Jason Brownlee, Tarek Masoud, Andrew Reynolds: “The Arab Spring. Pathways of Repression And Reform”.

The Middle East was thrown into a tailspin on 17th December 2010 when 26-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest against the repression in his native country.  The protest spread to Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Syria and Yemen, and its shockwaves reverberate to this day. The authors of this book analyse the Arab Spring from a structural point of view, seeking to understand why governments fell in four countries and how civil unrest resulted in ninety thousand deaths over three years in sixteen  different countries.

The authors cite a key idea from Transitions From Authoritarian Rule, that “democratisation was most likely when incumbents and opposition forces were equally matched”. In states where the security apparatus was overwhelmingly strong, the likelihood of transition decreased.  The age of the population was a slight, but in no way decisive factor, at an average of 24 years old in the countries where the government changed and 26 where it did not. Only 12% of Egyptians used social media, as did only 6% of Yemenis, which belies the common narrative that this was a foundation of the Arab Spring. Clearly, it played a part, but it was not a prerequisite factor.

The 1973 Syrian and Egyptian War on the Sinai Peninsula and the KSA’s cessation of oil supply to the US were key moments when the US decided to work with dictators in the region.   This resulted in the awkward fact that “just as a democratic wave was about to break over much of the world, Arab regimes were anchored by Western powers” and, of course, the richer the country the more they could buy off the support of angry citizens.

Hereditary regimes such as Syria had a stronger grip on power compared to the non-hereditary ones like Egypt and Tunisia, where revolution became more likely. Quoting sociologist Dietrich Rueschmeyer, the authors describe how “capitalist development furthers the growth of civil society-by increasing the level of urbanization, by bringing workers together in factories, by improving the means of communication and transportation, by raising the level of literacy”. This is taken for granted in the West, but that it did not happen in the Middle East meant that democratisation was extremely difficult. International democracy expert Thomas Carothers is also cited as evidence that a smooth transition would be troublesome when most of the countries did not have this in place: “even under the best of circumstances building an extensive local party structure usually takes many years”. This much was obvious after the United States’ disastrous and illegal invasion of Iraq. The Arab Spring has been compared to the velvet post-communist democratisation but that process involved European countries which were considerably richer.  The more accurate framing of the Arab Spring is that which Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn observed of the “long nineteenth century” of democratisation that succeeded the French Revolution: that revolution and its aftermath is but the start of a lengthy process. The Arab Spring was only seven years ago so the current process is very much in its infancy.

“On balance, the evidence suggests oil-rich states will exhibit higher levels of despotic power than their peers that lack high levels of non-tax revenue” write the authors. This explains why the KSA did not even come close to falling: they were able to pay off their people.  The poor and non-hereditary regimes had a very high likelihood of being overthrown. Rich regimes bought off the opposition.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown after months of trying to stay in power. He was eventually replaced by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, the so-called “consensus candidate”. Yemen did incorporate former government people into their new post-Saleh Hadi government, which led to huge protests that forced Hadi’s hand into firing Saleh’s cronies. Consequently, the old people retained a lot of power and were never fully deposed, which created a civil war (although this book was published before that status was officially recognised).

In Tunisia, the Chief of Staff of the armed forces, Rachid Ammar, refused to fire on innocent protestors as instructed by President Ben Ali. Once the military turned against the dictator, that was it. It is a tragedy that Assad did not cede power in the same fashion and before the opposition became extremists. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia did not rush into elections and the clearing out of all the old governments’ officials. They focused more on the process of setting up the system of governance, rather than who was to be in power. As Francis Fukuyama noted in The Origins Of Political Order, this is the critical bit to get right. We see it with Trump at the moment in the US too. The systems of governance and separation of powers are more important than who is in power.  The UGTT union played a critical role in the Tunisian revolution because it set an example of a democratic structure that worked. Tunisians also had a large civil society that helped the transition. To date, Tunisia has been the most positive outcome from the Arab Spring: “Though Tunisia’s democracy is far from consolidated, it has so far managed to pull off a feat that eluded Egyptians: taming Islamist power while preserving fledgling democratic systems”.

In Libya, the conclusion was that “without the intervention Qaddafi would certainly have clung to power”. This was, in part, because political parties had been banned in Libya since the monarchy took power. With Qaddafi being captured in October 2011 and elections being held in July 2012, there was not enough time for proper democratic systems to be set up. The country was run regionally by 140 tribes who sided with the rebels. After numerous elections, “the majority of Libyans seem to have concluded that elected institutions are but a sideshow” and that democracy is unimportant. This is proof that foreign intervention to set up democracies does not work. Countries must themselves desire the change and be ready for it.

