jews recognise this and don’t take the text seriously”. This is problematic. It is a pure fluke that more Jews are not extremist. If the doctrine is equally as bad or worse, the chances are equal that more people could become extremist. I can only assume that because there are numerically more Muslims than Jews, that he thinks that it is not as big an issue. If the doctrine was not as bad, I could understand why he would think that. By his own admission though, it is.

There are a number of Israeli settlers who use their beliefs to justify their aggressive settlement expansion, causing untold suffering for innocent Palestinians. You do not have to dig too deeply in Israeli history to see their Zionist extremism surface. Yitzhak Shamir was the Israeli Prime Minister in 1983 after he had previously led the extreme Zionist group Lehi. The former Israeli Prime Minister was in a paramilitary group before Israel was founded as a State. Sound familiar? Oppressed people get pushed to extreme ends. 

The only reason there are not more Zionists is a statistical one. Taking a position that Israel are morally superior, as Harris does, is an aberration of any human being who thinks about ethics in a cogent manner.

There is some hope for Harris when he admits that “the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable”. The question is why does he view it as less untenable than a Muslim theocracy, like say Iran. Extreme doctrine is there in both religions. The potential is there for it to be exploited on both sides. 

 

War Crimes:

 

“They (Israel) have shown more constraint in fighting against the Palestinians that we the Americans and Europeans have used in any of our wars”. This is where Harris begins to go off the deep end. Any supposedly intelligent human being that uses the word “restraint” when describing or comparing how the Israeli’s operate in Palestine is to be questioned. I am not sure how any sane person can come to this conclusion. There are countless instances of Israeli brutality. Let us take just one. In 2014, the Israeli air force destroyed a water treatment and sewage plant after they had deliberately intended to target it. How can this be viewed as a “constrained” action? It is a war crime plain and simple. Not an accidental one. Harris paints this imaginary world where Jewish war crimes are all accidental. They are not. Here is a specific example of a deliberate war crime where the Israeli government specifically targeted Palestinian civilians. There is absolutely no justification for this. Any civilised society would never target civilians in this manner. It is disgusting to view this war crime as in some way morally superior to the crimes that the Palestinians commit. It is a vile conclusion to draw.

Harris talks about Israel enduring excessive “scrutiny” while having to “defend themselves against aggressors”. I cannot fathom how a person who thinks deeply about morality can come to this conclusion. Israel were and are the aggressors. They invaded land that was not theirs and have, at every opportunity, sought to expand their territory, at horrifying cost to Palestinians, who have to accept Israeli soldiers taking land by force. They throw Palestinian families living on land that they have owned for generations off of it. How can this be justified? It is an aggressive act. In no universe can it be construed as a “defensive act” to deliberately displace people from a house where they are living. Harris’s thinking about Israel as fighting a defensive war is utterly absurd. If you take a person’s land, you are an aggressor. It does not matter if you are religious or not. It is unacceptable. By this Machiavellian rationale, it would have been justified for the American settlers to take native Indian American’s land. He would point to their “intent” of creating a great society in the future. Doubtless the English thought they were bringing civil society to India, Ireland and everywhere they conquered. It does not matter that the Israeli’s have a secular democratic society. They have no right to take another people’s land.

He acknowledges Israel’s disproportionate killing of a number of innocent people yet claims that this is a “bad” way to think about it. He thinks that the images of innocent babies being killed is a “moral illusion born of the failures to look at the actual causes of the conflict”. Earth to Sam: the cause of the conflict is not purely religious in Israel. It is due to continued expansion in taking land that is not theirs. There is no moral illusion here. Global opinion is revealing here. Virtually every civil society on Earth points to a two state solution as the way forward. The US and Israel are the only ones who do not want it. They want to continue to annex land that is not their own. The only illusion here is Sam Harris’s concept of Israel as a benign state with “good intentions”.

Harris goes on to talk about Hamas as a political entity and how they call for the annihilation of the Jewish state. I agree with him in his condemnation of this violent group. I share his belief that religion is not the future. Yet, it is blindingly obvious that Hamas must be viewed as a reaction to brutality that the Palestinians endure.

Imagine for a moment, that Israel had settled in a remote country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Imagine there was nobody there. Do you really think that Hamas would be flying out into the Pacific Ocean to kill the Jews? The likelihood is that they would not care. Hamas has been voted into power as a reaction to the violence inflicted upon Palestine. Plain and simple. Geography, not religion, is the issue in Israel.

 

Intent:

 

There is where Sam Harris is a complete failure. He talks about the difference between Israel and Palestine’s intentions. He describes the Israeli dropping of a bomb on a beach as “almost certainly an accident” and goes on to state categorically that “they are not targeting children”. So, let us revert back to the example of when Israel deliberately targeted a water treatment plant. This was not an accident. They deliberately targeted children in this instance. They knew they would be affected. There is absolutely no doubt about this. So, we can easily conclude that Harris is categorically wrong in his assertion that Israel do target children. They absolutely do.

Let us not kid ourselves that the water treatment attack was an isolated incident either. The Israeli’s systematically attack Palestinians. Consider for a minute the March 2016 incident in Hebron where Israeli soldier Elor Azaria callously and deliberately shot to death Abed al-Fattah Yusri.  Again, we can easily conclude that the Israeli’s do target Palestinians. It is fundamentally dishonest of Harris to suggest otherwise.

Furthermore, let us think of the Israeli reaction to this incident. If Harris claims that their intentions are benign and they do not tolerate unethical behaviour, then they would surely have punished Azaria appropriately? Yet, he received an 18 month sentence for it. Again, the global reaction from virtually every civilized nation was condemnation. The Israeli reaction? Netanyahu instantly called for him to be pardoned, calling the whole incident as “painful for his family”. Zero mention of the dead Palestinians family.  I guess in Sam Harris’s bizarre world, this is just another example of Israeli soldiers showing “restraint”.

