Orwell, George:  “Notes On Nationalism”

Is Orwell a better essayist than novelist? When you consider just how seminal and outstanding Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are, it would seem a near impossible case to prove.  Yet Notes On Nationalism does just that. It is an essay on a par with his novels in its incisiveness. Even in 2018, it is devastatingly accurate. Orwell was a sage with a perspicacious mind who identified thoughts that few else did. Take, for example, the following differentiation: “Patriotism is a devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon people. Nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality”.

Fascinatingly, he highlights how often influential leaders of countries were frequently born elsewhere: Stalin, Napoleon, Hitler, de Valera and Disraeli. This is possible partly because of what Orwell deems “transferred nationalism”: that people are capable of tuning into nationalities not common to them. So, an English or Irish person could be a committed Soviet nationalist. He expands his definition of nationalism to include political points of view such as communism. Ideologue is an alternative word for what Orwell describes in this 1945 essay. Norman Doidge, in the foreword to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life. An Antidote To Chaos defines ideologues as “people who pretend they know how to make the world a better place before they’ve taken care of their own chaos within”. Perhaps the second part is not what Orwell meant but the first part most certainly is. Orwell views a key part of nationalism as having an “indifference to reality. All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts”. Their feelings override the facts. This then allows the “bigoted communist” to turn into a “bigoted Trotskyist” with a minimum of fuss and explains how “in continental Europe fascist movements were largely recruited from among communists”.

The centenary, in 2017, of the Russian Revolution saw a couple of members of the Irish Dáil waxing lyrical about how misunderstood Trotsky was. It is mind-boggling to witness how pervasive this myth still remains: “When one considers the elaborate forgeries that have been committed in order to show that Trotsky did not play a part in the Russian civil war, it is difficult to feel that responsible people are merely lying. More probably they feel their own version was what happened in the sight of God, and one that is justified in rearranging the records accordingly”. This level of delusion multiplies so that the “nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them”. More to the point: “the fact that Trotskyists are everywhere a persecuted minority, and that the accusation usually made against them of being fascists is absolutely false, creates an impression that that Trotskyism is intellectually and morally superior to communism; but it is doubtful whether there is much difference”. This is quite a clever little trick: use a falsehood to create another one. The wisest thing to do, and it baffles me how infrequently this happens, is to actually interpret Trotsky’s ideas first-hand by reading his books. I have written about these works previously and there is little or no difference, philosophically, between Trotsky and Stalin: https://orbitalmick.wordpress.com/2017/07/29/defending-the-indefensible-a-review-of-leon-trotskys-terrorism-and-communism/

Sticking with my native Ireland, in 2017 we released a commemorative stamp for the despot Che Guevara, despite the facts about his violent past being openly available for all to see. Similarly, in Venezuela, modern leftists refuse to see the economic damage done in the name of communism and label the opposition fascists. Elsewhere, in Syria, people are convinced that the what is happening is a gigantic US PSYOP. Of course, you rarely hear said people discuss the fact that ninety percent of the death toll is caused by Assad. Why? Orwell: “The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied…the nationalist is uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit”. In order for this to occur, he sees through the so-called “intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism.” Nail on head.

Orwell talks of the delusions that “Celtic nationalism” can cause and expands his definition to include class: “Among the upper class and middle-class intellectuals, only in the transposed form. Here again, inside the intelligentsia, the pressure of public opinion is overwhelming Nationalistic loyalty towards the proletariat, and most vicious theoretical hatred of the bourgeoisie, can and often do co-exist with ordinary snobbishness in everyday life”. This is quite common. People feel guilty about the level of, what these days would be termed “privilege”. It is bollocks. The reality is that no person has any influence over what class they are until their late teenage years. Moreover, if we are fortunate enough to be born into a Western society, we can change our class by working hard in society. The best way for every human being to improve is to educate themselves and take responsibility for their own actions. What I really appreciate about Orwell is his honesty. Being a socialist, he was not afraid of criticising his own side’s actions: “the average intellectual of the Left believed that the war was lost in 1940…he could believe these things because his hatred of the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind”.

I find that Orwell seems at times to be directing his thoughts directly at me: “Nationalism can be intermittent and limited. An intelligent man may half-succumb to a belief which attracts him but which he knows absurd, and he may keep it out of his mind for long periods”. I occasionally feel myself slipping into these delusions, particularly at weak moments, or if I discover a new idea. In fact, ideas themselves may just be the problem. Orwell was not a nationalist and I try to follow his example. If only more people could follow suit, it would make discussing politics more rational.