On 4th March 2011, in post-Mubarak Egypt, Mohamed El Baradei said that “a new constitution must precede all elections”. There was tension between the Muslim Brotherhood, who wanted immediate elections, and opposition parties, who wanted a transition whilst working on creating the framework of democracy. The SCAF were still in control and let the Mubarak-dominated officials play a major role in running the country, even after the Muslim Brotherhood had won the election with 42% of the vote in January 2012. After Morsi had been elected president, he tried to sideline the SCAF and the judiciary. On Nov 22nd, 2012, Morsi overreached by implementing a law that said the president’s word was final, which Egyptian people saw as a sign of increasing autocracy and a return to the past. He was eventually pushed out and Egypt has not democratised.

The authors have written an objective structural analysis of the Arab Spring. Events are still unfolding and are likely to remain in flux for the foreseeable future.

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Karftwerk’s dazzling live 3-D show at the Bord Gais Theatre.  

Paul Hewson once spoke of Kraftwerk as being the greatest soul band of all time and the thought lodged itself somewhere in the back of my brain. Discussing music is a subjective activity which lends itself, at the best of times, to creating opaque and tendentious connections between like minded individuals. In this regard, attempting to identify the greatest anything is decidedly nihilistic in nature. Yet, his point was important. Soul music does not need to be Motown or a Bowie pastiche of it to succeed. It is whatever gives you the feels, whatever makes your skin crackle with excitement, whatever gives you the Goosebump factor. That synthesised music could be soulful was, and probably still is, anathema to many. I’m with Hewson: Kraftwerk are my favourite soul band of all time and their 2017 performance in Ireland underlined why.

Somewhat surprisingly, they began with “Numbers / Computer World” followed by “It’s More Fun To Compute / Home Computer”. The opener had an important message, “Interpol and Deutshche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard, CIA and KGB, control the data, memory”.

“Computer Love” was their first classic of the evening and it was evidence of the astonishing variety contained within Kraftwerk’s catalogue. The track highlighted, at once, their popular and experimental sides. The synthesised melody is spectacular, with the floaty notes gently gliding on top of the bass stabs that anchor the track down. The difference being everything here. Interestingly, Hutter is not keen on the online world, “I am not a fan of the internet, I think it’s overrated. Intelligent information is still intelligent information and an overflow of nonsense does not really help”. He’s right. The internet is invaluable, a human right…and yet, social media, the great democratiser that has given a voice to everyone, increasingly leaves me asking: do I want to listen to everyone? Hell, no.

“The Man Machine”. Oh, yes! That vocodered vocal intro before the metronomic harbinger when you know, when you anticipate that something is headed your way – before the song crashes in full pelt with that little light slight synth melody and before you know it, that enormous bass line whooshes you out away. And then, that, vocal:

“Man Maaaaaachhhhine……..suuuuupppppper human beeeeeeeing”.

Now we’re rocking. Occasionally I wonder about the opaquely Nietzschean undertones of “super human being” but I’m confident that it is a reference to computers being souped-up people and not an Aryan master race.

“The Model”. What else is there to really say about this that has not been said? The most straight-up pop-classic in their repertoire. “She’s going out to nightclubs drinking juuuuust champagne”. The synthesiser solo is a proper earworm and would normally leave me humming it for hours, but for the onslaught of classics on the way. This is also the first time that I really notice the visuals. Picture this: a gigantic cinema screen beams 3-D images of glamorous female models directly onto a crowd all wearing cheap white plastic glasses. The four band members are dressed in luminously black and green spacesuits, each with a headset instead of a microphone to sing into, and each has their own silver platform containing their own giant synthesiser. Their last gig at Marley Park was the first time I witnessed any band play live with 3-D visuals and the memory still burns brightly.

“Neon Lights” with its refrain of, “This city’s made of light” welcomely ratchets it down a notch. The track has echoes of The Blue Nile’s “The Downtown Lights” with its shimmering ode to the magic to be discovered in urban metropolises. “Autobahn” makes the best use of their visual setup so far, putting the audience in the middle of a road driving along with other cars and trucks and cement mixers alongside you on your journey. It is music and pictures mixed like never before.  This ode to the German motorways and the experience on the open road, Toad, accentuates what Germany has to offer. Kraftwerk made it OK to like Germany again.