Harris admits that it is possible that some Israeli soldiers to go “berserk” when faced with Palestinians throwing rocks at them. Again, just watch the video of Yusri’s murder. Azaria did not go berserk. There was no threat to him, there were no Palestinians throwing rocks. Any intelligent person can only come to the conclusion that he thought that Yusri’s life was worth less than an Israeli’s. There is no other explanation. Yet Harris concludes that “we know that Israeli’s do not want to kill non-combatants”. I cannot take this opinion seriously. There is ample conclusive evidence that the Israeli’s do target, intentionally or otherwise.

I agree with Harris that Hamas should not use human shields. He says it is morally abhorrent to shoot “non-combatants if you can avoid it”. Yet, we have seen that Israel does exactly that. Both sides do. They shot a wounded Palestinian in a completely avoidable situation. So, because Hamas uses human shields, it “tells us everything we need to know” about their morality. No, Sam. It tells us that both sides have resorted to barbaric acts. All of these acts should be condemned.

“There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all the Jews in Israel” says Harris, quoting Hamas. This gets to the heart of Harris’s incorrect thinking. He confuses the conflict in Palestine as being a religious one. It is not. It is about the Palestinians right to their own land. He assumes that Palestinians want to see an Islamist state because they voted Hamas in.

Let us compare the situation in Palestine with Iran for a moment. 95% of Iranians voted for Khomeini’s Islamist revolution in 1979. Does the fact that they installed a theocracy give another country the right to take their land if they would install what Harris would deem a morally better society? Of course not.

If we truly believe in democracy, we have to accept what a country votes for. It is a nation deciding its own path. I can disagree with it, sure –as I vehemently do. But if the majority of Iranians or Palestinians want to live in a theocracy, that is their right. And yet, event that is not even what is going on here. Palestinians chose Hamas because they do not see any hope in the face of constant Israeli settlement expansion.

Harris goes on to condemn Muslims who blew themselves up “just to get at the American soldiers giving out candy at them” in Iraq. Oh dear, Sam. Those nice American soldiers, just handing out candy. Really? US good. Muslims bad.

He then refers to the suicide bombers who blew up hospitals as being barbaric. Again, it is easy for any intelligent human to condemn these acts. He speaks as if the US military is above this kind of action. This despite the fact that they deliberately targeted a hospital in Fallujah during the Iraq war in 2004, justifying it by saying it was a propaganda outlet. I guess that was OK for Harris as the overall “intent” was to bring a civil society to Iraq? What a moronic and morally vacuous position to take. All violence should be condemned equally. We should not prioritise Muslim violence over Western violence as they are religious.

As Chomsky pointed out to Harris in their email exchange, everyone believes they have good “intentions”. The Japanese viewed their 1937 rape of Nanjing as justified as they saw the Chinese as or sub human. They were merely bringing civil society to the Chinese. The fact remains. Nobody has the right to take another country over.

 

Conclusion:

 

Harris decides that he “has to side with Israel” as they want to “live peacefully with its neighbours”. Let us remember the definition of the word peaceful. “1: without disturbance; tranquilly. 2: without war or violence”. It may be revealing to ask the ordinary Palestinians whether they see their neighbours as peaceful.

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Review: “The magician” by Raymond E. Feist.

Feist’s 1982 novel “The Magician” is a page-turner, a barnstorming adventure from first page to last. Be warned: do not expect any deeper subtext or subtle revelations here. “The Magician” has only one string to its bow. Although, what a splendid bow it is. The plot is beguiling, moving at a frenetic pace throughout.

The character development is both exciting and anodyne. The main character Pug is a Gandalfian moral magician who is humble and displays a love of learning throughout. This propensity for self improvement is pleasing. He does not just rely on his innate talent but works hard to better himself.

” I’ve seen brave men die because they couldn’t forget they were free” he utters whilst he toils away as a Tsurani slave. The expected route for Pug was to die in chains. It was not his talent that saved him at this point; it was his decision to work hard to overcome his plight. A lesson for us all.

The female characters disappoint the most. Women wait around to marry men in “The Magician”. Take Carline. After she is done waiting for Pug, she shacks up with Roland. Anita and Katala’s lives play out in much the same way. Surely in a fantasy world, women could be imagined as being of equal value? Apparently not.

The magician is like eating a brown paper bag of penny sweets. Fun at the time but results in a sour tongued hollowness afterwards. It follows the classic Lord of the rings template throughout, sometimes drawing too heavily from Tolkien. A holiday read.

 

 

 

 

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Review: “More than this” by Patrick Ness

Ness has written a bleak, coming-of-age science fiction thriller where the protagonists’ emotions swirl around in a dizzying eddy of uneasy teenage sensations. Strange feelings jolt around while an awkward journey of self-discovery unfolds. “More than this” is set in a dystopian sinkhole where vast swathes of society have decided to subjugate their normal everyday experience to a life inside a sleek, shiny coffin, while their brains are logged onto a computer simulation where they live a happier existence in their minds. Think a Young Adult version of the matrix.

 

More than what:

 

There are interesting metaphysical questions throughout. Mainly what does it mean to be alive and what happens when we die? “People see stories everywhere. We put random events together as a story and pretend it’s true”.

This focus on stories is a crucial point about the human minds compulsion to create them. Yuval Noah Harari (author of the important “Sapiens” book) has written religion in a similar light. He labelled it our first quest to find out the answer to a lot of the big questions that we face as a species.

The human mind will search frantically to connect the dots between sometimes random and unconnected ideas.

Ness leaves the ending deliberately opaque. In fact, we are never certain how much of this online simulation is genuine. Somewhat like our belief in God. “There is always something more than this” says Regine, acknowledging that no story can ever provide all the answers.

 

Social Media:

 

I read “More than this” as a critique of the impact that the internet has had on modern life. When tragedy befalls Seth’s family, a social worker steps in to advise them that the best course of action is the escapism of the burgeoning online world that increasing numbers of people were connecting to. It is sold as a panacea to the pain and risk we experience in everyday life. It makes you think: are we already using the internet in this way? Albeit, to a lesser degree.