Advertisements
Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Camus, Albert: “Create Dangerously”

Camus writes of the imaginative process that culminates in art, beautifully, as “the strange liberty of creation”.  He describes how society all too often “discourages free creation by undermining its basic principle, the creator’s faith in himself”.  It is an interesting concept and I think it can be contrasted with Robert Conquest’s idea, in The Dragons Of Expectation, that the sheer number of artists in modern day society is proof that we now have an excess of them. Certainly, we have learnt to encourage them since Camus gave this speech in 1957.   Perhaps this is because society is freer than it was in the post-World War Two years, which is critical to enable artists to create: as Camus puts it, “Without liberty, we shall achieve nothing”. This is why “tyrants know that there is in the work of art an emancipatory force”.

He rails against the notion that “If art insists on being a luxury, it will also be a lie”. Camus believes the role of the artist is not to represent what the majority of society view as acceptable: “If (art) adapts itself to what the majority of what our society wants, art will be a meaningless creation”. He is scathing about art for art’s sake and anyone who tries to get famous on the back of being an artist should not be seen as genuine: “A true artist could not compromise with the world of money”. Equally, Camus believes that “true art is called upon to unite” so he sees a socialistic quality in it. There is an obvious logic at play here in that the artist shares their creation with others. I would slightly disagree. Art is entirely subjective and is made by the individual. Yes, people can have shared experiences, but the concept of uniting implies some pre-disposed aim before or during its inception and this minimises its legitimacy.  He does broach the topic: “If there is any man who has no right to solitude, it is the artist. Art cannot be a monologue”. Sources of inspiration include “The Sea, rains, necessity, desire, the struggle against death…we resemble one another in what we see together, in what we suffer together”. It is intriguing that he sees these as shared qualities or experiences. I believe that they are individual ones. At other times, he muddies the waters: “At the very moment when the artist chooses to share the fate of all, he asserts the individual he is. And he cannot escape from this ambiguity”. Applying this logic, it would be difficult to separate the artist from their art. This is a question which I have asked but have not been able to answer. I wrote about it in a previous Radiohead piece but remain none the wiser: https://wordpress.com/post/orbitalmick.wordpress.com/1590

Camus thinks that art “striving towards realism is legitimate” yet imagines a camera recording one person’s actions all the time and decides that this is only a tiny portion of their life. It is the parts we don’t see, namely the “lives of people he loves…fellow citizens, policemen, professors, invisible comrades from the mines and foundries, diplomats and dictators, religious reformers” that the artist needs to capture. What a wonderful and evocative description of the task at hand.

He also has an idea about where art sits: “We shall choose in the reality of today or yesterday what announces and serves the perfect city of the future”. This would seem to apply to artists who create science fiction but also speaks to the timelessness of the artist’s works and the fact that artists need to create the future.  In doing so, they can help to right wrongs and “speak up for those that cannot do so”.   To Camus, the “greatness of art lies in the perpetual tension between beauty and pain”.

Ultimately, “What then, is art? Nothing simple, that is certain. And it is even harder to find out amid the shouts of so many people bent on simplifying everything”.  He quotes Balzac: “the genius resembles everyone and no one resembles him”. Once more, he tries to delineate the artist, their art and where they sit in society. Maybe it is best to just accept these questions are not that easy to answer. However, he is clear that “the aim of art is not to legislate or to reign supreme, but rather to understand first of all”. So, even if we cannot find the answers, the artist must try.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , | Leave a comment

O’Neill, Eugene: “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”

James Tyrone represents the imperfect, meliorist conservative belief that the more responsibility we take for our lives, the better we will all be, both collectively and individually. It has long been an outlook that I respect in those on the right. Written in the mid-twentieth century but set in 1912, the doctrine was being eaten away at even then. These days, the slide into being defined by our identity threatens to take the focus off us all doing the right thing more than before. The dynamic between James and his two sons symbolises a generational break between left and right.  “Forget everything and face nothing,” says James to Edmund and Jamie.

“I’m taxed to death” complains James, underscoring his belief that individuals should be unburdened with high excises. James Tyrone invests all his money into property and is cash poor. In doing so, he is willing to delay his gratification to a future date. His economic principles are based on an avoidance of living in the “poor house”, which he cites as a concern multiple time throughout. For this, Jamie dubs him a “miser”. Yet the contrast is telling. Both sons spend their money as soon as they get any and do not plan for the future, so which lifestyle is more effective?