“Radioactivity” has, possibly, my favourite Kraftwerk melody when it kicks in (although Pocket Calculator, unplayed tonight, usually takes this mantle). I feel like I am being gently stabbed with pleasure points from a blissful musical voodoo doll. The anthropogenic message is clear too. “Electric Cafe” is underrated and gets the perfect comedown after having been thwacked with “Autobahn” and “Radioactivity”. “Tour De France” is overrated, in my view, yet fits snugly in this set.

“Trans-Europe Express” was my favourite Kraftwerk track in my younger days. The visuals come to the fore once again. “In Vienna we sit in a late night café” they sing as the 3-D train chugs along. The music and visuals now coagulate orgiastically when the TGV combines with the noise of the train grinding to a halt. I am completely and utterly immersed now, and people are up out of their seats. It gets more orgasmic. There is an important message here too. Namely that there is magic in a connected Europe. Perhaps I am still wistful for my old days backpacking around, skint, whilst taking the midnight train to Berlin. Twelve hours ahead of us and the train so cramped, so full of people milling around, that it had only standing room between carriages. The memories of a Europe where the dots were joined seems extra important tonight. The largest vehicle for peace the continent has ever seen is crumbling before our eyes. Perhaps with good reason in that it has lost its democratic oversight. Kraftwerk are a tablet of a peaceful, post-World War Two seamless, Europe. Europe, Endless.

“The Robots” see the four band members disappear from stage to be replaced by four…robots. Four ThunderCats style showroom dummies. This is pure, peak Kraftwerk. The track begins nondescriptish, as the “The Man Machine” did earlier, where you are waiting, you are baying for that bass synth before they give it to you. Thwack. Live electronic music does not get better than this.  It is ecstatic and there is not a gram of MDMA in sight. Having experienced Kraftwerk both ways, I can confirm that they are better sober. I still regret not being able to recall their Electric Picnic performance, if not the Electric Picnic. It was incredible and I recall a late night / early morning showing of The Wizard Of Oz in the cinema tent as The Dark Side Of The Moon played on the sound system. A memory I still cherish. Huxley was right, “that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music”. Putting words, these ones, any ones, can never truly express that Electric Picnic or this Kraftwerk show.  Dancing around architecture as the man said.

“Aero Dynamik” is take or leave it Kraftwerk for me. Written by any other techno producer, it’s a top effort, but from their lofty perch, it feels like we have come down to earth. No bad thing either, after how fucking high we have been. “Planet Of Visions” leaves me with a similar feeling. Standard, not Kraftwerk, electro. Not so, “Boing Boom Tschak” with its thudding electro beats. It’s mixed with “Techno Pop” and closes out with “Music Non Stop” as they interweaved between all three seamlessly. The concept of “Techno Pop” sums up Kraftwerk. Unquestionably, they are Techno Pop. The way they exit the stage is pure art, pure performance:  they leave single file to a thankful mob before Hutter remains solo on stage and gets a rapturous ovation from a crowd right in the centre of the psalm of his hand. The last visual on the giant screen blares out in large graphics:






I’ve never seen a band leave a stage as gracefully. Perhaps the Valentines in Primavera. Every second from opening to closing is perfectly planned. Kraftwerk, in the words of a man far wiser than me, give “soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life”.  For a less philosophical take than Plato’s, I’ll let Hutter have the last say, “It’s about intensity. The rest is just noise”.

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Goldacre, Ben: “Bad Science”.

Guardian journalist Ben Goldacre set out, in his 2008 Bad Science book, to destroy a number of prominent lies, myths and fabrications about commonplace scientific practices. Perhaps it is because the world has evolved considerably since the book’s publication, but debunking homoeopathy does not seem to me as urgent or important as it once did.

Goldacre begins by rubbishing the various detox fads that have sprung up in increasing number in recent years by pointing out that they have existed since time immemorial, largely as ritualistic elements of various religious beliefs (e.g. Ramadan).  Thereafter, he lifts the lid on the inordinately high levels of quackery present in the cosmetics industry. Given how superfluous a great deal of cosmetics are, it is high time that we began to heed the advice of Peter Singer in his ground breaking Animal Liberation and act now to save the lives of the millions of innocent animals that are killed in order to make them.

During the first half of the book, I was somewhat dubious about Goldacre’s zeal in his quest to debunk  many seemingly obvious untruths. However, when I read about the complex lengths that pharmaceutical companies go to in order to obfuscate the truth, the need for discussion became more obvious. Too many of these companies systematically manipulate data to suit their agenda, making it difficult to see through the complex layers of information to get to the truth. One of the worst examples of this was when Merck pushed through the Vioxx drug, only for it to kill an inordinate number of people. The only solution Goldacre sees is to use larger and larger samples of “Meta-analysis” to understand broader trends and stymie bogus results. In this regard, he believes that HG Well’s prediction that people’s ability to interpret statistics will become more important as we evolve is proving to be increasingly prophetic.