Seth, Tomasz and Regine ignore the temptation to go back online when they are first disconnected. They have an innate sense that the physical world, with all its flaws, is where they want to be. They are willing to die to stay alive. They understand that the visceral sense of living on the edge, inherent in our mundane daily existence, is something that we need.

“How can you keep anything to yourself in this uselessly connected world” exclaims Seth when the pictures expose his relationship with Goodmund. His phone is the device that is used to rapidly share the inner details of his relationship with his school. Technology has had myriad benefits. Is exposing the inner details of our personal lives one that we should add to the list of human achievements?

Seth even tells us that he dislikes being photographed. It is only because he trusts Goodmund that he allows the picture to be taken, highlighting the enormous control that is now in our hands. The power to make the intensely private public in a matter of seconds. Have we thought this change through?

How will this evolve? Where does this end? We can already see evidence of society questioning the rate of change, with social media providers being increasingly put under pressure to tighten their privacy settings.

Seth sees his relationship with Goodmund as “their own private universe”. This is an interesting concept – that private associations can act as a bulwark against the modern obsession with capturing everything and sharing it online.

 

Life as a homosexual teenager in “More than this”:

 

The reaction to Seth coming out is mixed. His mother is angry, his father accepting. He knows that society is set up such that he will be “teased” in school when his sexuality is exposed. Goodmund cannot return to school for some time as he is in fear of being bullied when he does. His parents do not accept him.

The name Goodmund is interesting, symbolising all that is good in Seth’s life. Monica decides that she has to out Goodmund after discovering the pictures. She is ashamed of being with a bisexual man. Why? Is she just hurt because her boyfriend cheated on her or does it hurt more because it was with another man? That the word “good” is used to describe a teenager confused about their sexuality, is important, as it tells us that this sense of confusion is a normal process to go through.

Ultimately, Seth is driven to suicide after being outed as a gay man in love with a school friend. He feels he has no other out and drowns himself. Social media and

 

Environmental concerns:

 

We are told that governments encourage its citizens to go into hyper sleep in “More than this” as it would help the environment. This is an intriguing idea. If millions of people were to not consume for their whole lives, it could change the economics involved in order to save the planet. It seems a strange way to live but the less we eat and travel could make the difference between saving our doomed planet or the destruction of it. This is the most pressing issue we are dealing with as a species. Maybe Ness has offered an unconventional solution.

 

Conclusion:

As our lives digitize at an astounding rate, we are beginning to confront the reality of the impact that AI will soon have upon us as a species. Will the “world go online to forget itself” as Ness imagines?

Or will we evolve as Seth does when he progresses to becomes a “man who saves his friends”, having been unable to protect his brother as a child?

The real question is whether we will have the collective humanity to make the right ethical decisions to safeguard the future of the planet.

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Fed18

I scrambled out of bed, Sunday 29th January 2017. Brewed some coffee, whacked on some toast and settled in to watch Fedal, mark 34. Surely for the last time in a Slam final. I tried to hold back the waves of nervous energy, screwing up my face at each crucial point, firing off mini fist bumps to myself after he had hit a winner. Having seen him stay on 17 Slams for so long, I had all but given up hope of the magical 18th. It’s impossible to convey the greatness of Federer in words. It really is. David Foster Wallace has come the closest to articulating it: 

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html

I am no believer in divinity or religion. It was the beginning of our quest for answers as a species. Watching Federer glide around that Melbourne court as the sun set made me question my stance. He transcends tennis, sport, life, the fucking lot. 

Can Darwin really tell me that any human will evolve past Fed18?

I had planned on writing something about the great man that January morning but my emotions got the better of me. It’s taken me months to get some cogent thoughts on Fed18. 18!

 

Style:

I’m not a fashionable or stylish man and am no sort of a judge of whether anyone else is for that matter. Even for someone so immune to the concept, Federer’s elegance is startling. That simple white tee shirt he wore in the final with the black Picasso brushstrokes etched in symmetrical lines, the orange Nike Logo in the top corner matching his sneakers and orange Logo on his shorts. If I was Mark Parker, I would double, triple, quadruple the amount I give him.

 

Grace:

/greIs/

noun

  1. Smoothness and elegance of movement.
  2. Courteous and good will.

verb

  1. Bring honour or credit (to someone or something) by one’s attendance or participation.

 

Headband:

That emotive, inscrutable facial expression as he wipes his forehead.

 

Gritty and determined resolve:

As evident in the pre-match warm up: I am going to do this. I can do this. I am going to do this. We are going to do this. I read Alastair Campbell’s book “Winners” at the turn of the year and he wrote about successful people having an ability to visualise how they would win. Most likely Fed is above this japery as it’s all far too natural for him. I detected something in that face though. I am going to take this chance. Not letting this opportunity slip. I am doing this. We are doing this.

 

Unclogging his mental block with Nadal:

The actual act of visualisation seems relatively straightforward. Totally different when staring directly down the barrel of defeat and fighting your way to victory. Battling through a mental block. Ameliorating it. Killing it.

Going into the final with a 22-11 losing record versus his old nemesis, I was frantic for this old psychological wound not to rear its unsightly head. Long-time Federer fans must have thought the game was up after that early break in the 5th. Watching him attack that inner demon: screaming at him, imploring him, beseeching him: you can’t do this. You are not going to do this. We are going to lose this. You could see it in his facial expressions. Watching him conquer it was extraordinary.

 

Showering in the fountain of youth:

When he lost in five to Novak in Wimbledon 2014 and then in four a year later, the rational part of my brain accepted that Number eighteen would probably never arrive…

 

Lackofsweaterer:

Observe Rafa between points: caked in perspiration, gigantic beads of sweat unstoppably falling from his head onto the hard-Australian turf. Meanwhile, behold Fed! Nada. Ni una gota as he GOAT’d his way around.