When James discovers that his wife Mary has relapsed into drug use, he exclaims “I don’t want to listen to your excuses”. Mary claims that it is not her fault and, in this dynamic, we see the tension in how society affects the individual. James desperately wants her to take control and get her house in order. Can she? At one point, while identifying who is at fault, James even slips and says that “no one is to blame”. It is thus tempting to think that he has admitted defeat, yet the point about taking responsibility is that it is not always possible. There are times when we cannot do so – but we must always try.

Similarly, when it comes to James’s religious beliefs, he tries and fails all the time. This is enough for him. He is happy that he is a believer, even if he messes up. Whereas, for Jamie, he thinks it is all an act: “I don’t notice you’ve worn any holes in the knees of your pants going to mass”. Theism becomes atheism. While Jamie rejects James’s Catholicism due to the level of his piety, the critical point is that James has tried. The question is: is it better to try or to do nothing at all?

The next generation’s renunciation of Christian values irks James and he rails against the inherent nihilism. Mary, meanwhile, begs for forgiveness from the Blessed Mary. Losing her faith is painful: “If only I could find the faith I lost”. This is why she constantly talks about how she could have been a nun. Elsewhere, O’Neill makes it impossible for us not to believe that there is a link between Edmund’s attempted suicide and his “atheist morbidness”.

I viewed a stirring production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 2018 with Jeremy Irons, Lesley Manville and Rory Keenan in Wyndham’s Theatre, London. It ticked every box: the venue, stage, lighting and acting were exceptional. Witnessing the play live made me consider how significant O’Neill deemed the transition from the old Roman focus on the family, the hearth, as the most important unit in society to the Christian focus on the individual. We see a family visibly disintegrate before our eyes. For example, Mary excoriates James about how theirs is a house, an investment and not a true home: “I know you can’t think it’s a home”.

Ultimately, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a reminder of the fog in which the West finds itself in a post-Christian world. Do we give up, like Jamie, shrug our shoulders and bleat that most people get “nowhere in the end” anyway, so what’s the point? Or do we try? The answer is simple. We need to at least aim to do the right thing by taking responsibility for our own lives.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. A Story Of Greed, Terror And Heroism In Colonial Africa.

Europeans first advanced into Africa when shipping became a realistic mode of transport in the fourteenth century. The Portuguese sailed down to the Kongo (it was spelt with a K at that time) to find Africans who were willing to trade slaves. King Afonso I was himself involved in the slave trade – namely of native criminals and prisoners of war – before the new colonialists arrived yet he neither advocated the enslavement of his free citizens nor foresaw the degree to which Portuguese demand would outstrip supply. The Portuguese rapidly began to renege on their agreements with the king and took his subjects as slaves, leading Afonso to forlornly comment that “the traders are kidnapping our people”.

Knowing the enormous volume of slaves traded, it was odd that John Stanley, a major early European explorer in the nineteenth century, called Africa the “unpeopled country”. Of course, what he meant was that there were no white people. Following the British Empire’s abolition of slavery in 1838, there was a fresh zeal to abolish the practice in Africa and other countries.  Despite this, the Arab and American countries continued unabated. The deceitful language that was used to justify the slave trade was noteworthy. Take the 1884 US Congress report on the Berlin conference, where the imperial powers had gathered to decide how best to divide other countries amongst themselves as colonies. The report states that the imperial powers had “readily adopted the fostering care of benevolent enterprise…there was never a more honest and practical effort made to…secure their welfare”. It is especially jarring to read their acknowledgement of the “remarkable artwork” produced by the indigenous societies in the Congo.

Ascending to the throne in 1865, the Belgian King Leopold II founded his drive for a colony on what he deemed “humanitarian” and altruistic reasons. The statement is the acme of perversity. Leopold hired John Stanley to establish a colony in the Congo on his behalf before he bribed the US into recognising it as Belgian. International recognition was not so easy. Bismarck, for example, called it a “swindle” and said the notion that the Congo was a free state was a “fantasy”.

From the beginning, all of the imperial powers acted with disregard for native peoples and their cultures but Leopold’s regime may have been the most brutal of them all.  Even visitors from other imperialist nations, like George Washington Williams from the US, felt morally obliged to expose the brutality and violence at the heart of Leopold’s Congo. Washington detailed in an open letter in 1890:

  • How the imperialists manipulated the supernatural beliefs of the native Congolese people to sign contracts with them.
  • How the military bases in the Congo killed innocent people.
  • The horrid levels of cruelty and violence that were meted out the local population.
  • How no schools or hospitals were built despite the rhetoric and promises of it being a “civilising” mission.
  • How Leopold’s soldiers killed Congolese human beings for fun.
  • How the slave trade continued unabated despite Belgian commitments to end it.