Most interestingly of all, he discusses how strong the placebo effect is. Despite its being a riveting read, I was none the wiser as to what the solution was after learning about it. Maybe that is the point. As bad as science can be, it is the only hope we have in the face of human weaknesses such as succumbing to said placebo effects. At times, Bad Science felt like a journalist writing a book, in so far as it was a series of long, well-researched articles that did not quite work as a cogent whole. The sum is not greater than its parts. As Goldacre writes of his summation of the topic of bad science, “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”. Quite.

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Erdich, Louise: “The Plague Of Doves”.

Erdich is that rare talent who is able to write beautifully and elegantly about important themes such as religion. Her anti-heroine, Evelina Harp, goes “to church because I hoped to see (her crush) Corwin”. The local priest gets drunk and tries to make a Native American family to go to mass, highlighting the hypocrisy of the priests. People were religious in the past because they were indoctrinated. Erdich is clear on this when she writes that Evelina aspires to be a nun because she is taught by one. Would she be interested otherwise? Even characters on the fringe of society become religious, albeit in odd ways like the character Billy Peace, who founds his own religion. The parallels are clear: cults and mass religion are a means for one group of human beings to exert power and dominance over individuals. Erdich offers an end to the madness when Father Cassidy leaves the priesthood and becomes a rich entrepreneur. Capitalism replaces the church.

Erdich’s prose is wonderful. Check this out: “It was a dry-drought summer when I met Billy Peace, and in the suspension of rain everything seemed to flex. The growthless spruce has dropped their bud-soft needles. Our poppies stretched their full-lengths, each heart-lobed leaf still and open. The great oak across the field-tested out, its roots sucking water from the bottom of the world”.  Stunning.

Billy Peace’s preaching speech had me cooing at its eloquence.  Elsewhere Erdich gently observes the life of the artist: “when we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape”. Wonderful. As spellbinding as she can be, I found the prose a little condensed at times, as if Erdich was trying to come in under a smaller word count. I would like to see her open up a bit and let the words and characters breathe, and expand on them a bit more.

The main theme Erdich writes about is the plight of the Native Americans in North Dakota.  Asiginak describes how “we are no-goods, we are Indians”. Mooshum is clear on the genocide that took place by the colonialist settlers: “They prospered and took over things. Half the country. But they never should have”. There is a link with Erdich’s other main theme, religion, when the Native Americans take refuge at a church whilst on the run. Tellingly, the Christian religion cannot save them. Erdich writes with pathos that “The loss of their land was lodged inside of them forever”, which results in Evelina becoming “obsessed with (her) lineage”. That is the reality here. The racist colonial settlers stole life and history from the Native Americans and have, to date, still not made adequate reparations. Shame on them.  Erdich: “The primary sign of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to linger in one place”. This reminded me of Shehadeh’s devastating “Palestinian Walks” where he chronicles the mental impact that the Israelis had on the native Palestinians. It was not just the Native American land that was stolen, it was their mental health too. No surprise, then, that Evelina ended up in a mental hospital and wonders whether she should “live my life atoning for another person’s sin?” Here, Erdich opens up an interesting question: are we responsible for the actions of our parents?  I do not think that we are. Yet, at the same time, we need to acknowledge the structural harm that has been done and work to ensure that it never happens again. Society needs to ensure that doctors are not allowed to discriminate against and refuse to treat Native Americans as transpires in the novel. At times, Erdichs’ excavation of the collective psyche of the Native Americans in North Dakota felt similar to the brilliant work that Toni Morrison has done in writing about the brutality meted out to the African-American slaves. The two most shameful acts carried out in the name of the United States need more writers like these in order for them to heal their deep wounds.

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Peterson, Jordan: “12 Rules For Life. An Antidote To Chaos”.

The hype surrounding Jordan Peterson is nauseating: it’s depressing that people can’t be even remotely objective about a thinker on a different side of the political divide to themselves. Peterson writes with a conversational tone here and tries to impart some of what he has learnt. The concept of a human life constrained to twelve (or any number) of rules is nonsensical, so I just read this book for an insight into a well-read, inquisitive thinker. Peterson’s psychology background informs most of his opinions, particularly the scientific aspect of evolutionary biology, and it’s refreshing to read somebody who backs up their assertions with facts and research.