 

The BachHand:

Having watched Nadal bludgeon Federer’s backhand to within a millimetre of virtual annihilation in the past, how reassuring it was to watch the GOAT caress several crosscourt backhand winners into the Australian twilight. Nadal demonstrated his tested tactic of repetitively hitting it to the backhand. When it did not break down, he had no alternative strategy.

 

Winning:

Fed hit 73 winners to Rafa’s 35 in the final. That’s 108% more.

 

The fist pumps:

Squinting the eyes, flexing the muscles. Exerting a controlled, polished, elegant bump to pep himself up. CHUM JETZE.

 

Game Fdrrrr

The way the Umpire’s said it. They know, they damn well know, that with a single iteration, they can etch themselves into the very fabric of the sport. Game Fed-ur-ur. Game Feddd-urrr-urrr.

 

Serve Volley:

5th set. 0-2. 30-0. That volley.

 

Mirka:

She wasn’t quite at Wawrinka level of pumped up ness,  yet her passion was laid bare as it always is. Living every point with him. Her fist pumps – more hawkish, less dignified. The look of despair and horror when he went a break down. Her giant group hug with his team at the end.

 

Beginning of the end.

“I hope to see you next year, but if not, this was a wonderful run here”. The thought of watching Grand Slams without him.

 

The comeback:

I am ashamed that I wrote him off at 0-2 in the 5th. I just couldn’t see it. That march to win 5 of the last 6 games with everything seemingly stacked against him still astonishes me. Even repeated viewing leaves me shocked. Instantly one of my favourite ever sporting memories.

 

The moment of victory:

A true “Federer moment” as Wallace would say. My first instinct was a somewhat irrational sense of anger when Nadal challenged, as I thought it denied Fed18 the uncontrollable outpouring of happiness that we so often see. Retrospectively, he got a better chance to relish the moment. Pure ecstasy. Undeniable elation. He was out on his own at 17 for so long, daring the rest of the freaks to catch up. Getting so close to 18 must have been unbearably cruel for him. Swotted away by the leaner, fitter Djokovic machine. He earned Number 18 the hard way.

 

The “GOAT” debate:

Settled now. The tennis one, anyway.

 

GSM:

I couldn’t hold back my smile that Sunday morning. Texting two friends to share the drama and joy, the conversation inevitably turned to the newly elected President Trump. My friend Kev, who has two kids, remarked: What do I tell them when he’s doing all this mad stuff?

Tell them about Roger Federer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: “Revolutionary Iran. A history of the Islamist Republic” by Michael Axworthy.

Axworthy has written a scholarly history of Twentieth Century Iran. He does justice to a country with one of the most complex histories in the world by unearthing painstaking detail on how various internal regimes have functioned down the years. There is so much detail to learn that sometimes getting through a chapter requires multiple readings to fully digest it all. For anyone interested in political structures and systems of governance you could not find a more varied and fascinating case study than Iran. I am still trying to understand to what extent it can be described as democratic, theocratic or autocratic! These are the main themes I want to discuss here. Axworthy’s book is absolutely vital for anyone wishing to learn about Iranian history from the 20th Century onwards.

 

Democracy in Iran:

 

Persia, and latterly Iran, has had a convoluted and complicated relationship with democracy. They have been partially democratic to fluctuating degrees. Axworthy sums it up best when he quotes the old proverb “The voice of the people is the voice of God” to describe Khomeini’s Islamist power grab in February 1979. Iran became a theocracy with a democratic afterthought post revolution.

When Khomeini installed himself as the Supreme Leader – he decided who could get elected to the Iranian parliament- the Majles. There were debates among Khomeini and his revolutionaries who took over in 1979 about what to rename Iran. Before it became the Islamic Republic of Iran, the two other options were the Democratic Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Democratic Republic of Iran. There was no doubt that they believed they were instituting a democracy in some way, shape or form. The revolution was legitimate too – 98% of the 15m who voted – gave direct authorisation for the country to be an Islamic theocracy.

The first constitution in Iran in 1906 integrated Shia Islam, an elected parliament and the Shah. Therefore, we can conclude that there was a theocratic, democratic and autocratic element in the government of Iran from the outset. Even during the process which created the Majles, under therule of the Shah, there were dissenting voices. Ayatollah Taleghani, who vigorously opposed the Shah, said “may god forbid autocracy under the name of religion”. It is noteworthy that an Iranian theologian understood the danger of one system ruling over another. In some ways, this is symptomatic of the macro picture – you have these strong internal forces battling with each other to rule the country.

In 1911, the new Iranian parliament, the Majles was beginning to gain traction and influence in society. William Schuster was attempting to push Iran down a Western style democratic path. The concept was met with resistance from the autocratic and theocratic wings that were themselves vying for power. Externally, Russia saw this new move as a threat to a country very close to them. Simultaneously the British were busy pillaging Iran’s oil supply for themselves. Whilst the constitution was technically in effect now, Iran was effectively run by scores of local regional leaders. This internal division permitted foreign influence to take hold.

By 1915, there was constant war in Persia. The Russians, British, Kurdish, Jangali, Ottomans and Germans were all active in the region at various times. When the communist Tudeh movement sprang up in the 1940’s, the Russians moved in to Northern Iran, which sparked a war with the Allies. The Shah eventually managed to maintain enough control so Iran could remain a sovereign country.

 

Shah Autocracy:

 

As the Majles had become the vent for those Iranian citizens trying to clutch to the idea that they could determine their own future, the Shah held a much more dominant influence on the country. Reza Shah governed from 1926 until 1941 and oversaw huge development in Iran. He changed the name from Persia to Iran in 1935 and was primarily a militarist, overseeing the doubling of the army. School attendances in Iran increased from 50,000 in 1922 to 450,000 in 1938. The Hijab was banned and the country was largely secular. This irritated the Ulemas who updated the Shia religious texts for each generation and believed that society was changing too quickly.