Perhaps predictably, his warnings were ignored. In April 1897 French priest Pere Auguste Achte fell into Congolese rebel hands and was an eyewitness to the reality of what was happening. The rebels treated him well and informed him what life under Leopold was actually like.

Hochschild believes that Joseph Conrad’s infamous Colonel Kurtz may have been based on the Belgian soldier and colonial officer Leon Rom. When I read Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, I thought there was a degree of exaggeration yet after reading the factual version of events, if anything, it seems that Kurtz’s “exterminate all the brutes!” remark and the insane “International Society For The Suppression Of Savage Customs” underplayed the reality of life in the Congo.

Leopold wrote a letter to his officers in the Congo in 1900 directing them to set up child colonies in order to train young Congolese men to be soldiers in his army later in life. The mortality rate was upwards of fifty percent for children who were enslaved in these camps which incited further rebellion against the egregious actions of the colonists. What really changed the dynamics in the Congo was the discovery of rubber at the end of the nineteenth century. Once Leopold realised how much wealth he was able to extract, he oversaw the torture of local people in order to increase the amount of rubber produced. Soldiers cut off the hands of local Congolese people who did not reach production targets. They also kidnapped women and children from local families until the men reached the targets set for them. Charles Lemaire, who was the first commissioner of the Equator district in the Congo, wrote that in order “to gather rubber in the district…one must cut off the hands, noses and ears” of the local people. Baskets of hands were taken as evidence that the locals were worked hard enough. Another official Fievez was clear on how he achieved his targets: “a hundred heads cut off, and there have been plenty of supplies at the station ever since. My goal is ultimately humanitarian”. Again with the humanitarian madness! Elsewhere, Agent Alberic Detiege forced any locals who handed in pebbles and dirt in order to try to reach their quotas of rubber production to eat it as punishment.

Thousands of labourers, including numerous Chinese workers who were specifically imported to build a railway line from Matadi to Stanley Park in 1898, perished during its construction. There was no outrage after the Chinese were killed. It was the fate of Irishman Charles Stokes that began to spark outrage at what was happening in the Congo. Stokes married a local woman and sold arms to the Afro-Arabs. It was only when he was executed by the Belgians in 1895 that London began to question the brutality of Leopold’s rule.

In 1897, Leopold staged an exhibition about the Congo in Belgium. He brought over two hundred and sixty seven Congolese people whom the Belgian public fed with sweets which made them ill and resulted in a sign being put up: “The blacks are fed by the organizing committee”.

When E.D. Morel began writing full time about the chronic injustices in the Congo in 1901, he exerted genuine political pressure in Europe about ending the violence in the Congo. After witnessing the depravity first hand, Morel was offered numerous bribes by the company that he worked for, who traded with the Congo, to keep quiet. He did not and wrote a report in the UK that led to them passing the 1903 parliamentary motion that the Congo should be run humanely.  Morel worked closely with Roger Casement, then working as a British consul to the Congo, who authored a damning report in 1904 exposing the atrocities committed by the Belgian regime. Casement supported Morel in the establishment of a society to stop the exploitation and abuse, the Congo Reform Association. I had come across Casement’s story before but it is interesting to read more on his involvement in the Congo. Joseph Conrad also became acquainted with Casement and lent his support to the movement. Whatever the calibre of their friendship, it did not endure to the end of Casement’s life: Conrad, a true British nationalist, refused to add his voice to the many advocating for Casement when the Irishman was tried and subsequently hanged for treason against Britain in 1916.

Morel fought for ten years to stop the abuses, working with numerous insiders to gain the evidence required for the international media to believe just how inhumane it had become. He later became an anti–World War One activist and was accused of being a German spy in the process. Naturally, Leopold did not take the attacks on his Congolese colony lying down: he fought back with a media and smear campaign of his own.  When John Stanley died, Leopold had Viscount Mountmorris publish a fawning account of the Congo in 1906. Hochschild likens it to Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s infamous propaganda trip to the USSR. So successful was Leopold’s media blitz that, on the 3rd of November 1905, a day before the official report about Leopold was released, he minimised the story in the media by putting out a false summary that whitewashed what was happening. The media bought it.