The classic left-versus-right positions can be articulated in many ways. I conceptualise the debate as the collective versus the individual. When I frame it like this, I always come down on the side of the individual, as we experience the key moments in life this way – art, love, pain, etc. Peterson refers to these as “subjective experiences” which are not “easily reduced to the detached and objective”.  One of the key points about putting the focus on the individual is ensuring that we each take responsibility for our actions. There is an excellent line in Norman Doidge’s foreword: “Ideologues are people who pretend they know how to make the world a better place before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within”. This is a critical point. Put your house in order before you start blaming society. As Irish author Colm Tóibín has noted, “Personal sacrifice (is) a metaphor for general sacrifice”. The rise of identity politics has the potential to take the focus off each individual human being taking responsibility for their actions.  If your life is chaotic, are you the best person to be doling out advice? Social media has amplified the process. Go online any morning, noon or night and you will see endless people moralising about the opinions of other people. Are all their houses in order?

In this light, it is invigorating to read a thinker on the right articulate his views on how and why we should “adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world”. Typically, the left has always had a greater share of academics and intellectuals, whereas the right is dominated by more business-minded and commercial people. It is therefore somewhat unusual to see a popular contemporary academic on the right. The obvious benefits of this are that “If we each live properly, we will collectively flourish”. It reminds me of the Bayard Rustin thought that “The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself”. On this, I am with Peterson. If everyone did the right thing, then society would be better off. This is how I live my life ethically. I try to do the right thing, and fail, and I only ever expect of other people what I would do myself. Anything else is just moralising.

He quotes Orwell about our baser instincts, “We’re pack animals, beasts of burden”.  The “beasts of burden” quote I have encountered a few times, most recently in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, where he writes that “To Europeans, Africans were inferior beings: lazy, uncivilized, little better than animals. In fact, the most common way they were put to work was, like animals, as beasts of burden”. This is often a problem with evolutionary biological perspectives, writing humans off as creatures with no redeeming features which creates an ugly moral relativism and can lead to nihilism. Not for Peterson though, as he is a firm Christian. Too often here, it feels like he shoehorns biblical references in. His logic and reasoning are sound but it reads like he is trying to make some of the references fit as opposed to them naturally slotting in. I have no problem with his being a theist, yet forcing Biblical references where they do not naturally fit reads as calculated motif rather than allusions that are in any way enlightening or extensions of his critical thinking.

On Darwinism, he writes “The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism…it’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy…it’s not even a human creation…it is a near-eternal aspect of the environment”. As I wrote above, though, reducing humans to this has led to the fashionable resurgence of classical liberalism which brought the world the Bengal and Irish famines and Dickensian ultra-free market utilitarianism. This is where the early critics of classical liberalism were right: the world needs rules and regulations and we need the impulses of the left for that.   I am no utopian but we do need to acknowledge that any unregulated system will not work.  His answer to exploring the balance that we should strive for in these left versus right debates is . . . to stand up straight. Now, I am all for good posture but is this really the solution? As I said, ignore the rules.

“We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them…when life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping and meaningful; when time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice- it is there and then that you are located between order and chaos.” This can be “the right place to be in every sense. You are there when – and where – it matters. That’s what music is telling you, too, when you’re listening- even more, perhaps, when you’re dancing – when its harmonious layered patterns of predictability and unpredictability make meaning itself well up from the most profound depths of your Being”. While elements of this book, especially the Disney and Simpsons references, are tiresome, this thought on music alone makes it worth reading. It might just be the finest I have ever read on the topic.

Peterson’s rule number six expands on an earlier thought: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”. Could everyone on the internet, me included, please think of this before posting? There are a lot of valid criticisms of the world but if you are unethical, you are not helping. He writes of Solzhenitsyn that his “decision to change his life, instead of cursing fate, shook the whole pathological system of communist tyranny to its core” which enabled him to “utterly and finally demolish the intellectual credibility of communism”. This is one of the gripes that I have.  Solzhenitsyn did not do this. Sure, he helped, but the USSR was doomed to fail from the beginning as its economic policies were suicidal. Peterson’s analysis of the USSR and Nazi Germany are not incorrect, yet they are threadbare. He does not write with the authoritative knowledge of a Robert Conquest or a Noam Chomsky. His historical knowledge seems superficial. For example, he writes: “Above all, don’t lie. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the deaths of millions”.  This attempt to extrapolate minor personal failings to the mass destruction of killer regimes fails completely: there is a middle ground.  We tell untruths in order to keep up the veneer of civilisation. If you think this is incorrect, tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth for one week and see where it gets you. It is fallacious to compare small lies to the Nazis. In this way, Peterson sinks to the levels of the leftists that he so dismisses. Not everything in modern liberal democracies needs to be compared to totalitarian regimes from eighty years ago.