When Reza Shah refused to expel the German forces, who were extremely influential in Iran in 1941, the Allies invaded and took the country over. They replaced Reza Shah with his son Mohammed Shah who ruled until the revolution in 1979. The British wanted to keep the oil for themselves and envisioned Reza Shah as the man to keep the black gold flowing from Iran to the United Kingdom.

The 1949 assassination attempt on the Shah quashed any remaining hopes of Iran becoming a more open society. He began to repress the Iranian people to an increasingly higher degree until he was deposed by the revolution. From 1963 to 1976, Iran underwent a huge economic boom – averaging a growth rate of 8% per year. This allayed the concerns of people whilst they simultaneously felt the noose of social repression tightening. The GDP increased from $200 in 1963 to $2000 in 1976.

The population exploded from 19m in 1956 to 33m in 1976 as car production rose from 7,000 a year to 109,000. Coal production saw a similar jump from 285,000 tonnes a year to 900,000 tonnes. The economic spurt meant that the Shah could significantly improve life for ordinary Iranians. With the largely secular modernisation of Iran, the Shah won many followers.

However, like all dictators, power corrupted him. He was paranoid about the English trying to execute him. His regime was endemically corrupt and everyday Iranians knew this. They wanted change. His personal military, the SAVAK, reduced the number of books in circulation from 4,000 to 1,000. He locked up 4,000 people in jail, many of whom without trial. Amnesty International’s 1979 report identified that 900 of these people were tortured.

The beginning of the end for the Shah was in January 1978 when an article was published alleging that the main opposition leader Khomeini was gay. This was a shock and people began huge protests across the country.

In the Jaleq square massacre in 1978, innocent protestors were killed. This sparked further outrage and culminated in mass protests of between 500,000-1,000,000 people. The situation became uncontrollable as members of the SAVAK were thrown from the rooftops of buildings for trying to keep a lid on things. Khomeini returns from isolation in Paris to institute the revolution.

 

Iranian Prime Ministers:

 

There have been 49 democratically elected Prime Ministers of Iran from 1906 to present day. There are many question marks over just how legitimate these elections were. Until the 1979 revolution, the Prime Minister was very much subservient to the Shah. This was always explicit. Different Prime Minsters tried to wield varying degrees of power with the Shah. Invariably they would lose.

We can see the Prime Ministers in Iran seeking to consolidate power as leaders as the push of democratic forces exerting themselves in the triumvirate of political systems. The best example of this was the famous Mosaddegh who governed from 1951 to 1953. He pushed back against the British imperialists to nationalise the Iranian old companies, cutting off all diplomatic ties with them in 1952. This sparked a trade boycott with England. He also tried to limit the power of the Shah by removing his name from military barracks and attempting to kerb his constitutional capacity to govern. Mosaddegh tried to fight the autocratic and theocratic forces in Iran and, concurrently, the British. He was a reformer who tried to push Iran in a self-ruling direction.

Churchill desperately wanted him overthrown so they could retain their plundering of Iran’s oil. Roosevelt in America was worried that Mosaddegh’s socialist urges were pointing Iran in a more communist direction during the cold war. Both countries combined to overthrow him and give complete control back to the Shah. However, it is important to dispel the myth in the West that a democracy was overthrown. It wasn’t. The Shah still had most control and the theocrats were also working away under the surface. That being said, it was a disgraceful act to overthrow him. Chiefly from the British who were operating out of pure greed. What right had they to Iranian oil? None. The incident was a turning point which left the country under more of a dictatorship.

From 1953 onwards until the revolution, almost all the Prime Ministers were in the pocket of the Shah. He realised how much power Mosaddegh had accrued and what a danger he had become to his position and hired subservient characters from then onwards to ensure a repeat would not happen.

Post revolution, the Prime Minister had to kowtow to the Supreme Leader. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that Iran has ever really had a genuinely democratically elected Prime Minster. The Shah used to, effectively, handpick which Prime Minister he wanted and this same allegation is now being levelled at the Supreme Leader as he decides who can run for office. Certainly the 2005 election where Ahmadinejad beat Rafsanjani was riddled with inaccuracies and reports of corruption. Four years later and fresh allegations that vote rigging took place surfaced. The regional percentage was suspiciously in line with the national average.

 

Theocracy:

 

Whilst the powers of the Shah and the Majles were colliding and scrapping for supremacy, there was the ever present strain of Shia Islam vying for power under the surface. Khomeini was the main leader of the religious opposition during this time and he pushed for Shia Islam to be the main force in ruling Iran. He fought bitterly against the Shah in the run up the revolution, leading many protests against him.

Once in power, theocracy replaced autocracy, in the main, and democracy was marginalised. However, all three forces were (and still are still are) present. The role of the Supreme Leader can be seen as autocratic and theocratic.

The Islamist regime cracked down on the somewhat free press and civil society once they began governing. 580 Iranian citizens were killed in the first year after the revolution for sexual and dissent offences. The post Tudeh lefist organisation, the MKO, fought with Khomeini for influence in society. The administration killed between 2,000-7,000 of the MKO to try to stamp their voice out. It is a shocking example of how any wayward voices were crushed with power. The regime used the harshest elements of autocracy to enforce their policies on the population.

Fast forward to 1988 and the regime massacred approximately 5,000 MKO and Tudeh leftists in their attempt to further kill off these movements. It is the largest clampdown on opposition parties in modern Iranian political history – far more so than the Shah.

 

The Iran – Iraq war:

 

Axworthy has an interesting theory about the opaque border between the two countries as not being as big a contributory factor to the war as some other historians deemed it. He viewed it more through the lens as Saddam Hussein being an opportunist and trying to take advantage of a volatile new regime after the revolution. The Iraqi tyrant also resented the Iranian backing of the Kurds in Northern Iraq and sought revenge for this.

Initially the Iranian regime blamed the 45,000 Iraqi ground troops in Iran as a US conspiracy and tried to downplay the situation. This gave Iraq the initial advantage. Luckily for Iran, the Iraqi air force was inept and unable to exploit the element of surprise they had. Even more fortuitously and ironically, the Shah had invested heavily in modernising the Iranian air force. Despite the regime’s initial misgivings about the intentions of the pilots, once they employed their superiority in the skies it enabled the Iranians to deal several decisive blows to the invading Iraqis.