Under increasing pressure, Leopold eventually agreed to the annexation of the Congo by the Belgian state in 1908 before he died in 1909.  Thus began a cover up by the Belgian state that lasted for decades and when Jules Marchal, a Belgian diplomat and civil servant who served in the Congo, tried to find the official documents about what the Belgian government had done in the Congo in 1975, he was unable to do so. It took many more years before the truth emerged. While the colonisation of the Congo is arguably one of the most brutal examples of imperialism in history, it is too facile to only blame the Belgians. As Colonel Kurtz said, “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz”. The effects of the Belgian and European colonisation are still, sadly, being felt to this day. Hochschild: “From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left to Africa was not democracy…it was authoritarian rule and plunder”. After Congo gained its independence in 1960, the US then killed Lumumba, their first elected president. Civil war still plagues the country, though not on the scale on of Leopold’s reign when low birth rates, murder, disease and starvation cut the Congolese population in half, from approximately ten million to five million people.

Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Shavit, Ari: “The Promised Land: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Israel”

“Zionism embodies conflict,” writes Shavit and the sentiment is typical of how he thinks about Israel. His great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, moved to the land that was to become the state of Israel in 1897 during the first wave of Zionism when Israel Zangwill wrote about the need “to drive out by sword the tribes in possession”. Shavit is what Orwell would term a patriot and his view is that “Israel is the only nation in the West that is existentially threatened” whilst being simultaneously the “only nation that is occupying a nation”. Perhaps if Israel did not consistently break the Balfour Declaration’s instruction that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” then they may not be in such a constant sense of existential dread. Of the first wave of Zionism, Shavit thinks that “They see the Arabs, but they don’t”. Sadly, Shavit treads too far into this kind of myopic territory throughout. There were 600,000 Arabs on the land in 1921 but the Zionists did not, in some real or opaque sense, see them? Put simply, they did. Similarly, writing about the West Bank, he thinks that: “only a Jewish state in Palestine can save the lives of the millions who are about to die”. Shavit’s heart is in the right place and he empathises with the great injustice that was done to the indigenous peoples but, even framing the history in this way, is unhelpful. About 1935, he writes that: “it is true that tenant Palestinian farmers had already been uprooted from their land in the Harod Valley and in Rehovot and in dozens of other locations. But the lives of those farmers under their Arab masters had in many cases been worse than their lives as the field hands of the Jewish colonizers”. This is undoubtedly true and there is an excellent chapter on how the Zionists had enormous success growing oranges in Jaffa, specifically in the Rehovot colony which “is a living testament that the Jews were right to end their two millennia of wandering in the Plain of Judea. Creating something from nothing”. It is the latter sentence that I struggle with. Utilising the land successfully does not justify the Nakba. The end does not justify the means.

Shavit does an excellent job portraying the constant and crippling sense of fear that the Israeli state resides in and he chronicles the dual impact that the meeting of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini had with Hitler in Berlin in 1941 and Rommel’s rampage from Libya to Egypt the following year had. The Jews that were on the land felt that they were facing a genocide which led to the 1947 Zionist belief that “the Jews must defend themselves as no one else will come to their rescue” because “it is clear that Arab nationalism is about to eradicate Zionism and destroy the Jewish community in Palestine”. The obvious problem with this perspective is that World War Two had long ended in 1947. Moreover, Arab nationalism only sprung up as the inevitable consequence of what the Zionists were doing. To be fair to Shavit, he does not shy away from the Zionist ethnic cleansing during the foundation of the state of Israel. Given that the Israeli education ministry ordered the removal of the word “Nakba” from Israeli textbooks in 2009, Shavit should be credited for tackling this egregious part of their history. In this the seventieth anniversary of the Nakba the Israeli state has proven that they view the murder of Palestinians with the same insouciance as they did in 1948 with their indiscriminate killing of over one hundred human beings as they protested the theft of their land.