I find self-help books distinctly unappealing and Peterson drifts into this territory all too often: “start to stop doing what you know to be wrong”. He continues: “Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganise the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility”. He is correct here and it is pathetic that this needs to be said. Sadly, there appears to be a generation that seems determined to learn the ugly lessons of the state managing peoples’ affairs all over again. So, back to the individual and Peterson opines that “the successful among us delay gratification” and that “the successful sacrifice”.   Sound advice, but again, pretty obvious and basic thinking.

Rule number ten, “Be precise in your speech” is one that I wish people could learn. He writes: “Be careful with what you tell yourself and others about what you have done, what you are doing, and where you are going. Search for the correct words”. Spot on. Peterson continues: “Courageous and truthful words will render your reality simple, pristine, well-defined and habitable”.

He quotes Nietzsche when making a point about equality of outcome: “you preachers of equality, the tyrant-mania of impotence clamours thus out of you for equality: your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue”. He has some excellent thoughts on why capitalism works: “Any hierarchy creates winners and losers” which means that “absolute equality would therefore require the sacrifice of value itself”. This is a point that Robert Conquest made in his brilliant The Dragons Of Expectation, when he wrote of the danger of taking away the impetus to create in the first place. If there is no excess, then there is nothing to be divided up. Marxism takes away the reason to create. Peterson is on point here but then gets onto somewhat shaky ground when he writes that left-leaning academics should possibly have their funding cut because right-wing thinkers do not get the same. He is slightly unclear on this point. For example, postmodernism does need to be studied. He sometimes infers that it should not be taught and does not acknowledge the benefits that it has had. As with his geopolitical analysis, I think he sometimes paints with too broad a brush here. For example, Derrida’s criticism was initially made in regards to literature and was completely valid: so much so that it has changed literary criticism for the better. Peterson dives into postmodernism straight after talking about Mao and the USSR, as if these topics are overtly linked. He makes a key mistake in not differentiating between postmodernism’s cultural and political ramifications when its artistic ones are valid, and quite exciting. Destroying truth in music and books is exhilarating. Yes, in politics it is devastating, but writing about this difference is critical. I despise postmodernism politically but it is possible to acknowledge that we can champion universal liberal values, like Helen Pluckrose does, and at the same time recognise that identity politics has had some positive impacts by dismantling some dangerous and restrictive elements of our social structures.

Peterson raises an excellent point when he writes that “Group identity can be fractioned right down to the level of the individual” and that we could theoretically be oppressed just as much by weight or medical conditions. This is true. Identity politics can be helpful in small doses.  Ultimately, Peterson opines that “To persevere, people must see the good in Being. If they lose that, they are truly lost”. Easier said than done, when you read the history of the human project. I prefer to think of it more in terms of moral relativism: just because bad things happen, it does not follow that I am justified to do bad things. In short, Peterson’s philosophy is that “The best way to fix the world is to fix yourself. Anything else is presumptuous”. Who can disagree with that?

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Greiner, Bernd: “War Without Fronts. The USA In Vietnam”.

When Pope Urban II advocated for European Christians to capture Jerusalem in 1095, the call was met enthusiastically, and the city fell after an untold amount of brutality was meted out to the local population. Presumably, the Christians felt like they were doing the right thing, as did the Muslims after their own conquests. Ditto the Japanese fascists who landed in Nanjing in 1937 and the US military who believed that they were bringing democracy to Vietnam. It is high time that liberals learnt the lessons of wars like Vietnam: namely, that you cannot spread democracy by taking the liberty of any other human being. You cannot enforce the adoption of any idea through violence, no matter how lofty the aim or the intention, not a single drop of blood should be spilt. If capitalism and democracy are the best ideas in the world, and they are, then indigenous peoples around the world will come around to them naturally. If they do not, so be it. True ethical liberalism accepts that violence is only ever justified on a defensive basis and that we should strive to be pacifists. Of course, there is an acceptance that violence can be justified to stop a genocide or ethnic cleansing such as during the Rwandan genocide yet, when you analyse the history of humanitarian intervention’s, they are few and far between because the burden is extremely high when one life is risked. Indeed, as Samantha Power noted in “America And The Age Of Genocide”, itself a myopic liberal tract which glossed over the Native Indian genocide, the US has virtually never intervened for humanitarian reasons.