The war also cemented relations between Iran and many other countries. Syria began obtaining its oil from Iran, not Iraq, in 1982. The Iranians never forgot this show of loyalty and are repaying it now by propping up then ruler Hafez’s son Bashar Assad. Iran also despised how the Americans supported Iraq economically and militarily during the war. This soldered the previous ill feeling between the two countries and ratcheted up tensions previously only seen during the hostage crisis.

 

Iranian culture:

 

Although primarily a history book, there are some fascinating insights into the political influence that Iranian literary and cultural forces exerted. Forough Farrokhzad’s poetry about feminism in Iran in the 1960’s reflected the changing the increased Westernisation and potential move in a more progressive direction at the time.

Ahmad Salu’s poem that wrote about “this dead end” highlighted the growing repression in Iran at the time.

In the first year of the 1979 revolution after Khomeini has consolidated power, the annual literary festival that was scheduled in October and November was cancelled. Again, underscoring the repression that the theocratic government was to unleash on Iranian citizens. Denying them their freedom.

In February 1980, 38 writers, scholars and journalists wrote to Khomeini to tell him that the new repression from the regime was becoming worse than that of the deposed Shah.

Nine years later Khomeini put a bounty on Salman Rushdie’s head for publishing the Satanic Verses. Ironically, they had previously give Rushdie an award for one of his books. The incident was frightening in that it showed the lengths that the Iranians would go to repress free thought.

 

Conclusion:

 

One the benefits of Shia Islam is that it has the potential to be flexible. The fact that the Ulemas can update old religious texts for new generations proves that it can be somewhat adaptable to an ever evolving world. It will permit reformers and this is something the West needs to be open to and work with. This is not to say that the Iranian theocratic state is the way of the future. It most certinaly isn’t.

However, it does indicate a path forward. Think of Mohammad Khatami, who served as President from 1997 to 2005. He opened 740 newspapers and journals. His rhetoric about liberalizing Iran was welcome. Likewise, Mohsen Kadivar’s wide reaching vision of believing that human rights and democracy are compatible with historical Islam, if not in Koranic Islam. Surely these are signs that indicate a path to a potentially more secular future? Yes, Kadivar was cheated out of the 2009 election and one can despair at this. Yet, the point surely remains, that Iran retains a potential to have a future in which liberal values and Islam can live peacefully side by side. We live in hope that it is a matter of time before the Nobel peace winning Shirin Ebadi and her ilk begin to win more sway in Iran.

Alternatively, one can view the 2000 Majles elections as proof that the regime hardliners interpreted a move to democracy as an implicit threat to the theocratic Iranian state. They were afraid that the country would become secular and ensured that reformers would not get into power in the future. As with its history, Iran’s future remains extremely complicated. Axworthy has written an erudite and essential history which will benefit anyone wanting to get up to speed.

Posted in Book, Books, Democracy, History, Iran, Iranian revolution, Michael Axworthy, Persia, Repression, Shia Islam, The Shah, theocracy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: “A brief history of seven killings” by Marlon James.

James has written an exhilarating, transnational, cross generational vice city ride through the garbage town wastelands of the Jamaican ghettos and the slum tenements of New York City. Written with the distinct cadence of Jamaican patois, A Brief History is the voice of the gang ridden, vicious underbelly of the Jamaican slums. The attempted execution of “the singer” Bob Marley is, incredibly, almost a sub plot! A Brief History is more concerned with the violent impact that living in poverty had on the local population, the rampant drug use in poor areas, giving a voice to the disenfrashised, observing the various layers in the Jamaican social strata, the plight of homosexual men, politics, police brutality and the awful way women were treated. Yeah, you could say it is wide ranging and ambitious. It’s a must-read masterpiece.

 

Drugs:

 

Life in the Jamaican ghetto is riddled with violence and drug taking. It becomes a crutch for the gangsters in the ghetto to bolster their confidence when murdering innocent people. Sex and violence and hardship and drugs go together. Bam Bam wants to “Fuck fuck fuck” after freebasing coke. “This is what it must feel like when woman get her titties sucked” he thinks, articulating his rush. His base desires to fuck and kill come to the surface, his thoughts turn dark and he wants to ring a boy’s neck and “rub his face” in the blood.

People use narcotics to numb themselves to the harsh conditions they live in. When gang members get high, their morals are loosened up sufficiently to justify the killing in their minds. It is a deliberate strategy on the part of the gang leaders too – they strategically ply them full of drugs before venturing out on their hits. Papa Lo loads his crew up on the white stuff before rampaging through West Trenchtown on a murderous rampage. “I hate trying to think in a straight line, but in Jamaica a straight line is white” expresses the desire to abstain in a neighbourhood awash with dope.

 

Class:

 

“It’s nothing to kill a boy” in the ghetto says Bam Bam. It’s understood that the value on life is worth less in the ghetto. His character is instructive as to the issues with generational poverty; his father having beaten his mother for being a prostitute and them both being callously murdered. How could he escape the life pre ordained for him?

Kim Clarke offers a solution – to leave. She understands that “Jamaica never changes. Only finds new ways to stay the same” and takes appropriate action to get out.

Josey Wales feels he must act unintelligent when conversing with the CIA so as not to arouse suspicion. They are so supercilious they view him as barely being able to talk and certainly not capable of insightful thought. “Remember to throw in a thank you man” and act dumb, he keeps reminding himself, so they can keep pigeonholing him as a mindless hired goon.

The CIA are frequently found espousing democracy and completely missing the point that class is a bigger issue. They ignore the poverty and focus on preventing communism. “Who cares about peace” pleads Josey, highlighting the real issue holding Jamaica back.