Just before one especially violent incident, Yitzhak Rabin insisted that: “the inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly”. This proves that there was a deliberate policy to banish the local Arabs from their land. Shavit interviews soldiers and civilians alike. Said one citizen: “we shall all be held accountable for this era. We shall face judgement”. Tragically, they have not. Moreover, they refuse to even let Palestinians protest at the border fence. Owing to the fact that these instructions were frequent and deliberate, we can confirm that what occurred was a textbook case of ethnic cleansing. A phrase that Shavit does not employ. Only the bravest and most honest Israeli historians, such as Ilan Pappe, are this upfront about what transpired. When Israeli soldiers opened fire on innocent Arab civilians near the great mosque, professor Israel Gutman notes that the “occupation, massacre, and mental pressure had the desired effect” and resulted in a historical Deja-vu type situation which meant that “like the ancient Jews, the people of Lydda go into exile”. Shavit also sees other sinister historical comparisons elsewhere when he observes first hand that “we are evil in Gaza” whilst he worked as a camp guard on the beach in the early 1990s. Shavit tells the story of Jamal Munheir, who escaped in April 1948 to Dayr Muhaysin where he was attacked the following day during the Nakba. Two weeks later “he watched as bulldozers razed his family’s home in Hulda”.  Despite all this, Shavit will “stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, the State of Israel would not have been born”. Happily, he has the option to stand by it. The Palestinians cannot even protest it.

“Israel of the 1950s was a state on steroids” and due to “its outstanding economic, social, and engineering achievements, the new Israel paid a dear moral price. There was no notion of human rights, civil rights, due process, or laissez-faire. There was no equality for the Palestinian minority and no compassion for the Palestinian refugees”. The “stupefying success” that the new Israeli state created led to their ability to acquire a nuclear program and Shavit interviews one former employee who spoke of the possible need for a “pre-emptive strike” and, certainly, they did not hesitate when they used force to destroy Iraq’s burgeoning attempts to acquire nuclear power in 1981 and Syria’s in 2007.

Of the occupation of the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, Shavit describes them as a “futile, anachronistic colonialist project” which should be disbanded. He believes that “the renewal and revival of Zionism after the Yom Kippur War was not just about taking strategic control of the highlands of the West Bank. It was about bringing the people of Israel to the mountain of Israel”. That plenty of Israelis were disgruntled when they gave back the Sinai to Egypt in 1979 is a sign of just how much of the land the Israeli’s believe they are entitled to. Shavit focuses on the 1975 colonization of Ofra as proof that they have gone too far with the new settlements. Again, though, there are some, like Etzion, who insist that: “blowing up the mosques would allow us to break through to the heavens” in the West Bank. It rankles when Westerners single out Arab Muslims in the Middle East as the sole religious fanatics when there are plenty of extremist Jews harbouring similar beliefs. Shavit: “it was absolutely clear to me that making Israel a holy state justified suffering a war against all of Israel’s enemies”. He even believes that Israel as a concept is justified because it is holy land. Israel Harel: “Ofra’s assumption is that the Arabs will not stick around. Its secret hope is that there will be a Great War and the Arabs will vanish. There is a belief here that a grand event will happen, like the 1967 war or the 1948 war”. Remind me again who the violent extremists are? Wishing for a war to expand illegal settlements is the kind of thinking that prolongs death and misery and prevents peace.

One reason so many Western analysts misread the conflict is that they see it as solely a religious, and not a nationalist, one. It is a dispute about land. That Hamas was founded, partly with Israeli funding, in 1987, tells its own tale. Ultimately, for Shavit, he writes that “because in the twenty-first century there is no room for a colonialist entity, the West is gradually turning its back on Israel…that’s why enlightened Jews in America and Europe are ashamed of Israel”. This is positive to hear. However, he then writes that “we’ll have to establish a new, firm, and legitimate iron wall” on the border. With no mention of reparations for the Nakba, it is tricky to see how putting up a wall will settle the issue.

Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Nagle, Angela: “Kill All Normies. Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right.”

Irish writer Nagle, after publishing some interesting articles, raises further interesting questions here. Given how Christian morality, dominant for two millennia, has largely evaporated in the West, it was understandable that multiple new forms of ethics would plug the gap. One of these has manifested itself digitally in the online world. Nagle deems it the “ultra-puritanism” of the “call-out culture” that can “ruin a reputation or career”. Fire up Twitter for five minutes and you will see any number of people judging and regulating other opinions, which has resulted in a form of quasi-self-censorship. There is a sort of free market of ideas that has learnt to censor egregious ones. It is intriguing to observe.

Nagle is mainly concerned with the reaction to this, namely the formation of the Alt-Right. She crawls through the murky sewers of their websites to see how it evolved. Not having seen any of them, I found this work to be a learning experience and not a pleasant one. I try not to spend too much time online and reading about this made me more determined than ever to be disciplined in this regard. Nagle cites Gamergate as one of the key milestones in the development of the Alt-Right: “Gamergate brought gamers, rightist Chan culture, anti-feminism and the online far right closer to mainstream discussion and it also politicised a broad group of young people, mostly boys, who organized tactics around the idea of fighting back against the culture war being waged by the cultural left”.

