Tony Blair Says Sorry (again)

The Chilcot Inquiry report really does look as though it’s only weeks away from publication,  and Blair already out apologising for Iraq once again.  Blair last did this back in October last year,  when it also looked as though Chilcot was coming, and he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria:

‘I apologise for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong. I also apologise, by the way, for some of the mistakes in planning, and certainly, our mistake in our understanding of what would happen once you removed the regime. But I find it hard to apologise for removing Saddam.’

This is an example of the ‘mistakes were made’ category of political apology, which the New York Times once described as a ‘classic Washington linguistic construct,  used by Richard Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, among many others. According to the Times: ‘The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.’

This kind of apology allows those who make it to lie without actually lying, or share responsibility so amorphously that no one is actually responsible.  It can also serve to make those who make it seem better than they actually are, so that their ‘mistakes’ seem to be the product of overzealousness and good intentions.

Few people do this more easily than Blair, who cannot conceive of himself as anything less than a great man doing great things – even when the things he does turn out to be not that great after all.   So no one can be surprised that he’s at it again, telling an audience at a Prospect event yesterday:

‘For sure we underestimated profoundly the forces that were at work in the region and would take advantage of change once you topple the regime. That is the lesson. The lesson is not complicated. The lesson is simple. It is that when you remove a dictatorship out come these forces of destabilisation whether it is al-Qaida on the Sunni side or Iran on the Shia side.’

There are so many lies in this seemingly humble statement of contrition that it’s difficult to know where to begin.   Firstly there are the references to the dark forces of evil that messed up what would otherwise have been a perfect success and a jolly good cricket tour.  Then there is that use of the first person plural, which suggests that everyone, and therefore no one shared the misconceptions that Blair appears to be taking responsibility for.

In these circumstances,  it’s worth recalling that there were plenty of people who did not ‘underestimate’ what would happen in Iraq, and who tried desperately to warn Blair of what would happen.   In his history of the Iraq war, Jonathan Steele describes how six academic experts on Iraq, the Middle East and international security were invited to Downing Street to give their views to the man himself.    According to Professor Charles Tripp, the author of a major history of Iraq: ‘ We all pretty much said the same thing.  Iraq is a very complicated country, there are tremendous intercommunal resentments, and don’t imagine that you’ll be welcomed.’

Tripp later recalled how Blair responded with the less-than-insightful observation of Saddam Hussein ‘ But the man’s uniquely evil, isn’t he?’  Tripp later declared himself ‘ a bit nonplussed.  It didn’t seem to be very relevant’ and tried to explain to Blair that Saddam was ‘constrained by various factors.’

These arguments slid effortlessly off a man who Tripp described as ‘ a weird mixture of total cynicism and moral fervour’ and who another academic described as ‘ someone with a very shallow mind, who’s not interested in issues other than the personalities ot the top people, no interest in social forces, political trends, etc’.

Toby Dodge, another Iraq specialist, also remembered how he tried to challenge the ‘rhetoric from Washington’ which depicted Saddam’s regime as ‘separate from Iraqi society’.   Dodge later recalled: ‘ What we wanted to get across was that over 35 years the regime had embedded itself in Iraqi society, broken it down and totally transformed it.  We would be going into a vacuum, where there were no allies to be found, except possibly for the Kurds.’

Blair received the same warnings from other quarters.  In 2004 52 retired British diplomats, many of whom with years of experience in the Middle East,  took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter to Blair in 2004 condemning Britain’s failure to analyse what would happen to Iraq in the event of occupation, declaring:

‘All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case.   To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful.’

So it is simply not true to claim that Blair ‘underestimated’ the ‘forces at work in the region’. The truth is that  he believed what he wanted to believe and only ever listened to advice that supported his own case.   To say that such behavior is not statesmanlike doesn’t even begin to describe it.  Blair acted like this because he was – and is – a dangerous and reckless ideologue who only listens to what powerful people tell him.   His apology is just another lie and an obfuscation of the truth.