Alex Pierce, the Rolling Stone journalist and writer, is seen by Tristan Philips as the only person who can “write the whole 400 year reason why my country is going to fail”. It is telling that Philips sees a white man as the only one capable of this.   The uneducated people living in poverty have not had access to sufficient education to be able to tell their story.

Not that the characters fare that much better in the US. Dorcas Palmer is still cleaning up the shit and piss of people in her job. The gangbangers still gangbang.

Josey Wales muses on the difference between the Jamaican ghetto and the tenements in New York “nobody knows the difference between a good thing and a bigger bad thing”.

 

Homosexuality in “A Brief History of seven killings”:

 

Weeper does take advantage of the social freedoms in America. He lives openly as a gay man in New York having been unable to in Jamaica. The level of homophobia in the Jamaican ghettoes is staggering by any metric. The incessant use of the derogatory term “Batty boy” to describe homosexuals is frightening. It is intended and employed as a viscous slur. Weeper cannot escape this when dealing with his fellow Jamaican gangsters in New York. The country has changed but the taunting gang members remain the same.

This is not say that homosexual men had it easy in America. Consider John John K when his father finds his gay porn stash “Fucking dirty little faggot. There is a special place in hell for people like you”. Despite this, he is able to hold his ground with his father and have the confidence to make the decision. The two characters symbolise the struggle for acceptance that gay people underwent to push society forward.

 

Feminism:

 

Women have to fight hard to live independent lives in both countries. In Jamaica: they cannot. Nina Burgess gets violently beaten by her father Maurice. This theme of brutal domestic violence being meted out to women is frequent throughout.

It pushes Nina over the edge and she runs away from her family. When she shacks up with the American man Chuck, he begins to casually refer to her (now Kim Clarke) as his “sexy little slut”. Clarke is well used to this male behaviour and casually bats it off as “one of two hundred mistakes men make with women they live with every day”. It is systematic and institutionalised sexism.

Clarke is the real heroine of the story.  Setting her sights on escaping from Jamaica next, she has to clean, cook and fuck her American male partner to try to get him to get a green card and go to America with him. “You never become a difficult bitch. That’s the white woman’s territory” she thinks, afraid to jeopardize her future. Her devastation when he inevitably discards her is tough to read and emblematic of the American male attitude to Jamaican women. Clarke says they want to “educate” them, underscoring the racist misogyny at play.

 

Police Brutality:

 

The democratic institutions in Jamaica are not sufficiently setup to maintain a peaceful society in the 1970s. The police respond to the violence on the streets in kind. Citizens are found guilty without trial. Weeper has his penis electrocuted whilst being tortured in prison, traumatising him for the rest of his life.

The police strip suspects and get them to nakedly gyrate against the empty pavement; to fuck the ground. They are demeaned and persecuted without due process. Papa Lo and his gang are gunned down in broad daylight as the Jamaican police are judge, jury and executioner. They are endemically corrupt; taking bribes from the gangsters.

 

Jamaican Politics:

 

“It looks like we are planning for war while everyone else is planning for peace” Josey says to himself as he works out why the US is sending huge shipments of arms to help repel the communist PLP party and kill off Bob Marley. The attempted assassination of the reggae superstar is bizarre. There is an interesting story told where an unnamed CIA operative warns him not to get so political during a break in his rehearsals. He asks him why he doesn’t sing the “sweet love songs” anymore.

There is lots of humour in the story. My favourite is when the CIA give Josey Wales a picture book aimed at school children about the benefits of democracy. “Look here’s someone eating a twinkie” in a utopian democratic society! During the planning of Marley’s assassination, Josey is frequently referred to as “my boy” in a demeaning and sarcastic tone. Lewis Johnson refers to him as his “well trained” dog. The imperialism dressed up as democracy promotion is thinly veiled.

 

Conclusion:

 

The enormous scope of A Brief History can make it daunting at first. It is a long and sprawling novel which could just as easily been called “A long and detailed history of a thousand killings”! Yet it succeeds beautifully in every regard. It works as an adrenaline fuelled page turner and also as a forensic study of Jamaican society in the 70s, 80 and 90s. I’ll leave it to Tristan Philips to sum it up best: “Mind you now Alex Pierce. Jamaica can shoot through your veins and it became like every dark thing that not good for you”.

Posted in A brief history of seven killings, Democracy, Marlon James | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Review: “Judging Dev” by Diarmaid Ferriter

From the early 1990’s, De Valera’s reputation began to take such a relentless battering, it seemed that a complete downgrading of his status in Irish history had taken place. Did it begin with Tim Pat Coogan’s 1993 biography? Possibly.  His villainous role in the Michael Collins movie certainly didn’t help. A subsequent prevailing narrative has attempted to reduce his legacy to that visit to Eduoard Hempel and paint him as a Nazi sympathising, God-fearing, bespectacled theocrat. Earlier this year, some thugs even went as far as to desecrate the man’s grave. This 2007 biography gives a broad and fair assessment to one of the founding fathers of the modern Irish state. His legacy is large and complex, making it impossible to capture in one book. Ferriter makes a great attempt.

 

Democracy:

 

Ferriter cites lots of sources and biographies of De Valera when evaluating him. Referring to Peter Mair, he calculates that De Valera’s “greatest achievement” was when he “ensured that democracy survived in the new Irish State”. Specifically, he referred to the peaceful transfer of power in 1932 and 1933 against the backdrop of the insidious rise of fascism in Europe. As it is all too facile to analyse Ireland from a modern liberal democratic perspective,  it is essential to contextualise how easy it would have been for the country to slide into a dictatorship in the 1930s. It is a little-known fact that Ireland was a rare example of a country that underwent a revolution in the early Twentieth Century and became a democratic state. Most other revolutions ended in the countries becoming communist or fascist regimes. De Valera played a key role in ensuring that we went down the right route. It is obvious that Dev was tempted by the benefits of autocracy from his musing in a letter to Charles De Gaulle of how it was “easier” for the more autocratically minded politicians to lead and be decisive. The temptation to push Ireland down this path must have been great. Thankfully, we gave power to the Irish citizens.