Nagle thinks well and draws some interesting historical and philosophical connections, one of which is the Nietzschean concept of transgression. For Christianity, now see the flouting of the new uber-liberal PC culture. It’s easy to understand how the moralising tone of continuously judging people can be alienating. Nagle sees acts of transgression on the left too, such as the pro–sex-work attitude which would have been anathema to old leftists. Crucially, Nagle believes that the Alt-Right “understand the value of transgression, edginess and counterculture often better than their left-wing opponents” which could perhaps result in a Gramscian-style takeover like the left’s of academia. An example was Milo Yiannopoulo’s “feminism is cancer” T-shirt which typified the Alt-Right’s aversion to identity politics. Nagle believes that he and his ilk “are in many ways the perfect postmodern offspring, where every statement is wrapped in layers of faux-irony, playfulness and multiple cultural nods and references”. In Yiannopoulo’s own words it was a reaction against “trying to police what can be taught and said, and how opinions can be expressed”. It is concerning that both sides seem to push each other further towards the edge. The more PC the ultra-liberals become, the more the Alt-Right desire to transgress these norms. It is not unreasonable to question the end game.

Political labels have long lost much meaning yet they are necessary. I would class myself, very loosely, as a liberal, although I am right wing on certain issues and left on others. Labels, in general, can be unhelpful. It is shocking to read what passes for liberalism these days. Nagle: “Liberals don’t believe in actual politics anymore… (it is a) cult of suffering, weakness and vulnerability”. The names need to be either redefined or made anew – and not only for liberalism but across the spectrum.  Nagle cites Mark Fisher’s excellent Exiting The Vampire Castle and the “witch hunting moralism”: the “key driving force behind (excommunication) is about creating scarcity in an environment in which virtue is the currency that can make or break the career or social success of an online user in this milieu”. This is an excellent articulation of the pathetic state of liberal online discourse. It has become about judging people’s opinions. The end goal is obvious: to stop people holding “bad” opinions. Of course, the key point is: who decides what is bad? Moreover, should we not be free to hold vile opinions? As Orwell wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. This new movement wishes to abrogate this concept. Parsing Nagle’s last sentence is revealing.  Specifically, that people think to see their social media as their “career” and not just a place to vent opinions, good and bad. All of this has led to ludicrous levels of no-platforming. For example, when Fran Cowling was to speak beside Peter Tatchell at a university, he refused and called Tatchell “racist, Islamophobic, and even transphobic”. Attacking somebody like Tatchell is instructive as to where this is headed: an even more rigid constrictor of opinions than the Christian churches. What if they acquire power on a comparable scale to that institution?

This has created what Nagle brilliantly calls the “mind prison of liberalism” that has increasingly become the “disease of the left”. Naturally, it will alienate people who wish to think freely. For example, it pushes people who were on the left to create new and unusual alliances with people across the political spectrum. For example, some of the radical feminists will perhaps have more in common with people on the right who dismiss identity politics. Even the language is alienating. For example, as well as the term TERF, the term cisgender can also be confusing as it implies that gender is, to some degree, innate and not a social construct. Is this even possible? If gender is a social construct, then how is it possible to state that you are cisgender, or otherwise, at birth? Surely, when you are born, biological sex is the only determiner and then gender follows later on?

The term “Normies” comes from the mass murderer Chris Harper Mercer who massacred nine people in a self-described attempt to “kill many Normies”. Many on the Alt-Right believe that this ultra-liberalism is causing the decline of Western civilization and they are determined to “defeat feminism, Islamification, mass immigration and so on”, which they see as the largest factors.  Nagle: “Both rightist Chan culture and ultra-PC academic culture understood the countercultural dog whistle of disdain for anything mainstream”. In her short book, Nagle gives an excellent overview of the new online cultures. It is a superb analysis and snapshot of the culture wars that change so fluidly. I am now able to better identify and categorise so much of the nonsense that happens. Not that this is a good thing. In fact, it makes me pine for the halcyon days of the pre-social media times.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Siedentrop, Larry. Inventing The Individual: “The Origins Of Western Liberalism”.

Siedentrop weighs in on the familiar history of how the individual became paramount in Western society. He considers the knowledge of this history vital “because we are in danger of taking this primacy of the individual as something “obvious” or “inevitable”, something guaranteed by things outside ourselves rather than by historical convictions and struggles”.

Ancient Greece and Rome were based on society and not the individual which explains why sophists like Socrates did not answer to the polis, or state. Their questioning of it was deemed subversive and put the focus on individuals using their own rationality for themselves to decide what the best way forward was. Siedentrop highlights how the ancient Western societies focused on the family as the centre of morality. It is easier to swallow than Aristotle’s view that “some are free men and others are slaves by nature”.

After a quick run through ancient Greece and Rome, the book focuses on Christianity, which influenced Western thought for two millennia. In contrast to the early, strict, scripture-based Jewish law, Siedentrop observes that “Christian liberty is open to all humans. Free action, a gift of faith in the Christ”. Its claims to authority “were not based on the family or class. Rather they were based on the individual”. Where the Greeks were rational, they did believe that the Gods were all powerful. That Christianity gave individual funerals after death was a powerful change that focused on the individual.

“Christian martyrs gained a hold over the popular imagination…they offered a model of heroism open to all, a democratic model of heroism” which resulted in “egalitarianism, and its potential for inwardness”. St Augustine believed that it offered “the uneducated to rise up and take heaven by storm”. Indeed, it was St Augustine writing the in the fourth century who put the focus on “human agency, on the free will that people had to make the right decisions. The very fact that this option was there was the revolutionary spark that changed the focus from the familial and societal to the individual. It did not matter if you were born into a wealthy, noble or powerful family in the same way that it did in Greek and Roman society. The individual in a Christian society, through exercising free will, was able to get to heaven. This led to the rise of Monasticism in the fifth century which, “consecrated a vision of social order founded conscience, on hard-won individual attentions”. Monasticism put the focus entirely on the actions of the person. Siedentrop makes the point that convents brought women into public life.

The Christian “love of the poor” philosophy spread rapidly around Europe and it easy to see why. Yet, even in its most benevolent form, as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out with Mother Theresa, this can wind up having extremely detrimental effects. Living a perfidious life should not be lionised by any society. Charlemagne, in the eighth century, took a rather more direct route when he largely united Western Europe and Christianised people under force of death in his Carolingian Empire.  This was before the Crusades united a Christian Europe when they began in 1099. Before this in 1059, Pope Nicholas II had made it Roman law that “you shall judge the great as well as the little and there shall be no difference of persons” in a statement that underlined how much the focus was being put on each human being to do the right thing.

When Canon Law, which Siedentrop intriguingly deems the “original vehicle of modernity” came into being, monkish popes were replaced by papal ones. The rise of Canon Law resulted in a split between what Peter Abelard calls the two places where judgment could be made. Namely, the “heavenly forum” and the “earthly forum”. Once again, the idea of Canon law made humans the focus of communicating what was right on earth and demystified the process.  From here came the concept of marriage. In 1160, the canonist Rufinus wrote that “natural jus is a certain force instilled in every creature to do good”. This concept of natural justice in the human world may have been the earliest sighting of liberalism. In the fourteenth century, the ascetic Franciscans claimed that Adam and Eve had no property and so, in this state of nature, there was a case to be made that none should have any. In this regard, could the Franciscans be the forbearers of modern communism? Saint Francis had a huge following but his big idea was cancelled by the papacy.  Out of the Canon laws came borough laws in places like London. It was in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the early nation-states were being born that Canon Law began to be mixed with the monarchical and local law to govern societies – especially ones that did not want to be ruled remotely from Rome. In fact, Siedentrop highlights the beginning of power-sharing in feudalistic societies of the ninth and tenth centuries as the beginnings of the Church losing its power to the locally governed areas.

As far back as the third century, Tertullian had written that “It is a basic human right that everyone should be free to worship according to his own convictions”, in a stunning early Christian advocacy of freedom of worship. When Thomas Aquinas tried to reconcile the old Greek philosophy with Christianity, William of Ockham observed that the whole process was too complex and unrealistic. He thought that free will was the key idea.

Siedentrop has written an excellent book that adds to the debate surrounding the origins of our current focus on the individual. I was surprised with how far back his focus went, yet the book is all the better for it. There are some excellent insights, such as his assertion that Saint Paul was the “greatest revolutionary in history” with his focus on the individual being capable of exercising what he refers to as “Christian liberty”. Siedentrop believes that twenty-first-century Western societies have “lost touch” with the relationship between “liberal secularism and Christianity” and he sees this as a big threat. I am not totally sold on this idea. I believe we in the West have become as successful as we are partly because of our secularism. Even his main claim that “liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity” does not completely win me over. Yet it is a certainly a point worth reading about and considering.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , | Leave a comment