Blair is not entirely wrong though.  He is not the only person responsible for the catastrophe of Iraq.   There were other ‘ideologues’ and ‘utterly ignorant’ people who Charles Tripp later condemned  the ‘ideologues’ for ‘playing out their games of democracy, diplomacy, of liberalisation’ in Iraq.  Tripp also lamented the UK’s ‘criminal part’ in the war and occupation, declaring ‘ We didn’t say how we would ensure the Iraqis’ security, how we would give these people jobs, these poor people who have been struggling under the weight of something we partly created and to whom we owe a responsibility.’

No we didn’t, and it remains to be seen whether the Chilcot report will address this ‘criminal part’ or whether it will be content with the ‘mistakes were made’ version of history that Blair is currently spinning.  But one thing is certain; Tony Blair will never acknowledge his role in an epic crime and historical tragedy whose consequences are still unfolding, and every apology that he ever gives will just be one more variant on the same lie.

 

Interview with Jackie Walker

Few people who pay attention to such things will have failed to notice the stridently McCarthyite atmosphere that has descended on British politics since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party last year.  Needless to say, these developments did not originate from Corbyn himself.   A spectrum of opinion that includes the Tory Party, rightwing Labour MPs, liberal newspaper columnists and pretty much the totality of the British media do not like Corbyn, and they like the left-wing constituency that voted for him  even less.

For the past eight months they have been trying actively to dam these waters, or at least to poison them so that no one will want to swim in them.  Anything will do.   One word or sentence out of place; one randomly-plucked screenshot, and you’re likely to be hauled up as a supporter of Daesh, a terrorist apologist,  or part of the dastardly leftist/jihadist alliance.

Now – aided and abetted by Israel firsters who claim to be supporting Israel even as they assist it down the giddy road to fascistic self-immolation – Corbyn’s enemies have discovered that the left is infected with the ‘virus’ of antisemitism.  Nowadays, no one actually has to ‘prove’ that you’re antisemitic – in the old sense of the term as someone who hates Jews and wants to harm them.  They just have look through your Facebook posts or Twitter posts.  A careless or loose word in the heat of an argument; something you thought was a joke and – gotcha! – you are guilty, and Corbyn is guilty too.

And it doesn’t matter, by the way, if you don’t think you’re antisemitic; your accusers know it when they see it – and even when they don’t see it.  Experts in meta-textual analysis, all they have to do is extrapolate from what you has said; or quote what someone else has said that you’ve said, and they’re ready to tell the world what you really thought and meant regardless of whether you thought or meant it.

That’s what political debate has become in the UK these days.   And when it comes to Israel, boy you better watch out – at least if you’re on the left, because increasingly anti-Zionism is accepted as synonymous with antisemitism not only by Israel and its supporters, but by an ignorant and lazy media that can’t be bothered to find out the difference, and by rightwing Labour MPs who really don’t give a damn, as long as  they can use such claims to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn has ‘tolerated’ hatred of Jews within the Labour Party.

Such claims may be nonsensical, but nowadays in British politics, nonsense can take you a long way, and there is no more  egregious example of how cynical and downright dangerous this dynamic has become than the suspension of Jacqueline Walker from the Labour Party, following accusations of antisemitism.

For those who don’t know, Walker  is a woman of African-Jewish descent, who suffered vicious racism while growing up in care homes and foster homes in the UK.    She is also a writer, an activist, and a steely and indefatigable antiracist campaigner, and the founder of Kent Anti-Racist Network (KARN).

Walker is also the vice-cheer of the steering committee of Momentum, and a strong pro-Palestinian campaigner.    Her suspension follows two comments on Facebook that were leaked to the Jewish Chronicle earlier this month.   Readers can read them in full here.   Some readers may disagree with what she said, or quibble about her historical claims or her  wording, but I cannot see how these comments amount to antisemitism – except in the minds of people predisposed to believe it.

Astonishingly, Walker has also been suspended for using the words ‘historic homeland’ in scaremarks to refer to the state of Israel.  This is not pedantry or even stupidity.  Most anti-Zionists would use exactly the same punctuation: to do otherwise would be to accept uncritically Israel’s own definition of itself.  So accusing Walker of antisemitism for doing this is effectively demanding that she stop calling that definition into question.

All these developments clearly have ramifications far beyond the smouldering civil war within the Labour Party.  I spoke to Walker on Facetime this week about her predicament. She looked tired, and described herself as ‘very stressed’ by the accusations thrown at her, and by the negative fallout that has resulted from them.. This isn’t just the usual Twitter pitchfork mob and Facebook abusers, or the newspapers that have been holding her name up like a sinner from a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel.

Walker’s partner Graham Bash is Jewish, and his family has not spoken to him since her suspension.  She also has family in Israel, the Caribbean and the United States, and she has received criticism from these countries as well.  ‘ It’s gone kind of mega-global,’ she says, ‘  and the context of that is that there are all sorts of people who think they know me and know what I’m like who are now feeling totally free to make all sorts of comments about me.’

These accusers include that well-known anti-fascist newspaper the Daily Mail, which ran the kind of piece you would expect the Daily Mail to run about her. Why did she think she had been singled out for such treatment?

‘Oh, I think without doubt because I’m the vice-chair of Momentum.  You know, if you look at it in terms of the antisemitic paltriness of the claims against what I’ve said, I mean they’re really scraping the barrel….I’m sure that what they did was think about who they could look at, who’s on the left, and who would make a good target, and then they targeted my Facebook.’

Walker’s record as a campaigner for Palestinian rights also added to her target appeal. The Facebook comments that resulted in her suspension were given to the Jewish Chronicle by an  organization called the Israel Advocacy Movement (IAM), a seemingly two-man operation whose website describes its mission to counter ‘  the increasing hostility Israel suffers at the hands of the British public, caused by huge volumes disinformation [sic] circulated by Israel’s enemies.’

These enemies include the anti-poverty charity War on Want, which the IAM claims was ‘one of the driving forces behind boycotting and demonising Israel in the UK. They spend a huge amount of their resources attacking the Israel, [sic] while paying little attention to the most impoverished nations in the world.’

Such is the organization that the Jewish Chronicle and the Daily Mail took its sources from and no wonder, since the IAM has a stated strategy of ‘providing Israeli advocates with free or cheap materials to promote the cause’.

You don’t get much cheaper materials than those used against Walker, and no one would expect the Great British Press to question the legitimacy of such sources.  The Labour Party Compliance Unit also seems to have rushed to judgement, as it has done in most of the antisemitism accusations of recent weeks.   No one seems to have considered what Walker  actually meant or the context in which it was said – and until last week she wasn’t even told  what she has been accused of.

Despite these these murky procedures, Walker  refuses to criticize the Labour party leadership:  .

‘ I don’t know about the actual workings of what’s happened between the leadership, the Compliance Unit, Iain McNicol and everybody else.  I haven’t got a clue about that, but what I know is that I am absolutely resolved and happy to support the actual leadership of the Labour Party.  It hasn’t shaken me from that at all.  In fact, if anything it’s made me feel it’s even more important that we change how the Labour Party works.’

Despite Walker’s loyalty to the leadership, she has no illusions about her political enemies:

‘ Are we seriously saying my accusers in the IAM are actually concerned about anti-racism. and equality for all people? … I haven’t seen any of them on anti-racist rallies or supporting anti-racist actions. I would very much take them more seriously had they had anything matching, for example, my record with a commitment to antiracism. I mean, if you feel seriously about antiracism, it’s not just about who you are. So I don’t just care about Jews and people of African descent, I care about everybody. That’s what being an antiracist is.’

This is not the kind of definition to find much favour amongst Labour’s finger-pointing witchhunters – let alone David ‘ a bunch of migrants’ Cameron, because it isn’t politically useful.   Walker, like Norman Finkelstein, is shocked and disgusted by the instrumentalisation of antisemitism for purely political purposes:.

‘ It’s a disgrace, the media is against the left. Where is their interest in the people who are doing Hitler salutes down in Dover, marching on the streets of Dover once a month, the group that call themselves Hitler Was Right? Let’s see some of these great campaigners who are against antisemitism, let’s see them on the streets of Dover and actually talking about the real antisemitism that’s happening in this country.’

Wasn’t there a danger that the deliberate conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism, coupled with the attempts to use antisemitism to shut down critical voices like hers,  ran the risk of inadvertently fueling antisemitism by making it impossible to criticize Israel openly?

‘Exactly.  But you see I think there’s also a section of people who in a way, want to stoke that fire. Because they want to give European Jews a sense of terror, so they want to make them have a sense that they are not safe.  It doesn’t matter where they look – even on the left, in the Labour Party, you know, there’s antisemitism, and the only way to get away from it is to go back, using that term ‘going back’ to a country most of us have never been born in and have no real association with. and we see that in operation, don’t we?’ 

We do, not least from Binyamin Netanyahu himself, last year, and now Walker, to her own incredulity and dismay,  has become another useful instrument in this morbid process.   That doesn’t mean she is accepting her role of victim passively.  On the contrary, she has been attending public meetings and vigorously defending herself whenever she can, but the experience of public vilification and the suspension from her political home have clearly taken their toll: :

‘It depends what time of day you get me, and how much sleep I’ve had, and often what the last conversation has been.   At the moment I’m getting massive amounts of support and very little sleep, so there’s a contradictory relationship, and I think that’s pretty much going to carry on for the next few months really.  It’s not the way I want to live my life and I really do find it an invasion of my privacy and an invasion of my life as a victim of racism all my life and as an antiracist campaigner, not just personally but professionally to be put into this position.   I think whoever has done this to me should really, really feel ashamed of themselves.’

They should, but then if they could feel shame they would not have done this in the first place.   Last week, Walker  spoke at a public meeting in Kent, where members of the fascist ‘English Patriots’ group heckled her outside and called her a ‘hypocrite’ and a ‘racist’ and jeered that ‘ Labour sacked you.’

This is where the ‘left antisemitism’ fraud has brought us: to a situation when principled and passionate antiracists are called racists by fascists.    And despite Walker’s  loyalty, I can’t help feeling that a party that treats activists like her in this way, and that can’t find the courage to stand up against the vicious, bargain-basement witchhunt that is now unfolding,  will never be able to fight the even bigger fights that lie ahead, and perhaps doesn’t deserve to win them.

But regardless of what you think of that,  this is about much more than the Labour Party itself.    And that is why I urge you to support her. She is fighting back and we should join her in that fight.  Sign the petition demanding her reinstatement here.  Hear her speak. Like her Facebook page.

And let us all do what we can to bring these witch-hunts to an end.  McCarthy got away with what he did because too many people simply didn’t have the small courage to say no – and call him out  for the liar and the bully he was.

We need to do the same to the liars, bullies, opportunists – and Zionists, who are so grossly manipulating antisemitism for their own political purposes,  and we need to start now.

 

 

Son of Saul

In these dismal times, when the issue of ‘left antisemitism’ are being ruthlessly and cynically instrumentalised within British politics in an attempt to neutralize opposition to the Israeli state, and destroy the leftist surge within the Labour Party, it’s salutary experience to see the Hungarian director László Nemes’s shattering Son of Saul.   If you go to the cinema in order to escape from reality or return home with a warm glowing feeling, then this won’t be a film for you.