There were widespread accusations in 1932 that De Valera was using the army to install himself as the head of a dictatorship. Dev moved quickly to de militarise the Irish state. This achievement cannot be understated. The separation of state and military was key to the evolution of the peaceful state.

The book lovingly reproduces lots of original correspondences De Valera had with a wide range of leaders and contemporaries. It makes for some fascinating reading. There is a letter between Nixon and De Valera replicated, where the American President praised the burgeoning democracy in Ireland. Dev intrinsically knew that it was critical for Ireland to gain legitimacy as a sovereign state by sending leaders abroad and speaking on behalf of the country so the world would view us a sovereign and independent nation in our own right.

In the 1923 election, there was a turnout of 23%. Fast forward to 1938 and this had increased to 75%. The Irish people embraced democracy as soon as they were given a chance. The fact is that De Valera loved the cut and thrust of electioneering and the “canvassing and ferrying passengers on polling day”.

When De Valera created the role of President in Ireland, he was careful to ensure it had no executive powers and was independent from the political process. Again, people thought that De Valera might use this as a position for life and a way to continue ruling once he had stepped down as leader of Fianna Fail.

In one of his later letters, De Valera wrote that “if people begin to go outside the constitution in terms of political objectives, then we are moving towards the end of the rule of law in Ireland. And what rule do we have then? We shall be at the mercy of the man with a gun in his hand; and so much for the Irish history in democracy”. Indeed.

It is interesting that Dev tried and failed to abolish proportional representation in 1959. Traditionally this helps the smaller parties gain more traction in a democracy. Was he trying to ensure Fianna Fail kept their commanding position in the long term, thereby subverting democracy? Thankfully, the will of the Irish people ensured this did not happen.

 

Religion:

 

Whilst I disagree with how Catholicism shaped parts of our constitution, many of which are causing us to ignore basic human rights of Irish citizens to this very day, it must be acknowledged that De Valera had to fight to reduce the role of religion in the new state. The Pope criticised him at the time for not going far enough. The modern-day image of Dev as this dyed in the wool Catholic is not entirely accurate. During the 1943 Fianna Fail Ard Fheis, he said “I think it is just as absurd to have that type of protection as to have here, where 93% population are Catholics. An organisation for the protection of their interests”. He was clear in his desire for a pluralist state. From a Twenty First Century perspective, I can say definitively that it is wrong that religion played such a large part in the founding of our constitution. However, as with any proper analysis, it is essential to understand the context. This does not justify the outcome but, by reading Ferriter’s book, it does permit us to become more objective about the social and political situation the emerging Irish state was in.

 

Women’s rights:

 

De Valera’s Ireland created that a state that was, and still is, hugely misogynistic. He failed to create an equal Ireland for women and this was wholly unacceptable. In 1936, Irish women were prohibited from working. The constitution did not give Irish women autonomy over their bodies either, denying them the most basic of human rights.

During the 1926 Senate race between Kathleen Clarke and Margaret Pearse, Dev famously said that “the party would not support two women”. An appallingly misogynistic statement. The 1935 act that outlawed contraception doomed Irish women into having large families, putting many of their lives at risk during multiple strained childbirths. Even considering the epoch he was living in, these restrictions of the rights of Irish women were gross violations of half the population of the state.

 

Fianna Fail:

 

He created one of the most successful political parties, not just in Ireland, but in any Western democracy. The key to their success was undoubtedly their appeal as a broad church. Even during the founding of the state, they were not ideologically driven. Thomas Johnston, the old Labour Party leader, claimed that Fianna Fail stole 15 of their socialist pledges, making it difficult not to think of Bertie’s conversion to Joe Higgins style socialism! This theme of being a party to capture all parts of society was well known. In Richard Dunphy’s book, he wrote about the “growth of (the) protected national bourgeoisie and the working class, as well as an increase in trade union membership”. This has been a key element to the Party’s success ever since. Ireland is a small country of 4.5 million people. It stands to reason that capturing that middle ground will cast the largest net. They tried not to stray too far to the left or right; always coming back to the centre.

In a 1926 interview with free press Dev said, “the name Fianna Fáil (warrior destiny) has been chosen to symbolise a banding together of the people for national service, with a standard of personal honour for all who join, as high as that which characterised the ancient Fianna Eireann, and a spirit of devotion of that equal to that of the Irish volunteers”. The modern version of Fianna Fail would do well to heed De Valera’s words. The corruption of later leaders was not in keeping with his ethics.

 

Morals

 

He was generally a principled and ethical man with the obvious exception of the controversy late in his life where his ownership of 90,000 shares in Irish press stood to enrich De Valera and his grandson. This after he had repeatedly preached the necessity that state and business should be kept separate. However, Ferriter highlights Bryan Alton’s letter to Jack Lynch in 1973 stating that Dev was suffering from depression since he didn’t have money to look after his wife. Logically, it is fair to conclude that he did not benefit to any serious financial degree by plundering the resources of the Irish state, like future Fianna Fail leaders would. If you take the entirety of his life, it is rational to deduce he generally put the Irish state first and did the right thing.

 

Conclusion:

 

“Judging Dev” is a tough task. He bequeathed us many elements of the peaceful society that we have today. Ireland ranks 6th in world for the strength of our democracy. In fact, read any objective report on Ireland – the world happiness report or the press freedoms report for example – and Ireland is always in the top 10-20. Dev played a significant role in creating the conditions that would allow the country to flourish in the future. Most importantly through his persistence that we democratise and de-militarise. He did allow his religious beliefs to erroneously affect the constitution of Ireland and created a Constitution which treats 50% of people without dignity. All of this needs to be considered when making any conclusion about the man. I find it difficult to reach a definitive outcome. Ferriter’s book is an essential read for anyone who wants a fair and accurate portrayal of De Valera.

Posted in Biography, Book review, Books, Democracy, Diarmaid Ferriter, Eamon De Valera | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment