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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Australian open, GOAT, Nadal, Roger Federer, Sport, Tennis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Review: “Warren Buffett and the business of life”

Review: “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the business of life” by Alice Schroeder

 

“The Snowball” is an enjoyably thorough journey through the life and times of Warren Buffett, the man who Schroeder gloriously deems the “All American, Pepsi quaffing, investing fundamentalist, one who plied his trade in glorious solitude, far from the Lucifer’s of Wall Street”. The idea that Buffett is a class apart from the Wall Street crowd, with avarice dripping down their walls, is a central theme throughout, and a huge part of his appeal. He loves the battle of business. Buffett is a principled man, always sticking to his rules. He constantly espouses the value of the “inner scorecard” that his father taught him and he religiously sticks to his “circle of competence”. He uses these tools to guide him ethically and financially through life. Schroeder’s 2008 biography  details how he made his fortune, his interest in politics and much more. “The Snowball” takes us behind the scenes of the greatest investor the world has ever seen. Although he would be too humble to see it that way. All he wanted was to emulate his mentor Ben Graham, author of the investing bible “The intelligent investor”.

 

Snowflake to Snowball:

 

  • Aged 12: buys his first stock. 12. Makes a profit but is disappointed that he did not sell later for a higher value.
  • Aged 14: Fills out his first-year end tax return. He had $1,000 at this point. Money he saved from doing his paper run. In the run up to the 2016 presidential election campaign, he released every tax return from this year on when Trump indirectly accused him of being economical with the truth of his tax returns.
  • Aged 15: he buys a farm and has $2,000.
  • Aged 16: he has $5,000. This is equivalent to approx. $55k by 2016 numbers.
  • Aged 21: he has almost $19k saved.
  • Aged 26: he has $126k and considers retiring.
  • Aged 34: $1.8m.
  • Aged 39: $24m.
  • Aged 47: $77m.
  • Aged 55: Becomes a billionaire.
  • Aged 63: $8.5 billion.
  • Aged 78: becomes the richest man in the world.

 

Ethics:

 

Buffett’s ethics are critical to understanding the man and Schroeder reflects this from the outset. He warned about the dangers of selling equities as far back as 1982, writing to Congress to highlight how dangerous they were. No regulation or action was taken.

He foresaw the 2007 financial crisis and spoke to numerous senators about the risks the markets were taking by not regulating the sales of derivatives, dubbing them “financial weapons of mass destruction”. Again, nobody heeded his advice.

His legendary frugality is dissected in comprehensive detail. Schroeder had extensive access to interview Buffett and separates the myth from reality. He used to purchase second hand magazines – – just as they were going out of date to save money on subscription fees! When he began turning around the corrupt Salomon company, he set about changing the culture, primarily through leading by example. Out went the exorbitant stretched limousines and expensive restaurants for their executives to be replaced by the coke and hamburgers for dinner and taking the subway to work.

Maybe the best example of Buffett’s morals was when he told his traders, “lose money for the firm and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless”.

His wife Susie did lots of important charity work. She always pushed him to give away more. However, Buffett knew if he kept increasing his Snowball exponentially, he would be able to bequeath a much larger fortune and help more people. His 2006 announcement that he would give most his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation is wonderful news for the world. He may just end up saving a lot of lives and creating opportunity in the world.

His work ethic is inspiring. He says that 80% of his day is spent reading. Anything and everything. Newspapers, Science journals, books, sales information for any industry. He would toil in libraries to learn as much as he could about a certain company. Frequently he would ensure that he had more information, more of an edge, before making an investment. He constantly tried to better himself, to learn more. I find this more inspirational than the amount of money he makes. His vaguely meliorist philosophy makes appeal.

 

Politics:

 

It was wholly natural that his zeal for doing the right thing in life and in business meant that he took a deep interest in politics. Not that he got into that sphere because of his burgeoning wealth. His father Howard was a Republican Senator who firmly believed that Communism was the root of all evil. Warren started out being the captain of the Young Republicans. His father was such a deep believer in the aims of the Republican Party that Warren was afraid to tell him that he had switched to becoming a democrat before he died! He would avoid conflict at any cost. It was the Democratic parties embrace of the civil rights movement that made Warren switch allegiances. He could not abide by the racism embedded in his Fathers party. He shunned Reagonomics as his economic strategy was based on borrowing and increasing debt. Something Warren could not justify in his personal life.

He is a believer in a progressive tax system where the highest earners should pay more, warning of the dangers of Neoliberalist economics. In 2001, he went to the Hill and spoke to 38 senators about what he saw as the increasing economic policy of “government by the wealthy for the wealthy”. He recognises plainly that capitalism does not work for all and tried to offset its effect as best he could.

 

Rejection and improvement:

 

Buffett was spurned by Harvard Business School. They did not see him as a “leader”. He persevered and graduated from Columbia. In typical Buffett fashion, the connections he made in Columbia ended up being more valuable in the long term.

He made it his mission to learn from his lecturer and mentor Ben Graham, thinking him the best in the business. He was determined to work for him, even offering to go unpaid. His offer was turned down multiple times before Graham finally relented.

His first wife Susie did not see him as suitable at first. Intuitively knowing how brilliant she was, he was relentless in his wooing of her.   Like Graham, she eventually succumbed.  Failure was not an option.

 

Wisdom:

 

Some nuggets of advice from the book that I had to share:

  • “Quickened pulses and self-delusion were the major causes of mistakes”.
  • He was a firm believer in having a “circle of competence”. Do not try to be an expert in more than 3 areas. Master these areas and success will come easier.
  • Save your credit. It says a lot about you.
  • “Be content with moderate gain” when doing business.
  • “Spend less than you make and don’t got into debt”.
  • Learn to float upwards with intelligent people to better yourself. This will improve you. “It just works this way” he advises.
  • Buffett and Gates both said their number one rule for being successful is “Focus”.
  • Looking after, yourself mentally and physically. Buffett gives a great analogy in the book. You are 16 and must choose one car for the rest of your life. You don’t know which one it will be but you can never get a new one. How would you look after it? With great care. Same with us as people. So many do not look after ourselves though.
  • Always have two income streams.

 

Conclusion:

 

Buffett is a hardworking, intelligent, meticulous, moral, compassionate and loyal person. He is not someone who “spent his whole life at the withdrawal bank”. Schroeder: “He’s the master of the win win but never does anything that isn’t win for him”. When he released all his tax returns since the age of 14 during last year’s US Presidential election, it was impossible not to contrast his integrity and candour with the dishonesty of the current President. Reading about his life made me revaluate my own. Am I being smart with my money? What can I do better? Should I read more widely? Like all truly great people, there is a lot to learn…

Posted in Biography, Book, Book review, Books, Business, Investing, The Snowball, Warren Buffett | 1 Comment

Book review: “Horror in the East” by Laurence Rees.

Laurence Rees highlights some of the Twentieth Century’s most egregious human rights abuses in his 2001 book “Horror in the East”. It is a difficult read,  shedding some light on lots of previously unknown and almost unbelievable historical events – from cannibalism to deliberate starvation of POW’s. Rees attempts to delve into the mind-set of the soldiers who committed the atrocities and find out their motivations. From their unflappable belief in the divine emperor to their desire to save “face” at all times, Rees documents the horror and endeavours to comprehend it. The level of barbarity raises some complex moral questions. The United State’s completely unjustified dropping of two atomic bombs on innocent civilians to effectively end the war has always troubled me. Given the Japanese were in the process of surrendering, why did they do it? Whilst those questions throw up their own compound issues, when I read Ree’s book, it gave me a new understanding of the insanity the US was dealing with. This is in no way to justify their indiscriminate nuking of two cites. It just provides more background information. I do not remember being taught in school that dropping the atomic bomb was morally wrong or to be condemned. It felt opaquely justified in order to win the war. 