It’s a ferociously powerful, uncompromising, and morally and artistically audacious artistic statement about one of the most terrible periods in human history, which depicts the nightmarish sub-world of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau, who collected the possessions of murdered Jews as they were led into the gas chambers, and cleared away and burned their bodies afterwards.

To call this film a ‘Holocaust drama’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.   From the first awful scene in which a trainload of new arrivals are brutally and efficiently dispatched to the gas chambers while a voice through a loudspeaker promises them a shower followed by cups of tea, Nemes takes the viewer, perhaps as far as cinema can, into the epicentre of the Nazi genocide, and brilliantly re-imagines events that have already begun to fade and that many of us would prefer not to think about at all.

The fictional ‘story’ on which all this hangs, revolves around what may be an act of love or an act of madness – or perhaps both – as the Jewish Sonderkommando Saul Auslander tries to bury a boy he  believes to be his son. Is the boy really his son or a case of mistaken identity?   Does Saul actually have a son at all, or does the sight of the boy, who survives the gas chamber only to be murdered by a Nazi doctor, bring to the surface that human part of himself that he has been obliged to suppress?

Son of Saul leaves these questions open.  Unlike Schindler’s List, it doesn’t have heroes, not even flawed heroes,  to give the viewer some emotional consolation or catharsis or a some sense of moral direction.   Nothing about Saul has any clarity at all.

There are no Spielbergesque tricks here to to thrill the audience, such as the utterly fake sequence in Schindler’s List where the women take a shower and scream with relief when it turns out not to be gas, no redemptive ending.  The film is told from the perspective of Saul himself – hauntingly portrayed by the Hungarian poet Geza Rohrig in a performance of mesmerising intensity.

Like his fellow-Sonderkommando, Saul is both an accomplice of mass murder and also a victim, trapped in a society in which all the normal constructs that make human society have disappeared; family, friendship, love, community, mercy, and decency.   Using his obsessive and anomalous attempt to bury his son as a prism, Son of Saul casts a terrifying light on the industrialised killing machine created by the Nazis, in which the Sonderkommando work units are merely one component of a conveyor belt dedicated to the destruction of human beings, the theft of their property, and the removal and burning of their bodies.

Much of this is depicted as a blurred background,  using shallow focus camera work that concentrates on Saul himself.   We rarely see the faces of the victims or even their whole bodies.  Instead we see them as the Sonderkommando and the Nazis saw them – as an anonymous mass of faceless people fed through a factory-like production line, who no longer have any history, destiny or individuality, except to be killed.

Like Michael Haneke, Nemes uses sound to devastating effect, as the Sonderkommando perform their horrific tasks with manic speed against a constant background of screams, shouts, gunshots and barked orders in German.  Anymore than this and the film would probably be unwatchable, but these techniques are not intended to soften the events the film depicts.

On the contrary, Son of Saul  forces its audience to see the process of mass killing through the eyes of the killers and accomplices, imagine once again how the Holocaust became possible.  In doing so, it triumphantly realizes Nemes’s stated aim to tell ‘the story of the dead rather than the story of the survivors.’

It’s particularly striking that such a film should come from Hungary, a country whose wartime ruler Admiral Miklos Horthy was complicit in the deportation of some 424,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, and who is currently undergoing something of a rehabilitation.

Hungary is also governed by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, one of whose co-founders, the  prominent commentator Zsolt Bayer,  once declared ‘A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence, They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. … These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved — immediately and regardless of the method.’

Son of Saul describes a moment in history when the Nazi tyranny once took a very similar view towards Jews and others.  Though the film concentrates very specifically on what Nemes calls ‘the destruction of Jewish civilisation in Europe’, his statements in interviews make it very clear that he was concerned with other acts of genocide, and also with the genocidal impulse in our own time.  Not for nothing does Saul, a Hungarian Jew, go by the very un-Hungarian surname Auslander – a German word meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘undesirable alien.’

In short, this is a major artistic statement about what one of the great crimes of history – the massacre of European Jewry, which offers a both a commemoration and a warning.  It is serious stuff, and a reminder that antisemitism is a serious issue – far too serious to be used to the Israel-firsters and rightwing bloggers stalking Facebook comments pages and Twitter in search of an incriminating thought or a word out of place that they can use for what are really quite base purposes.

 

Truth, Lies, and Politics

In Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, a  pompous eighteenth-century professor asks the idiot-savant Kaspar Hauser a variant of the classic logical puzzle: You are traveling down a path and come to a fork in the road. One fork leads to a village where everyone tells the truth and the other to a village where everyone tells lies. Someone from one of the villages is standing at the fork, but you don’t know which village he comes from. You may ask him one question to determine which path goes to which village.

According to the professor there is only one correct solution to the puzzle, and he is completely flummoxed – and angered – when the uneducated wild boy Kaspar says that he would ask the stranger ‘ Are you a tree frog? ‘ – a left-field question which nevertheless resolves the puzzle.

I was reminded of this episode by an article by Jonathan Freedland today, lamenting the rise of ‘post-truth’ politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  In Freedland’s view, both Trump and Johnson come from the village of lies, but you wouldn’t bet on either of them to admit it unless they thought that such an admission would advance their careers.

Freedland rightly excoriates the narcissism and vacuousness of both politicians, and their indifferent attitude to fact-based arguments and empirical evidence.  But his lament seems to regard these two dangerous clowns as some kind of freakish aberration – a manifestation of some inexplicable of intellectual and political decline that is particularly striking in the United States.

‘In this era of post-truth politics, an unhesitating liar can be king, ‘ he wails. ‘ The more brazen his dishonesty, the less he minds being caught with his pants on fire, the more he can prosper. And those pedants still hung up on facts and evidence and all that boring stuff are left for dust, their boots barely laced while the lie has spread halfway around the world.’

A depressing state of affairs, to be sure, but ‘post-truth’ politics didn’t begin with vapid mountebanks like Trump and Johnson.   There are few brazen examples political dishonesty than the manipulation of the 9/11 attacks by the American and British governments as a justification for endless war against enemies of strategic choice that had nothing to do with the attacks. .

You may quibble about whether politicians like Bush, Cheney, Rice and Freedland’s hero Tony Blair lied directly or lied by omission to justify war against Iraq, but their relationship with ‘the truth’ was no less contingent on short-term calculations that Trump’s or Johnson’s, and the ‘pedants still hung up on facts and evidence and all that boring stuff’ were often conspicuously absent when it came to holding their spurious claims to account.

These weren’t ‘mistakes’; they were lies and fantasies, intended to mislead and terrify their populations and realize certain strategic objectives, and there are many, many others where these came from.   The Republican Party has certainly lowered the benchmark for evidence-free political lying.   For years rightwing politicians in the United States like Tom Tancredo have claimed that the US-Mexico border is being regularly infiltrated by Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.

No such groups have ever been seen – why would they?  Talk like that and you can’t be surprised if you get Trump offering to ‘build a wall’.   And it isn’t only Republicans with orange hair who tell lies.   We also have Hillary Clinton,  one of the most breathtakingly mendacious politicians in living memory.  ‘ Crooked Hillary’, as Trump calls her, is no less dishonest than Trump himself, yet Freedland doesn’t mention her.

Closer to home we have a government that routinely disseminates lies and half-truths for political advantage, whether falsely accusing Naz Shah of calling for Jews to be ‘transported’ to the US, inventing phony stories of jobseekers who supposedly benefited from Ian Duncan-Smith’s welfare reforms, or peddling fake death rate stats at weekends to justify imposing a new contract on doctors.

Freedland quotes Washington Post editor Marty Baron, who asks ‘How can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?’  It’s a good question, but the fact is we haven’t had such a democracy for a long time,  and its partly because we have tolerated this situation for so long,  that men like Trump and Johnson feel able to say whatever they like.