The Vietnam War was completely unnecessary and should never have happened. If Vietnamese people want to be communists, more power to them. It will not end well, but let them run their society the way they want.  Greiner’s 2009 book uses the records released in 1994 by the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group as its starting point for its analysis. The detailed statistics are horrid. 6,500 innocent civilians alone were killed after the brutal My Lai massacre that Seymour Hersch highlighted. I wonder how fond those families are of American democracy.

Between 1966 and 1968, the US dropped 2,800,000 tonnes bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Compare this to the 2,000,000 tonnes that were dropped in the entirety of World War II and it gives one an indication of  the truly ghastly scale of the bombardment. One which resulted in 26,000 bomb craters across Vietnam by the end of the war in 1975. From 1965 until 1974 627,000 civilians were killed. This was an extremely high rate of civilian casualties; somewhere between 40% and 60%, compared to 42% in World War Two.  The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army lost 444,000 people while the US lost 56,000 and the Allies 226,000. In total, Greiner estimates that 1,300,000 people died. And for what?  As Mark Twain wrote about the US war in the Philippines in 1898, “we have invited our clean young men to do bandit’s work”. It seems the lessons were not learnt almost a century later. More importantly, they still have not been learnt.

Greiner quotes Lyndon Baines Johnson who had said, “Just get me elected and you can have your war”. Astonishingly, they even considered the “nuclear option” which goes to show the level of insanity that was at play. Greiner viewed Vietnam, with little or no raw materials, as an “Asian Berlin”. From 1966 until 1970, 220,000 prisoners of war were kept in Allied custody. Only 13% of these were officially classed as prisoners of war and kept in camps. 56,000 so-called “civilian defendants” were largely put in Saigon torture cells, fed plant manure and imprisoned in “tiger cages”. They were treated like animals. “Torture was a commonplace practice of the US army”. Even US Chief of Staff Howard K. Johnson remarked that American prisoners in the hands of the Viet Cong “seemed to have been better treated than vice versa”. This was an incredible admission by the US – certainly an interesting way to convince the Vietnamese that the US system was the superior one.

Nixon was crystal clear on his aim when he entered office, “We’re gonna level that goddamn country…we’re gonna bomb the livin’ bejesus out of them”. The US supreme commander in Vietnam from 1965 until 1968 declared that “until Hanoi wakes up to the fact that they have bled their country to the point of national disaster for generations then they will have to reassess their positions”. Barbarically, the “success of the war was measured by the number of dead enemy soldiers”. Monthly targets were set to achieve this and official leave was cancelled for those soldiers who did not hit their “targets”. This point is also important for highlighting that the targets came from the top.

The North Vietnamese knew that democracies did not accept long wars and, when they heard different presidents speaking of their desire to get it done quicker, they realised that they could win a war of attrition, as the US did not have the stomach for a longer war. The natural and utterly inevitable result of setting death count as a goal was that US soldiers targeted civilians to boost the numbers. “Field commanders’ autonomy was applied even more liberally in Vietnam than in other wars”. Numerous war crimes ensued. For example, pilots in the D troop, first squadron, the first cavalry regiment, 23rd infantry decision “deliberately deceived their operational command when they claimed they had come under operational fire” and killed 18 civilians. They only received a verbal warning – you know, the type you would get for, say, calling in late to work. Greiner cites countless war crimes here. Most of the results of investigations were unsubstantiated according to official records. William Westmoreland, supreme commander of the US forces for four years, wrote twelve letters to his commanders raging against the “the only good village is a burned village” mentality. His desire for restraint to be shown proved how rife abuses were, otherwise why would he have written the letter? Greiner writes of the inconsistency on the ground where the first infantry division was considered retrained in comparison to the ninth infantry division which was shown to be, pretty well, insane.

In 1964, the US had 180,000 troops in Vietnam. In 1969, this had increased to 541,000. In 1975, it had ballooned to 2,600,000. In total, 3,400,000 American servicemen served in Asia. Again, for what? Former diplomat George Kennan thought that they should “not jump around like an elephant frightened by a mouse” which is an awkward way of asking what threat did Vietnam pose to the US? Absolutely none. Critically, the US misunderstood the very nature of the war, as they did in Iraq in 2003, by seeing it as a battle between communism and capitalism rather than one of nationalism. The Vietnamese wanted to reunite North and South Vietnam after decades of French colonialism. Let them. When I visited Ho Chi Minh in 2015 and went to the war museum, it was an emotional experience. It left me despairing of the way these people had been subjugated for generations by different forms of imperialism. Hopefully, their future will be brighter than their past.

Marine Karl Marlantes, in the recent Ken Burns documentary, had a terrible revelation while serving in Vietnam, “We’re not the top species on the planet because we’re nice. We are very aggressive species…it’s in us”. The Burns documentary is problematic in that the history was inaccurate. There was no mention of the initial attack on South Vietnam, only a reference to how the soldiers turned up unannounced. Furthermore, it was too pro-American. The documentary featured input from Vietnamese people but these merely felt superficial and token in their aim. The conclusion seemed to be that, yes, the US was wrong to invade Vietnam yet it did not get to the bottom of why it was wrong. It began with the supposed aim of trying to spread democracy and stymie the spread of communism but this was unjust as the US did not have the right to stop another autonomous country from being communist. Until the US understands why this is not a good thing, it will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Hence the reason we got the disastrous and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. For too long, liberals democracies the globe over have been evangelical about spreading democracy. Yet the key point that they keep missing is: It is not about how bad they are (whoever they may be), it is about how bad we are. Liberalism is about promoting liberal democracy. This is a noble aim but it means that the political liberty of every human being on earth must be protected. If this thought had gone into the Vietnam war, which risked the lives of millions of innocent Vietnamese people, then it should have been off bounds from the beginning.

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Roth, Philip: “The Human Stain”

The main character Nathan Zuckerberg in Roth’s 1998 novel features in what is, to me, one of the great literary takedowns of the ideological lunacy that had begun to grip academia. Surely, Roth was not so perspicacious as to have predicted future levels of insanity when the book was first published in 2000? To read it in 2018, Coleman Silk’s story could be that of any professor in the United States.

Fired for calling two black students “spooks”, Silk was sacked for being a racist even though he did not know that the two students that he was referring to were black. Roth foresaw the beginning of the madness of identity politics. Naturally, as Silk is a racist, he simply has to be a sexist. That is the way these things work. This is why it was inevitable that Delphine Roux said of Silk, “He considers all women inferior”. Roth predicted our obsessions with labelling people we disagree with: “Only a label is required. The label is the motive, the label is the evidence, and the label is the logic. Why did Coleman Silk do this? Because he is an X because he is a Y. Because he is both. First he is a racist, now a misogynist. It is too late in the century to call him a communist but that is how it used to be done?” This gets to the nub of the matter. The insanity of dividing people into categories results in assuming that everyone judges people on said categories when, in reality, we judge people as individuals. Roth traces the matter back to ancient Greece and Rome: “By defining you as a monster she defines herself as a heroine”. Delphine Roux believes that “her whole life had been a battle not to be cowed by the Coleman Silks, who use their privilege to overpower everyone else and do exactly as they pleased”.

What gave us identity politics? The postmodern destruction of truth and difference, which Roth gets into here too. When Delphine Roux asked, or insisted, if Silk had looked at texts from a feminist perspective, the implication was clear.  The rise of Roux and her ilk was the very moment, pinpointed, where the reading of a text became more important than the text itself. Silk’s thoughts? “There could be such a gigantic gap between what she liked and what she was supposed to admire”. That all at Athena College believe Delphine Roux’s bogus story about Silk breaking into her office, without a shred of evidence, is damning in the extreme. The truth is no longer important.

The novel is littered with references to ancient Greek and Roman societies, from Athena College up to the era in which Roth describes “Respect not for the individual. Down with the individual. But for the traditions of the family”. This is a pointed reference to ancient Western civilisation and how it was built, as Siedentrop showed us in his excellent “Inventing The Individual: The Origins Of Western Liberalism”, around the family unit. The contrast of the insanity of postmodernism in modern Western societies with the traditional family model makes it all the more jarring.

One area that was most certainly real that Roth rummages around in was the Vietnam War. It is a topic that Roth keeps returning to. Here, Les Farley represents the craziness of Vietnam, “They said anything goes so anything went”. We learn about the unspeakable violence that led to the PTSD and Les taking this back home.  Vietnam has made him so mentally unstable that he cannot order Chinese food in a Chinese restaurant because he thinks that the Chinese are gooks too.

When confronted with the onslaught of identity politics and postmodernism, with the notion that “Nobody knows anything …you can’t know anything”, Roth reacts with an odd but understandable neo-quasi-conservatism: “That’s when it all was different. Before. And, she lamented, it would never be the same again …in America”.

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