 

Emperor Hirohito:

 

Rees places a fair amount of the blame at the door of Emperor Hirohito, the longest serving in Japanese history. Like the current situation in modern day North Korea, where ordinary citizens are forced to treat Kim Jong-Un as a quasi-deity, the Japanese soldiers – and many of the public at large during the War – saw Hirohito as a divine being. He was a God on earth to them. Rees quotes soldier Masaya Enomoto as evidence of this: “I didn’t feel any guilt because I was fighting for the emperor. He was a God”. Further proof is chronicled throughout from numerous other former Japanese soldiers testifying to the same thing. They believed they were fighting for a higher power and would do anything to honour him. When you combined the general obedience of the average Japanese at the time, it became a lethal cocktail. This willingness to be mannerly and follow orders manifested itself in an extreme form of “saving face” within Japanese society. Used constructively, this can have many benefits. Visiting Japan some years ago, Iseult and I found it to be the most clean and orderly country we had ever set foot on. However, during war time in the Japanese military, it lead to some soldiers proving how far they would go in their show of loyalty to the Emperor. New recruits were put in a position where they had to prove that they would do likewise. This unique “situational psychology” had a domino effect and created a violent culture where nobody drew the line of what was acceptable.

It was not just the soldier’s belief in Hirohito that was the root cause for the violence. He was directly involved in authorising War Crimes. On the 28th July 1937, he specifically “sanctioned the use of poison gas”. The Allies showed a genuine moral failing by never prosecuting the Emperor for his crimes as they did with the rest of the Japanese war time cabinet. It is inconceivable to me that he continued ruling as Emperor until 1989.

Then again, were the Allies really in a moral position to prosecute anyone after dropping two nuclear bombs? Surely not. Yes, the Japanese were the aggressors and their vision of society was wrong. However, this does not justify the Allies deliberately attacking innocent civilians. If the World is to be consistent in truly condemning War Crimes, then the US should have been prosecuted for Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Being on the winning side and having the right intentions does not justify crimes against humanity.

 

“Chancorro”:

 

At the turn of the Twentieth Century the Japanese viewed their Chinese neighbours as inferior in every way. This belief became so extreme that they were viewed as “Chancorro” or sub human. This was the era of colonialism and powerful countries believed they could rule nations they perceived to be inferior. The Japanese followed the British colonialists lead and believed that they had a right to invade China. This decision was clearly wrong on any moral standing. After they began their unjust occupation of mainland China, the level of violence meted out to the native Chinese people remains incomprehensible to this day. Japanese soldier Hajime Kondo spoke about how he killed six innocent farmers with a bayonet. When asked why he targeted innocent people, he said he felt like he “had to prove his worth”. Another clear example of Japanese soldiers trying to save face in front of each other.

 

War Crimes:

 

When the Japanese captured the city of Suchow in China, it left the city with only 500 people, from a pre-war population of 350,000. Chinese soldiers were killed on the spot. The occupying forces raped thousands of innocent Chinese women. Two sixteen year olds were raped to death. There were mass shootings of innocent civilians.

Unit 731 was a notorious Japanese unit that experimented on people to develop biological weapons. They killed up to 250,000 people during the occupation of China. Most their victims were civilians and prisoners of war who were infected with diseases such as Tetanus, Typhoid, Syphilis and Cholera (often without anaesthesia). They were stripped of organs and female prisoners underwent forced pregnancy. They kept their test subjects in cages and often raped the women who had been infected with diseases. When reading the stories of some of the victims who survived, it is difficult to comprehend how this occurred. It remains a stain on the US that they did not try the members of Unit 731 for war crimes, instead offering many of them clemency in exchange for the information they had on biological warfare.

After the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941, hundreds of British soldiers surrendered but were massacred nonetheless. The ones that survived were treated to inhumane conditions. Innocent British women were raped after the Japanese took the Island. As in Suchow, the population fell from 1.6m to 750,000 as the Japanese killed and tortured prisoners of war and civilians with impunity.

 

Treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs):

 

Similar levels of cruelty that to that observed in Hong Kong were inflicted upon POW’s everywhere the Japanese conquered. In the Dutch West Indies, multiple women were raped by the Japanese army. Japanese solider Karashima was prosecuted and killed for torturing and starving POW’s while needlessly transporting them.

