Civilisation and its Malcontents

In the conservative-far right lexicon, few words have the same emotive power as ‘civilisation’ – a term that usually equates with ‘Western civilisation’ or simply ‘the West.’ It’s one of those words that automatically gives depth and gravitas to the hollowest and tinniest of human mouthpieces.  Use it enough and you begin to sound a little bit like Kenneth Clark or Arnold Toynbee, even if you’ve never heard of these people.  The word conjures up so many noble things: the underwater heating systems of ancient Rome; Beethoven; Velazquez; viaducts and motorways; the rule of law; great novels; farming systems; cities; botanical gardens; the Sistine Chapel; Leonardo da Vinci; womens rights.

Historically, the self-identification by certain societies and countries as civilised has often acted as a justification for war and conquest, particularly when such wars have been waged against ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ peoples.  In such circumstances, even the most extreme violence becomes an altruistic expression of the onward march of civilisation, removing obstacles to human progress and allowing the forces of light to reach those who survive these wars.

This trope has appeared again and again, in the history of European colonial conquests; in the Nazi representation of the invasion of the Soviet Union as a defense of civilisation against ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’; in the propaganda of the Confederacy; in the wars of the French colonels in Indochina and Algeria, and on many Cold War battlefronts.  With communism now vanquished, post-9/11 conservatives have attempted to replace communism with ‘Islamofascism’, ‘Islamic radicalism’ or ‘jihadism’ as the main threat to civilisation.  For diplomatic and strategic reasons, the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative was generally removed from official discourse in the ‘War on Terror’, but it was often present amongst supporters of those wars.

In 2001 Silvio Berlusconi broke protocol when he described 9/11 attacks as ‘attacks not only on the United States but on our civilisation, of which we are proud bearers, conscious of the supremacy of our civilisation, of its discoveries and inventions, which have brought us democratic institutions, respect for the human, civil, religious and political rights of our citizens, openness to diversity and tolerance of everything.’

The idea that Berlusconi spent much time thinking about the ‘discoveries and inventions’ of ‘our civilisation’ is not one to detain us for long.   And this week, civilisation found an even more improbable defender in the shape of Donald Trump, who sprinkled his Warsaw speech with references to civilisation and the need to defend it. Like most of those who say such things, Trump referenced communism as a vanquished threat, before evoking its replacement’ in the form of ‘another oppressive ideology — one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe.’

Yep, it’s Islamofascism all over again.  And it’s threatening not just our lives, but our common civilisation – a term Trump helpfully explained by telling his audience ‘ You are the proud nation of Copernicus — think of that.’  Yeah, think of that.   And while you do, think also, that this is a man who has ignored the consensus of most scientists that the planet is in grave danger from global warming, who has stacked his cabinet with climate change deniers and called for deep cuts to government-funded scientific research in his 2018 budget.   As Boris Johnson would say, Copernicus go whistle.

Trump also had a great deal to say about Chopin, our love of symphonies and ‘ works of art that honor God’, about the right to free speech and free expression’ and our respect for the ‘dignity of every human life’ and other ‘priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.’

One of these ‘allies’ is Saudi Arabia, which executed six people yesterday.  According to Amnesty International ‘The rise in death sentences against Saudi Arabian Shia is alarming and suggests that the authorities are using the death penalty to settle scores and crush dissent under the guise of combating ‘terrorism’ and maintaining national security’.   Trump didn’t mention the arrest and flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi, whose ‘crimes’ included a satirical attack on the obscurantism of his country’s religious scholars by reference to the same scientific tradition that he invoked yesterday.

But then no one would expect him to.  Because for politicians like Trump, ‘civilisation’ is only useful insofar as it serves to drum up support for civilisational war and ‘defense’ against its enemies.   No sooner were these wise words spoken, than the Sun stepped in to support them, with an approving editorial from Trevor Kavanagh,  warning that refugees have to be kept out, because the refugee crisis is ‘nothing less than an oil-and-water clash of civilisations.’

How so?  Because many refugees ‘have no ­experience of civil society.  They have mostly known only poverty, repression and corruption — the reason they upped sticks’. Therefore it naturally follows that ‘Some will recreate these ­conditions rather than adopt a Western respect for the rule of law.’  Actually, it’s not just ‘some’, it’s really a lot, because ‘More painfully to the point, almost all [refugees] are Muslim’ and ‘Individually, Muslims are no worse and no better than ­anyone else, but they belong to an exclusive and frequently intolerant faith. They might accept our rule of law, but their first duty is to Allah.’

Is it?  The sneaky bastards.  Even more worrying, these Muslims also ‘believe the entire world belongs to Allah, not the nations in which they happen to reside. No Muslim dares question the Koran, the holy book which sets out these 7th Century teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Increasingly, in the cowed West, nor does anyone else.’

Call me cowed, but I really don’t believe that Muslim women who were working out in the gym with me today, or the charming Muslim women who gave me directions this morning, or the children of the Asian taxi drivers who I hear playing most days a few houses away are intent on the downfall of ‘our’ civilisation.  And I just can’t swallow this kind of racist tripe coming from anyone, let alone from the Murdoch newspapers which once lied about the Hillsborough disaster, which hacked a murdered schoolgirl’s telephone to sell more papers, and which once called dead refugee children ‘cockroaches.’

If that’s civilisation, you know what to do with it.   In principle, I feel a little closer to the concept invoked by Brexit secretary David Davis yesterday, who told the Commons Select Committee that the issue of EU nationals rights were ‘an issue of civilisation as much as anything else.’  I say in principle, because if you equate civilisation with a moral and ethical concept of human dignity,  then it is indeed uncivilised to take away the rights of EU nationals to have their families live with them, just as it should be an ‘issue of civilisation’ that non-EU migrants married to Britons are prevented from living with their families in the UK just because they can’t meet the £18,000 threshold.

Davis told the committee that he and his team had ‘agonised’ about whether to give EU nationals the rights to family reunion that they currently enjoy, before deciding that it would be unfair to give them rights that British nationals don’t have, because of the UK government’s brutal immigration laws.  And that’s not just a testament to the very shallow conception of morality of David and his team.  It’s also the problem with this civilisational discourse thing.  Too many people like to invoke the idea, and too few of those who do actually want to practice the principles they invoke.

Too often civilisation is just another metaphorical wall to wrap around ourselves and demonise those who don’t – and can’t – belong to it.   Not for nothing was Osama bin Laden a big fan of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis.  It was as useful for him as it now is for the Cheeto millionaire, Steve Bannon and Rupert Murdoch, and that’s why when I hear the word ‘civilisation’ coming from such men, I tend to reach for my metaphorical revolver and a very large pinch of salt…

 

 

 

 

In the evening when The Sun goes down

I have to say that I can’t really get too exercised about the supposed threat to press freedom posed by the arrests of senior Sun journalists, on the basis of information given to the police by News International’s crisis management team.   In fact I can’t help finding it quite pleasing to watch these bastards treat each other with the same ruthless and cynical contempt with which they have treated so many people for so many years.

The whole thing feels like a somewhat contrived but dramatically satisfying ending to a thriller or tv series, in which a corrupt gangland dynasty or political conspiracy is finally unravelled and its members get their collective comeuppance even as they turn on each other in a desperate attempt to save themselves.

In this case however,  there are some details that a writer or scriptwriter might choose to leave out because they would seem, in fictional terms, just too far-fetched and dramatically improbable.   Take Trevor Kavanagh’s bleating about the ‘witch hunt’ against his colleagues:

It is important that we do not jump to conclusions.  Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted.  Yet all are now on open-ended police bail, their lives disrupted and their careers on hold and potentially ruined.

Well don’t tell me that isn’t enough to move even the hardest of hearts?   This from a newspaper whose entire history has been based on inventions and fabrications, regardless of their consequences for those they were directed against.    Wasn’t that The Sun which ‘jumped to conclusions’ about Liverpool fans urinating on the dead and picking their pockets at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, which invented stories about Elton John having sex with rent boys in 1987,  and which published a story in 1984 in which an American psychiatrist declared Tony Benn to be ‘insane’ during a Chesterfield byelection?

You bet it was.     And when it comes to ‘lives disrupted’ some of you might remember The Sun‘s treatment of ‘Bonkers Bruno’ during the boxer Frank Bruno’s nervous breakdown in 2003?  Or The Sun photographers who broke into  a psychiatric hospital to ask the dying actor Jeremy Brett, who had been admitted to hospital with manic depression whether he was ‘dying of AIDS’ in 1995.

He wasn’t, but whatever.   For as the editor at the time Kelvin MacKenzie later memorably remarked:

Look, I am not here to be helpful. I am here to help myself, right, so I have no regrets to how I treated some people

A philosophy to which many Sun journalists would undoubtedly subscribe.   MacKenzie may have been a spectacularly vicious and amoral thug,  but he presided over a newspaper that has rarely,  if ever,  allowed ethics, moral scruples or even the most elementary notions of human decency to get in the way of circulation figures or its headlong rush to the lowest common denominator.

We are, after all, talking about a newspaper which once celebrated the torpedoing of the Belgrano with the headline ‘Gotcha’, which once showed a Page 3 girl caressing a missile that would be used to ‘kill Argies’,  which once dismissed suggestions that heterosexuals could transmit HIV as ‘homosexual propaganda’, and which described Australian Aborigines as ‘ Brutal and Treacherous’.

As for The Sun asking the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to help them launch a case against News International, don’t make me laugh.    I remember numerous weekends during the Wapping strike of 1984-5 in which members of the NUJ and the SOGAT printers’ union and their families were clobbered by police, precisely in order to ensure that these unions would be kept out of News International’s barbed wire compound.

All this was done without  a word of protest from the journalists who are now seeking the NUJ’s protection.  And now these guys want the union to take action on their behalf?   And the arrests of their colleagues are supposed to be some kind of cause celebre because they may have paid out tens of thousands of pounds in bribes to public officials?   Oh please.

And then there is the attempt by senior Sun journalists to mount a legal challenge to News International using the Human Rights Act.  This from a newspaper that has never in its entire career shown any concern with the human rights of anyone, and which has attacked the European Convention on Human Rights on various occasions.

So no tears for you and your colleagues, Mr Kavanagh, because those who live by the sleaze deserve to be engulfed by it.   And if The Sun goes down with all hands on deck, I will just say ‘Gotcha’ and sing (with apologies to George Harrison)

Sun, Sun, Sun there it goes/ And I say it’s alright/duh duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh

 

 

In the sewer with Colonel Gaddafi

Does anyone feel that dragging a wounded man, albeit a dictator from a sewer, and then beating and shooting him in the head is an essentially vile act that has  nothing to do with law or justice?

Not Hilary Clinton, who quipped in an interview with CBS News on Gaddafi’s death that ‘ We came, we saw, he died’ and chortled like some malicious high school creep out of Mean Girls.  This was only two days after she visited Libya and informed the Libyan government-in-waiting that the US  would like to see Gaddafi ‘killed or taken prisoner‘.

We all know  that the Peace Laureate and his administration generally prefer the former these days even when, as in the case of Bin Laden, they have the opportunity to carry out an arrest.   Certain prisoners can be an awkward presence, especially when they go on trial and start revealing  inconvenient or uncomfortable facts about previous relationships and alliances that are better left unsaid.

Perhaps this is why Crispin Black argues  in the First Post that

‘There will be those who would have preferred to see him brought to justice, either in Libya or in The Hague. As more information comes out it looks as if Gaddafi allowed himself to be taken alive. Perhaps he was hoping for his day in court. But it’s better this way.’

Why is it better?  Because

[stextbox id=”alert”]The fact that Gaddafi and at least one of his gruesome sons, Mutassim, the one with long hair and shiny suits, were killed yesterday may go some way to assuaging the revenge instinct of those Libyans who suffered under his rule.

Controlling this perfectly natural desire to revenge family and friends who suffered imprisonment, beatings, torture, rape or death at the hands of Gaddafi’s henchmen over the years will be vital if the country is to have a future based on the rule of law. Otherwise a murderous regime will merely have been replaced with a murderous lynch mob.[/stextbox]

So allowing a murderous lynch mob to kill the dictator and his sons will prevent a murderous regime from being replaced with a murderous lynch mob and pave the way for the rule of law.   Oh now I get it.

And unlike Charles I, there’s no need for a trial,  since ‘ Gaddafi would have been dangerous in the dock. He wasn’t just a brutal dictator; at times he seemed to have a window into the Libyan national psyche‘.

So in Black’s estimation ‘ Far from closure, the lengthy proceedings would rake up all the tensions and divisions of the past. If mishandled, the whole process would look merely like victor’s justice undermining the legitimacy of the new government.

And no need for the International Criminal Court at The Hague either because  ‘ The dullness of the court and its proceedings would hardly impress as a forum for stern justice. Worse, it would be to many, ‘western’, not ‘international’ justice’.

Yes.  Trials are so tedious aren’t they?   I mean, why did Argentina bother putting Videla and Co. on trial for crimes committed under the dictatorship?   Why not just put a bullet in their heads and avoid the boredom – and maybe torture them first just to get some more closure?   And what about the Nuremberg trials of Nazis?   Why did they bother with that when they could have put them all up against a wall and saved everybody the boredom of hearing their crimes examined and exposed?  And wasn’t Goering ‘dangerous in the dock?’

Of course Gaddafi’s ‘ window on the Libyan psyche’ might have cast some unwelcome light on his former cronies who jumped ship when it suited them and damaged their future career prospects.   Then there are some of the alliances established with the EU over the last decade, the various rendition programmes in the ‘war on terror’ etc.   So yes, probably best to keep that window shut.

And anyway, who are we to judge, asks  Peter Popham in the Independent, squirming in his liberal skin as he  concedes that

[stextbox id=”alert”]For us, the footage of Muammar Gaddafi’s body – dead or alive, who knows – being dragged off a truck by a crowd of screaming men, who then hauled it about and kicked it like a football, was deeply disturbing: the lynch mob at its most primeval. But who are we to judge? We never lived under the man’s all-powerful terror.[/stextbox]

Still doesn’t make it right Peter.   And it isn’t just Gaddafi who has been hauled and kicked about by the fighters that – with NATO’s assistance – brought his regime down. Reprisals, massacres, torture, beheadings of prisoners, racist violence directed against African migrants – all these actions suggest that even if Gaddafi was a dictator, his opponents didn’t have the moral high ground.

That is a position the Sun newspaper will never occupy.  Today its on-the- spot reporter Oliver Harvey can be seen posing in the sewer where Gaddafi was hiding and kneeling on the pavement in Sirte in front of two corpses with a singularly cretinous expression like a dorky-looking tourist abroad.

You wouldn’t expect the Sun to do anything else but gloat and cheer about Gaddafi’s ‘filthy lair’ – its always been fond of rodent imagery when talking about Britain’s foreign enemies and loves to provide its readers with a vicarious homicidal thrill.   But the satisfaction and sheer pleasure that so many politicians and the media have taken in Gaddafi’s savage demise suggests that many others are also in the sewer with Harvey, and definitely not looking at the stars.

Various organizations, including the UN and Amnesty International, are suggesting that Gaddafi’s  execution may be a war crime.   But hey,  let’s not let any of this get in the way of a good time.  Cameron, we now hear, is a visionary military leader who has triumphed over the ‘armchair generals’ .   The  NATO campaign may be a ‘model’ for future operations in the future – maybe Iran or Syria?   And British companies are being urged to ‘pack their suitcases‘ and head off for Libya to take part in ‘reconstruction’  projects.

There’s a pleasing symmetry about this ‘model’ from the point of view of Western elites.  First bomb a country to smithereens from a great height, so that the arms industry gets to use its weapons and then replenish the stock, all the time insisting it’s in the highest interests of humanity, democracy, peace etc.   If possible avoid putting any troops on the ground apart from a few special forces, so that you don’t pay any political price for your ‘intervention’ and only the natives get killed.

And then, when it’s over, send your companies in to get the contracts from your new-found allies to rebuild what you’ve destroyed.   And all this with zero casualties! What’s not to like?

It’s all good for us, and it may be good for some Libyans, though not the estimated 50,000 who have died in the last ten months, or the thousands of migrants who drowned trying to get out of the country.   But I can’t help feeling that the way this war has gone, and the way it has ended, really doesn’t point towards a society where democracy, human rights and justice are likely to be high priorities, and that as in Iraq, talk of an ending may turn out to be premature.

 

 

 

 

Pundits

 

Stunned and clearly scared out of its wits by the shocking events of the last few days, ‘decent’ British society – or at least those who claim to be its mouthpieces – is dreaming of vengeance and retribution.  Comments sections on websites and newspapers are thick with talk of plastic bullets, water cannons, vigilantes and bringing in the army.   The Sun, not surprisingly,  goes further, publishing a YouGov poll which found that 33 percent of respondents want real bullets to be used against the rioters.

In the Daily Mirror, the millionaire novelist Tony Parsons contrasts the ‘self-pitying scum’  with ‘the quiet, decent families they have terrorised and robbed and burned from their homes’.

Parsons’ characteristically sentimental evocation of his working class origins is steeped in racialised saloon-bar assumptions about the rioters:

Those images of black youths looting and pillaging will not soon fade from the national consciousness. They have set race relations back in this country by 30 years.

Parsons seems oblivious to the fact that many of the rioters are white,  or else he prefers to ignore it – the better to support his thesis that

What a bitter irony – because of course, many of those masked thugs would have had absolutely no idea where their fathers were. And in their pathetic swaggering, we see the very limits of society’s attempts to be understanding, to be soft, to be compassionate.  In the end – softened up with their human rights, pampered with a benefits system that was meant to protect the vulnerable – we get this shabby shower. We have produced a generation that is good for nothing but, paradoxically, is afraid of nothing.  How shameful to watch images of policemen who appear afraid to strike out in case they get dragged before some human rights tribunal.

The English Defence League, whose members are patrolling the streets of Luton and Manchester, has a not entirely dissimilar take on the events of the last few days.   Though its website resists the temptation to ‘jump out of place and blame this on Islam’ and claims that ‘we don’t really have a view on the racial aspects of the riots’, it then contrasts what it describes as ‘an overwhelming and vicious police response’ to its own demonstrations with the supposedly soft police treatment of rioters and looters:

We know it’s not the rank and file police who are responsible because we know we have huge sympathy in their ranks. There is something very rotten being fed down from the top, however. It’s obvious that, perhaps because of a perceived “un-whiteness” of the current criminal looters, the police have not been ordered to crack heads.

Given that it was the killing of an unarmed black man by police that sparked off the riots – not mention the brutal battering inflicted on student protesters last year – the idea that police were refusing to act against the rioters because of political correctness or fear of human rights violations is difficult to sustain, to say nothing of the EDL’s perception of its members as victimised patriots. And why is all this happening?  The EDL has no doubts

Patriotism and pride in one’s nation have been branded offensive and perhaps this is the result. We don’t know if the same shadowy forces that ran riot during the G20 “protests” and the student riots but the outcome looks similar.  Children are no longer taught to be proud of our history! They’re barely even taught any history and our schools don’t pass on patriotism or respect for our Queen and country any longer.

Yes, that must be it.  Meanwhile Jamie Oliver has tweeted that ‘we should crack down hard on these idiots’ in response to news that one of his restaurants in Birmingham has been trashed.  This is the man who came up with the idea of a televised ‘dream school’ to win back youth who had been ‘failed’ by the system – an utterly fake and pointless exercise in celebrity glorification whose naked self-promotion was only matched by its dim belief that someone like Alastair Campbell was some kind of role model for British youth.

Now Oliver laments the fact that ‘ the country has gone mad’ and praises the local clean up groups ‘who ‘care about our country.’   Oliver, like many of those exuding similar sentiments, have no explanation as to the mysterious appearance of so many people who do not ‘care’ about their country or even feel that they belong to it.

In the next few months the cretinous, cowardly and dishonest politicians who have done so much to bring about the current disaster will lament the loss of ‘community cohesiveness’ and promote the same kind of authoritarian solutions for a ‘divided Britain’ begun by New Labour.  But if the concept of a local, let alone a national ‘cohesive’ community is to have any meaning, then it must have something concrete to offer all its members,  beyond royal weddings, reactionary notions of Britishness and teary-eyed nostalgia for the empire.

True communities require a spirit of generosity, a degree of selflessness and a willingness to share their resources that has been absent nationally from British society for decades.  They cannot be built by transferring wealth from the poor to the rich, by celebrity chefs, dodgy bankers, millionaire footballers,  Jeremy Kyle, politicians on the make or suralan Sugar.  Nor can they be built by riots and looting.   Years ago, in the early 80s, Margaret Thatcher declared that ‘there is no such thing as society.’   More recently Peter Mandelson  declared that New Labour was ‘intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich.’

These two statements sum up the dominant national ethos that virtually all British political parties – and a wide sector of British society – has subscribed to for the best part of three decades. For some these were good years: rising house prices and second homes, expensive holidays abroad, bonuses for bankers to make Croesus blink, revolving doors for politicians, endless cooking programmes and narcissistic reality shows and nothing much to worry about except terrorists and the possibility of a fall in house prices.

Contrary to Parsons’ suggestion of a more caring and compassionate society, these years of plenty were matched by a coarsening and  brutalisation of public discourse, reflected particularly in the hysterical ‘debate’ about immigration and the cruel and vindictive treatment of asylum seekers.    And throughout this period of ‘growth’ there were those who received very little from it – or nothing at all beyond the possibility of a job at MacDonalds or a call centre, a drip feed of benefits or the spurious and delusional ‘respect’ that comes from membership of a street gang.

Now those days are gone, and they may not reappear for some time, and the future, politicians assure us, contains nothing but more cuts and more ‘austerity’.  And amid this generalised sense of hopelessness and perpetual crisis,  nihilistic legions of ‘ordinary criminals’ have appeared as if from nowhere to take a terrible revenge on the society that excluded them.

Talk of rubber bullets and soldiers may provide some visceral comfort to those who fear them, but it will not make them go away, and it will not repair the damage that was inflicted on British society long before the riots took place.