Of the 1800 Australian POWs that were kept at Sandakan and forced to build a runway strip – only 6 survived. There were 700 British POWs at the same camp and every one of them was killed. Rees quotes Peter Lee, one of the 6 who survived: “nobody at the time had any idea that such a thing could possibly occur in what is called a civilised world”.

In New Guinea, things were even more insane. The Japanese army ran out of food supplies as one of their ships was cut off by the Americans. They began cannibalising the POWs whom they had in captivity. They ate one POW a week, sometimes hacking off a leg whilst the prisoner was still alive. There were also accounts of Indian POWs being used as live targets for new recruits to practice on. Like the Chinese, the Japanese soldiers treated their POWs as sub human. As Professor Tanaka said in his study of the Japanese cruelty during the war, this cannibalism was “unparalleled in history”.

Rees does contextualise the treatment of POWs with some numbers. The Nazis killed 57% of the Russian POWs that it captured during World War Two(an astonishing 3.3m of 5.7m captured). The Allies killed 4% of its POWs whilst Japan was in the middle at 27%.

 

Conclusion:

 

Rees dismisses the notion that the Japanese were somehow “inherently cruel” and details the factual reasons for their actions. The belief in their emperor, who authorised war crimes. The soldiers desire to save face in front of their comrades, which created a culture that violence of any degree was acceptable. Rees argues how this unique “situational psychology” that the Japanese soldiers encountered is partly responsible. He quotes a German who lived through the Third Reich as evidence of this phenomenon: “The trouble with the world today is people who haven’t been tested go around making judgments about people who have been tested”. Japan was so determined to never allow the circumstances occur that let people behave in such an inhumane way, that they created article 9 in their post war constitution, which outlaws them using war as a means to settling disputes. Now if we could only get every country in the world to follow suit and truly embrace a peaceful world without war.

Posted in cannibalism, Crimes against humanity, Democracy, ICC, Japan, US, War Crimes, World War Two | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: “Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell.

When I first read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I remembered visualising the “rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions” and being thankful that a world at constant war with itself could never exist. It was the late 1990’s and it felt like the planet was on a linear trajectory towards a peaceful and democratic future. Orwell’s bleak vision felt fascinating, compelling and a warning from an imaginary, cruel totalitarian future where Hitler and Stalin had won the day. It is still a reasonable opinion to suggest that we are evolving. As Obama said in his article in the Economist before leaving office, if you had to be born at any time in history: it would be right now. However, it is undeniable that elements of Nineteen Eighty-Fours’ dystopian vision of the future have increasingly come to pass. The “Fake News” phenomenon surely being the most obvious one. Re-reading the book in 2017, it resonates more than ever. I found several themes worthy of discussion this time. Namely the role of alcohol in society, Democracy, Fake News / Propaganda, the weaponization of language and violence.

 

 

The job of Alcohol in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

 

 

The differing strata of society are identified by what liquor they consume:

  • The Inner Party members drink wine.
  • The Party members drink bland gin.
  • The Proles drink beer.

At the beginning, Winston “gulped down gin like a dose of medicine”. He consumes it to self-medicate. It is the only way he can cope in the vicious and violent society where “war has been continuous”.

It is instructive that, after falling in love with Julia, Winston “dropped his habit of drinking gin at all hours. He seemed to have lost the need for it”. Just as he begins to experience the joy of falling in love with a partner and experiencing a caring, peaceful life outside of the tightly controlled state apparatus, he does not need to drink to excess.

Fast forward past Winston’s Assad style dehumanisation at the hands of the Party. He spends all day drinking himself to death at a “corner table with ever-flowing gin”. The “tears welled up in his eyes. A passing waiter noticed that his glass was empty and came back with the gin bottle”. He has become a fully blown alcoholic to erase the memories of his torture at the hands of the Party. His situation becomes so bleak that he cannot even sleep without drinking to excess: “It was gin that sank me into a stupor every night”. He forces down alcohol to suppress his thoughts and emotions.

The “cheap and plentiful supply of synthetic gin” is a pointed policy from the oppressive Party to numb the citizens. Everything else is rationed – coffee, tea, cigarettes, chocolate. Not alcohol though. It is a tool utilised by the Party to keep its population under control.

 

 

Democracy:

 

 

Goldstein, the arch enemy of the Party throughout, is consistently “denouncing the dictatorship of the party, advocating freedom of the press, freedom of thought”. For this he becomes the focus of “Hate week” and is ridiculed as somebody so far beyond the school of normal discourse that he must be ostracised. The party cannot even consider people thinking about ideas like this. Any free thought or speech must be curtailed so that the Party can copper fasten complete control over its people.

In this drab wasteland, “democracy was impossible” since “the Party was the guardian of democracy”. They take the concept, twist it, crush and destroy it and force people to forget it ever existed. Any opposition to the Party running the state with a vice like grip is so miniscule that Julia “refuses to believe that it exists…or could exist”. The majority of people have no say in how the system is run. Like his other great novel, Animal Farm, Orwell holds up democracy as the only just way to run a society. With democracy version2017 spewing out some unwelcome results, this lesson stands out as clearly now as in 1946. Think of the 2.7 billion people currently living in theocratic and authoritarian regimes.

Orwell warns repeatedly about the dangers of “all the main currents of political thought being authoritarian”. When he is being brutalised by O’Brien, Winston has the clarity of thought to cry out “You are ruling over us for your own good. You believe that human beings are not fit to govern themselves”. He tries to speak for the individual voice, which has been annihilated in the Party’s absolute domination over even the most miniscule boot print of individuality.

Democracy will always permit more personal liberty than communism as it permits disparate, individual ideas. One of the great benefits of the introduction of Capitalism, was the right people had to own their own property. The state could not control it. You see that in the apartment Winston and Julia rent. It is the only place they can relax. In their own private abode, they enjoy their happiest moments. Everywhere else, they know the Party will subsume them. The tragic irony being that even that miniscule secluded space in the apartment is an illusion of freedom in a totalitarian communist regime.

“Where there is equality there can be sanity”. Democracy is not a panacea. It does not guarantee success, but it does mean that the will of most of the people is carried out. So, on the surface, sanity might not seem a lot to ask for. Yet there are still countries on our planet that more closely resemble Nineteen Eighty-Four than civil, tolerant societies. North Korea for starters. A state which prioritises equality will at a minimum be sane.

Winston clearly identifies the proles as the best shot we have of an equitable system. He rejoices in the fact that they may someday have a voice. It is the only route he can see out of the madness of the world he is living in. He understands that most people must buy into a collective decision on the future of society to kill the nightmare that endures in a totalitarian state.

Of course, the Party understand this threat: “Perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the proletarians or the slaves will arise and overthrow us. Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, like the animals”. The language used here is deliberate and pointed. The party thinks of would be contributors in a democratic system as “animals”. They must dehumanise Winston – and any dissenting voices – to maintain their power. I think of Animal Farm as the rise of totalitarian communism and Nineteen Eighty-Four as taking it to its logical conclusion.

 

 

Fake News / Propaganda:

 

 

Fake news, in 2017, is designed to create an air of uncertainty where people lose their critical faculties and are unable to decipher what is real or fake. People become lazy and assume that all politicians lie and this plays into the hands of dictators like Putin who feed off the uncertainty. He gets people to think: what is the difference between a dictatorship or a democracy? People are hoodwinked into believing there isn’t any.

Orwell foreshadowed this phenomenon. Take Winston – his job is to change the facts of the past to suit the present. To lie professionally every day. The propaganda peddled by the Party in nineteen eighty-four leaves Winston unable analyse the ethics of the Party: “At these moments, his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector”. He is confused – and he works for the Party! The misinformation has killed his ability to discern the truth.

The editors and programmers of Russia’s state run TV station, Russia today, must get authorisation from their superiors when deciding what stories to run with. Likewise, the writers in the Times newspaper in Nineteen Eighty-Four when they are made to “rewrite it (an old article) in full and submit your draft to the higher authority before filing”. They are both media that serve the illusory purpose of providing objective information, when in reality they are communicating what the regime authorises them to. Granted, the modern Putin version is slicker and more imperceptible. So much so that it has tricked many intelligent people in free and open Western societies.

Fake news is not solely a problem in closed societies. The volume of corporate money has also clouded the issue in democratic Western countries. It creates an institutionalised form of media bias in that it tends to side with the party in power. Winston dreams in his diary of “a time when thought is free, to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone”. He craves the truth, but cannot get it. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning not to take a free press for granted. Furthermore, not to let too much money pollute it either. As biased as corporate media has become, there is an important distinction to mention: that there is the freedom to choose between types of media in a free society. Not so in autocratic regimes. At least, you can choose in open democratic countries.

On the topic of “Fake News”, let us consider for a moment the amount of lies that Trump has told in 2017 and the brazenness with which he denies them. For example, the levels of obfuscation that he and his team went to deny the real number of people that were at his inauguration, despite the photographic evidence being definitive. It is almost as if his team were trying to “thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER HAPPENED”.

Trump’s strategy is straight from the Putin handbook – to use Fake News to confuse people. Consequently, they cannot tell when he is lying – or, eventually, do not care. Then he can lie without fear of reprisal. He intends to dazzle people with Real and Fake news. Think about the passage about who invented the aeroplane. Winston knows that they were invented before the Party but – as there is so much misinformation out there – he cannot recall the truth of the matter. “It was true, for example, as was claimed in the Party history books, that the party had invented aeroplanes. He remembered aeroplanes since his earliest childhood. But you could prove nothing. There was never any evidence”. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the lines between fact and fiction are blurred to an extent that nobody can tell what is real. Worryingly, in 2017, the leader of the Free World is attempting the same nefarious trick, to throw people off the scent of his corruption.

 

 

Doublethink, Newspeak and the weaponization of language in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

 

 

One of the themes that runs through Orwell’s writing is how totalitarian states learn to control and weaponize language. It happens constantly throughout the book. It is telling that the Telescreens, the primary mode of communication, contain “strident military music”. The news is repeatedly reporting on all matters related to the military. You can see this in the modern day Chinese media too. Watch any of their “CCTV” stations of an afternoon and you will be bombarded with images of tanks, nukes, giant bombs, marching soldiers etc.

The concept of having different editions of Newspeak is intriguing.   Language is so tightly controlled that certain words are banned. I have written about this occurring in modern day China in other articles. The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four goes further than controlling them- it wants to kill them! “We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone”. They endlessly try to prune language to its plainest, most effective level: “The eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete”. Reducing the vocabulary limits the creativity of the individual too, keeping them on the tight leash of the Party. Similarly, when it is said “What justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word?”, we know the real intended consequence is control.

They do not want to merely weaponize current language but all past versions too: “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist in Newspeak versions”. If the Party cannot control the message, they destroy it.

 

 

Violence:

 

 

Violence is so widespread that it scorches people’s receptors to feel, it bleaches their ability to decipher what is good or bad, what is love and what is violence. When Winston first meets Julia, he wants to “flog her to death with a truncheon”. He has a “desire to kill” because society has taught him this is the way to gain power and earn respect.

Winston: “I hated the sight of you…I wanted to rape you and then murder you afterwards. Two weeks ago I thought seriously of smashing your head in”. Citizens go to public hangings to cheer on the killing of traitors. Violence has replaced love as the emotion that is necessary to function.

The torture that Winston endures while he tries to maintain his independence brings to mind modern day Syria. When we learn of his emaciation at the hands of the party, it is difficult not to picture the images of the prisoners at Saydnaya prison – many of them deliberately starved and tortured to death. Like Fake News, torture at the hands of brutal regimes is still happening in the world in 2017. Sadly, we have not evolved past this as a global community.

 

 

Conclusion:

 

 

Re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four created more questions than answers for me:

Should the world have regimes that demand “complete intellectual surrender” in 2017? What should we be doing about countries such as North Korea?

Should countries like China have the right to own language? Do the inevitable consequences of this lead to regimes deleting words such as “HONOUR, JUSTICE, MORALITY”?

As regimes blur the lines between Real and Fake News, do we need to “believe that reality Is something objective, external, existing in its own right”?

Orwell may not have the answers but, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he articulates a clear vision of the future in totalitarian states: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever”.

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